On the night of Feb. 1, 2017 — one year ago Thursday — Jolana Watson and 69 other students were arrested during a protest in Baker Center.
After the adrenaline of the rally and the arrests wore down, Watson, a graduate student studying communication and development, began to doubt whether she had done the right thing. Some of the protesters who had organized the rally Uptown and the Baker sit-in left after police threatened to make arrests — Watson and some other arrested students wondered if they should have left, too.
She now says she doesn’t regret participating in the protests. She also thinks one year later, Ohio University still needs to do more to protect undocumented and international students and protect free speech on campus.
The Feb. 1 protests began on the steps of the Athens County Courthouse that afternoon. About 300 demonstrators marched through the streets and gathered in the fourth floor lobby of Baker Center. Speakers criticized President Donald Trump’s immigration policies through megaphones. They said they would remain there until then-OU President Roderick McDavis declared the university a sanctuary campus.
OU Police Chief Andrew Powers addressed the group with a megaphone at about 7:25 p.m. and said any of them who remained in the lobby past 7:30 p.m. would be arrested for criminal trespassing. At 8 p.m., OUPD officers began arresting students.
Watson helped organize speakers for the rally. She attended because she was upset Trump’s presidential campaign had centered on tightening immigration restrictions. Watson is a first-generation American, and her parents are from Guyana.
“I just felt … it was very important for people who have their citizenship to stand up for those who don’t have their citizenship,” Watson said.
Hazel Goodburn, a sophomore studying anthropology and music, learned about the Feb. 1 rallies earlier that day when a woman approached her and gave her a slip of paper about the event. Goodburn attended because she wanted to get more involved in politics on campus. She was a freshman at the time. When officers began arresting students, she questioned her decision to remain in the lobby.
“But I knew that the louder voice inside me was, like, ‘Yeah, this is the right thing to do. I have a lot of privilege and I need to be arrested for this cause,’ ” she said.
Watson and three other arrested students worked at the Village Bakery & Cafe on East State Street. Her boss there told Watson they could begin taking donations toward their court fees from customers. He told her not to worry: The charges would be dropped, he said, and she would pay no court fees.
“I think he said something like, ‘If you’re a protester in Athens, you never pay your legal fees.’ ” Watson said.
Goodburn said people brought baked goods to them during the trial. Donkey Coffee and Espresso gave out free coffee to anyone with an arrest citation from that night. Faculty, Student and Graduate Student senates passed resolutions condemning the arrests. Someone began an online fundraiser to pay for the arrested students’ court costs.
Fifteen of the students pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct in March. Criminal trespassing is a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $250 and a maximum jail sentence of 30 days, while disorderly conduct is a minor misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $150 and no jail time.
On March 27, Athens County Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace found Michael Mayberry not guilty of criminal trespassing. Mayberry’s case was the first of the arrested protesters’ to go to trial.
Watson arrived late to the Mayberry trial verdict. As she walked up the courthouse stairs, someone who had testified against the arrested students walked out, and she could tell what the verdict was from that witness’s face.
When she arrived in the courtroom, people were cheering and laughing.
“I felt validated, like what we did was not only right, but it was also legal,” she said.
After the verdict, Powers requested the charges be dropped against the remaining students.
OUPD Lt. Tim Ryan said he doesn’t think the arrests have caused lasting repercussions for his department.
“I didn’t think there was much of a ‘backlash’ for OUPD, actually,” Ryan said in an email. “We received a lot of feedback — positive, neutral, and negative — but I don’t think it created a problem that we needed to solve with a community relations initiative.”
On Sept. 8, OU released information about an interim “Freedom of Expression” policy.
The policy banned demonstrations, sit-ins, speeches and more inside university buildings aside from reservable rooms and spaces.
The policy’s purpose was “to memorialize our institution’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and First Amendment principles while ensuring the safe operation of our campus,” a university news release stated at the time.
During Mayberry’s trial, Grace found Mayberry not guilty partly because the university had kept Baker Center open late during a protest in 2014, and the university had not placed other restrictions on public assembly in Baker. That made Baker a designated public forum, Grace argued in his decision, meaning the protesters had a constitutional right to use the space.
Watson saw the policy as confirmation that the Feb. 1 protest had an impact on the university.
“I think the university is afraid of student protesters,” she said. “They are afraid of activists, and I think we can tell how fearful they are by the ‘Freedom of Expression’ policy.”
Goodburn is Jewish, and her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. For her, the current political climate in the U.S. is frightening. She sees a rise in racism, sexism and anti-Semitism she believes parallels the political climate in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power.
That makes her particularly concerned about the “Freedom of Expression” policy, because she thinks it will stop people from standing up for those who need it.
“A lot of my ancestors are dead,” Goodburn said. “They died in Poland in the Holocaust. Someone really needed to stand up for the Jews, and so the fact that we have to fear being arrested again to protest and stand up for people is really concerning.”
In the year since the arrests in Baker, activists feel their attention has been diverted from immigration policy — the topic of the Feb. 1 demonstration — to free speech issues.
Watson would like to see the conversation shift back.
“A lot of people who were arrested are tired of talking about being arrested, because the whole reason we were arrested … was because we were trying to create a sanctuary campus for international students and undocumented students,” she said.
She said students should help by being politically active and donating to Athens Friends of International Students, an organization that provides support to international students.
The university is working to revise the interim “Freedom of Expression” policy. An advisory group, which meets behind closed doors, is reviewing public comments and will make ultimately recommend changes to the policy.
Goodburn said she wants those meetings to be open, and she wants the “fascist” policy rescinded, not replaced — although she said that’s “naive” of her.
“I’ve had conversations with the president of the university and Jason Pina, and they just will not drop it,” she said, referring to the vice president for Student Affairs. “They will not get it, and I wish they would.”
Watson thinks the university still owes the arrested students, and the rest of the campus, an apology for the Feb. 1 arrests. She thinks the university should draft policies that ban U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from coming onto campus.
The arrested students keep in contact through a Facebook page. The LGBT Center made a list with contact information after the arrests so the students could keep in touch.
Goodburn met her current partner, Dani Wasserman, at the demonstration. She said Thursday will mark their first year together.
For the most part, Watson sees the other 69 at random. She will recognize someone’s face across a bar and not know why.
“Then it’ll click, like ‘Oh yeah, we got arrested together,’ ” she said. “And that’s our only link, but it’s kind of beautiful in a way.”