Reflections on the Georgetown Sit-In

Kristian Williams

February 5, 27 students occupied the office of George- town President Leo
O’Donovan, vowing not to leave until the Administration adequately addressed
the conditions under which university apparel is produced. Eighty-five hours
later, Dean of Students James Donahue signed an agreement, granting nearly all
the students’ demands.

The sit-in came after many
months of pressure on the Administration to face the sweatshop issue.
Georgetown, like many colleges, licenses its name and logo through the
Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), a middle-person company which then
arranges for clothing bearing the school insignia to be manufactured and sold.
In most cases the clothing is made in Central American sweatshops. After much
public pressure, the CLC began drafting a Code of Conduct to regulate the
conditions under which university apparel is made. Georgetown was among the
schools represented on the committee to write the code; no students or garment
workers were on the committee. The result was predictable: a document designed
to fail. The Code made no real demands concerning wages, had no genuine
enforcement mechanism, and included an escape clause.

Students around the country
pressed for the Code’s rejection. At Georgetown, members of the Georgetown
Solidarity Committee (GSC) collected 700 postcards condemning the Code,
collected dozens of signatures on a faculty petition, and convinced members of
the university clergy to write letters calling on the Administration to change
its position. None of this worked, of course, though the Administration did
arrange for a public forum on the matter to get community “input.” The
forum showed universal opposition to the Code. Members of the faculty, the
clergy, undergraduate students, law students, and athletes all voiced their
opposition to Georgetown’s sweatshop connection and the CLC’s attempts to
disguise the abuse. Still the Administration wouldn’t budge. It made clear
its intention to sign the Code as it was.

Frustrated by the
Administration’s unwillingness to compromise, and inspired by a sit-in at
Duke a week before, GSC members decided to take over Leo O’Donovan’s
office, demanding the university require full public disclosure of the
locations of all factories making Georgetown apparel. This position (the Duke
Compromise) would allow the university to continue using the CLC, as long as
factory locations were made publicly available—that is, available to labor
and human rights organizations that monitor working conditions. After 85
hours, the Administration gave in. Any company not releasing the locations of
their factories within one year (and every six months thereafter) would have
its contract with Georgetown canceled. A committee of students, faculty, and
administrators would monitor compliance.

Victory did not come
easily. Intense negotiations took place, for hours each day, while supporters
worked around the clock to provide for the occupiers’ basic needs, keep the
campus (and the press) informed, and pressure the Administration to
compromise. The Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) provided
office space for the support work, and dozens of students donated food, money,
supplies, and worked long hours to make the sit-in a success. The student-run
coffeeshop provided breakfast, and numerous individual students took the
occupiers other goodies. The a cappella group Superfood sang to the occupying
students and again later at the victory rally, and numerous students slept in
the hall outside O’Donovan’s office to show their support. The campus was
covered with chalk-graffiti, including the names of those inside and
anti-sweatshop and anti-CLC slogans. After 24 hours, nearly 200 students
attended a rally in support of the sit-in. GSC leaders addressed the crowd
from a balcony, and when Dean Donahue attempted to present the University’s
position, he was drowned out with boo’s and obscenities. After the rally,
the crowd spontaneously filled the hall to O’Donovan’s office for more
than an hour of chanting, drumming, and dancing.

Such a level of activism is
not generally expected at Georgetown, a conservative Catholic university in
Washington, DC whose students tend to think of themselves more as future
diplomats than as labor militants. Oddly, treatment of the occupation in the
campus press and the more mainstream media did nothing to challenge this
self-conception. Differences from previous generations of campus activism were
highlighted; these kids were polite, well-groomed, reasonable, and articulate.
Editorials in the Georgetown papers insisted that these weren’t radicals,
that this wasn’t the beginning of anarchy at Georgetown. Instead, the
demonstrators were presented as ordinary students who had exhausted the
conventional means of change and were forced by common sense moral convictions
to take more extreme action. The fact that this is the essence of most radical
political action was overlooked.

Truth is, it was a very
“Georgetown” occupation, largely in an attempt to play to the audience, to
make the general student body feel a connection to the activists. Georgetown
students love to sing the fight song, so we made it our fight song and sang it
at rallies. Georgetown students love Jack the Bulldog, so we put Jack on
nearly every flier and poster, even on picket signs. Georgetown is a Catholic
school, so we made a point of getting clergy support. We leaned heavily on
moral and religious issues, continually charging the Administration with
hypocrisy, with betraying its Catholic values. We arranged for the occupying
students to receive Mass, and followed the ceremony with a candlelight vigil.
The students got the sense that the school was theirs, that this struggle was
theirs, that the Administration was ignoring them.

The level of campus-wide
support was amazing and unexpected. Working on the outside support, I was
impressed with the willingness of people previously unconnected to the GSC to
throw themselves into the work—even economics majors and ROTC cadets. For
the first time at Georgetown, I felt that I was a part of a real community.
For the first time, I felt some connection to the school. The experience
forced me to re-think a lot of my own political assumptions and to re-evaluate
the (supposed) limits of moral sentiment as a basis for political action. I
had to look again at what I took to be the limits of the left—sectarianism,
impracticality, lack of public support—and consider that these may not be as
prevalent as I once thought. I saw the willingness of very privileged people
to fight for justice, and I was reminded that success is a real possibility.

The biggest lesson was not
to let what we know about activism limit what we can imagine. Up until the
agreement was signed, I expected defeat at nearly every stage. I
underestimated the determination of the occupying students, the sympathies of
the student body generally, and the abilities of all involved—including me.
What I saw was that given the opportunity, people will often come through with
remarkable results. All it takes is good organizing, strategic thinking, and a
lot of nerve. Sometimes we do win.    Z

Williams is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown, and
a member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee.