USAS members get court hearing after sit-in arrests

Students sit in Centennial Hall's lobby demanding Becker's attention, in Fall 2016 | The Signal Archives

On June 12 the arrested United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) members from the Centennial Hall sit-in had their court hearing and expressed their disappointment over the recent Tent City dismantlement.

The Signal reported on April 11 that four USAS students were arrested by Georgia State police for staging a sit-in to urge President Mark Becker to sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the residents surrounding Turner Field. The CBA would commit Georgia State and Carter Development to funding for the neighborhoods that would go towards education, scholarship funds and advocacy programs for the community.

The sit-in lasted from 4 to 9 p.m. when the Centennial Hall was approaching closing time according to Patricio Rojas. This prompted Georgia State police to intervene. At the court hearing, all four arrestees were present; however, no one from Georgia State was present to represent the school causing the hearing to be rescheduled.

“It sounds like they’re just sitting on their tail, making us wait. We have to wait until July 3, and if there’s no one representing Georgia State at that hearing, the case should be dismissed,” arrestee Patricio Rojas said.

The students spent 20 hours in jail and were released on signature bond. Despite being arrested, the USAS members were not deterred from their pursuit for a signed CBA.

“I hope we get a meeting with this ghost-like president of ours,” USAS member Asma Elhuni said. “I’m hoping he’ll realize he’s gone above and beyond in order to silence [his students].”

USAS members have made multiple efforts to meet with President Becker about signing a CBA to no avail.

In April CBA advocates set up “Tent City” outside of Turner Field. The encampment was dismantled on June 2 by Georgia police due to complaints from some of the residents in the surrounding communities.

“Georgia State revealed its true colors that day. They showed how little constraint they have in their desire to kick out poor people from their homes,” Rojas said.

Former state legislature Douglas Deal, who was also arrested at the sit-in, said President Becker’s actions were “unusual.”

“The behavior of Dr. Becker is unbelievable. All that we have asked is that he come to the table and listen to the people in the community,” Deal said.

USAS has met with Bharath Parthasarathy, Georgia State’s lawyer. Parthasarathy told USAS that, according to Elhunia, CBA with the communities around Turner Field can be done; however, he cautioned that if the school falls short of its agreements, the university’s image would be tarnished.

“We made clear to him that’s what accountability means. If we’re harping on the diversity of our school, then we do everything possible to show that we care about people of color and the predominantly black residents in this neighborhood by taking actual steps to show that,” Elhuni said.

However, Parthasarathy said that for multiple reasons a CBA cannot be signed by the school.

“We’ve been very clear from the start all the way through an attempt to tell us why we could sign a CBA that we disagree with the law and the overall policy,” Parthasarathy said.

As a state entity, Georgia State cannot use state funds to pay the property taxes of other people, but Georgia State and Carter Development have plans to work with Turner Field residents to maximize the economic, social and cultural opportunities in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We wanted to focus on the five main buckets that could make an impact: education, public safety, arts and culture, and economic development,” Parthasarathy said.

Elhuni said Georgia State could commit to a CBA by other means though.

“Carter developers have been more open minded to signing, but Georgia State is continuously saying that [they]don’t plan to sign even though we’ve made it clear a CBA can be signed through [Georgia State’s] foundation,” Elhuni said.

Parthasarathy denied this and said, “For tuition reasons, the foundation would be an inappropriate party to sign any plan with the neighborhoods and the CBA.”       

According to Parthasarathy, Georgia State’s plans have been well received by the neighborhood associations of Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville and Grant Park, but through previous meetings with Parthasarathy, Elhuni hasn’t found Georgia State’s proposal convincing.

“Everything is just up in the air. It’s not a signed document; they can do away with it easily. We know through the history of Atlanta that developers make promises, and they don’t fulfill them,” Elhuni said.

Parthasarathy admitted the plans Georgia State has proposed may not address every specific standard desired by the neighborhoods. The university and the developer have been working with parties that have been democratically elected by the neighborhood residents. Parthasarathy said Georgia State will be held accountable through annual reports and meeting two times out of the year with the neighborhoods.

“Everything we do we want to make sure is an efficient use of resources. We could say we’re going to do ‘X’ and find out it didn’t work. We want the flexibility to work with the neighborhoods to say let’s try ‘D’ and not have to bring a bunch of lawyers to the table and say we need to amend this agreement from ‘A’ to ‘D’,” Parthasarathy said.

The plans on Georgia State’s side of the deal, however, do not address the displacement of residents. Parthasarathy said Carter development will be taking the reins on that front. However, what Carter will do for the neighborhoods remains an open discussion.