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Activists in Athens press on despite challenges of COVID-19 and remote learning

Activists in Athens have continued to organize and support both national and local causes despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Athens residents took to the streets this summer to protest Ohio University’s decision to layoff hundreds of employees, and later in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests have continued into the Fall Semester, even as students manage remote-learning and the difficulty of gathering during a pandemic. 

Protestors are often encouraged by organizers to wear masks and socially distance. Others, including students unable to return to campus this semester, remain active online in support of the movements that bring people to the streets.

“Seeing an increase in BLM protests has been amazing. It makes me, a Black woman, feel more included at OU,” Destiny Hunter, a junior studying adolescent young adult education at OU, said in an email. She said that she saw masks being handed out to protestors at a recent BLM protest in Athens.

Hunter said she heard about the BLM protests that she’s attended from her friends, two of whom organized a protest. Others attend after seeing protests advertised and circulated on social media, often through student’s Instagram accounts and Facebook pages. 

While local protests in support of the national BLM movement are still ongoing, protests against university budget decisions that led to faculty and classified employee layoffs have slowed down, Olivia Gemarro, a senior studying english and sociology criminology and founder of Save OUr Profs, said. 

“As much as I’d love to have in-person rallies and protests, I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable organizing that for this cause,“ Gemarro said. “Whereas I feel like Black Lives Matter is more of a pressing cause for action where people’s lives are literally at stake.” 

She said she has seen more in-person engagement with the BLM movement compared to Save OUr Profs because there have been more opportunities.

Save OUr Profs was most active during its starting months because it went viral in local social media circles. The movement’s momentum has slowed down, though, partially due to the pandemic and partially because the BLM movement is more immediate, Gemarro said.

Gemarro first started the Save OUr Profs movement because she wanted to be a voice for the professors who could not speak out. The professors without tenure are the most at risk of being cut, and they are the ones that cannot speak out without the fear of losing their jobs, she said. 

Gemarro wants to continue to speak for the professors that are at risk of losing their jobs because there is nothing more powerful than influential educators, she said.

“Honestly, it’s just a matter of when OU screws up the next big decision, I hate to be so morbid about it, but it’s a matter of when they do something controversial that we’ll be able to pick up steam again,” Gemarro said.

Currently Save OUr Profs is being run out of Autumn Murphy, a senior studying history and co-founder of the movement, and Gemarro’s apartment. 

Gemarro and Murphy are not planning on posting on social media as often currently because they do not want to undermine the BLM movement. The budget crisis is an issue but focusing on ending racial injustice is what is more important right now,  Gemarro said.

“We’re trying to be as active as we can online but we know it’s not going to have the same impact so we’re just kind of seeing where it goes, taking it day by day until we can have the opportunity to be safely in-person,”  Gemarro said.

Save OUr Profs helped to organize a rally in May where around  100 participants, including unionized workers and college students, spoke out against the university’s decision to lay off hundreds of classified employees. The protest included an in-car rally, a safer option for people who still wanted to show support.

Save OUr Profs does not have any in-person events planned this Fall Semester. They do not want to put anyone who wants to support the movement at risk of the virus.

“Everything that we’re going to do this fall is definitely going to be online. Then, hopefully in the spring we’ll have the opportunity to follow that up with some really impactful stuff in person,”  Murphy said.


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