By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006
For a second day, protesters kept Gallaudet University shut down yesterday, with students blocking all entrances to the school for the deaf and city police lined up outside the gates.
"We are at the breaking point," said Leah Katz-Hernandez, one of the mass of students demanding that incoming president Jane K. Fernandes resign, sitting with arms locked ready to resist arrest.
Police met with student protesters yesterday evening, telling them they had to reopen access to campus. Protest leaders agreed to open the Sixth Street NW entrance and went to those who were blocking the gate. Those students refused.
Last night, police left, and the campus remained closed.
In the middle of midterm exam week, students have brought everything on the Northeast Washington campus to a standstill, including the elementary and high schools for deaf students. For most of the day there were no negotiations, just as the day before, and students kept demanding that Fernandes come to campus to talk.
University spokeswoman Mercy Coogan announced at midday that Fernandes would meet with students when they stopped holding the school hostage. The crowd erupted, shouting and signing, "No!"
In the afternoon, Fernandes arrived at a side entrance to campus; some students recognized her and tried to stop the van from entering. Police had to lift them out of the way, and she went to meet with some faculty. She said she hoped to meet with students soon.
Protests ignited in May when Fernandes was named incoming president. The opposition to her brings together people with a range of seemingly unrelated grievances. Some say that as the school's provost for six years, she was cold and ineffective. Some are upset with the search process, saying it went too quickly and eliminated the strongest candidates, including an African American who was a longtime board chairman.
Their anger has grown over what they say is the board's dismissive attitude. Some say Fernandes has divided them more since May rather than bringing them together on a campus that has enormous cultural resonance for the deaf community.
And there's this: Everywhere else, deaf people expect to face barriers and oppression. But they came to Gallaudet to be in the one place where everyone understands, said student Leala Holcomb. "We shouldn't have to deal with this here."
Fernandes has had strong support from the board, and she and President I. King Jordan have said the protesters have not given her credit for her emphasis on strong academics and efforts to promote diversity on campus. They have said the debate is about deaf identity politics.
Protests began again last week when trustees came to the 1,800-student campus for the last time before Fernandes takes office in January. Students pitched tents, took over a major classroom building and, before dawn Wednesday, blocked all access to the private university.
Yesterday was another topsy-turvy day at Gallaudet, with professor Barbara Stock sitting on a garbage bag in the grass, watching through the iron fence for students who did not come to her 9 a.m. class.
The football players who have become the gatekeepers since deciding to shut the school down allowed voting faculty members in at 11 a.m. for a meeting, shepherding them through campus in a group so they could not sneak to their offices.
At midafternoon, faculty worried about police actions held an impromptu debate with the crowd of students, trying to persuade them to move their protest inside and reopen the campus. When students refused, faculty members moved their meeting to the front lawn, now dotted with dozens of tents.
Students practiced locking arms and going limp, ready to be dragged out by police. Protest leader Ryan Commerson told them they could demand an interpreter, but they must not resist or even touch an officer in any way -- even though touch is an important way to get someone's attention in deaf culture.
"I know no one wants this," said Coogan, the university spokeswoman, looking at the white police motorcycles. To outsiders, she said, it might seem hard to understand why administrators had not taken action to restore order.
For the deaf community, she said, "it would take so long to recover."
In 1990, a deaf student died after being restrained by campus police.
Yesterday afternoon, Jordan arrived with a police officer and explained to the crowd that students have a right to protest, but not to stop education.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said his officers are at the school to monitor the situation, not make arrests. "This is a Gallaudet problem," he said. "We're not here to take it over unless there is property damage or if someone's personal safety is in danger. Hopefully, they can talk to each other and get the matter resolved."
Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold and Allison Klein contributed to this report.