University shuts down student mock prison camp

| News Editors
Matt Mitgang | Student Life

Matt Mitgang | Student Life

 Sophomore Emily Piontek stands inside of a gulag created by Wash. U. Young Americans For Liberty. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

Sophomore Emily Piontek stands inside of a gulag created by Wash. U. Young Americans For Liberty. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

Members of the Washington University chapter of Young Americans for Liberty erected a mock Soviet prison camp, or gulag, in front of the Women’s Building Monday morning, but were later told by a representative from Event Services to disassemble the display.

The University said in a statement Tuesday that the students had not mentioned the display when requesting the space and built the display using power tools without permission and without oversight from the facilities office. YAL members said the display was not in violation of Event Services’ policies and that while the students did use an automatic drill, Event Services did not specify in its policies that students could not use power tools.

“We feel that this was more of the administration and faculty getting upset about the display than it was about safety issues,” said junior Dirk Doebler, president of the University chapter of YAL.

YAL members built the mock gulag to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and to condemn Soviet communism and socialist regimes. The display was a four-sided wooden structure with fake barbed wire on top and Soviet Communist propaganda posters on its sides. A large sign on the structure read “Peaceful Justice Social Reeducation Clinic.”

Several students who were dressed as prisoners stood inside the mock gulag, some of them with fake blood on their clothing. Other YAL members who were dressed as Soviet soldiers patrolled around the structure. Students played Russian opera music at the display.

YAL members at the display also handed out fliers to students that detailed the history of gulags and included a passage on resisting tyranny.

After the students had finished building the display, a representative from Event Services told them they had to disassemble it.

The University statement said the display was shut down because it had not been approved and was unsafe, not because it was controversial.

“The University has a long history of accommodating disparate and often unpopular points of view and continues to support the rights of its students and faculty to express their differences and opinions, as long as the venue has been reserved, described accurately and deemed safe and free of physical risk to themselves and others,” the statement said.

Sophomore Emily Piontek, a member of the YAL who posed as a prisoner in the mock gulag, said the main purpose of the display was to raise awareness about problems with Soviet communism that are connected with the Berlin Wall. Piontek said another reason for the display was to raise concerns held by some members of the YAL that U.S. government health care reform is bringing America closer to socialism.

“I think it was mostly about the Berlin Wall, but I think certain policies that are going on today and certain things in the government, and mostly the health care plan, were reasons that we wanted to host the event,” Piontek said.

But James Wertsch, the Marshall S. Snow Professor and director of International & Area Studies, said that the emergence of communism and socialism are not big issues today and that new forms of nationalism are currently greater issues for America.

However, he said that it was appropriate for YAL to commemorate the gulag since huge numbers of people suffered in these prison camps.

“If I would have stopped and talked to them and seen that it was a gulag exhibit I would have been interested, but for the reason of commemorating it, not because I’m afraid that communism is coming back,” Wertsch said.

John Burns, an area resident who is not a student but who is involved with the Washington University YAL and participated in the display, said he felt the University censored students in a manner similar to Soviet communists.

“I guess the students at Washington University were in a gulag all along, and the administration proved it through their stifling of free speech,” Burns said.

With additional reporting by John Scott

  • Here is another article, from KMOX, “Students against socialism turn heads at Washington University”,

    This article quotes some Russian students who were offended by Russian stereotypes and the targeting of Russia instead of China or some other officially socialist or communist country.

  • Here is an article from STLtoday, “Gulag gets the heave-ho at Wash U demonstration,:

    The article quotes Washington University Event Services:

    “The Young Americans for Liberty chapter did request space for Nov. 9 on the Women’s Building lawn, but only indicating that they planned “a small service and moment of silence” as well as to hand out pamphlets at the site. No mention was made of constructing a display, particularly one of significant proportion that could present risk to those building it, as well as to those in the immediate area. Power tools were used without permission and without facilities office oversight.

    “The students were not asked to disband or discontinue their approved activities, but they were asked to remove the structure that they did not have permission to build on this site.”

  • Jack

    Richard Markel: “I mean, I’m against almost everything YAL stands for”

    You are against liberty?

  • I just heard more about the Mizzou Speaking Circle, from an alum, who tells us that free speech is really practiced there, especially lively criticism of the University Administration, at top volume. Let’s start this here, and everywhere, without further delay.

    We can’t let Mizzou put us to shame, can we?

