For the past five days, University of Georgia students, faculty and staff gathered to protest the University System of Georgia’s lack of mask and vaccine mandates at their 26 colleges and universities. The protests, which were organized by the United Campus Workers of Georgia and the American Association of University Professors, drew both support and frustration from the UGA community.
The demonstrations began on Monday, when around 100 protesters gathered at Tate Plaza around 10 a.m. with signs to support mask and vaccine mandates on USG campuses.
“You are letting people die and be hurt by what you’re doing purely for the donors’ sake and the approval of the public,” said UGA student Alex Watts. “You are letting your students die and not letting them receive the education they are here to receive.”
Around 30 counterprotesters arrived at the plaza, also carrying signs, for an opposing rally hosted by the Athens Anti-Mandate group.
“We are not against masks and vaccines, we are just against the force of a mandate.” said UGA student Clarissa Beck. “I haven’t gotten vaccinated due to religious reasons. I am Catholic and the vaccine mandate goes against what I believe … We should have the freedom to choose.”
According to a flyer for the protests, UCWGA and AAUP support religious and medical exemptions from vaccines so long as unvaccinated individuals are tested regularly for COVID-19.
Pope Francis has also urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Despite tensions between the groups, the scene remained nonviolent.
On Tuesday, protesters gathered at Tate Plaza to continue calling for vaccine and mask mandates. The demonstration also featured speakers including UGA English professor Barbara McCaskill, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link, Athens resident Rachel Evans, UGA graduate student Tyler Kelly, Athens doctor Nicole Broerman, Athens ICU nurse Alex White and UGA mathematics professor Joseph H.G. Fu.
“I am the parent of two children in the Athens community and I say all that because I think it’s incredibly important for us to realize that this is not about individuals. This is about our community and everything that UGA does has an impact on the community around us,” Kelly said.
UGA psychology professor and host of the event Janet Frick clarified the goal of the protests was to push USG to implement mask and vaccine mandates on college campuses, not to return to remote learning.
The third day of protests was held at the Northwest Lawn in front of the Zell B. Miller Learning Center. Retired Athens nurse Carol Sue Meech, ACC Commissioner Mariah Parker, UGA student Suvitha Viswanathan, UGA PhD student Savannah Downing and others spoke at the event.
“I think [the protests] illustrate especially the fact that this is statewide and it's happening to multiple campuses that staff, faculty, and students are unsatisfied with the University System of Georgia Board of Regents,” Downing said.
Downing also said that while she is glad to see UGA incentivizing vaccines and campaigning for mask-wearing on social media, she feels it’s not enough.
Thursday’s protests were held at Memorial Plaza, featuring State Representative for District 106 Dr. Rebecca Mitcthell, associate professor at UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology Justin Bahl, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and others.
“I'm calling on the Board of Regents, now is the time to use your positions to keep us safe, to make these great institutions strong and enduring because all of our children and all of our grandchildren are going to look back on this time,” Girtz said. “They are going to ask ‘which side were you on? Were you on the side of taking care of one another or were you on the side of throwing caution to the wind’.”
In between each speaker, the crowd would chant, “Vaccination for the bulldog nation.”
During one of the speeches, a person walking on the other side of the street shouted, “Pro-choice, let people choose what to do with their lives.” Protesters shouted back.
Friday, the final day of the protests, returned to the Northwest Lawn outside the MLC and drew a crowd of about 60. Guest speakers included UGA assistant professor Usree Bhattacharya, Athens emergency room nurse Nevena Martin, UGA student Fatime Niane, UGA Graduate School admissions counselor Bobbie Warren, and Downing.
“I get to go home when I want to go home, but there are hundreds of residents here who aren’t just college students, who live here and who have to, you know, come to this school, who have to go to dinner with their families at their homes here in Athens-Clarke County,” Niane said. “So, you know, as a student we have that privilege and we are expected to serve as an example — wear masks in our classrooms — to do that, as simple as that, is still a problem for many people.”
A counterprotest was held again by the Athens Anti-Mandate group in Tate Plaza. While the two protests were separate, several participants from the counterprotest arrived with signs and stood among the protesters.
Tensions rose when the counterprotesters tried to stand in front of a group of protesters and move closer to the speaker, only to be blocked by pro-mandate protesters. The counterprotesters moved forward again, but were blocked by more protesters.
UGA psychology professor and host of the event Janet Frick defused the situation by urging the protesters to not engage with the counterprotesters. The counterprotesters remained at the gathering, standing silently with their signs.
The protest was interrupted a second time when a counterprotester came near the gathering and began shouting over Niane, who was speaking. Dean of Students Bill McDonald removed the person from the scene.
Lauren Harvey, Simran Kaur Malhotra, Avery Scott, Gabrielle Vitali, Lucinda Warnke