The Week of DPN
Day 1: Sunday March 6:
Instead of coming to campus and announcing their decision like they'd planned, the Board of Trustees had the University's Public Relations Office hastily hand out press releases at 6:30 p.m., an hour and a half before many had been expecting it. The press release announced that instead of picking one of the deaf candidates, the Board had selected Elisabeth Zinser, the sole hearing candidate.
The reaction on campus ranged from disbelief to anger-anger at both the decision and the way it was announced. The crowd that had gathered to learn the Board's decision began to mill about. Several hundred spilled out onto Florida Avenue in front of the campus and blocked traffic. Gary Olsen, president of National Association of the Deaf (NAD), got the crowd's attention and suggested that everyone march down to the Mayflower Hotel-where the Board had been meeting- and demand an explanation. Which is what they did. Since the Board hadn't come to campus to make themselves available for questions, the campus decided to go to them.
When the marchers arrived at the Mayflower Hotel, Jane Spilman, Board chair, and Phil Bravin, a deaf member of the Board of Trustees, were in the midst of responding to questions from the reporters. Suffice it to say, chaos broke out when the students and their supporters turned up and demanded an audience with the Board. Finally, representatives of the protestors, including Tim Rarus, the student who had served on the search committee, were allowed to meet with Spilman and other Board members.
It was at this meeting that Spilman supposedly said, "Deaf people are not able to function in a hearing world." Although Spilman has long denied she ever said this, many protesters believed it was true and, to them, it clearly showed how out of touch Spilman and the rest of the Board were with deaf people.
After several hours of discussion with the Board, Rarus told the waiting crowd that Spilman wanted to speak and explain why Zinser had been chosen. Instead of resolving the impending conflict, this meeting only fueled the flames of discontent more. Many of those in the audience that night have since been quoted as saying that it was what they perceived as Spilman's dismissive attitude that evening that made them decide to stand firm for what they believed in. However, as a result of this meeting, Spilman did agree to come to the campus the next afternoon to discuss the issues further.
By midnight, most of the marchers had left the hotel and walked to the White House to meet up with other marchers who had gone to the White House earlier. Together they proceeded to the Capitol Building, then back to Gallaudet's campus in Northeast Washington, D.C.
Day 2: Monday March 7
The students and other protesters met throughout the night, discussing and debating what to do next. At about dawn on Monday, they drove several cars to each of the University's entrances and deflated their tires, blocking the way onto as well as off the campus. The students even prevented some administrators from walking onto the campus by forming a human chain, but most faculty and staff attempting to enter the campus were allowed to do so.
Throughout the morning, the campus was alive with activity. In addition to impromptu speeches and rallies, protest leaders were meeting to formalize their demands. When Spilman and other Board members arrived for their meeting at noon, they were presented with the following:
- Zinser must resign and a deaf president be selected.
- Spilman must resign from the Board.
- The percentage of deaf members on the Board of Trustees must be increased to at least 51%.
- There must be no reprisals against any of the protesters.
Representatives, including some students and faculty and staff, brought the demands to the Board in a meeting that lasted over three hours. At the conclusion of the meeting, Spilman told the group that the Board rejected the four demands and that the selection of Zinser stood.
Spilman and others then proceeded to the University's auditorium to make their announcements there. However, before she was able to get started, Harvey Goodstein, a deaf faculty member, walked out onto the stage in front of her and told everyone that the demands hadn't been met and that there was no use in staying. He then proceeded to encourage everyone to get up and walk out of the auditorium, which almost everyone did. The protesters then spontaneously marched to the U.S. Capitol Building, only about a mile away, to listen to even more impassioned speeches of encouragement. By this time, the story was front page news in the local newspapers and on television stations. Dozens of reporters descended upon the University and, for the most part, found the protesters eager to talk to them. Sign language interpreters took to wearing colored arm bands so they would be easy to identify if a reporter wished to speak with a deaf person.
The day ended with both sides firmly entrenched in their opposing positions and with no quick resolution in sight.
Day 3: Tuesday March 8
On this morning, the gates were re-opened and people were allowed to come and go. The students boycotted classes and attended rallies and speeches instead. At the same time, the faculty convened a meeting to discuss among themselves what to do.
By this time, four students had emerged as leaders of the protest: Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus. Faculty, staff, alumni, and other advocacy group organizers continued their work in a less visible but well coordinated manner. The Alumni House became the headquarters for the protest and the Deaf President Now Council-that included members from all the groups-was formed. This group included identified student, staff, faculty and alumni liaisons, media, interpreter and fundraising coordinators, as well as legal and legislative liaisons.
The rallies and speeches continued throughout the day. By evening, the protest had reached beyond the local media and was featured on many of the national television and programs and in newspapers across the country
Day 4: Wednesday March 9
The day began with an early morning meeting between a small group from Gallaudet and Congressmen David Bonior of Michigan and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, both members of the University's Board of Trustees. The day before, Bonior had contacted Jack Gannon, the director of the University's alumni association, and requested the meeting. (Two congressmen and one senator are regularly appointed to serve on the University's Board. Also serving on the Board at this time was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.) Included in this group was Greg Hlibok, president of the Student Body Government.