  • Dirk Doebler

    Check out this link. It shows what the administrators were saying before shutting down the event:

  • 2007 Grad

    Maybe the gulag was a little extreme, but there really isn’t any doubt that this was taken down because it rubbed someone the wrong way. No power tools? Please. I’ve built structures for Thurtene that a 5 mph wind could take down. While Devil’s advocate has a reasonable point, they went through the proper channels and got approval. Someone didn’t agree with the message, and decided to shit on it. Luckily for YAL, that kind of holier than thou attitude is bound to generate some internet press these days.

  • Hello

    Wow. America is turning into a gulag, eh. Someone should give these morons a good beating, that’ll be a good simulation of a gulag

  • Devil’s advocate general” sucks ass

    Hey clown,

    It wasn’t russian opera music, it was communist paul robeson singing the russian national anthem. Clown.

    Further, as emily eloquently states, why didn’t they just shut it down immediately then? Hmmm?

    And why oh why did they allow the same crew to deconstruct what had been constructed.

    If it is dangerous to construct it is just as dangerous to deconstruct.

    It was censorship, clown. Deal with it and stop being an apologist for the man.

    Just further proof that Wash U students are sellouts to the “Man.”

  • “emily” is a GENIUS

    Emily, fabulous point. I hadn’t considered that. You’re exactly right. If there was a public safety issue, then why didn’t they stop the erection (giggle) immediately.

    and just to be clear, ain’t NOBODY that can stop an erection faster than Wash U admins.

  • emily

    I find it very interesting that several WU security officers stood by and watched the Gulag being built without intervening in the name of safety, and then waited three hours to shut the event down. If event services was truly concerned about the safety of the YAL members, why didn’t they stop the erection of the structure, or take it down themselves, considering that the students used the same “dangerous” materials to take it down?

  • Patrick Seaworth

    what was done was wrong. however, its done.

    just follow the policies they stated, and rebuild it. don’t wait till next year, just re-file the forms, and rebuild.

    and if they won’t let you rebuild just stand in areas in costumes they can’t keep you all from doing that.

  • Kevin L.

    This was certainly not a free speech issue, considering the university has allowed far more controversial things. I would be worried too if someone built a structure on my lawn without telling me about it, even if i knew they would have an event there.

    The structure may have looked sound to some people, but looks can be deceiving. Unless you were there observing the construction, you may not be sure of the structural integrity.

    As for the idea that WashU is a gulag, please. No one’s been dragged away without trial and forced to work inhumane jobs. It’s very insensitive that YAL chose to use a gulag more to advance their own political agenda than to commemorate a solemn event.

    As for the fake blood, I really just have to wonder about their taste. Gulags were already terrible places; there’s no need to sensationalize them.

  • Andrew

    Wait a second–if the University shut it down, doesn’t that make them Ronald Reagan?

  • Russell

    I would venture to guess that the take-down notice had more to do with the fact that they’d built a free-standing wooden structure and put people underneath it than the fact that they used power tools. Would the university have preferred that they lash the whole thing together with duct tape? Event Services did what they were supposed to do – you can’t have students putting up a structure with people under it (even if though it was pretty safe looking) without some kind of oversight. ES just didn’t do it well, since their policies weren’t clearly articulated and they (presumably) didn’t oversee the deconstruction. That’s bureaucracy for you, but there are reasons for it, and I really don’t see any evidence to say this had to do with the message of the display itself. Event Services had its hands tied even without that. If the display had been a lemonade stand, I suppose it might not have attracted the attention of ES in the first place, but putting people underneath wooden construct really is grounds for the University to worry about being sued, whether the danger was particularly grave or not.

    It just doesn’t seem appropriate to start accusing the University of censorship when there really were legitimate reasons (albeit somewhat needless ones) for the building to come down. If YAL does the same thing next year, following whatever the policy might actually be, I strongly suspect that the opposition they’d face would be that of the students who disagree with their message, and not anything resulting in their display being closed down.

  • hnl

    I facepalmed so hard when I saw these kids on the lawn.

  • Devil’s Advocate General

    Okay, glibertarians, chew on this. That patch of grass you built your mock gulag on? It’s private property. Not yours, not public property, but the University’s. Because that land is private property, the University’s got fairly broad latitude to prevent you from using it in ways they don’t want. (And I don’t remember signing any contract with the University that permits me to erect slapdash fake prison camps on any part of their property.)

