By Grady Trexler
Special to Packet Media LLC
Undeterred by frozen fingers and toes, a group of Princeton undergraduates, graduate students and community members gathered on Feb. 13 at FitzRandolph Gate to demand Princeton University expand its COVID-19 support beyond just members of the university community.
Despite the cold, a group of around 200 stretched from Princeton’s famous gates to Nassau Hall. The speakers included members of Princeton-specific groups such as Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA) and Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC), as well as Unidad Latina en Acción New Jersey (ULA), an organization that works for migrant rights across the state.
The action was also supported by Divest Princeton and Princeton University Policy Student Government.
The demonstrators had five specific demands for the university, according to a flier circulated before the protest: to expand free COVID-19 testing to the residents of Princeton, to provide free vaccinations to the residents of Princeton and surrounding municipalities, to provide equal access to testing and other health benefits to contract workers, to help fund and support the municipal contact tracing program, and for the decision making process around COVID-19 health and safety be democratized.
“We’re here to tell Princeton University that after centuries of hoarding wealth, exploiting workers and denying their autonomy, the least that they owe them is a seat at the damn table,” Paul Eberwine, a member of PGSU who was the first speaker, shouted through a microphone. “We’re here to tell them that the pandemic does not stop at this gate.”
Among the other speakers were Dylan Beteta, a student at Princeton High School who spoke about the toll that fear of catching COVID-19 took on his mother; Mika Kelley, a member of PMA who read anonymous testimonies from community members and contract workers; and Etelvina Peña, from ULA, who recounted her own struggle contracting COVID-19.
Interspersed between the speeches were chants such as “Come on Nassau Hall! COVID support for all!” and “What do we want? Testing! When do we want it? Now!”
Speeches and chants were conducted in English and Spanish.
“The town makes the university possible, and as much as the town may rely on the university, the university relies on the town,” said Marc Schorin, a member of PAAC.
He said that Princeton especially had a responsibility to look out for the “undocumented, underinsured and uninsured,” a sentiment repeated by speakers at the protest.
Schorin also noted that while Mercer County does offer free COVID testing, it is at times less than convenient.
Peña, who lives in Princeton, said that she had to find transportation to Plainsboro to get tested.
At present, the university does not have access to any doses of vaccines, but when it obtains them, Schorin said he hopes they will distribute them to townspeople as well as students, faculty and staff.
“I know that that in and of itself is more complicated, because it involves supplies, and the state, and negotiating with them,” he said. “But again, considering that Princeton has the money and the influence, should they be able to obtain vaccines – and we imagine that they will sometime in the near future – they should be distributing them to the residents of Princeton and the surrounding localities.”
Many speakers and demonstrators highlighted that by deciding to bring undergraduate students back to campus, Princeton administration put the broader community at risk.
“Students get together. They party,” said Hrishi Somayaji, a member of PMA, later adding, “They did this without the consultation of the broader population. And so, we’re asking for these decisions to be truly democratic going forward.”
Somayaji said a town hall where Princeton University shared its COVID-19 reopening plan was not open for public discussion.
University Spokesperson Ben Chang noted via email that Princeton’s “paramount responsibility” is to the students, faculty and staff of the university. He also wrote that throughout the pandemic, Princeton has been working to battle COVID with groups both on and off campus, such as undergraduate and graduate student governments, and local and state health officials, and that its licensing for testing only allowed it to test faculty, students and staff.
Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser could not be reached for comment by press time.
Felice Physioc, another protestor involved with PAAC and PGSU, drew a comparison to the University of California, Davis, which has been providing COVID resources to non-university community members. Somayaji, via email, echoed this point and wrote that Princeton ought to be trying to find ways to legally test community members in addition to those already being tested.
“They provide the same things that we’re asking for – not asking for, we’re demanding – of the university, and they have a lot less of an endowment than Princeton does,” Physioc said.
After reading the demands once again to bring the protest to a close, Physioc made it clear that the demonstration was just one action in a broader struggle.
“This is not the end of this fight. This is the beginning, so we will be getting together very soon to make sure that these demands are implemented.”