Section: News

Anth professor arrested in Columbus during protest

Professor of Anthropology Ed Schortman was arrested in Columbus last Wednesday while participating in a protest supporting striking janitors. He and nine other protesters were detained by city police in the lobby of the Fifth Third Center after chanting and holding signs for around 15 minutes.

According to Schortman, he and his fellow protesters put down their signs and sat on the floor once the police arrived, but continued chanting. Once the police explained the protesters were being arrested for trespassing, officers escorted them outside, booked them and assigned them court dates. The protesters were then swiftly released. Schortman praised the professionalism of the Columbus Police, saying there was “no animosity, no confrontation … the police did nothing that could be called rough or inappropriate.”

Professor of Anthropology Ed Schortman (Courtesy of the Office of Public Affairs)

Yesterday morning, Schortman and the other protestors were arraigned in Columbus. Each pled guilty and paid a $120 fine, bringing the matter to a quick end.

Associate Professor Kimmarie Murphy, chair of the Anthropology Department, expressed support for her colleague. “America has a long history of peaceful, civil disobedience in response to sociocultural and economic inequalities,” she wrote in an email. “Fortunately our Constitution affords us the right to engage in such behavior.”

Interim Provost Joe Klesner, the head of all academic matters at the College, did not see a need for the administration to get involved in the issue. “It isn’t really a matter that pertains to … employment,” Klesner said. “We respect the right of people to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.” Klesner likened Schortman’s arrest to an inconsequential speeding ticket, but noted that more serious crimes could be treated differently.

“If somebody had a record of driving under the influence and wanted to be driving Kenyon vehicles, as part of taking a class on a field trip or something, then that would become an issue for us because it would affect our insurance company. … If there were a felony or something like that, it might be a more serious concern, depending on what the offense was.”

Klesner found out about the arrest from an article in the Columbus Dispatch and confirmed with Murphy thatSchortman’s teaching and advising duties had not been affected — Schortman was not scheduled to teach any classes on the day of the protest — and did not pursue the matter further.

Administrators said this was the first time in recent memory a faculty member had been arrested.

Although Schortman is tenured, he does not believe the College would have reacted any differently were he a more junior faculty or staff member. “Before you get tenure you tend to be nervous about a lot of things, and you tend to second guess a lot of what you might do … because of what you imagine the institution might have to say about it,” he said. “[But at Kenyon] I really don’t think anybody has anything to fear, given that they consider carefully what they’re protesting for, and of course that it doesn’t interfere with their conduct of their job here. … Kenyon has always been very supportive of freedom of speech issues.”

According to Schortman, contracting companies that employ the janitors originally wanted to make all of their employees part time instead of guaranteeing 80% of jobs to be full time, as in the past. The next offer was to retain 15% of jobs as full time, but this was also rejected by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and prompted last week’s strike. Schortman believes the move to part-time employment is intended to weaken the union, as well as to evade new regulations under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requiring health insurance for all full-time employees at large companies.

Amanda Hart, communications specialist for SEIU Local 1, wrote in an emailed statement that the janitors’ demands were “full-time jobs with affordable health care and decent wages. … If janitors submitted to contractors’ demands, wages for nearly 1,000 working families in Columbus could be cut in half.”

Although janitors were only on strike for one day and have returned to work, Hart did not report any progress in contract negotiations since last week. “Despite the contractors’ media statement that they are ready to return to the bargaining table,” Hart wrote. “No dates have been set for negotiations to resume and janitors continue to report violations of their rights including threats, intimidation and retaliation for engaging in protected union activity.”

The Service Contractors Association, which represents several contracting companies, claimed in a statement to theDispatch that many employees had received wage and benefit increases in recent years, and that “The union’s latest proposal failed to recognize these prior substantial increases received by employees. … In these economic times, customers need to manage costs very carefully.”

What motivated Schortman to protest, however, was hearing from his son, Hayden Schortman ’08, who works for SEIU, that janitors had allegedly been intimidated and threatened with termination if they went on strike. Hayden was arrested along with his father, and Schortman noted that his wife, Professor of Anthropology Pat Urban, would also likely have participated in the protest, but was busy meeting with students at the time. The other protestors ranged in age from around 20 to over 60, and included Ohio State University students, members of social justice groups and a retired small business owner. “When [the businessman] was talking about this,” Schortman said, “he said he thought any attempt to deny people health care was … it was just crazy.”

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