    And as for University policy, I don’t have any problem with, “Hey! Don’t build elaborate structures whose collapse could endanger people without clearing it with us first, okay?”

    This is not remotely a free-speech issue. “Stifling of free speech” is when police pull you off the street and you’re never seen again because you expressed unpopular viewpoints, not when Event Services freaks out because the University would be liable if your pretend gulag fell down and hurt someone.

    P.S. Russian opera music? Really? Vodka is Russian too, but that doesn’t make it Communist.

  • “Reasonable is a Clown”

    Reasonable is a clown. Your line of reasoning is ludicrous.

    The whole point here is that the university is being entirely INCONSISTENT.

    Were the “powertools” (we’re talking about an electric screwdriver) and materials unsafe, then why didn’t the university demand that the school facilities take down the structure?

    As it was, the students were allowed to do it themselves – with the same “unsafe” tools and “unsafe” materials.

  • Reasonable?

    I am a long-time human rights activist and former employee, and I have firsthand knowledge of the safety measures mandated by other student groups using power tools on campus–namely the Thurtene Honorary and the hundreds of students who build facades according to specific codes every April. When a student is hurt building a facade for the Carnival, the Honorary is to blame. But when someone is hurt as a result of no standards employed for a political demonstration, who will be sued? This is a rare example of Event Services doing the right thing by being consistent.

  • Todd Zimmer

    While I totally disagree with the messaging of the event (which could have been reported on more accurately here), I am disturbed that the University decided to shut down the display. While the protest certainly espoused controversial and unpopular perspectives on American politics, this is no reason to shut down the event. I can only guess that some found the display offensive for its violent content and the University was surprised by the elaborate nature of the display and decided to intervene.

    I would like to point out, as should be obvious from the picture but is misreported in the article, that the banner on the gulag reads “Peaceful Social Justice Re-Education Clinic.” I was not sure how to interpret this banner, and many others (including StudLife) seem to have been confused by the messaging of the event. Depending on how the banner is interpreted, its presence on a gulag full of bloodied students could have sinister and threatening implications. Was this YAL’s intent? If so, cause to shut down the event?

  • Michelle S.

    Having worked in event services, I can say that there is no such policy. I think this event was awful for other reasons, but this is just a total pretext by the university to silence speech, much as they do on the Palestinian-statehood issue as well.

  • Russell

    From the event services website: “The policies for the outside spaces are currently under construction. Feel free to contact Event Services for more information on these spaces.”

    So that’s a problem. But at the same time, if there really is a policy against unapproved structures (and there probably is), then Event Services did what it was supposed to do, even if it came across looking like censorship.

    I disagree with the last paragraph in this article and with the first comment, but that’s an entirely different question, unless there’s some proof I’m not seeing that Event Services did anything other than react poorly to a miscommunication. In all likelihood, though, it’s the miscommunication that’s the issue here.

  • Richard Jesse Markel

    I honestly think the University is entirely wrong on this one. I mean, I’m against almost everything YAL stands for, although I’m going to side with them on this issue. Having stood and talked to a friend of mine who was inside the structure, having examined the edifice up close for about fifteen minutes, and having three years of drama set design and construction experience under my belt I can only say that structurally that thing was sound. I was actually legit-impressed by how much work went into building that thing and that view is entirely unchanged by the fact that I think the group is wrong about everything.

  • Steve Howerton

    I’d like to see the specific policy (and if it exists, where it is posted) that Event Services says YAL violated?

  • My knowledge of this is based entirely on the coverage in this issue of Student Life, in your News and Forum sections. Based on what I have read, I do not think this should have been shut down. The stated reason–, the safety of students–, sounds like a pretext. Although I object to some members of the YAL equating health care reform with the abuses of Stalin, I support their right to free speech and expression.

    I appreciate good political theater, and the lively expression of unpopular views, as long as it does not become mean spirited. As far as I know, that line was not crossed.

    Mizzou has a Speaking Circle, an outdoor forum next to their library, surrounded by benches and bulletin boards, at which free and spontaneous speech is encouraged, and practiced. This is very popular, I hear from an alum. Why don’t we try this here?

  • Jean h

    Why does the administration does not support students????? seems like administration does not understand the core and values of our students; why does NOT student union stand up for students instead of having meeting and passing stupid resolution! We need student leaders who stand up for students.
    Bring back Trevor back to SU!