Student protests are no stranger to controversy.
The recent occupy protests, in opposition to the growing income inequality in the U.S. and government policies protesters believe unjustly favor big business and the very wealthy, may seem like a natural fit for campuses.
The University of California’s Berkeley and Davis campuses’ large student demonstrations received national notoriety when officers pepper sprayed student demonstrators.
At UMKC, the movement has been less visible.
The 20-some students who participated in an Occupy protest at Johnson Hall, by the estimate of organizer Zachary Mueller, are dwarfed by the estimated thousands at Berkeley and Davis.
Yet despite its low profile status, Occupy UMKC, the unofficial student group that organized the protest, hasn’t been without controversy.
Mueller described the administration’s reactions as “veiled threats” intended to “intimidate” the protesters.
“I received a recent report from UMKC Police about you being the responsible resident for a group arguing with a UMKC police officer while refusing to leave the Johnson Hall lounge on Nov. 15, 2011,” the email sent by Assistant Dean of Students Eric Grospitch said. “I am writing to inform you that some people may interpret your conduct as violating University policies related to complying with the directions of University officials acting in accordance with their duties as well as violating University policies that govern the authorized use of University facilities.”
No disciplinary action was threatened, but links to the Student Standard of Conduct and UM System rules were included in the email.
“It is important in the future that you review your responsibility as a University of Missouri student,” Grospitch wrote.
Grospitch said the email was his only communication with students, and that no disciplinary action was taken.
Because Occupy UMKC is not registered with Student Affairs, it cannot reserve space on campus or receive funding from the school, Grospitch explained.
Grospitch said his email did not receive a response from the students.
“I’m happy to walk them through the process,” Grospitch said. “But there was no inquiry into the process.”
To hold a protest on campus, a demonstration/rally request form must be completed and submitted to the Office of Student Involvement a minimum of 10 days prior to the event.
Certain restrictions apply to all protests— they cannot impede traffic or interfere with the school’s educational mission.
Mueller said that this and other requirements are major impediments to Occupy UMKC.
“Having that stringent bureaucratic constraint makes it impossible for us to have any dissent protest against the school and to make our voices heard,” Mueller said.
Grospitch said he didn’t see any reason a request form filled out by an official student organization, such as College Democrats, to sponsor an occupy protest wouldn’t be approved.
However, an overnight event like the one held Nov. 14-15 is unlikely to be approved due to university policies and security concerns, Grospitch explained.
Besides hosting an event without university approval, the occupation violated several other university procedures.
Students who do not live in the residence halls are required to check in at the front desk and must be checked in by another student who lives in the facility, Grospitch emphasized. .
The Nov. 15 police report referenced by Grospitch mentioned protesters “camping and sleeping in the Johnson Hall lobby.”
Although #OccupyUMKC is not recognized as a group, Files said Students for a Democratic Society was present. However, no protest/demonstration form had been submitted.
According to Mueller, students arriving to the event were not asked to check in by the desk attendant because of the group’s size and location of the protest in a communal area.
Although no disciplinary action was taken against Mueller, Ex-Social Justice Coordinator and UMKC student Caleb-Michael Files claims he was terminated for his political beliefs.
Files said he did not camp out in the event overnight, but visited with students at the protest.
According to Files, he was off duty the night the occupation occurred, although he said he still informed protesters that they could not enter other parts of the building without signing in.
“That’s the most important piece,” Files said when asked about losing his position. “Social justice coordinator fired for promoting social justice.”
An email by Residential Life Director Kristen Abell mentioned several reasons for the termination, including turning program planners in late and not completing planned programs, but did not mention Files’ political beliefs.
“Your failure to notify Residential Life professional staff of the event taking place in the lounge on Nov. 14-15 and to not enforce Residential Life policy with these individuals by having them check in or vacate the premises, therefore putting the security of our residents at risk, shows extremely poor decision-making and violates the terms of your contract,” the email said.
Files said he does not plan to return to UMKC next semester, referring to his time off as a “sabbatical.”
“I’m not coming back to this university,” Files said. “I am one of the top civil and environmental rights activists in the Midwest and the university has tried to silence me.”
Mueller said students at the protest signed a petition to reverse Files’ termination.
Grospitch said he was unaware of a petition and couldn’t comment further on personnel issues.
Files said he was vocal about his political beliefs and that he felt it had created conflict with the school in the past.
According to Files, he was told to create a separate Facebook account (UMKC SJC Caleb) to minimize confrontation about his views.
Files is the senior board member for the Associated Students of the University of Missouri (ASUM) and the Director of Campaigns for College Democrats.