Student protesters at the University of the District of Columbia who stormed the administration building and battled the school's trustees for almost two weeks amounted to an odd mix: football players, band members, black activists and disenchanted academics with widely divergent complaints.
So diverse was the group that the attempt almost fizzled. But the night before the takeover, protest leaders appealed to the students' racial pride and portrayed their plan as a larger movement that could reshape the priorities of the troubled campus, as well as the political future for black Washingtonians.
Pulling the group together was no small feat. Most of UDC's 12,000 students work full time. The university has no on-campus housing and no student union to serve as a natural feeder for a takeover on a campus isolated in Northwest Washington from most of its students.
What finally united them was a common outrage at a board of trustees they saw as insensitive to their concerns, a desire to take control of their educational future and, ironically, a chance to galvanize behind Mayor Marion Barry, who appointed many of the targets of their frustration.
During the occupation of Building 38 that ended Saturday, football players with Popeye-sized forearms served as guards at entrances to the building and doorways to areas such as the finance office. These were young men who had been recruited by the university and arrived to find neither housing nor an adequate meal plan. And this year the university suspended football.
Band members, disappointed with a university that had no money for performance travel or even to clean their uniforms, willingly hauled their instruments to and from the building for their daily practices. And student leaders, intent on fostering black unity, wore kinte cloth as their followers donned T-shirts with pictures of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey.
"We had a lot of students that wanted to be involved in making changes, but they weren't aware of everyone else's problems," said Mark Thompson, the chief spokesman for the protesters. "Once we got together and talked, things started moving."
Michael Powell, 21, a sophomore student council member, had organized a meeting of student leaders about three weeks earlier. Powell said the group wanted to take longstanding concerns to the Board of Trustees, including their decision to spend $80,000 for the acquisition of artist Judy Chicago's controversial "The Dinner Party." City bonds would have covered the $1.6 million in renovations to house the sculpture in the Carnegie Library.
"We wanted to meet with the full board, not just the Student Affairs Committee," Powell said. "We wanted them all to hear our concerns. They refused."
Talk of taking control of a campus building emerged at that meeting, Powell said, but there were too many groups, each with their own complaints. "We didn't have a unifying force," Powell said.
The group started a second, larger meeting, where leaders meshed their ideas about black consciousness and self-determination with the discussions of taking over one or more campus buildings.
The budding protest movement, which was called "Concerned Students," became "Operation Kiamsha."
"We did want to come from an Afrocentric perspective," Thompson said. "We let them know that we were not just doing this for ourselves but for African Americans in this city who want and deserve a low-cost, quality college education."
"Kiamsha" is a Swahili word that means "that which wakes you up." Students first wanted to call the movement "Kiamsha Kinywa," which means "the breakfast meal" in Swahili.
"They had their "Dinner Party," so we thought we'd have our breakfast meal," Thompson said.
Protesters had stationery printed with "Kiamsha" in bold, black letters. The paper carried the names of the eight principal protest organizers and their revolutionary-type titles:
Powell was named "conscience-in-chief;" Thompson "decolonist execute" and "primary figure-of-speech." Aisha Murray was "activist-in-effect." Joel Smoot was "militant-in-general." And in keeping with the African tradition, the letterhead contained the names of ancestors for guidance and strength.
A meeting Sept. 25, the night before the takeover, drew more than 300 angry students. Movement organizers quickly recognized the need for a strong magnet to hold the students together because of the long list of complaints.
They found it in Marion Barry.
Protest leaders recounted Barry's recent drug and perjury trial and the popular notion among some black District residents that Barry was unfairly targeted by a white, Republican prosecutor.
"We described a way in which we students, if things went right, could help ourselves, help the university and help the mayor" win in his bid for an at-large D.C. Council seat, Thompson said.
The thinking was that once the occupation occurred and students announced their demand that the appointed trustees resign effective March 31, Barry could influence the trustees to resign.
"That way the mayor would be portrayed as a champion of young people," Thompson said.
The student organizers figured that because black District residents make up more than 80 percent of the student body, they could be a voting bloc to catapult Barry to victory in November.
Barry turned from buddy to bungler and back again to students, who publicly were silent about the fact that seven of the 11 appointed trustees of the deteriorating university were put on the board by Barry.
In his first meeting with students, Barry said he would urge board Chairwoman Nira Hardon Long and student representative Cynthia Smith to resign. But the next day, Barry said he was only a messenger and was not actively seeking resignations.
Four days later, Long resigned effective Oct. 16. Arthur M. Reynolds resigned effective Sept. 28, and the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley resigned effective March 31. Smith and the other holdouts did not resign.
After sending a letter to students last weekend reaffirming his support for their movement -- copies of which dozens of protesters tore up -- Barry showed up at Saturday's ceremony celebrating an agreement between student protesters and university officials.
There, thrusting his left fist in the air, Barry joined the student protesters in chanting "Kiamsha" and "We're fired up, can't take no more." The students appeared so absorbed in their victory that they paid little attention to the mayor who had helped galvanize them.