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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: Grounds workers should not be used to disrupt peaceful protests

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One of the effects of higher level administrators flitting in and out of South Building on ever-inflated salaries is the seemingly more panicked and reactionary response to dealing with protest and dissent on campus.

The recent tented protest on Polk Place in solidarity with Columbia University students who were arrested while protesting the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza by camping on the university’s South Lawn saw UNC continue a dangerous precedent of forcing workers to become embroiled in campus politics.

In the 1960s, the campus roiled with protests related to both international events and events closer to home. There were Civil Rights protests, anti-war protests and, in 1969, Lenoir Dining Hall strikers saw state troopers deployed on campus. In 1997, housekeepers walked off the job seeking redress of largely unaddressed grievances festering since the '60s.

From the speaker ban to Silent Sam, students often reveal the inept farcical overreaction from campus administrators to protest and dissent. They did so again last week.

A more concerning issue, though, might be the increasing use of low-paid facilities employees to carry out the administrators reactionary response to protest on campus.

Protests of Silent Sam saw facilities workers tasked with removing signs and banners.

Last Friday, I watched as my fellow low-paid grounds workers were again asked to disrupt a peaceful protest while UNC Police looked on.

These workers should not be coerced to infringe on students' constitutional rights to free expression and assembly. The coercive nature is inherent in their relationship with supervisors and managers.

Few, I would wager, would feel comfortable with refusing to follow instructions from the chancellor’s office. Administrators and the chancellor are hiding behind facilities workers to disguise their intentions. They want to quash dissent and protest, but without using UNC Police because that might look bad.

The tented demonstration was entirely peaceful, temporary and caused no damage. The patently absurd claim the tents would damage the grass belie the administration’s true aims: the removal of the tents without using appropriate law enforcement.

Rather, I watched as they dragooned a very sheepish-looking director of grounds to do their reactionary bidding, using employees he oversees. Coercion by default, I say.

UNC Police are supposed to know the law and be able to deal with any situation while remaining cognizant of people’s constitutional rights and protections — not something generally demanded of low-paid grounds workers.

While student protesters and police might occasionally envision themselves in an us-versus-them situation regarding protests, grounds workers should never find themselves in that situation.

If Friday’s protest had turned ugly, what then would be the role of grounds workers?

If the chancellor does not have courage in his convictions regarding protests, hiding his intent behind low-paid workers is cowardly.

— David Brannigan, 20-year UNC grounds employee.

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