The Sit-In, Ten Years Later

My friend the Rev. Sara says that she doesn’t care whether a service is high church or low church so long as it is not sloppy church. I always tell her that she probably shouldn’t come here, because sloppy church is about all we ever have. We are a tiny church in a tiny town, and our priest drives full time for FedEx out of Billings, which is several hours away, and we rely a lot on lay people, and we fumble from time to time, but we manage.

This morning’s fumble was that the person appointed to do the first reading inadvertently read the second reading, so when it came time for me to do that, I figured I’d better read the first one, and I’m glad that I did, because it might have passed over me otherwise. The sermon dealt almost exclusively with the Gospel, which was the story of Doubting Thomas, but it was the first lesson, from Acts, that caught me.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

We are witnesses to these things. That was the line that struck me: We are witnesses to these things, and we must teach about them.

This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the Students Against Sweatshops sit in at the University of Iowa, in which I participated and about which I wrote at great length at the time; the week was covered much more succinctly by the UE News (I am third from the left in the photo). Many of us who were involved did a little reminiscing about it on Facebook on Thursday, the anniversary of the arrests.* Several days later, I am still thinking about it.

The sit-in did not mark the end of the struggle, which continued for more than a year and, which continues today. A few weeks after the sit-in, we held a silent protest in front of Jessup Hall every day at noon for a week or two. We each wore taped to us a sign identifying a worker who had been abused in a sweatshop, and we wore red tape over our mouths to signify the various ways in which we, and they, had been silenced. I have a picture from one of those days, May 4, 2000, which was also the thirtieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State, and one of our number had made a sign commemorating those students, and the ones killed at Jackson State a few days later who are so often forgotten.

Today’s Gospel lesson is perhaps more relevant than I had first thought. Most of us had not seen sweatshop labor firsthand, and yet we believed. We were trying to stand as witnesses, that others might believe.

Mostly they didn’t, or rather they did but they didn’t think our solutions were the right ones, or they thought our solutions would cost the University a lot of money. At that time, the head basketball coach, Steve Alford, had a contract with the University and Nike guaranteeing him a base salary of $900,000 a year, a third of which was to be paid by Nike — unless for any reason Nike did not feel like paying, in which case the University had to make up the different. Kirk Ferentz had a similar contract with Reebok. We wanted the University to hold the people who made Hawkeye apparel (there are, or were, even Hawkeye coffins!) to certain basic standards: people who made the stuff should be paid a living wage and allowed to take bathroom breaks and not forced to take pregnancy tests and allowed to form unions and not have to work twelve hour shifts or work in buildings without proper fire exits. All of that and more still goes on, and we never thought we would end the practices single-handedly. The anti-sweatshop movement targeted collegiate apparel for strategic reasons — it’s a huge market, and the people who produce it are licensed to do so by schools, schools that frequently have human rights policies and thus a sort of lever that we could push. Of course, as you’ve seen, they also have hundred thousand dollar contracts with companies who are very interested in the status quo. The battle at the University of Oregon, alma mater of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, was particularly wrought: Phil Knight pulled a planned $30 million donation to renovate a stadium because of the University followed through with one of the protesters’ demands.

I was explaining the whole situation, or as much of it as could be explained during idle post-church coffee hour chat, to some people today, and they asked if we got what we wanted. That’s a hard question to answer. We had three demands; the administration gave in to the first one during the sit in. Over the course of the next year they gave in to the next one, sort of. (It dealt with drafting a specific Code of Conduct for licensees; the Code was written, but six companies (including Nike) were allowed to sign a “clarified” Code, one with modifications that stripped it completely of its purpose.** Our actions, and those of the many other students at many other schools, and our many allies, eventually resulted in changes at one factory in Mexico. It’s not much.

But, as the song goes, I think many of us got what we needed. We were fighting not for ourselves but for others, for people we had never met and never would, and I would like to think our efforts had some effect, and that our movement was one of solidarity and not simply of privileged white kids play-acting at revolution, although there was inevitably a certain amount of that. If you asked the administration or the jury that convicted us, that was all there was.

As I wrote way back then, though, that movement, and the ones that followed, and that follow to this day, gave us back tenfold what we gave to it. My work in SAS is part of who I am; in many ways it made me who I am. My understanding of bureaucracy comes from that movement, but also my understanding of courage, of camaraderie, of solidarity, and of hope.

Those of us who participated in the events of ten years ago aren’t currently occupying any buildings, at least not that I know of. But many of us are still working on the same things that led up to that occupation and that followed it — the bitter, hard, day-to-day work of teaching people and talking to people and being witnesses to these things, to poverty and exploitation, to intransigence and willful ignorance. We are witnesses to these things in a figurative sense, as we were then: we know they exist even if we have not stood on those factory floors. But we were witnesses literally to our own experience at that sit-in, to our own calling to obey an authority we considered greater than that of the building we sat in. We were witnesses to these things, and we are still here.

*Among other things, we were reminiscing about what changes technology has wrought. Back then, we had a borrowed cell phone, and to send out email updates, I had to unplug a phone in order to connect my 28.8 modem.

*I can provide documentation about the “clarified” code, but at present it would require going through some boxes and doing some scanning, as the newspapers that covered it don’t seem to have archives of the events online. (Some smart librarian will probably prove me wrong; please do post a link in the comments if you find one.)

2 thoughts on “The Sit-In, Ten Years Later”

  1. I am apparently in full-on terribly-shallow-person mode, because I immediately clicked through to the picture and my thoughts were of the “so young! so much plaid!” variety.

    But. This post is thoughtful and useful and interesting, is what is *important* among my thoughts:) Thanks.

  2. Oh, I know! The plaid was the first thing I noticed, too! Ned (first on the left) claims he wore the same outfit to teach the other day. It was not far removed from the 1990s, and we were in Iowa. That is my excuse.

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