Seventeen years ago today, I. King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, and one of the few successful student strikes ever in U.S. history came to an end. Deaf President Now!
took place nearly twenty years ago, and it really doesn't seem that long ago to me.
The sad thing is, it was long ago enough that the minute-by-minute events of that week are starting to elude my memory, but I certainly remember enough that it's fresh in my mind. I remember that I was still fairly new to Gallaudet and Deaf culture, so all the hubbub surrounding Lee's resignation and the choice of his successor went over my head for the most part. Oh, there were rallies and demonstrations prior to the board's final decision, but since I had classes during those times, I didn't go. Looking back, I regret that now. But then, who knew this was going to become part of history? I think often when historical events take place, most people aren't acutely aware that history is taking place, that it is something that will go down in the books. Obviously important battles, seminal events, and the like are history in the making, and people are quite conscious of it. But there are millions of other things that happen that aren't on the surface, history. But they end up becoming part of our common knowledge, dissected and analyzed by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and the like.
My first real sense that something momentous was happening was when I saw tons of people rushing around like crazy, dashing this way and that, and a feeling of electricity in the air (cliche, I know, but that's what it felt like!). I stopped a friend to ask what was going on. She excitedly replied that the board had chosen Elizabeth Zinser, the hearing candidate, as the next president and that the announcement had galvanized students to take matters into their own hands. By the time I found out about the impromptu march to the Mayflower, it was too late for me to join. Still, I found people who were in the know enough, and quickly got myself up to speed.
That night, there was the first of what would be many meetings in Hughes Gym; all of us on the old wooden floor, with some people sitting up in the bleachers, watching Greg Hlibok, Jerry Covell, Tim Rarus, and Bridgetta Bourne, the four student leaders, telling us what was going to happen: we would boycott our classes and shut down the university.
I've heard Gallaudet is a bit different now, but that school year (1987-88) was the first year that there were more mainstream students in the entering freshman class than there were matriculates from the residential schools.hat year and the next few years following it constituted the high-water mark for total enrollment as well; the dorms were close to bursting. The social echelon was still heavily dominated by Deaf kids from the state schools, from Deaf families, from the Deaf world; this was before e-mail was popular, text pagers existed on the scale they do today, few students had personal computers, smoking was still allowed on campus, and more than 80% of the students lived in the dorms. People socialized a lot more in the Abbey (now back to Rathskeller) then, hung out in the dorm lobbies, went to on-campus parties, and generally talked to each other face-to-face.
But there were also sharp divisions. The cafeteria was like a high school: the big "D", strong Deaf/residential kids tended to cluster together in the middle of the cafeteria, close to the salad bar, out in the open. The rooms on the edge had their own little clusters: a mix of graduate students, signing/culturally-aware mainstreamed kids, and the theatre/intelligentsia crowd in one section; the blacks and Asians in another corner; the oral kids and non-Deaf culturally attuned mainstreamed kids in another section. That year, there was an overflow in the cafeteria because enrollment had been so high, so some graduate students and the NSP kids often sat upstairs. The cafeteria merely reflected the same balkanization we saw in the dorms and around campus. While it wasn't a "Romeo and Juliet" atmosphere, there were definite lines here and there.
During DPN though, those lines temporarily vanished, if only for a short while. Most of us eagerly jumped on the bandwagon, and the very next morning we made our way down to the front entrance to campus. For the following week, we were woken up by fire alarms constantly, attending meetings in Hughes Gym at odd hours (5 a.m. to 6 a.m. was a common time for meetings, but I also remember late night gatherings as well: 10 p.m., 11 p.m., and sometimes later, depending on events. As a historian in the making even then, I expected real confrontation, a tense atmosphere; something out of the textbooks on the 1960s. But it was almost like a festival of sorts. There were a couple booths selling food, t-shirts, buttons, and the like. The weather was mild and sunny, which for D.C. in March was something. People were chatting, moving about, enjoying themselves even as they were protesting. The presence of TV cameras, reporters, and the like just added to the carnival-like feeling, especially as the week wore on. One thing that helped us for sure is the fact that the campus was surrounded by walls and an iron gate, unlike most college campuses. This meant we could easily control the flow of traffic in and out, and didn't have to occupy campus building by building, as they did at say, Columbia in the late 60s.
That first night and the next night, there were tons of people at the phones, waiting to call home. I finally was able to use the phone, and called my parents. It was rather funny, as my parents, veterans of 60s protests, actually begged me to be careful and not to get arrested (this from parents who lived in the S.F. Bay Area and marched and protested in practically everything; I must have been one of the youngest protesters in the 1970 march in San Francisco protesting the bombing in Cambodia!).
I remember joining one of the various committees that formed-- a tree of committees spreading downwards, with various groups responsible for different things around campus. I helped one group guard the southwest corner of campus, by the transportation building. We took over a schoolbus, with flattened tires, that had been moved so that it blocked one of the gates. We were asked to make armbands so that we would be recognized, and to stay there until we were told otherwise. I think I still have my arm/headbands somewhere in a box...
