UMass student sit-in at State House comes to loud, tense end

  • State Reps. Harold Naughton and Paul Tucker speak to protesters, including Massachusetts Teachers Association vice president Max Page, while activist chanting mixed with the sound of a military band at a Gold Star families event downstairs, Wednesday, at the State House in Boston. SHNS PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 5/22/2019 10:58:40 PM

BOSTON — Student protesters from the University of Massachusetts Amherst ended their five-day State House sit-in on Wednesday, after saying legislative leaders did not respect their voices and following a brief but tense confrontation with participants in a military event.

The group of college students had been protesting outside the offices of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, demanding that the Legislature’s top Democrats meet with them and hold votes on bills that would make public higher education free to Massachusetts residents.

Spilka spoke with a group of the students on Monday. On Wednesday, the students said they had not yet received a meeting with DeLeo and focused their attention on his office. Students lined up outside the speaker’s office while three others sat on a couch inside DeLeo’s lobby, and both groups yelled chants of “Fund UMass” and “No cuts, no fees, education should be free.”

They wrapped up their demonstration after state troopers, park rangers assigned to the State House, House court officers and a pair of lawmakers alerted them to the Massachusetts Medal of Liberty presentation taking place downstairs.

“The disrespect that our legislative leadership has shown us makes it clear that it is no longer worth entering this discussion with them,” UMass Amherst student James Cordero said. “Their mistakes of ignoring students and showing students across the commonwealth that they will never be prioritized on this hill — those mistakes they will reckon with for months, if not years, to come.”

Before Cordero delivered his closing remarks to the student protesters, a man who identified himself as a Gold Star family member confronted them, yelling that they were disrespecting his family. Reps. Paul Tucker and Harold Naughton also came upstairs and told the students an event with Gold Star families was taking place, and the rangers and a state trooper spoke with some of the students leading the protest.

The students said they would leave, and on their way out of the building, a uniformed military member told them some people at the event appreciated what they were doing and exchanged a hug with one of the protestors.

Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said the UMass students were not aware the military event was happening and did not plan to disrupt it.

“I’m incredibly proud of the students for sitting in this long and I’m incredibly disappointed in our legislative leadership and the people in this building for ignoring them. I think that’s disappointing and quite frankly disgusting,” Bears told reporters. “The fact that it’s easier to get a meeting with Senator Markey or Senator Warren than it is with the House speaker of Massachusetts just shows how broken this building is.”

Bears called the sit-in “an opening volley.”

A DeLeo spokeswoman said the request for a meeting was “under review” but that the speaker “generally defers to subject matter committee chairs as bills go through the committee process.”

“Right now the House is focused on the Senate budget and preparing for the budget conference committee,” Catherine Williams, DeLeo’s communications director, said in a statement to the News Service.

The students began their sit-in last Thursday, coinciding with a day of action planned by the Fund of Future campaign, which is calling for more state funding for public K-12 and higher education. They are affiliated with the campaign, Bears said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is also part of Fund Our Future, and MTA vice president Max Page and former President Barbara Madeloni stood alongside the students as they chanted Wednesday.

Earlier in the afternoon, Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton and Tami Gouveia of Acton stood nearby the protest, talking with Page. As Gouveia walked by the demonstrators, she told them she was sorry she could not help more.

Gouveia told the News Service she had been trying “a little bit” to work with the students, asking the speaker’s office if a meeting was going to happen. “They’re pretty clear that a meeting is not going to happen,” she said.

“I think we have to have a serious conversation about how expensive college is for all of our students, and our job as a civil society is to make sure that young people have opportunities to succeed and maintain a middle-class lifestyle,” Gouveia said.

Sabadosa said she was struck by “the sense of desperation you must have in order to give up your week to sit in a hallway.”

“A lot of these students came out from Amherst, drove to Boston, gave up their week to sit here, because they’re so worried about what their future looks like,” she said. “That has to be a really enormous sense of desperation.”

Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democrat-controlled Legislature are advancing state budget proposals that increase spending on K-12 education and public higher education, but not at the higher levels sought by many activists and some lawmakers who believe the problems in the education system require more significant investments.

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