Fight for $15 continues
3 faculty, 4 students among 30 people arrested at Hampton Avenue minimum wage protest
Three Washington University faculty members and four students were among approximately 30 demonstrators arrested at a Fight for $15 protest on Hampton Avenue Tuesday night.
The group, made up of professors, students, elected officials and members of the clergy, planned to be arrested as a form of protest during the demonstration that called for an increase in the minimum wage, currently $7.65 an hour in St. Louis, as part of Fight for $15’s national day of action. Similar protests and coordinated acts of civil disobedience were held all throughout the day in 340 cities around the country.
Lecturer Michael O’Bryan, who was one of the faculty members arrested, said he found it important to support those involved with the Fight for $15, specifically as they supported adjunct faculty at Wash. U. last year in their ultimately successful effort to unionize.
“One of the big principles of protest activity—and not just labor organizing but generally progressive protest—is that people who feel like they’re from related causes should work together,” O’Bryan, who previously was an adjunct professor and served on the bargaining committee for the adjuncts in negotiations with the University, said. “They’ve stood up for us when we needed it, and so I felt like I should stand up for them.”
Those who planned to be arrested arrived at the Carpenters Hall Union around 3:30 p.m. to undergo civil disobedience training and talk with lawyers about how to act and what to expect, senior Chelsea Birchmeier, who was arrested, said.
The other 300-400 protesters met at 5 p.m. at the Carpenters Hall Union before marching across Hampton Avenue to a McDonald’s across the street. They then marched around the fast food establishment several times while chanting, which disrupted the flow of traffic into the restaurant, O’Bryan said. The group that was ultimately arrested then went out onto the street—just north of I-44—and sat down blocking the path.
Zip ties were placed on those arrested, who were taken by police vans to a station downtown, where they were processed. O’Bryan said that Fight for $15 lawyers followed the vans to the station, where they posted bail.
“We basically just sat in a room for about three hours and looked at white cinder block walls,” he said.
Those arrested have been summoned for a court date on Jan. 3 on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a roadway. O’Bryan, however, added that the Fight for $15 lawyers work on these cases often and will represent those charged. The charge may ultimately result in a fine—that would be covered by a legal defense fund set up by the Fight for $15—or by community service, if it isn’t negotiated otherwise.
Birchmeier, who is a member of the Student Worker Alliance (SWA), said she chose to participate in the protest in order to support low wage workers, specifically workers of color.
“Students, especially white students, have a certain privilege,” Birchmeier said. “A lot of us have never been arrested before; we haven’t had police treat us with brutality. We aren’t discriminated against, so it was a way to utilize that privilege, in a way that was standing in solidarity with the workers’ struggle.”
Birchmeier said she even noticed differences in the way she was treated in comparison to people around her.
“When I got my zip ties on, the officer who was in charge of me was like, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t put them on too tight,’ and I could basically slide them off of my hands,” she said. “The person who was sitting next to me in the van—who was a worker with the Fight for $15, actually—her handcuffs were on so tight that they were digging into her arms. And she asked an officer if he could loosen them, and no one responded to her.”
She added that, while officers in charge of other people had their arms on the people they were arresting, the officer in charge of her paid little attention to her and wandered around talking to other people.
“These struggles are all very interrelated and I don’t think you can say ‘Black Lives Matter’ without saying that black workers matters, without saying that poor people of color matter, that the working class immigrants matter for example, because if you’re not taking into account the struggles of poor people—then it’s just a movement for the bourgeois,” she said.
Adjunct professor Erik Strobl, who was also arrested in the protest, said basic fairness and a desire to show support was a part of what motivated him to participate.
“The idea that a place like Wash. U., which has more money than it knows what to do with, won’t pay a liveable wage is wrong. That McDonald’s, a multibillion dollar corporation, won’t pay a livable wage is wrong,” he said.
Strobl, who also took a leadership role in the adjunct unionization last year, drew a parallel between members of the Fight for $15 and the adjunct faculty.
“I teach here, which is a high-prestige, low-wage job,” he said. “We’re the same group. There’s no divide; there’s no separation between us that I’ll stand with people who are getting less than what they deserve.”
A proposal to increase the minimum wage in St. Louis to $11 was struck down in a circuit court in October 2015 and with the incoming Republican state government expected to pass right to work laws, O’Bryan said organization will become more difficult, but not impossible.
“That doesn’t mean that we have to stop our organizing efforts; it just means that organization gets more difficult,” he said. “Campaigns are still ongoing on campuses, and the Fight for $15 is going to keep going, which is about trying to convince people to vote for what’s right. So, it gets harder, but it’s been hard before.”