THE General Body: From general interest to campus social movement in less than two months

The student coalition ended its occupation of Crouse-Hinds Hall on Nov. 20, 17 days after the sit-in began and six weeks after the group formed.

At the peak of a tumultuous month at Syracuse University, two rallies within three days each drew crowds in mid-September.

The rallying cries heard at each protest that month were different — the reinstatement for the Advocacy Center, for one, or a reversal of cuts to SU’s partnership with the Posse Foundation for another — but the criers themselves often were not. Organizers and supporters at each rally started to see the same people each time, said Ben Kuebrich, a graduate student who came to THE General Body through his involvement in Divest SU and ESF.

“I think the really important thing that we started to see was that our struggles are linked.”
— Ben Kuebrich

“We saw all these isolated incidents, and we had three big rallies about isolated incidents,” Kuebrich said. “But then we started to connect the dots."

“We started to see that those problems are linked,” he continued. “I think the really important thing that we started to see was that our struggles are linked.”

This idea is at the heart of THE General Body, the coalition of diverse student organizations that maintained a sit-in in the lobby of Crouse-Hinds Hall between Nov. 3 and Nov. 20.  Their goal was — and remains — an administrative response to campus issues ranging from diversity commitment to disability resources.

In less than two months since its first meeting, the group quickly has developed into an organization with the numbers and clout to negotiate hours-long meetings with the university administration and to bring significant changes to campus. Now that the sit-in has ended, organizers say they will continue their movement outside the walls of Crouse-Hinds. But with the sit-in and related movement demanding near-constant attention as the first and only substantial project of the new group, the more distant future of THE General Body is more difficult to conceptualize.

“We want THE General Body to continue as an entity after this,” said Danielle Reed, a Spanish and African American studies senior. “What we don’t exactly know is what that will look like.”

She suggested it could eventually become a registered student organization or remain as a student coalition. Involvement of freshmen and sophomore students will ensure the organization has roots on campus for at least several more years, she added.

Reed and Colton Jones, both of whom have been involved in THE General Body since its formation, said they can trace the beginning of the organization to the Sept. 30 University Lectures event, when environmental activist Van Jones spoke in Hendricks Chapel. During his lecture, Jones praised activism on SU’s campus — including the Divest SU and ESF rally that had preceded the lecture — and particularly addressed intersectionality among social causes.

“He spoke about how today we don’t have to pick one cause,” Reed said. “We don’t have to just be about the environment, or just about racial equality, or just about gender equality. We can be all of those things. We can be for all of those things.”

This was an idea that found a ready audience at SU, Kuebrich added.

“The conditions were right for that message already,” he said. “There was already all of this activism bubbling up at that moment. Part of what Van Jones was, was call to bring it all together.”

The first plans for THE General Body were laid the same night as Van Jones’ lecture. Following the lecture, on her way to a meeting of the SU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Reed said she noticed psychology senior Colton Jones and fellow Divest SU and ESF members continuing their protest in the rain. She invited the approximately 10 members to join the NAACP that night. The NAACP had already been developing the idea of bringing together various campus organizations to strengthen students’ collective voice, she said. The night’s meeting marked the first use of the name “THE General Body” and the first plans for its future development.

THE General Body held its first independent meeting on Oct. 7, Reed said. Social media fliers and word of mouth attracted more than 100 representatives from 50 campus organizations, and these organizations weren’t only social justice-oriented either, Reed added. They ranged from a cappella to animal rights.

For organizers such as Reed and Jones, this positive turnout at the meeting meant that an abstract idea — pulling together the influence of multiple campus groups — could soon be a reality.

“Once such a positive turnout came back, I think people started to realize that this was possible and that this was something we could do,” Jones said. “We could bring the noise to this campus.”

Plans for a sit-in weren’t raised at that first meeting, which Reed said focused more heavily on beginning to develop a 43-page list of demands and grievances. Jones said sit-in plans didn’t start to shape until about two weeks before students marched from a Diversity and Transparency Rally on the Quad to Crouse-Hinds with plans to deliver their document and begin the occupation. They stayed in the building lobby for 18 days, storing food deliveries in the lobby area and stowing sleeping mats in corners.

The consistent occupation of physical space is what gave the movement its influence, said Don Mitchell, a geography professor at SU and supporter of THE General Body.

“It’s the sheer presence of people,” he said. “It’s been particularly effective in getting the university to confront these issues.”

This isn’t the first sit-in to occur on SU’s campus, he added, pointing to a take-over of the Tolley Building lobby when the administrative offices were located there. But this sit-in, protesting the university’s connection to sweatshop labor, didn’t last nearly as long as THE General Body’s sit-in did.

For Jones, the end of the sit-in is a “strategic move.” The group had never planned on occupying the lobby indefinitely, he said. And ending the sit-in does not mean ending the movement, he added.

This movement likely won’t mean the end of THE General Body either, Kuebrich said. He thinks THE General Body, as a form of “intersectional social justice organizing,” will continue in some capacity beyond the sit-in.

“I think that there’s a role for that on every campus,” he said. “It’s hard to do, but we figured it out here. It hasn’t been perfect, but we’re figuring it out as we go.”

“I think it’s a powerful thing.”

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