I mentioned, yesterday, that I'd sent out the call to some of the organizers of the Princeton student protest to see if I could e-interview someone to find out a bit more about how this all started, and how things have been going.
Well, they very quickly got back to me, and during the day I've been conducting an interview-by-email with one of the organizers.
His name is Jason Vagliano, and he's a senior undergrad who's focusing on modern European history. Anyway, I'll leave the rest of the talking to him.
How did this all start? Who's idea was it initially? Tell me the story behind the origin of it all.
I was not involved in any particular political group at the time the Filibuster started, although back during the primaries I was a member of Princeton for Dean and I have always been interested in politics. I heard about the Frist Filibuster through an email list I was subscribed to, and I signed up to filibuster, thinking it would be just a one-time thing. It quickly drew me in and I became and organizer. I have spent many many hours on this, like all of the organizers (and many non-organizers too!)--everything from filibustering to "support" (holding down the fort), interacting with public safety, writing articles and a press release, and odd jobs like helping set up the tent and lending my computer to the cause. (I have been computerless since my laptop has the webcam attached to it.)
This is a true grass roots movement that grew out of a few people with a bullhorn and a rickety music stand with a sign on it. Nobody anticipated this would become what it has become. At first, the students who were involved the first day (including Asheesh Siddique and Juan Melli-Huber) thought it wouldn't last a full day, and Public Safety tried to shut the protest down twice at the beginning. Since then, it has grown exponentially. The filibuster has been taking place outside the Frist Campus Center (made possible by a $25 million gift from Bill Frist and family) under a bright beach umbrella and is being managed by students inside a tent 10 feet away with a webcam trained on the action. Students have braved the elements and have kept the filibuster going , rain or shine. Students, faculty, and members of the local community have read Beofulfe in Old English, George Orwell's 1984, Einstein's papers, the Constitution, the Princeton student phone book A-F. We have had musical performances--a full version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bob Dylan songs, original lyrics about the filibuster, scenes from Star Wars--just to name a few. Special guests have included: Senator Jon Corzineʼs deputy press secretary Andrew Schwab (he read a statement from Sen. Corzine, who could not make it b/c he is abroad), Nobel Prize winner in Physics Frank Wilczek, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who read from Aesop's Fables as his father, Sen. Rush Holt (WVa), had during a filibuster on the Senate floor 60 years ago, and a group of concerned students from the University of Texas-Austin who called in and did a filibuster over the phone. The media coverage has been overwhelming; check out www.filibusterfrist.com for details.
During Chuck Pennachio's speech, I watched some video that had some hecklers (which he dealt with rather well). Has there been a lot of people showing up in opposition, or opposition protests occurring around you guys? Tell me a little more about that and any other times when it appeared resistance might end up shutting down the whole thing.
Well I wasn't there on both occasions when Public Safety tried to shut us down at the very beginning so I'm probably not the best person to ask. Basically it involved our permit status, and we worked things out. Since then, the Administration has been very supportive. The only other obstacles we have faced have been from belligerent drunk people. It was Houseparties weekend last weekend, the biggest party weekend of the year here. We had some unfortunate instances throughout the weekend when very intoxicated and aggressive individuals harassed speakers, were verbally abusive, and, on one occasion, threw aside our barricades. After a weak initial response, Campus Safety has been very on top of things, and we have our own walkie talkie that puts us in direct contact with them should something go awry again. On one other occasion, at around 3am, our tent/setup was bombarded by waterballoons, but fortunately they did not do any damage. On Tuesday, when we had Chuck Pennacchio, Senator Corzine's spokesman, and the Hardball team on site, a small group of counter protesters arrived and generally behaved poorly, attempting to drown out our representative when Chris Matthews asked him questions. However, they were heavily outnumbered by us pro-filibuster folk (there were about 300 demonstrators and maybe 20 of them were counter demonstrators). Our side behaved quite well, and we view the event as an unqualified success.
There have not been a lot of counterprotesters or hecklers at all. The small group that appeared on Tuesday were there because they heard Hardball was coming. They dispersed as soon as the camera crews left, and did not voice their opinions in any concerted way before then and haven't since. In general, the problems we have faced have been from isolated, exceedingly intoxicated individuals.
What has been the high point of the protest for you so far?
For me it is hard to pinpoint a specific high point; the entire Filibuster has amounted to more than I could ever have expected. Certainly some of the improv acts have been amazing. The "Filibuster Players" performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and then scenes from Star Wars--that was a lot of fun. Congressman Holt's speech and filibuster were brilliant, and he stayed on message: that we should all be concerned about Senator Frist's attempt to erode one of our government's basic checks and balances. He summarized the lessons of the fables he was reading: "Be careful what you wish for." The real high point has been this sense of solidarity and purpose--we are all united because we are concerned about what the nuclear option will do to our democracy. The fact that so many disparate students, faculty, and members of the community have united in this way has been very inspiring.
When do you see this ending? What is your hope for the outcome of all of this?
The protest in its current form will certainly go through Dean's Date, the day student work is due (May 10). However, we are currently planning Phase 2 of the protest; we will go on the road. We are not releasing any specific details yet, but stay tuned!
I hope that this protest will help convince Senator Bill Frist and the Republican leadership that eliminating a 200-year old check and balance for an expedient, short-term political gain is completely unacceptable. I also hope that this protest will galvanize students and other concerned citizens around the country.
What can those of us around the country who aren't near by do to help you out?
First and foremost, call your senator and urge him or her not to support the nuclear option. Also, be sure to call senators who are on the fence, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine, John Warner of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. We would love other students to start similar movements at their schools. We are also fundraising for Phase 2 through our website, www.filibusterfrist.com.
As for anything specific we need, I can't think of anything off the top of my head. I want to encourage other schools to do the same thing and to call up senators.
Who are some of the main organizers who've been instrumental in getting this up and running and keeping it going?
Some of the main organizers have included: Asheesh Siddique, Juan Melli-Huber, Cathy Kunkel, Ben Strauss, Josh Weitz, Peter Turner, Teresa Leonardo, and Pete Hill. The total number is somewhere in the 15 range.
And that is where I decided to stop bothering him with my pesky questions. I know I can't stop gushing about these guys, but it's pretty great what is going on there. I encourage you all to go, donate some money to their cause. They are about halfway to their goal, and if what Jason is saying is true, this could end up being something huge. My thanks to Jason for taking time out of what I'm sure is a hectic schedule for me and my readers, and to Cathy Kunkel for setting up the interview with Jason for me.