Campus community reflects on 2015 AGC occupation one year later

Kelsey Martin and Layla Hamedi

Last November, Occidental student activists began a movement seeking institutional change and administrative action regarding matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. These student activists founded Oxy United for Black Liberation (OUBL) as a vehicle for organizing. From Nov. 16–21, OUBL protesters and other students occupied the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building (AGC). The occupation heightened the urgency of long-voiced student pleas for an academic institution that values the unique experiences and needs of students of color.

The occupation now resides in the college’s institutional memory, continuing to impact those present as well as those who were not even at Occidental at the time. A year later, members of the campus community reflect on the AGC occupation and OUBL and their legacy.

President Veitch addresses the students and the OUBL demands at the initial rally in the academic quad Nov. 12, 2015. | César Martinez

Past and Present Student Leaders:

Mika Cribbs ‘16 was the vice president of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) her senior year and managed media publicity during the occupation.

Cribbs was closely involved with the initial planning of the campus-wide walk-out in solidarity with the University of Missouri, which involved members of BSA and other black students. From the beginning, the organizers wanted to center the black experience and narrative at Occidental.

“We definitely wanted to have a black student-led movement because we felt that if black students are free then everyone can be free,” Cribbs said.

Cribbs highlighted that the goals of the occupation were founded on historical demands from student protestors in the 1960s. It was important to Cribbs to bring the sentiments from past protest movements at Occidental into the occupation because it emphasized the lack of change over the past fifty years.Cribbs noted that the demands themselves served not only to address the administration directly but also to symbolically demonstrate student autonomy and authority.

“It would have been great if the demands were met, but I think there was more power in that the students were even giving a list of demands to the administration. I think that was more valuable in itself,” Cribbs said.

As a way of showing student devotion to the demands, students occupied the AGC administrative building throughout the day and night. Some faculty held classes in the AGC to show solidarity with the students. Cribbs noted that the AGC transformed from an institutional workplace to an alternative educational space.

“The AGC — which was originally an administrative building — became a space for students and faculty and other community members to talk about issues that we wanted to talk about,” Cribbs said.

Abhilasha Bhola ’16 was in her senior year and a member of the Coalition at Occidental for Diversity and Equity (CODE) when she helped organize the occupation. Like Cribbs, she spoke about the power of reclaiming institutions of higher education. She explained how the movement rebuilt the AGC into a public space that encouraged all members of campus to enter, educate themselves and engage in critical conversation.

“There were the more explicit demands and goals of the occupation but I think that there’s the underlying goal of resisting oppressive structures and white supremacy. There’s this idea of “public space” that I think is also often a white space — a wealthy, white, male space. We marked [the AGC] as something that belongs to all students and is in many ways decolonized,” Bhola said. “For those five days that was achieved, but the true test of it is how that feeling is able to permeate all corners of campus.”

Established news sources such as the LA Times and NPR sent their reporters to cover the occupation. The media publicity allowed student activists to get in contact with social justice organizers off-campus like Black Lives Matter, who eventually came to the AGC to show solidarity with students. Bhola also recounted how Occidental protesters had to navigate fraught interactions with more divisive media outlets.

“I will say that having news sources like Breitbart that were on campus and other alt-right, conservative news sources, that was really triggering to a lot of students because these are like white nationalists. The consideration at the other end is that if you try to kick them out or engage with them, they’re going to escalate the situation and make the students look bad. It was a weird tension to have to deal with,” Bhola said.

Anna Palmer (sophomore) was a first-year when she participated in the occupation, archiving the movement’s various actions in photographs and video. She also emphasized that media sources could have articulated the long-running list of student demands better.

“I think some [news articles] framed protesters as just these angry students who got upset about this random event that happened and forgot to contextualize what’s been going on here for years and years. Because some of the demands were from 1968. I think that’s just so lost in a lot of the writing on it,” Palmer said.

