Students End Sit-In Angered by Lack of Action from Beacon Hill Lawmakers

After advocating “the right way” for years, our patience has run out.

Photo: Students ending their sit-in at the State House on May 22, 2019. (Zac Bears/PHENOM)

This story has been updated with a full response to House Speaker DeLeo’s statement on the student sit-in. Read it below.

Students ended their occupation of the State House after five days, leaving the building frustrated by legislative inaction but empowered to continue organizing and building student power across Massachusetts to demand action on the Debt Free Future Act and Cherish Act.

Senate President Karen Spilka spoke to students in her office lobby on Monday, but senators still did not vote on Amendment 302 to fund the first year of the Cherish Act. House Speaker Robert DeLeo chose not to meet with students, threatened students with arrest on Tuesday, and continued to refuse a meeting request even after students sat in the Speaker’s office lobby for over four hours on Wednesday.

After days of leadership ignoring students or delaying action to address the crisis in public higher education, the group chose to end their occupation and leave the State House.

We are still accepting donations to support the students who attended the sit-in, and to provide resources for future actions. You can donate here.

Students wrote a full recap of the day. Check it out below along with their response to Speaker DeLeo’s remarks.

Students Respond After Speaker DeLeo Lashes Out

“I think it is incredibly sad that Speaker DeLeo has descended into name calling and spreading misinformation, exactly the ‘Trumpian tactics’ he accused others of using. Student organizers spent days trying to share stories with the Speaker about the crisis of hunger, homelessness, and unaffordability that thousands of students face on a daily basis due to state funding cuts for public higher education. Clearly, he realizes that it was a mistake not to engage personally with the students and is attempting to change the story,” said Zac Bears, executive director of PHENOM.

“On Tuesday, rumors of protests closed part of the Senate gallery and an increased state police presence was seen throughout the building. We reassured several court officers that we had no intention to disrupt the Senate’s business. After students moved to respectfully sit in the hall outside Speaker DeLeo’s office in the afternoon, I had a conversation with a court officer who stated ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this,’ and then described details of a facial recognition system in operation at the State House and a law enforcement staging area on the second floor of the building. The officer stated that the system matches faces of people who walk through the public entrances with data from law enforcement databases, particularly mentioning ‘outstanding warrants.’ The officer also stated that the system has flagged individuals in the past without mentioning specific cases. If these statements are true, they merit investigation. If these statements or statements by court officers threatening arrest are false, then someone needs to ask the Speaker who was ordering his employees to lie to students and create a chilling effect on their protest,” Bears said.

“On Tuesday afternoon after sitting outside the Speaker’s office for multiple days, we decided to sit directly inside the office and were immediately threatened with arrest,” Sonya Epstein, Suthaney Sundar, and Adam Lechowicz, three UMass Amherst students said. “One student informed the staffers inside the office of their intention to sit inside, and politely asked where the best place for them to sit would be with the intention to make clear that the Speaker’s staff was not the target of our action. A court officer inside responded: ‘No you’re not [going to sit inside]. Not unless you want to be arrested.’ The students inside then exited the office and informed others of this warning. The Speaker himself didn’t threaten arrest, yet as an authority in the Speaker’s office, this court officer’s threat sent a clear message: the Speaker would rather have students arrested than meet with them.”

“Throughout the sit-in, members of the Speaker’s staff accused us of being liars while refusing to acknowledge previous statements they made, questioned whether the sit-in was ‘productive,’ and exhibited a general pattern of hostility,” said Alli Young, a UMass Amherst student. “If the Speaker truly values ‘participation by all stakeholders,’ why is this public smear the first message directed at students in his name?”

“We hope that the Speaker will reconsider his approach, meet directly with the students and workers who are suffering through a deep crisis, and push his Higher Education Committee to schedule a vote to report favorably on broadly-supported solutions like the Cherish Act and Debt Free Future Act,” UMass Amherst student James Cordero said.

Day 5 Update: Student Sit-in to Demand Funding for Public Higher Education Ends

Day 5 was the final day of the Students’ Occupation of the State House. While we are not satisfied with the way that things have panned out in the past five days, we, as students with tuition bills to pay in the coming months, need to move on to our summer jobs and other commitments. We are deeply disappointed in our legislature’s complete abandonment of students. Leaders have failed to pass any initiatives which would address the student debt crisis. We feel that at this time our best option is to let the legislature sit with the consequences of their mistakes.

We began the day with a continued presence outside House Speaker DeLeo’s office. Our goal was to have him listen to our requests and meet with us to discuss the student debt crisis. We have also attempted to secure a meeting through phone calls and have had members of the House of Representatives request meetings with the Speaker on our behalf. Given his and his staff’s continued disregard for the presence of students and the issues that they face on a daily basis, some of our students entered his office lobby this morning seeking an meeting with the Speaker.

