Students who helped organize a lecture on reproductive rights in Rhode Island last Thursday were upset to discover that all of their signs for the event had been torn down and destroyed the night before.
Signs were hung around campus to invite students to learn, act and stand with Planned Parenthood in order to campaign for a Reproductive Health Care Act of 2017. Organizing the “teach-in” had been part of a larger, ongoing project for students taking the class GWS 320, Feminist Thought Into Action.
As the Rhode Island constitution is written now, if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, women living in the Ocean State would not have any reproductive rights. Some of the students in this class are working to change that.
“The fact that [the signs were] torn down suggest that it was an act of bigotry or ignorance or something further that just disagreement,” said GSW 320 student Caelen Nardone. “There was more incentive to tear down those posters.”
Nardone was hurt to see the signs town down, but he said he wasn’t surprised. In the back of his mind, he said he knew this was a possibility.
“It’s a shame that this happened because this was supposed to be very inclusive to anyone really,” Nardone said. “It’s not trying to tell you what to do or what to believe.”
Associate professor Jody Lisberger, who teaches Feminist Thought Into Action, was the first one to notice the signs had disappeared and took it upon herself to report it to campus police.
“I think it’s very important to report things that happen immediately,” Lisberger said. “I immediately called the police department and told them what happened.”
Nearly 40 signs were hung around campus but very few remain, according to Lisberger. All of the signs had been placed in plastic binder covers, hole punched and strung around trees in anticipation of inclement weather.
“Anyone who was taking these down, which clearly someone did on the night of April 5, anyone who was ripping down had to rip down hard,” Lisberger said.
Since reporting the incident, the case has hit a bit of a roadblock in terms of identifying the person or group of people responsible for vandalizing the signs.
“They couldn’t tell who had ripped down the posters because the cameras that are on the quad don’t have night vision,” Lisberger said. “I find that a little bit surprising.”
Maj. Michael Jagoda said the investigation is still open, however, and campus police are still continuing their search.
“We’re still looking into some possible witnesses and we’re also looking at some additional cameras throughout campus,” Jagoda said. “Our initial findings through campus was, because it was dark, that it’s not conclusive and we can’t identify anyone right now.”
Jagoda encourages students who know anything about this incident to call into the tips line, 401-874-TIPS, to help with the case. All information will be confidential, according to Jagoda.
“We’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” Jagoda said. “It’s an ongoing investigation.”
The IT department is still sifting through surveillance footage of that night. Jagoda said the vandalism could have happened at any time between 8 p.m. on April 5, or and 8 a.m. the following morning.
Despite the signs being torn down, the event was still a success, according to Nardone. Students were invited to sign postcards addressed to their state senator and state representative to encourage support of the Reproductive Health Care Act. So far, between booths and tables set up at the Memorial Union, library and Multicultural Center, students have been able to collect more than 400 postcards.
“Even though someone took it upon themselves to take down our poster, there are so many people on our campus who were willing to hear us out and take action,” Nardone said.
Outside of vandalism, students in GWS 320 also ran into obstacles when they were turned down more than once for a table at the Mainfare Dining Complex.
Students tried to secure a table three weeks ago but were turned away by Mainfare Manager Tara Connors because they did not belong to a student organization, according to Director of Dining Services Steven Mello.
Nardone was not part of the group of students who attempted to get a table, but he was surprised to hear that the group of students didn’t qualify.
“I feel that a class is an organization or community enough to have a table,” Nardone said. “To me, I took that as they just really didn’t want us to be there.”
Since many of the students in the class are members of PINK, a women’s group on campus, they had asked if they could register under their organization.
PINK President Kaylin Eaves said the request had been made on part of “certain women who were passionate about the cause and didn’t know how to go about approaching people.”
“We do have women within PINK who are passionate about this, but that doesn’t speak for every PINK woman,” Eaves said.
Connors turned the group of students down again, however, because the event was seen as too controversial. Mello said that part of Connors’s hesitation most likely came from him after an event held in Hope on Election Day.
What had started out as an innocent event in Mello’s eyes quickly became polarizing. Students had the option of using a combo swipe for a red, white or blue cupcake and were able to stand and pose for pictures with cardboard cutouts of each major party candidate.
“It was kind of a fun thing until Trump won,” Mello said. The following day, Mello received complaints and concerns from administrators that students had been upset about this. The cardboard cutout of Trump had also been decapitated.
“That must have been when I told Tara [Connors], ‘The next time we have something, make sure it’s not controversial,’” Mello said. “She was probably taking that from me.”
Upset by this, the students returned three weeks later to hand out postcards anyways. When confronted by Connors, Mello said the situation became a bit heated. Lisberger, who takes a hands-off approach towards her students’ organizing, reached out to Mello to discuss the conflict.
The situation has since resolved itself and the students will be able to have a table outside Hope at some point before the end of the semester. Mello also said that the dining hall is looking into changing its policy on only allowing student organizations to secure tables.
“We want students to have their First Amendment rights and voice their opinions by all means, but we just want to do it in a way that doesn’t infringe upon students who are just going to eat lunch.”
Running into issues such as these are just part of what it means to be an activist, according to Lisberger, and she hopes it taught her students to continue fighting anyways.
“I think that obstacles are to be expected,” Lisberger said. “Know that there is going to be resistance.”