Frustrated by the administration’s response to their protests, students at Swarthmore College started a hunger strike in hopes of getting fraternities permanently banned from campus.
Five students began their strike at 11 a.m. Monday, after more than a week of protests outside the Phi Psi fraternity house and college President Valerie Smith’s office. The protests were set off by the leak of internal Phi Psi documents that showed brothers using racist, sexist, and homophobic language and referencing a “rape attic” in a neighboring fraternity.
Both Swarthmore fraternities voluntarily disbanded last week, after student protesters drew national attention by camping outside of the Phi Psi house. But the hunger strikers say they want the administration to shut down the organizations permanently—and they won’t eat until that demand is met.
“A verbal response from the fraternities is not enough to guarantee an end to fraternity violence on this campus,” hunger-strike participant Tiffany Wang told The Daily Beast.
The group wants the fraternity leases terminated and the houses reallocated to other groups on campus. Smith has said she will base her decision about the fraternities on the recommendations of the Student Social Events and Community Standards Task Force that met with her Friday.
But the hunger strike encompasses more than the original fraternity protests. The students—who are not part of the original Coalition to End Fraternity Violence—say they want an apology for how protesters were allegedly treated during their demonstration at President Smith’s office.
The students say they were denied access to food and restrooms and threatened with arrest—an escalation from how the school has handled peaceful protesters in the past. They claim one student was pushed to the ground by a public safety officer while trying to deliver food.
In a statement to the Swarthmore community on Thursday, Smith claimed students were always free to leave and had access to every public restroom in the building, excluding those in the “secure area” surrounding her office. She added that campus security had been called “due to safety and egress concerns, and to help ensure a smooth resolution to the day’s events.”
“Unfortunately, a confrontation occurred when a student attempted to open a hallway door to allow more students access to the office,” she said. “We are thankful that neither the student nor the campus public safety officer was seriously harmed.”
A school spokesperson denied any students were threatened with arrest.
The hunger strikers are calling for the resignation of Director of Public Safety Michael Hill, and for a promise that the administration will not use force or call police on nonviolent student protesters in the future. They say this is necessary to protect the right to protest on campus.
“They’ve really escalated in cracking down on what is a completely peaceful protest,” hunger strike participant Anya Slepyan said of the administration. “If that becomes the new norm for civil disobedience at the college that means only people who are willing to risk arrest can protest.”