Palmer wished for a response more transparent to the community in which administrators explicitly explained how they planned to delegate responsibility to meet demands. She suggested a document public to the entire Occidental community that explicated the responsibilities of individuals in responding to the demands of the movement.

Palmer highlighted the importance of specific cultural clubs that have been unavailable to students of color in the past, such as Beauty Beyond Color, that carry on the commitment to inclusive spaces beyond the occupation. She noted that although these cultural clubs are critical to the present moment, students must also involve themselves in shared governance to continue the occupation’s legacy.

“I think something that is really important is archiving everything that happened [during the occupation] because things like that can very easily get lost,” Palmer said.

The occupation was a dynamic and powerful experience for many of the students who participated, a concept not lost on Palmer.

Palmer urges Occidental inhabitants to remember that equity and inclusion must always underscore future activism. The campus community, Palmer says, cannot forget this as it continues to take action to improve the community.

“I think that any movement towards equity cannot be detrimental. You want it to be a campus for everyone,” Palmer said.

I think the occupation helped me to see the power of students and what students can do and what people can do when they come together under a shared title. So I think it just made me see how much power an individual student voice, group and collective voices and coalitional voices have. In that way, I think that the goal [of the occupation] was showing what Oxy could look like. —Anna Palmer, sophomore
Students march to the Arthur G. Coons administrative building to rally and begin the occupation. | César Martinez

Board of Trustees:

Hector de La Torre ’89 co-chairs Occidental’s Committee of Student Affairs and sits on the Academic Affairs Committee. De La Torre served in the California State Assembly and on the South Gate City Council. During the Nov. 2015 occupation, members of the administration called De La Torre to meet with occupation organizers and other trustees twice to discuss student frustration and ways to transition from occupying the AGC building to engaging in dialogue with members of the administration. The two scheduled meetings never took place because student organizers canceled and didn’t show up both times. Despite the cancellations, De La Torre came to campus and met with members of the administration to informally discuss the occupation. De La Torre emphasized that the responsibility of the Board of Trustees is to be aware of and uphold the needs of the campus community as well as to preserve institutional memory for coming generations of Occidental students.

Diamond Webb '16 (left) and Antoniqua Roberson '16 speak to students outside of the AGC on the final day of the occupation. | César Martinez
Diamond Webb ’16 (left) and Antoniqua Roberson ’16 speak to students outside of the AGC on the final day of the occupation. | César Martinez

“Moving forward, we as trustees need to know what’s going on in order to make sure the admin knows where they are meant to be going,” De La Torre said. “It’s up to the Board of Trustees to keep the institutional memory [of the occupation] alive.”

De La Torre was adamant that the administration’s response to the occupation and the demands was positive and proactive. He maintained that President Veitch, who was critiqued by many students participating in the occupation, received and addressed students’ demands. Because of this, the trustees endorsed President Veitch through an email to the campus as a board last fall.

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After the occupation, members of the Board started holding quarterly lunches with student leaders in an effort to fulfill Occidental’s commitment to diversity. De La Torre felt that at these lunches there were some productive conversations that nuanced the emotions underpinning the occupation. He emphasized that since the occupation, most of the items on the list of demands have been achieved and that there have been continuous conversations among the board of trustees and members of the administration about how to further uphold their promises.

“The nature of institutions is to take input from everyone and then try to figure out where the nexus of the viewpoint is and try to go with the consensus,” De La Torre said. “Occidental always wants to do the right thing. We can have a debate about what is right, but we are consistently trying to improve.”

“Occidental always wants to do the right thing. We can have a debate about what is right, but we are consistently trying to improve.”

A member of facilities staff continues work as students line the halls of the AGC.

Administrators:

There is a common misconception on Occidental’s campus that the term “administrator” only includes senior staff members, such as the dean of students or the president of the college, when, in fact, the administrative staff consists of individuals from the International Programs Office, Financial Aid Office, Office of the Registrar and other supervisory organizations on campus. The majority of administrative offices are located on the ground floor of the AGC, while the senior offices are located on the third floor.

