Inside the FAU Protest: Students Occupy President's Office, Win Town Hall Meeting Over GEO Group Stadium Naming Deal

Categories: Broward News
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It was hard not to feel sorry for FAU President Mary Jane Saunders on Monday afternoon, confronted in her office with an impromptu occupation by some 40 students protesting the school's decision to grant naming rights for the FAU football stadium to the notorious private prison operator GEO Group.

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Outfitted as though for afternoon bridge at a suburban ladies' club -- pink dress suit, pearl necklace, finely coiffed blonde 'do -- Saunders hid out in her office's inner sanctum for a good hour before finally agreeing to meet with the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition -- a multicultural band of activists from the immigrant rights, prisoner rights, LGBT, and just plain human-rights communities sworn to undo FAU's self-branding with the Jails"R"Us stigma.

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On the other hand, one doesn't get to the helm of a 30,000-student university through afternoons spent dunking crumpets in tea. There's some steel behind the mild mask. And besides, Saunders asked for it. Not only did she dance to the FAU Board of Trustees' tune but she ratcheted up the offense by last week describing the GEO Group as "a wonderful company" and one the school is "very proud to partner with."

Roasting her over the fire of the consensus process made famous by Occupy Wall Street, Saunders ultimately granted the protesters' demand for a town-hall-style discussion of the fiasco, to be held Friday -- at high noon -- in the football stadium's recruiting room, ironically.

The occupation grew out of a 10 a.m. protest and news conference on the university's "Free Speech Lawn" (need we point out the absurdity of a designated First Amendment zone on a university campus?) at the center of the school's Boca Raton campus. A variety of speakers laid out the GEO dossier in painful, painstaking detail, ACLU of Florida staff attorney Julie Ebenstein denouncing the university's naming rights as complicity, "whitewashing the business of misery." 

Not content with signifying, around 11 a.m., the coalition marched on the school's administration building, not too noisily and not at all disorderly, accompanied by a half dozen of the school's gendarmes. They went up the stairs unopposed into the reception area of the president's office, only to be told by the receptionist on duty that Saunders was "not available at the moment." So they sat and waited.

And debated. A facilitator lead the discussion, making sure all points of view were heard, decisions finalized by finger twinkling. Since it was apparent that Saunders was on premises, the coalition's initial request was to send three of their number in to see her, with media in attendance and the discussion recorded.

A more minimal first step was arranged by Professor Kevin Lanning, an adviser to Saunders on social issues, who gradually came to broker the pas de deux that followed. (His bid for street cred, citing his student days at "UC-Berkeley," was a pathetic touch. His even-tempered persistence went much further.)

A trio of protesters entered the holy of holies, sans witnesses or recording devices, but quickly returned dissatisfied. "She started blabbing about nonsense," one of the three said. Saunders' counterproposal to meet at a later date met with strong initial skepticism.

Another hour of consensus and the protesters drew up a set of questions on the particulars: Will press be present? Will Saunders engage in real-time Q&A? Will nonstudents be admitted? Who will moderate? Lanning brought the questions to the president, and she at last stepped forth.

Weary (it's been a tough week since news of the GEO Group deal spewed forth), Saunders speechified for a bit, a line of PR-speak about the "wonderful work" the school has going on in just those areas of concern to the protesters -- social work, criminal justice, nursing (?).

The coalition heard her out politely (more or less) and brought her back to details of the meeting. Q&A? Check. Nonstudents? Check. Moderator? TBD -- with a major role to be played by Lanning, who pledged to surrender his position as adviser to Saunders ("the coolest job I've ever had") should she act in bad faith.

So there you have it: Jaw, jaw instead of war, war. "We can do great things here together" was Lanning's mantra, implying that the goal of social justice would not be achieved by militant action -- though it was only through militant action that Saunders was brought to the table. 

We don't see where this is going. We don't see how the coalition, and all of those who object to the school's embarrassing endorsement of GEO, will be satisfied with anything less than undoing the naming deal. And we find it hard to envision the school's Board of Trustees backing out and admitting its error. 

GEO's error too: For $6 million, the company and the school bought themselves a shitload of bad advertising, including a thorough horsewhipping by Stephen Colbert. Put a price tag on that.

The coalition spoke of boycotts to come -- of the stadium, of graduation ceremonies, and of anything and everything FAU other than actual classes. We foresee years of picket lines at Owl athletic events -- and enduring shame for FAU.

[Stop Owlcatraz Coalition: stopowlcatrazcoalition@gmail.com; 561-302-4906]

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact fire.ant@browardpalmbeach.com.








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2 comments
Tim83
Tim83

Is this even really advertising, or just a tax write-off?  Are there a lot of people attending football games pondering which for-profit prison company they should choose?

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