Late on the night of Oct. 4, three activists were chained to the front doors of Johnson Hall, the administration building on the University of Oregon campus. Their three demands were simple: disarm the campus police department, divest from fossil fuel interests, and democratize the Board of Trustees.
The direct action taken by the activists was a sudden and dramatic development on a night that began with a Black Lives Matter benefit concert–one that featured jam bands, poetry, and enough radical zines to fill a bookshelf. In the darkness of Washburne Park, located in the heart of Eugene’s university district, nearly a hundred or so people gathered for an event advertised as a “Back to Skool Bash” and “Black Lives Matter benefit concert.” Some were now-veteran activists, who had been organizing and marching all summer long. Most appeared to be students, recently back on campus after a long quarantine summer.
While the bands played, they danced. When the speakers took to the microphone, they listened. When prompted, they shouted “Fuck the police!” and “Fuck UO!” and booed the city of Eugene’s lack of action for the houseless population amid the pandemic and hazardous air quality during the worst of September’s wildfires.
This was enough to spur the crowd into action. By 10 p.m. the concert was over, and 40 to 50 people marched the short distance to Johnson Hall to witness the most direct action taken on university property since activists tore down the pioneer statues back in June.
“It’s about time that we started seeing actions like this in Eugene, and I’m glad to see it myself,” said one activist, who declined to be named because of their participation in the action. “It’ll be hard for [university officials] to ignore the demands of three people attached to their building.”
This action marks a departure from the protest tactics seen in Eugene and Springfield throughout most of the summer. Save for a few notable exceptions, most protests have been fairly standard: marches through city streets from Point A to Point B then back to Point A, with chanting and speeches all along the way. They almost always remain what most people would call “peaceful”–even considering the flaring of tensions stemming from consistent harassment by right-wing counter-protesters. But that tactic has begun to draw the ire of some local activist collectives, who believe that constant marching accomplishes very little toward their ultimate goals of abolishing the police and radically transforming society.
“We can’t keep going on marches to nowhere!” said one of the activists after they were chained to the doors of Johnson Hall. “If we’re going to be allies to this movement, then we have to fucking do something!”
Another new development on display was the rise of a coalition of groups who, though strongly aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, consider themselves more radical and committed to the dismantling of oppressive systems than other protest groups in Eugene.
“We’re here to do two things,” said an organizer during the benefit concert. “We’re here to center the Black Lives Matter movement, and we’re here to raise money for… the BIPOC Liberation Collective: the only abolitionist, BIPOC-led group in Eugene.”
No one group took sole credit for the Johnson Hall occupation, but organizers with activist groups including ReclaimUO, DisarmUO, Cascadia Action Network, and Sunrise Eugene all made statements in favor of the three demands. Members of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the UO’s graduate student union, also expressed support for the occupation.
The occupation kicked off just before the second week of Fall classes, which already has the university reeling from falling enrollment rates and rapidly rising cases of Covid-19. Several speakers throughout the night condemned the university’s pandemic response, claiming that UO President Michael Schill cares more about profits and enrollment numbers than he does about student health and safety. One speaker at Johnson Hall read an excerpt from an email sent by the university asking students to avoid attending demonstrations.
“So they don’t want to see us protest because of Covid,” the speaker said. “But they’ll open up the dorms and bring back football just to make a buck while putting the entire city at risk? What kind of bullshit is that?”
After the activists dropped banners on steps of Johnson Hall, they once again reiterated what they’re demanding of the university by handing out leaflets to people in the crowd and passersby.
- Divest from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.
- Disarm UOPD as a first step to disbanding the entire institution.
- Democratize the Board of Trustees and create a university accountable to students, staff, faculty, and the surrounding community.
Though the activist’s demands are rooted in both modern climate justice and informed by the continuing uprising following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people, their actions at Johnson Hall had a distinctly old-school feel. Even the songs sung by the protesters following the start of the occupation were classic folk and labor anthems like “Daloy Polizei” and “Which Side Are You On?”
Once the singing was done and the speakers had said their piece, the activists settled in, preparing themselves for an action that would last an undetermined amount of time. They referred to their action as a “slumber party” and urged anyone who was willing to join the occupation to bring their own sleeping bags and spread out on the grass in front of Johnson Hall. A few people obliged them; one pair of activists just stretched out on the sidewalk and started gazing at the sky.
As the crowd dwindled and Against Me!’s “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” played through a blown-out amplifier, the chained-up activists offered up a promise to those who wanted to participate in the occupation.
“We’re not going anywhere until we get a meeting with Schill,” one of them said. “We just want to have a talk with him.”