GSU Protests Outside Zimmer-Boyer Free Speech Event

Outside President Zimmer and Dean Boyer’s free speech event, over 100 activists protested the administration and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD).

By Grace Hauck and Caroline Kubzansky

Thursday evening, University President Robert J. Zimmer and Dean of the College John Boyer took questions from students in International House (I-House). On the other side of the wall, more than 100 activists protested the actions of the administration and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), chanting and holding posters on the lawn outside.

Graduate Students United (GSU) initially organized the rally to call on University officials to engage in negotiations with the union, which withdrew its certificate of representation from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in February to continue seeking a union contract outside of the NLRB process.

“The original goal for the protest was to bring the admin to the bargaining table. We asked them to recognize us. The NLRB recognized us. They always refuse to bargain with us. They always refuse to recognize us. We’re here to demand recognition,” said Claudio Gonzales, a math Ph.D. student and GSU organizer.

Although the bargaining team of Faculty Forward, the union of non-tenure track instructors, reached an agreement with the University just last month, GSU has not yet reached an agreement. Protesters noted that, earlier this week, Georgetown University administrators agreed to let graduate students vote this spring on whether to join the American Federation of Teachers union.

Thursday’s protest, however, also focused on issues surrounding policing and gun reform. Activists from across the city came to Hyde Park to express their frustration with campus police, who on Tuesday shot a University of Chicago student wielding a large metal pole. In a Facebook description for the event, GSU wrote, “We're both humbled that many friends from beyond UChicago may come to this event to raise their voices against Tuesday night's shooting by the UCPD. We're excited to rally with you in solidarity.”

The rally began at 4:45 p.m. on the steps of the Booth School of Business, just as snow began to fall. The group began marching to I-House around 5 p.m, alternating between chants advocating union recognition (“Bargain now” and “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!”) and chants critical of the UCPD (“Disarm UCPD” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police”).

While some activists held posters that read “Work with us, not Trump,” “Slavery built UChicago,” and “Defend mental health,” others held signs that directly referenced the recent shooting: “Campus cops shot a student” and “‘He’s a mental,’ you said. So you SHOT him?”

When the group arrived at I-House, the activists gathered around the steps on South Dorchester Avenue, around the corner from the building’s main entrance. As more and more people joined the protest, speakers repeatedly called on activists to “Make some noise,” eliciting cheers from the crowd directed toward the I-House windows.

Meanwhile, inside the I-House Assembly Hall, moderator and Institute of Politics (IOP) Director David Axelrod opened the forum by asking Zimmer and Boyer for an update on Tuesday’s shooting, which he said he believed to be the first incident of its kind in recent memory.

“I don’t know if there’s anything that new to say. This is a tragic incident for all those involved. We were very focused on getting what information that we did have out as quickly as possible in terms of making the videos that we did have available…and there’s a mandatory investigation on the use of firearms from our police,” Zimmer said.

Axelrod also asked Zimmer how he felt about the University's response to the shooting, Zimmer again emphasized the UCPD firearms investigation. Boyer added that spring quarter can be a high pressure time for undergraduates as they try to find summer internships and organize their coursework.

Chants began outside the western window of the Assembly Hall about five minutes after the start of the event, making it difficult for attendees to hear the speakers. GSU organizers said they were shouting, "Bargain now," though some chants sounded like "Fire him now" from inside. 

“I do not view what I’m saying as some revolutionary departure. This is not really some sort of theological principle. This is about doing our job, and our job as a university is to provide a rigorous and empowering and challenging education that is going to impart intellectual skills that are going to serve students for their whole lives. The conclusions about free expression…is ultimately about the quality of the education that we’re offering,” Zimmer said.

Boyer referenced the origin of the Core curriculum in what he called the “golden age of academic freedom,” when then-University president Robert Maynard Hutchins defended the University in what has since become known as the Walgreen affair.

“It’s very interesting that the first kind of golden age of the defense of academic freedom came in the ’30s with Hutchins and the Walgreen affairs in exactly the same years when the Core Curriculum was founded. A condition of liberal education is kind of this probing, discursive, and in-your-face debating of texts…and the conjunction between these two is not accidental,” Boyer said.

However, Zimmer and Boyer also acknowledged that there are limits to free speech, as demonstrated by the events this past summer in Charlottesville, VA.

“That had been a place where free expression was being used as a word to cover what I view as overtly threatening, weaponized behavior. Explicit threats and certainly threats that act on weaponry [are] over the line and unacceptable,” Zimmer said.

The challenge, he went on to admit, is distinguishing between what is challenging behavior and what is genuinely threatening.

“The hard part comes when people say, ‘Okay, we get that part, but I think that this is a threat.’ Then somebody says ‘Why is that a threat? That’s just a challenge.’ So I think…threats do exist, and one needs to recognize that. But one wants to have a very clear sense that simply challenging, objectionable, even obnoxious behavior is by itself not to be considered a threat,” Zimmer said.

Outside, students and activists argued that the University and the UCPD itself may be the real threat.

Postdoctoral Fellow Guy Emerson Mount, a former grad student organizer, spoke about his student, demanding reparations in wake of the shooting.

“On Tuesday of last week, he was in class. On Tuesday of this week, he was shot by the campus police at the University of Chicago,” Mount said. “Charles was shot under a system of punitive justice which says that if you break a law of the state, you must be punished for it. Restorative justice says we must heal people who have been harmed and must bring together people who are responsible for harm that has happened. In this case, the University of Chicago has harmed Charles. The University of Chicago needs to make reparations to Charles and his family for the harm they have caused.”

Mount also helped to organize a rally at Daley Plaza Wednesday evening in solidarity with justice for victims of state-sponsored violence. Several other UChicago students and professors attended the event.

Alycia Moaton, a representative of the youth movement Good Kids Mad City, raised questions Thursday about why the UCPD officer thought a gun was necessary.

“The footage that was taken from the body cam of the officer who shot him clearly shows that he was not the only officer who was on the scene that night. There were many of them there, so I’m confused as to why Charles couldn’t be gently taken down by another officer and why he had to be shot on the scene that night,” Moaton said, adding, “Victims of police shootings with mental health issues cannot be ignored any longer.”

For GSU organizer and music history Ph.D. candidate Chaz Lee, the issues of policing and graduate student unionization on campus are closely interconnected.

“I think the shooting on Tuesday night is a horrific example of what happens when the University and the University’s policies are not fully accountable to its community. I think that a lot of us are out here in solidarity with the student and the student’s family,” Lee said. “The University could be putting a lot more resources toward engaging with students over mental health issues, providing resources that are not just going towards an armed private police force.”

As the I-House forum wound down, some students left the building to join the protest outside. GSU organizer Claudio Gonzales, who had previously been inside I-House, spoke to the crowd.

“The University would rather uplift someone like Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, than listen to their own graduate students. It’s this very edgy thinglift up the most radical, crazy voices. But they won’t recognize us, literally the democratic voice of all of these grad students. We’ve got all these people, an overwhelming majority of graduate students…but they refuse to bargain with us. That’s a lack of free speech.”