Signs of Discord, Seen and Heard

On Thursday, Gallaudet University students continued protesting the school's next president with a sit-in at the Sixth Street entrance to the Northeast campus.
On Thursday, Gallaudet University students continued protesting the school's next president with a sit-in at the Sixth Street entrance to the Northeast campus. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

At a recent protest at Gallaudet University, a sophomore ran through the crowd waving his arms, yelling and signing, "Louder! Louder, for others to hear!"

They're trying to get their message out: unity for Gallaudet, a sign language message that starts with hands that are clasped together and move in a circle. They want the world to listen. It's not always easy.

This week, protesters have been angry about the way that President-elect Jane K. Fernandes was chosen, about the fact that all three finalists were white, about the selection of a provost not well respected on campus, about the choice of someone they don't believe is a strong leader for the deaf community, someone who is able to speak for them all. She will be the second deaf president to lead the school.

Again and again, students have said, they're angry about not being heard. Even after days of protests, they say the administration still doesn't understand their message.

There are counterprotesters, too, handing out fliers, supporting Fernandes, wanting the disruption to stop.

After a march and rally yesterday, hundreds of people packed into an auditorium to hear from board members. They'd already put up signs on the building: We want to be HEARD. It's very different from the last time Gallaudet protests made headlines, in 1988 when the Deaf President Now movement took on such power that it became a civil rights rallying cry. Back then, students used fire alarms to alert everyone to gather; now they page each other, since so many carry BlackBerries or similar gadgets.

It's easy to spread the word to the deaf community off campus. People across the country and overseas have been following, with intense interest, the presidential search and protests through blogs, videos of people giving speeches in American Sign Language and photos of students blocking the gates with their bodies and a rented truck.

But they know the hearing world might not understand.

Sometimes at rallies, hearing people who don't know sign language just watch, read the banners, feel the anger, see hundreds nodding and waggling fingers in support. Sometimes interpreters are there to translate, but the language is so different, and some people sign so quickly or are far so away or hard to see, that nuances can be lost.

So what is seen is crucial.

At the first protests Monday afternoon, student leaders climbed onto the big stone gates at the entrance to the Northeast Washington campus, high enough above the crowd so that everyone could see their hands. With her arms jerking, hands swooping and eyes, mouth, body, everything silently showing how upset she was, how important it was, a student signed, "Don't leave. If we leave, we give up. Don't leave!"

They showed their resolve by bringing blankets and sleeping at the main gates as the temperature dropped. Tiny screens glowed blue in the dark that night, as students tapped out messages to one another or snapped photos. And they chanted, everyone making the same signs, over and over.

Sometimes the protests are quiet, fingers and lips moving without sound. Sometimes they're loud: yelling, beating drums, stomping feet on bleachers, blasting rap music from car stereos. Some of the students can hear loud noises; some feel the vibrations.

On Wednesday, about 50 people -- leaders of a coalition of faculty, students, staff and alumni that they say pulled together what had been a fragmented campus -- stood in front of packed bleachers, signing speeches with powerful movements to emphasize their words. They swayed, bent, hopped forward, jabbed elbows, circled hands, widened eyes. Sometimes people yelled, or waved fingers in the air to applaud, or stomped the wooden bleachers like a thunderclap. People beat on big drums, which resonated through the room in deepest bass, and students jumped and signed the school cheer, smiling, lifting their arms to egg the crowd on.

Afterward, organizers gathered in what they now call the war room at long tables set together into a rectangle, everyone signing at once.

Outside, students were carrying sleeping bags, pillows and radios down to the area by the front gates. Tents had popped up like fat, colored mushrooms in the grass, and flames hissed on grills, sending up the smell of charred hamburgers. Two guys in cargo shorts lugged a big white cooler down the hill. Someone cranked up an Eminem CD. Some studied on their laptops or read. Others watched enormous TVs set up on the grass.

Senior Joe Vieira wandered away from the tents and looked up at the carved stone on one of the old buildings on campus, each flower a little bit different. He loves the place; like most people at Gallaudet, he thinks it is not just a school. It's home and community and the place the deaf world looks to: the leader speaks for the deaf everywhere, he said, and often speaks for the deaf to the hearing world.

At midnight, student leaders stood under the lights at the gate house, signing to a crowd of about 200. They lit candles, leaning over to touch the wicks of the next person, then formed a circle, holding the flames up into the darkness. Then they blew them, tiny puffs of smoke floating up into the silent night.

One more message sent.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company