“1 – 2 – 3 – 4, tuition hikes are class war!” These were the cries of a collective of students in March of 2015 over the controversial tuition hikes enacted by the board of trustees. A mass of students took to the streets of Athens to express their disapproval over such unilateral decisions by the Board. What at first was a planned rally to express student discontent turned into a spontaneous march that resulted in three members of student senate—including then-president Megan Marzec—being cited, tried and convicted of charges of persistent disorderly conduct.
OHIO has been the location of countless protests over the years, but many of them did not result in any of the protestors being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. So what was so different about this march, and what implications does this have for all future protests at OHIO? To answer these questions, one of the cited marchers, who will be referred to as DJ, gave an account of the events that took place.
On the day of the protest, DJ and the student union body gathered to raise awareness over the annual tuition increases implemented by the board of trustees. The event began at the bottom of Baker Center as a rally for students to express their disapproval and let their voices be heard. As tempers flared, collective thought took over and a spontaneous march through uptown Athens began. The march transpired on Court Street around noon. Marchers walked up Court Street in the opposite direction. DJ said when they began marching, the street was absent of any cars or noticeable traffic, stating “Honestly, there were no cars. It was pretty clear.” This is important to remember because the charges filed against DJ and friends insisted they were disrupting the flow of traffic at that time.
While marching, DJ noticed that the police officers paid no mind to the marchers at first. Once the crowd turned on Washington Street, they encountered another police officer. DJ says it was the instance with this second officer that was the basis of the charges for which the students were cited. According to the courts and police officers, it was this second instance of encountering a cop where the crowd received their first formal warning to disperse. However, DJ insists the police officer did not make a considerable effort to clear the crowd or dissuade the students from marching.
As the marchers continued down the street, they began facing an increasing amount of police presence. Coincidentally, the march was taking place at the same time as a community event for the police officers at Baker Center. At the scene of the march, in-town tensions flared between officers and the student marchers. DJ said during this time several members of the group began chanting anti-police phrases such as “Fuck the police!” DJ denies that he directly targeted an individual officer with such inflammatory language, but he cannot speak for his friends.
As the marchers continued, one of the officers got into his police cruiser, turned on his siren, and followed the marchers from behind. The marchers were herded onto the sidewalk where they continued marching until they got to the corner of College and Union street. There they encountered another officer who commanded the marchers to abide by the rules. DJ paraphrased that the officer stated the marchers must use the cross-walk signal or they would be arrested. The march concluded as students gathered at the war memorial for a wave of speeches. Afterwards, the group dispersed, by its own decision, agreeing to meet the next day.
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Believing the march and all related activities were done, DJ stayed at the scene talking with his close friends. It was during this time that they were approached by officers who asked for some form of identification. DJ says the officers made it clear that this was less of a request and more a demand. The officer was less than forthcoming with information as to why he was confronting the three marchers. DJ says he asked multiple times what he and his friends were being held for and was given little information. When he believed he was not being detained, DJ told the police he was going to leave but they threatened to arrest him if he did so. When he asked the cop why he and his friends were being questioned out of everyone else in the crowd, DJ says the officer claimed to notice DJ apart from everyone else because of his plaid shirt.
When asked if he felt he and his friends were unfairly targeted, DJ stated he strongly felt they were. DJ thinks the cops cited the three of them to make an example of them to dissuade future marchers. He explained that during the 2014 – 2015 OHIO year, there was a large wave of protests corresponding to events of police brutality and racial injustice that were reported around the country.DJ understood their arrests to be an attempt by the police to dissuade protesters and spontaneous marches of the sort. DJ reports the police officer allegedly told him these public acts were getting progressively “worse” and out of hand. As such, they were looking to put a stop to the protests that were becoming almost commonplace in Athens.
In support of his belief towards the malicious intent of the officers against the marchers, DJ referred to a protest that took place over the death of Michael Brown. He says this protest had double the amount of people that were in the tuition protest, and the protesters sat in the middle of the streets and blatantly disrupted traffic, yet no one was arrested or cited by the police. However, members of a student group half the size of the Michael Brown protest that were not being disruptive to the same accord were now being cited and put on trial. To DJ, this blatant difference in treatment indicates a bias response by the police. DJ believes he and his friends were perceived as leaders of the march, and were thus prosecuted to the full extend of the law to deter future acts of public disruption.
The result of their citation led DJ and his two friends to a trial where they were charged with a 4th degree misdemeanor of persistent disorderly conduct. Despite a defense that they did not in fact disrupt traffic, the court did not rule in their favor, and all three were convicted of the charges. During the trial DJ said of all the cops that testified, including the chief of police, none could say that they saw a car during the protest. However, DJ said the judge made an inference that because the protest took place at noon it was supposedly obvious that they disrupted some form of traffic. He paraphrased the judge as saying, “Clearly you were marching at noon, on a weekday, on the busiest street in Athens so you must be blocking traffic,” and then summarizing these details as “stating the facts.”
Dissatisfied with the ruling and not wanting to have such a charge on their records, DJ and his friends decided to file a collective appeal against the decision. The trial for this appeal took place in late October of last year, and a decision will not be rendered until several months afterwards.
So what are the implications of the trial for DJ and OHIO as a whole? For DJ, his court troubles turned into trouble with the university, because all cases involving student trouble with the Athens Police Department are automatically turned over to the university. His court sentence was a 30 day suspension and community service. When asked if he would engage in the same activity again, knowing the consequences, DJ said he was unsure. He said the effect the trail and citations had on them were chilling, providing a better understanding of the mounting legal fees and issues with OHIO they may face if they ever march again.
It is unclear if the police achieved their alleged goal of putting an end to the disruptive protests. Since last spring, the number of protests and public demonstrations has dramatically decreased at OHIO. Perhaps the cops were successful in their aims, or maybe the student body has not felt the need to stage as many grandiose protests. Regardless of the situation, it is important that students feel they are able to exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest; however, now they must also keep in mind the risks they take in coming into conflict with law enforcement. For some, this is a risk they are willing to take when fighting for their cause. For others, it’s enough to scare them away and keep them off the streets.