NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Police have issued charges to a dozen of the Rutgers University student activists who disrupted a public meeting in December.
The students, from the Rutgers chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, disrupted the Dec. 12 Board of Trustees meeting as part of their campaign for a university-wide $15 minimum wage.
As the meeting started, students pushed through a rope barrier manned by police officers, according to meeting footage.
They knocked down the barrier and loudly chanted slogans such as “If we don’t get it, shut it down,” and “We want justice, and power, and 15 an hour,” according to the footage.
The meeting was shut down 15 minutes in, and had a police presence of a dozen officers in anticipation of the protest.
The students facing summonses appeared briefly at the New Brunswick Municipal Court on Jan. 22 to answer to the charges and schedule a later court hearing for April, according to Mary D’Anella-Mercanti, a spokesperson for the activists.
It is not immediately clear who the counsel is for the student-activists.
The first charge, a disorderly persons offense, alleges that the students acted in a way to disrupt or prevent a “lawful meeting, procession or gathering,” according to court records.
The second charge, a petty disorderly persons offense, alleges that the students acted in a way that “purposely caused” or “recklessly created” a “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm,” according to court records.
Each of the students, by “making physical contact with police officers,” and “proceeding past a police line,” created a “hazardous or physically dangerous condition,” according to court records.
Protests for a $15 minimum wage campaign are part of the broader contract negotiations underway by several Rutgers faculty unions. Their next protest is scheduled for Feb. 23 outside the Brower Commons Dining Hall.
In addition to the charges, all 12 students face disciplinary actions by the university for breaking the student code of conduct, according to D’Anella-Mercanti, but they all plan to plead no contest.
“It’s in regards to a larger disruption policy that states that if you disrupt any business, you can be held accountable for the violations under the student code of conduct,” D’Anella-Mercanti said.
Overall, D’Anella-Mercanti was critical of the policy under which the students were facing disciplinary charges.
“I think it’s a means to suppress student voices in regards to the vague language they use, in disruption of business as usual,” D’Anella-Mercanti said.
The revised protest policies, under which the students are being penalized, were enacted in April 2017, with the overarching theme that they cannot infringe upon the rights of others.
Before, the policy defined disruption as anything that interfered with people’s rights to go about their business or university activities.
But the new code of conduct points to incidents such as when people obstruct traffic, block entrances or exits to buildings or driveways, interfere with educational activities, harass passersby, preclude a scheduled speaker from being heard, disturb scheduled ceremonies or events, damage property or “engage in any other activities that disrupt university business or infringe upon the rights of others.”
“It expands the power of those who work within the university to wield the little power that they have over the students," D'Anella-Mercanti said.
Many of the forms of protesting banned by the university have been heavily employed by activists in years past.
On Jan. 31 2017, over a thousand anti-Trump demonstrators assembled outside Brower Commons on the College Avenue Campus and marched through New Brunswick, temporarily shutting down the roads.
Prior to that in Dec. 2016, student activists shut down a Rutgers Board of Governors meeting in Winants Hall, with demands that the university become a sanctuary campus.
When the controversial then-Breitbart Editor Milo Yiannopoulos appeared on campus in Feb. 2016, dozens of students interrupted the meeting by shouting, chanting and smearing themselves in blood-colored paint as they marched out of the Scott Hall Lecture Hall, where the event was hosted.
“People think that they have the right by the First Amendment to get up in a lecture hall and start to scream and yell and do this, that and the other thing,” Rutgers President Robert Barchi said at a Nov. 2017 student government town hall. “They do not have that right by the First Amendment.”
Other university officials echoed that sentiment.
USAS banners placed around campus on Jan. 29. Credit: Courtesy of USAS
“We embrace students engagement in demonstrations, that’s not something we run away from,” Salvador Mena, associate vice chancellor of Student Affairs, said at a similar town hall on Nov. 2.
“But on the other hand as well, we need to ensure that the university’s able to carry to fulfill its functions, and so a student who wants to eat lunch, dinner, should be able to go into the dining hall and not be prevented from doing that because we’re blocking an entrance,” Mena added.
Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said at that meeting that she’d hope her staff would be able to work with any student-organized demonstration, and coordinate with the Rutgers and New Brunswick police departments.
She credited this approach as allowing for “peaceful demonstrations” such as the “No Ban, No Wall” protest earlier in 2017.
“We are the Division of Student Affairs, our job is to be where you are, you are our business and we are responsible,” McGinty said. “So if you want to have a demonstration, you can have a demonstration, but we’re coming with you, and we’re coming with you not to control what you do but because we want to make sure that you’re safe.”