This action came with the full knowledge of yesterday’s events, when staffers in the Speaker’s office threatened to arrest students for their presence in his office lobby mere minutes after their arrival. However, students were allowed to sit on chairs, but were not engaged with by staff and did not receive a meeting with the Speaker. After four long hours, the student organizers made the choice to move to the floor and began chanting.

Shortly after this chanting commenced, another event on the floor below began. This was an event honoring Gold Star Families of Massachusetts. The students were not aware of the existence of this event when the plan was made to begin our chanting at that time. Had we known that this event would be a conflict beforehand, we would have made the choice to change our plans in order to not interfere with the event. In fact, we made the choice to end our action earlier than originally planned when we realized the nature of the event we were interrupting.

Soon after, students left the office and we marched out of the State House. Disgusted by Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Spilka’s abandonment of the students of Massachusetts to another year of fee hikes, hunger, and housing insecurity, we chose to end our occupation.

This repression of student voices exposes State House leadership’s lack of morality. Additionally, it provides us with the troubling information that despite claiming Massachusetts’ status as number one on education in the country, our legislators do not prioritize public higher education in a way that is reflective of that ranking.

We want to assure people that the end of this action does not mean the end of our fight for affordable public higher education for all the residents of the Commonwealth and a Debt Free Future. We will take what we learned from the past five days and apply it to our efforts going forward. We will pass ballot initiatives, run campus campaigns, and continue our tradition of occupation until we win the Debt Free Future that students deserve. Legislators of the Commonwealth, we assure you: We will be back. We will win.

Students’ Final Statement Thanking Allies and Promising Continued Pressure

To our friends and allies:

We, the students of the Commonwealth, ended our Students’ Occupation at the Massachusetts State House yesterday afternoon. For nearly a full week, we have rallied support for public higher education, amplified discussion of the student debt crisis, and reminded our legislators that students are a force to be reckoned with. During our Occupation, we engaged dozens of legislators who committed to our cause of a Debt Free Future. To our allies, we are eternally grateful.

Specifically, we want to thank the roughly one dozen senators and representatives who came out into the halls of Beacon Hill and discussed the issue of student debt with us. Chief among them included higher education champions such as Senator Eldridge, Senator Comerford, Representative Gentile, Representative Sabadosa, Representative Higgins, and Representative Gouveia. These steadfast allies for education justice heard us at a critical time in the student debt crisis.

We also want to thank the variety of representatives and senators who formally met with members of our group. We especially thank the chairs of the Higher Education Committee, Senator Gobi and Representative Roy, for meeting with us. We will follow up with more information and work with you to see the Cherish Act and Debt Free Future Act reported favorably out of the committee. These meetings are critical to ensure that members of the legislature hear the voices of the students who are most vulnerable when funds for higher education are slashed. Additionally, we are grateful to those who offered us meetings that we could not attend due to the limited time and people we had at the sit in. We look forward to meeting with these legislators at a later date, so that we can continue working for a Debt Free Future together.

As a testament to our advocacy, we are pleased that, after requesting a meeting with the Senate President, our determination and direct pressure earned us time with her during one of the busiest weeks of the year. This meeting displays the immense impact we had in just a few days’ time. At meetings like this, we were able to advance the issue of college affordability far beyond previous years’ discussions. We are grateful to the Senate President for this brief, 10 minute meeting–and we know this conversation isn’t over. Thus, we are incredibly grateful to the fierce allies we made in the Senate, who are now advocating alongside us in our request for a longer meeting with the Senate President.

Moreover, our allies in the House have also given us the hope that a similar meeting could happen with the Speaker. We are grateful for these efforts, and we hope to continue collaborating with these Representatives. We are also grateful to the legislators who have pledged to visit our campuses, meet with more students, and hear their stories of struggling with student debt. We look forward to building upon this support in the coming months.

Finally, we want to thank the students, parents, and grassroots advocates who supported the sit-in. Whether people joined our cause through amplifying our voices on social media, calling their legislators, or actually joining our sit-in, our movement became stronger. We are especially thankful for the number of people who donated to our cause. Our strength rests in our collective power—for your support, we thank you.

Our fight is not over. Our Occupation has highlighted the student debt crisis, and our advocacy will continue until we have resolved this issue. With strong support from our legislative allies, we are continuing to bolster our movement. Every day, students, educators, and parents become more aware that the student debt crisis must end. Every day, these residents ask their legislators to lead on this issue. These advocates will only grow in numbers, such that their legislators join our movement. The momentum of our movement will continue to inspire students, families, and legislators across the Commonwealth. To them, again, thank you.

In Solidarity,
The Students of the Commonwealth
The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts