The United Campus Workers of Georgia protested the University of Georgia’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in front of the UGA Arch Friday evening as downtown slowly came to life one day before the second home football game of the season.
Event planner Amelia Wheeler said she believes that UGA prioritizes football and money over the lives of campus workers and community members.
About 25 people, most of them UCWGA members, attended the hour-long protest. Speakers included graduate students Wheeler and Bryant Barnes, mathematics professor Joe Fu and Athens community member and former UGA employee Carrie Bishop.
Fu’s speech reiterated the six demands UCWGA listed in its first protest of the semester on Aug. 17. He also passed around pamphlets titled “Covid at UGA: an update” to pedestrians passing by, most of whom took them and kept walking. The pamphlet, written by Fu and UGA history professor Cindy Hahamovitch, expressed a concern that UGA’s declining COVID-19 numbers don’t paint a full picture.
“[UGA’s testing plan relies] entirely on people to show up on their own initiative,” the pamphlet said. “Just guessing here, but we’re thinking that the students going to bars and frat parties unmasked were not among the people lining up to have their sinus cavities roto-rootered.”
UGA will host a football game against the University of Tennessee Saturday, one week after drawing criticism for perceived lack of social distancing in the home opener against Auburn University.
Athletic director Greg McGarity said in a Wednesday email to students that the UGA Athletic Association is grateful for the “vast majority of students who followed the social distancing guidelines.” Senior deputy athletic director Josh Brooks told The Red & Black that only about 1% of students didn’t comply.
UCWGA held up a sign with the office phone numbers of McGarity and Brooks, encouraging community members to express their concern. Wheeler said she doesn’t blame students but rather the university and the “bow-tied donors cocooned in their box seats who don’t give a damn.”
“If you’re a parent, tell them you’re scared for your children,” Wheeler said. “If you’ve lived in Athens for a long time like I have, tell these athletic directors that you’re afraid for your community members whom you love. Tell them how you feel. It doesn’t have to be antagonistic. It doesn’t have to be hostile.”
Barnes poked fun at the UGA administration by dressing in a suit with a UGA employee tag he obtained from a fellow union member.
At least one audience member was fooled by Barnes’ impersonation. Heused lines like “Dawg Strong” and “a few bad apples” while answering prepared questions.
“The administrators’ efforts to downplay how badly they’ve botched this is comedic,” Barnes told The Red & Black after the protest. “That was what we were trying to hit on.”
Some passing drivers honked their car horns in support of the protest, as they did during the August protest. One individual interrupted the beginning of Friday’s protest by screaming from across the street while Wheeler was speaking with her mask temporarily off.
“Where is your mask? You’re killing people,” said the person, who didn’t have a mask on.
“Where is your mask? If you’re so concerned, come join us, brother,” Wheeler said while other union members mumbled not to feed the “troll”.
The incident didn’t bother Wheeler, who said after the protest that she faced worse heckling in her former job as a high school history and economics teacher. Wheeler tried to instill critical thinking skills into her students so they could better understand and stand up to social structures.
“Now as I’m stepping into this new role as a scholar-activist, I’m taking those ideals that I wanted to instill in my students and I’m trying to live them,” Wheeler said. “Now I have the time. Now I have the networks. Now I have the capacity to show them, look, if I look around and see if something is unjust, I can do something about it.”