Reflections on the Occupation of Eliot Hall
Outside the windows of Eliot Hall, the sky is gray against the orange and yellow trees that grow less orange and less yellow every day. I read The Oresteia, or my psychology textbook, or Thucydides. I watch faculty and staff eat their lunches out of carefully packaged tupperware and show each other pictures of their families. They walk by in the hallway and greet each other kindly. The wood around the windows and on the walls is old and unchanged from years of staging different and yet identical actors in its rooms.
For years, professors and assistants and administrators have come to the lounge on the third floor of Eliot to microwave their food and read the New York Times. None of the faculty, staff, or administration look at me. Or, if they do, they meet my eye and immediately glance away. I know as a white person this experience is different; I am avoided while others are targeted. The room feels formidable. There is power in the way the building insists on remaining the same as it has always been. The tents, couches, sleeping bags, board games, and student protesters, exhausted and ill and studying for finals—it all seems frustratingly insignificant. It is easy to feel that none of this will matter or make a difference.
Yet here we are. Emma-Jo moves aside in one of the tents to make room for Ari and says “Welcome home.” Ari takes off their shoes at the entrance. Toasters and electric kettles, pillows and blankets line the hall in a humble parade of humanness. Tables overflow with pizza boxes and plastic cups and Safeway baklava. Leenise shares cookies with me and we read poetry. Addison sings and plays guitar in the evening. At midnight one Saturday, a small group plays Jenga in a classroom-turned-headquarters. Maddox collects orders for the Thai takeout that will be dinner. Students cycle in and out of the building, and in their comings and goings there is a sense of perpetuity and momentum. As each day progresses, new faces arrive to support those waiting there. Such is the thrust of activism, propelled into the future by deep roots in the past. Each
new act of activism picks up the old and carries it forward, adding to the flame.
I read the signs on the wall and bear witness to the history that propels this activism, conscious of all the work that has been done before. The signs quote Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army, and Audre Lorde, black feminist poet and activist. Others refer to articles on the history of activism and occupation of Eliot Hall here at Reed. And, reminiscent of Jim Crow segregation and the tradition of oppression we are resisting, if any student with a no-contact order crosses the established line to go to the restroom or use the drinking fountain, the administration can call the police. History is no longer distant, but imminent. When Alex, Addison, and Tiffany update students on the events of the sit-in, speaking from the front of the chapel, their voices ring in chorus with the voices of scores of activists throughout the country and throughout the country’s past.
Our effort is interdisciplinary. It is a process of education, and we learn as we go. We meet to discuss strategy, but we also discuss interpersonal relationships, guidelines for karaoke, and how to make Eliot Hall a comfortable living space. Protest, in its nature, is not perfect: in its search for progress, it becomes a work in progress. It is poetry, it is politics, it is sociology, it is song. In this way, it is fitting that the occupation fills a building which is the center of an institution touted as a champion of liberal arts education.
I chose Reed because of its alternative attitude toward what a college education should be. Now, for me, the term alternative has come to mean alternative to this institution and its classrooms, not just alternative to the norms of grades and career preparation. The occupation of Eliot Hall embodies what Reed education can and should look like. It is larger than this school. It is democratic. It is critical. It subverts traditional ways of thinking about the world. It is larger than Wells Fargo. In fact, it’s not about Wells Fargo. It is about Reed becoming a model of a truly equitable and supportive community. It is about oppression and racism and suffering and people.
One night, students of color begin to make posters about who they are, why they’re here, and what their favorite part of the sit-in has been, as part of a humanizing campaign. The “dishonorable” students being threatened with multiples honor cases and expulsion have faces and stories.
These words, a snapshot, will be published in the seventh week and on the 45th day of the occupation. There will be more days and weeks, grueling, uncomfortable, fearful, cold. It’s dark, and it isn’t raining, so the sky is clear, but the trees have lost most of their leaves. Fall gets colder. But a different mood prevails. Some students studying in the faculty lounge take turns requesting songs, listening to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The lyrics ring out with a sense of urgency and unity. “Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space / with no time left to start again.” Here we are. It is hard to feel that anything else matters.
Cover photo: Student protestors move into Kroger's office during the 2017 sit-in. Photo by Gaelen Eisenbrey.