At about this same time, Elisabeth Zinser arrived in Washington, D.C. She had agreed to begin her presidency early and felt that her presence in Washington would help bring the protest to a close. One of the first things she did was to meet with I. King Jordan in the offices of the public relations firm working on behalf of the Board of Trustees. Together the two then went to a hotel in Northeast D.C. to meet with the four student leaders. The student leaders urged Zinser to step down, but she refused.
Zinser and Jordan then went to the National Press Club, where Spilman had just begun a press conference. It was at this press conference that Jordan publicly announced his endorsement and support of Zinser.
Also on that day, the faculty of the University and of Pre-College, along with staff people, met to decide whether or not they supported this now student-led protest. There was some dissention and opposition in the faculty meeting, but, in the end, the votes in both the faculty and staff meetings resulted in complete support of the protest.
At 4 p.m. Zinser and Spilman met with Bonior and Gunderson. Obviously the Congressmen's earlier meeting with the Jack Gannon and others influenced them greatly. Both men urged Zinser to resign and that evening Bonior publicly announced his support of the protesters.
While this was happening and throughout the day, reporters and supporters flocked to Gallaudet's campus. The late Mitch Snyder, then director of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, came as well and gave his support.
That night Hlibok, Zinser, and deaf actress Marlee Matlin-who had won an Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God in 1986-were interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline.
Day 5: Thursday March 10
Greg Hlibok, one of the four student leaders, appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America." Amid speculation that Zinser and Spilman were going to force their way onto campus, the students drove Gallaudet school buses to the gates of the campus and deflated the tires.
Rallies were held all day. Moral and monetary support continued to flow in from a variety of sources. Students from the National Technical Institute of the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., and other schools for deaf students arrived in bus loads, and local and national businesses donated supplies and money-including a check for $5,000 from the American Postal Workers Union hand-delivered by the union's president, Moe Biller.
That afternoon, in front of Chapel Hall and hundreds of onlookers, I. King Jordan retracted his support for the Board's decision to appoint Zinser. After giving the matter much thought, he told the onlookers that he now fully supported the four demands set forth by the students, and felt the protest was completely justified.
That night Zinser announced her resignation
Day 6: Friday March 11
As the news broke about Zinser's resignation, there was a decidedly festive atmosphere on campus. Since only a portion of the first demand-that Zinser resign and a deaf president be named in her place-had been achieved, students began wearing buttons with "3 ½" on them, signifying that there were only 3 ½ demands left to go.
While Zinser, Spilman, and some members of the Board were holding a press conference downtown, those on campus were holding one simultaneously. At this one students vowed to stay on campus rather than leave for Spring Break-scheduled to begin that day-to continue the protest until all demands were met.
At noon, there was a march (see the map of the route) to the Capitol Building. Unlike other impromptu marches made previously during the protest, this one was scheduled in advance and permits had been received. It was a day of celebration and many from local and national deaf communities participated. At the Capitol, the crowd was treated to speeches by a variety of people, including Congressman Steve Gunderson.
At 7 p.m. there was another rally in the Field House.
Day 7: Saturday March 12
Saturday was a day of rest. The weather was balmy for the middle of March and many on campus attended afternoon barbecues and an all-day arts festival.
Day 8: Sunday March 13
Board of Trustees members who had gone home after the announcement of Zinser's selection as president the weekend before, returned to Washington for an emergency meeting to discuss what to do next. They met all day.
In the evening, Phil Bravin and Jane Spilman hosted their last press conference to state that:
- Spilman had resigned
- Bravin was named the next chair of the Board of Trustees
- A taskforce would be set up to determine the best way to achieve a 51% deaf majority on the Board
- No reprisals ... and
- Dr. I. King Jordan was named eighth president -and first deaf president- of Gallaudet University.
It was all over. In eight emotional, action-packed days it was over....
What made the protest so successful?
There is no simple answer as to why this protest succeeded, and why it did so fast.
However, here are some of the factors that may have contributed to the success of the protest:
- There was overwhelming community involvement that included deaf and hearing students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
- The protesters used the same methods-boycotting of classes, marches, and letter writing campaigns that had historically been successful strategies of protests in the past.
- The DPN protesters had clearly defined goals and they were actually protesting against the group-the Board of Trustees-that could actually do what they wanted them to do.
- The protest leaders were incredibly organized. They began the groundwork for their movement months before the actual protest, got the media interested early, and once the protest started, formed an organizing committee and control center.
- The protesters wisely drew parallels between their struggle and dream for a deaf president with that of the civil rights movement. Many in the public may not have been able to relate if it had been termed only a "disability movement," but because it was seen as a "civil rights movement" more people could identify and support the protesters.
- The protest was non-violent and-except for not obtaining march permits for all of their marches-the protesters respected the law.
- It was labeled a "student" protest, even though many of the organizers and supporters were alumni, faculty, and staff. Additionally, the four students who emerged as the leaders were all articulate and intelligent.
- There was phenomenal media attention and coverage during the entire week. It was front page news in The Washington Post and in newspapers across the country and the world and it was regularly featured on television and radio news. It was one of the first times for the reporters and the viewers alike to see for themselves that deaf students and deaf people really could do anything, except hear.