Nearly a month after Johns Hopkins University students and Baltimore residents began their sit-in on campus in protest of the school’s contracts with Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the formation of JHU’s own private police force, organizers raised the stakes.
Yesterday at 4 p.m., eight students chained themselves to to the stairs inside Garland Hall, the administrative building they have been occupying since April 3.
“This is an important announcement: We the students of the sit-in are fully occupying the building and frankly ask you to leave. You’re welcome to stay if you wish to support us,” a student declared from the second floor.
Other students gathered around the building’s elevator preventing it from being used.
“We have escalated today to having people chaining themselves to stairwells,” Adela Chelminski said. “We are going to stay here until we get negotiations with the administration and what we are calling for is still no private police, the end of the ICE contracts between Hopkins and ICE, and justice for Tyrone West.”
The stark administrative building—all big tall windows and a Panopticon-like design inside—is now covered with signs and quotes from activists turning it into a more casual and much more radical space.
“People are doing something,” Becca Sosa said. “No one goes to Garland, it was very administrative, very cold—so to go in and see the space all with posters, it is very warm and inviting.”
The sit-in has also hosted film screenings, panels, learning sessions, and some religious groups including Reverend Heber Brown’s congregation and Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl. And the students have gained ground via support from many JHU faculty and by ignoring warnings from JHU administration about when Garland Hall can be open or closed to the public (JHU has not followed through on any of its warnings so far). Last week, organizers began using another room on the first floor and renamed it, “Tyrone West Wellness Center.”
Yesterday also marked the 300th straight Wednesday in which Tawanda Jones has gathered to call attention to her brother Tyrone West, who was stopped by Baltimore Police officers and Morgan State University police officers in 2013, and died in police custody after he was tased and beaten.
Since the sit-in began on April 3, “West Wednesday” has worked with the sit-in organizers for a march every week. A few days into the sit-in, students interrupted an alumni breakfast but yesterday was the first direct action protest, inspired by and a tribute to Tawanda Jones.
“Tawanda has been working for 300 weeks, she has been struggling to demand accountability—we also will not stop and these are the kinds of actions we are willing to take to be listened to,” Jilene Chua said. “We’ve tried so many ways to be listened to and nothing has really been working. This is the extent to which right now we are willing to go to be heard.”
Karter James Burnett was one of the students chained to the steps and has been involved in organizing against JHU’s police force for more than a year now.
“I’m here chained up because I believe a change is gonna come and I think I can’t afford to not be here,” James Burnett said, adding that more police will make more people unsafe. “Many people who have very visible and invisible identities that they cannot strip away themselves…will be targeted and have been targeted for.”
Over the next few hours as James Burnett and six others remained chained, Chris Bilal, an East Baltimore resident who has become a central figure at the sit-in (including advocating against the police bill in Annapolis) and JHU student Adela Chelminski led the group in chants and repeated the sit-in’s demands.
Hopkins employees and frazzled administrators flowed out of the building and security guards tested the students.
“It’s an emergency up there, I need to get upstairs,” a Hopkins Security guard told Peter Welk and Cyril Creque-Sarbinowski, two students chained to a second stairwell.
“I’m sorry, we won’t let anyone else upstairs,” Weck said, nervously, politely.
“So you’re saying I can’t go up there to deal with the emergency,” the guard said.
“We’re letting folks down but no one can come up,” Weck said.
“So you’re blocking me from dealing with an emergency?” the guard said.
“If anyone needs to come down, they can come down,” Creque-Sarbinowski added.
“Ok well I need to go upstairs. There is an emergency, excuse me,” the guard said.
“No. We won’t be letting anyone go upstairs, I’m sorry,” Weck repeated.
This continued on until finally, the guard walked away. He never got up the steps. There did not seem to actually be an emergency.
“The admins have been ignoring us thus far, not taking us seriously, treating us as a problem that will go away, so this action I personally wanted to participate in because I wanted to show the admins this is an issue that actually matters, you can’t just shoo it away,” Creque-Sarbinowski said. “This is way to show this is a serious issue and you need to listen.”