Executive Director of the International Programs Office Robin Craggs explained that she and her colleagues had been reading about student protests at the University of Missouri in the days prior to the occupation. She described feeling both proud and moved when Occidental students began walking out of classes. Craggs initially assumed that the teach-in at the quad was a demonstration of solidarity with peers in Missouri.

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Craggs supported OUBL’s form of direct protest, which involved students claiming physical space in order to demand recognition of their grievances.

“I think that given the lack of responsiveness by administrators as experienced by the students, there probably was no other method that could have caused the positive moment of disruption that the college clearly needed,” Craggs said.

Craggs, who is entering her 16th year at the college, has seen positive changes in campus activism and solidarity building over the years. She recalled that when she started at Occidental in ‘94, some white students were upset by the college’s focus on multiculturalism because these students viewed this emphasis as anti-white.

“So just to me, to see the evolution that in 2015 white students were in the quad with students [of color] in an allied position, was huge progress,” Craggs said.

The current Director of Financial Aid Gina Becerril has been an Occidental employee for 12 years. Her office was located in the occupied left wing of the AGC. She explained that she and some colleagues felt their offices were safe spaces before the occupation, often spending more time there than at home. While supportive of students’ voicing their opinions, Becerril mentioned that some students were disrespectful towards administrators. She specifically recalled an instance in which students mocked an administrator and made her cry. This administrator was the director of financial aid at the time and stepped down shortly after, citing health reasons.

“I know that it was only a couple of students, but that’s the image that lives in our staff’s minds,” Becerril said. “And it’s so unsettling to think that you feared your students.”

We needed to acknowledge that Occidental, despite wanting it to be a utopia, is a product of racism in society, racism in institutions and racism of individuals. For those of us that have dedicated our life to working in higher education, that is a really hard pill to swallow. —Robin Craggs, director, IPO

Jim Herr works for the Office of the Registrar, has worked at Occidental for 25 years and was a student at Occidental before that. Like his colleague Becerril, Herr was sympathetic to students’ objectives but discussed how implementation strategies, ranging from rallies to sit-ins, led to discomfort and frustration for some administration members.

“This first floor was the area where students came into offices, not the third floor. Staff and admin sort of felt like we were in some ways the target, or at least on the front lines, and it put folks in an uncomfortable position,” Herr said.

He underscored that he understood that part of the nature of protests is to make people feel uncomfortable, but he reiterated that the specific spaces occupied in the AGC caused distress for some college employees.

Marty Sharkey had recently begun his first year as associate vice president for marketing and communications when students occupied the AGC. Although Sharkey had only been at Occidental for a short time, he recognized the tension and frustration within the student body.

“It appeared to all come to a boil — all that pent-up frustration came to a boil that week,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey is optimistic that students and administrators are now working together to promote and engage in more frequent dialogue, citing significant action on many of the demands.

“The next steps are in the academic arena, on faculty hiring, on a Black Studies major. But we’ve always said it’s not just about the 14 demands; it’s bigger than that,” Sharkey said, adding, “how do we work together and make sure everyone feels that they can thrive on this campus?”

Students spread throughout the main and ground floors of the AGC to occupy the space. | César Martinez
Students spread throughout the main and ground floors of the AGC to occupy the space. | César Martinez

Students raise each other’s hands in solidarity at the final rally last November. | César Martinez

Exchange and First-Year Students:

Rory Horne* recounted his experience participating in the occupation as a year-long exchange student from the University of East Anglia in the UK. As non-citizens, Horne explained how he and his international peers felt limited in their degree of involvement for fear of having student visas revoked.

“We couldn’t really get involved with any civil disobedience, as we were not citizens.” Horne said, “I feel like this sort of mirrors our role as white people — we’re limited on the level at which we can and should be involved, and have to let the voices of others be heard.”

