Sometimes getting arrested isn’t so bad. While the eight University of Montana members of Students for Social and Economic Justice (SESJ) were slapped with charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct, and received academic suspensions for their part in an April 16 sit-in, the resulting media attention has proved to be a boon for the fledgling organization.
The initial incident—staged as a protest of UM’s use of sweatshop labor for its apparel contracts—stirred widespread local print, radio and television coverage, and gained national mention in USA Today. The administration’s subsequent handling of the situation—from a terse public meeting with UM President George Dennison to the handing out of three-day suspensions—kept the event in the news cycle for nearly two more weeks.
The upshot is SESJ receiving more attention than it ever initially imagined.
“Definitely,” said SESJ member and sit-in participant Kendra Kallevig when asked if it was worth getting arrested. “[The media coverage] definitely put more pressure on the University than ever before. It’s started a statewide conversation about this issue that wouldn’t be happening otherwise.”
Since the increased media coverage, SESJ members say they’ve received letters, emails and phone calls from state legislators, businesses, labor unions, professors and student organizations at other universities looking to carry the anti-sweatshop cause.
“We now have allies coming out of the woodwork,” says Kallevig, who rattled off a list including the Central Labor Council and Industrial Workers of the World.
And the new support is just the beginning.
“Before, there was awareness of the issue on campus,” explains SESJ member and sit-in participant Matt Fennell. “Now it’s on people’s minds. It’s not just an issue. They’re now asking about how the University spends its money, and what kind of businesses that supports. That’s the biggest success.”
While President Dennison has yet to sign-on to the Designated Suppliers Program—the enhanced university code of conduct SESJ continues to appeal for—the students show much hope for their cause.
“This isn’t ending here,” Kallevig said. “We’re going to keep working at this as long as we have to.”