I went another time with some people from the same group to check out all the gates, and make sure there were enough people manning them. There was a group of MSSD students holding their gate off of the Brentwood Parkway, with college students' trucks and cars in front of the gates, blocking the entrance. My best friend at the time had a pickup, and he was often asked to help out, either by using his car to help block the front gates, or to transport food and drink for the leaders and other "top brass."
On Wednesday night of that week, several of us decided to camp out on the sloping lawn to the left of the entrance. My friend had a pup tent that would sleep two, so we took sleeping bags out there and camped out. It was a rather cold night (remember, this is early March in D.C.!), and I don't remember being all that comfortable!
Each day we'd stand at the main gates, spread out along the sidewalk. Far from being hostile, the police were actually trying to be as helfpul as possible. One cop even asked us to show her a couple of signs, and what we were saying. I sometimes helped out with the "interpreting," since I have good speech and pretty good lipreading/guessing skills. *grin*
Our second big march was planned and prepared, unlike the first jaunt off to the Mayflower Hotel. This time, we went from campus to the Capitol. We were joined by people of all ages from around the area, and together we set off. A busload of NTID students came down from Rochester to join us, and some people even flew in from around the country. A lot of people marched together as a contigent with other people from their state, and many were carrying state flags. I walked with the California division, and again, it was a relatively warm, sunny, fairly low humidity day in D.C. We'd gotten lucky all week-- the worst it ever got was a partly cloudy sky once or twice. I don't remember the speeches in toto, but I do remember the energy. I remember being especially impressed by Jerry Covell; while the other three had speaking skills of sorts and were known around campus, Jerry had this inner fire, this way of reaching out and grabbing you-- he was the most effective speaker among the students that I saw that week.
We watched the news here and there when we could-- quite a few hung out during cafeteria hours so they could be interviewed live down at the front gates. Others decided to go and eat, but to eat quickly. We didn't really hang out and socialize as we normally did-- just grabbed enough for energy, kept our eyes glued to news reports, then went back to join the rest. Campus buildings were padlocked, hardly anyone was in sight-- it was a ghost town of sorts. I don't know about the other floors, but in my dorm, my dormmates got together that Wednesday evening to watch Greg Hlibok, Elizabeth Zinser, and Marlee Matlin all appear with Ted Koppel. I remember the feeling of elation as we saw Hlibok and Matlin shred Zinser to bits, and Koppel adding his own voice to the mix.
Even though we won one of our demands by week's end (the resignation of Zinser as the newly appointed president), it was becoming clear the protest could stretch out a long longer than any of us thought. The following week was spring break, and some students took off as they had originally planned. Quite a few others changed their minds, and decided to remain on campus, to prevent the administration and faculty from coming in and re-possessing campus. My friend and I decided we would go to his parents' house in Philadelphia for a couple days, then return and spend the rest of our break protesting. I was glad, as I had had very little sleep-- remember, the fire alarms were going on and off all the time, meetings were being held, marches were going on, and despite no classes that week, there was a lot going on to occupy our time and energy. So I agreed- off to Philly.
I was woken up by my friend on the morning of March 13, 1988-- I was exhausted, and was sleeping in a bit-- he was excited.
"It's over! We won! We won!" I woke up immediately, and throwing on a shirt and jeans, went out to the kitchen. My friend's mother joined in and between her and her son, I learned that Spilman had resigned, Phil Bravin was now the chair of the board, Jordan was the new president, and there would be no reprisals for student participation in the strike. We really had won... Thus I missed being present at the very beginning and the very end of DPN, but I was there for more than 80% of it.
Since any plans I'd originally had were scuttled, and there was no need for us to go back to D.C., we decided to spend a day hanging out at and gambling in Atlantic City, and then head up to NTID, where my friend had childhood friends going to school there. Once we arrived in Rochester and people found out we were from Gallaudet, we became instant celebrities, and asked again and again what it was like, what happened, was this true, did this really happen, etc., etc.
The feeling of a common cause, that we were all deaf together fighting for the same thing, wore off fairly rapidly. Within a month, we were all back to the same old grind, back to our social rankings and groups, back to being normal college students. Any sea change would have to wait a few years. But one thing I think it did accomplish, at least for me, was instill a sense of identity. I think DPN was as much a social movement as it was a political event. I know in later years I'd talk with people who weren't old enough for college, or who had gone elsewhere, and they would reference DPN as a turning point in their lives.
I wasn't in D.C. for the 10th or the 15th anniversaries, but it's possible I'll go back for the 20th. Regardless of whether I'm present or not, DPN will always be a part of my memories, and always a reminder that if you're secure in who you are and willing to fight for what you believe, you can win- even if you don't win everything, you can make a stand, and stake out your ground. That's a lesson I think a lot of people from the 60s have forgotten, and a lesson I plan to never forget.