Horne considered the movement a critical learning experience for many students. For instance, he felt directly exposed to the campus politics like never before and was able to familiarize himself with the roles of the administration, which had previously been unclear to him.

“I’d been unaware of many of the incidents discussed by the protesters that day [when students held a walk out and teach-in in the quad] and it was incredibly eye-opening,” Horne said. “But I think that the occupation achieved its goals in making the problem unavoidable for all students, particularly white students who don’t have to deal with the issues being discussed.”

Like Craggs, Horne said that the students’ decision to occupy the AGC was logical and in line with their intentions for the protest.

“I think the methods were chosen directly because of the intention. It had to become something that the administration could no longer ignore, and they can’t ignore it if it’s literally right in front of them. There was a reason we occupied the AGC and not, say, the library,” Horne said.

Euella Jackson was also a year-long exchange student from the University of Bristol in the UK involved in the AGC occupation. She reflected on the movement’s call for the immediate removal of President Jonathan Veitch, recognizing its strategic success in mobilizing a large number of students.

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“Saying, ‘we want you gone Veitch’ brought about a kind of urgency, a demand that people were going to take seriously. Even if some people didn’t really believe that getting rid of Veitch was the right thing, it made him listen, it made him realize that [students] are not joking about this,” Jackson said.

Jackson felt empowered as a black female student during the occupation, pointing to the efficacy of student mobilization.

“I really felt like it was a means of gaining some sort of agency and power as minority groups. I think that if you get into that idea that you can change and you can challenge, you can have a voice,” Jackson said.

Kayla Williams, a first-year student interested in Politics and CTSJ, recounted her experience as a high school senior visiting Occidental from Rye, N.Y. earlier this year under the Spring Multicultural Visitation Program (MVP). She explained that student activists took a group of MVP students on an alternative tour of the campus, showing them key sites from the school’s history of activism.

“I didn’t expect it. I came from a really small Catholic school where social justice was never talked about. Seeing [the alternative tour], I was super excited. I got to see activism at Oxy and it was all students leading it, which was so cool,” Williams said.

Williams explained that she had not known a lot about the racial tensions on campus before the alternative tour. As a current first-year, she believes that the dialogue around the occupation is limited.

“Now I don’t hear about it at all or when I do hear about it, it’s from a critical lens on the part of the teachers who are saying it fell apart because of a lack of understanding,” Williams said. “Or that there were certain people in charge and a lot of people were not necessarily sure about what they were doing.”

Williams added that reading the recent Weekly article on the creation of the Black Studies minor proved one of the few instances in which she heard about positive achievements from the occupation.

She stated that it would benefit new students if those involved in the occupation explain the movement and the history of organizing on campus. Williams believes such education would offer her and peers insight into how they can continue pushing for administrative accountability and institutional inclusivity of marginalized students.

“I think a lot of us first-years are trying to figure out what we are interested in. Most of us came here for social justice purposes and I think learning about [the occupation] gives us another avenue to advocate for the things that we care about,” Williams said.

Even if some people didn’t really believe that getting rid of Veitch was the right thing, it made him listen, it made him realize that [students] are not joking about this. —Euella Jackson, exchange student 2015-16

Faculty

The Weekly reached out to many faculty members who declined to comment due to a variety of reasons, such as concerns about job security for non-tenure track professors, inability to concisely express views without entering complicated theoretical discussions and peripheral engagement in the occupation. Read three faculty members’ takes on the occupation in the Opinions section.

Chanting slogans, students march to the AGC Nov. 16, 2015 to occupy the building. | César Martinez

*Horne was employed at the Weekly at the time of the AGC occupation.
*All charts and data from recent Occidental Weekly poll on the Nov. 2015 student occupation.
Some Occidental Weekly staff members participated in the occupation.
Shawn Cremer, Wellesley Daniels, Jane Drinkard, Emily Gao, Leah Gavron, Margaret Su and Brianna Zimmerman contributed to the reporting of this article.