“We have a lot of privilege being at the university and are so close to its workings that we’re actually in a position of relative power to act on an issue that affects the lives of so many different people,” Weck said. “When this is a question of people lives being at-stake, not just students but community members, us taking this relatively minor risk just seems like pocket change compared to that.”
Multiple people involved in the occupation have been quick to explain that this was only supposed to last a day—it’s a boast, an admission, and explanation of why it might seem like they are improvising here and there. Yet, yesterday’s action was ornate and well-choreographed, complete with students communicating via walkie-talkies and others monitoring the security presence inside and outside the building.
With organizing assistance from members of Black Leaders Organizing For Change (BLOC), the students trained and planned for this kind of action late into the night, making sure they could chain themselves in less than 30 seconds. The action resembles a lockdown done in downtown Baltimore in 2016 in protest of the Fraternal Order of Police which involved organizers who are now members of BLOC.
Later in the day, Assistant Chief of Community Risk Reduction for the Baltimore Fire Department Karl Zimmerman approached the chained students and told them being there was a violation of the fire code—the first moment of panic that the students would possibly face arrest.
“It’s a safety hazard, anyone in the building could be put at risk because of what you’re doing,” Zimmerman said.
The chained students said they were just fine. He added he wanted to make sure they had a way of getting out of the chains if there was an emergency. They did. He left.
“Man, why does his name have to be Zimmerman,” activist ShaiVaughn Crawley quipped, referencing George Zimmerman, the armed security guard who chased Trayvon Martin and shot and killed him.
Into the evening with students still chained, many members of the sit-in and around 200 students and residents gathered at 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue for the West Wednesday. More than 20 other universities around the country also gathered or marched at the same time in support of West Wednesday and the occupation.
A major issue was JHU reaching out to Tawanda Jones and telling her that if she returned to the sit-in she would be trespassing. For sit-in organizers, it exemplified their critiques of the university. Namely, JHU seems to fear black Baltimore residents: “This administration is sending legal threats to Tawanda, so the strategy is pretty indicative of how the state and the police works—through threats,” Bilal said.
Last Thursday, organizers of the occupation confronted JHU president Ronald Daniels walking into a meeting on campus—a “private ass bougie meeting,” as one organizer described it. Bilal asked Daniels what it would take for Daniels to meet with sit-in and discuss their demands.
“Vacate the sit-in and I’d be happy to meet with any student groups, but not any students that are in violation of policy,” Daniels said.
When the group arrived at Garland Hal last night, Jones was defiant and walked inside, 200 people behind her. The rally continued inside with speeches from students and the community and then, food for everyone as has been the custom for every march since the occupation began.
“Nobody is going to stop me,” Jones said. “The Baltimore Police Department didn’t stop me, The State’s Attorney didn’t stop me, the Medical Examiner’s Office didn’t stop me, you honestly think this foolishness is going to stop me?”
Once the crowd left, the chained students unlocked themselves and organizers began chaining all of the doors to Garland Hall so that no one could get inside for the night or the next morning. Students were placed at each door to keep watch.
They were now, as they promised, “fully occupying” the building.
By morning, Hopkins security guards stared through the windows at the chains twirling around all of the entrances, called their superiors, and did their best to explain the situation to frustrated administrators, coffee or tea in-hand.
By the afternoon, administrators who usually worked inside Garland Hall were set up at a small table outside in front of the building, forced to improvise and work with what they had—a bit like how the Garland sit-in organizers have been doing for almost a month now.
“We held the building overnight. We have locked down the main administrative building at Johns Hopkins. Only students and community are allowed to enter and exit the building. We hope we have shifted the path of this campus. We hope to have changed the history of Johns Hopkins and its relationship with Baltimore and the broader world. We will remain here until President Ronald Daniels negotiations,” a statement from the sit-in reads in part. “We demand the cancellation of the private police force. We demand the end of the contracts with ICE. We demand justice for Tyrone West.”
Additional reporting by Jaisal Noor.