Last Wednesday two former UCA students were arrested when they refused to leave the Conway Navy recruitment office.
The recruitment officers tried to convince them to leave, the Conway Police issued them warnings and were even reluctant to arrest the students.
Although they were given every opportunity to avoid arrest, these students stayed put. They were out to prove a point.
UCA students banded together with gay-straight alliance groups from Hendrix College and University of Arkansas at Little Rock to organize and orchestrate an act of civil disobedience in protest to the federal “don’t ask don’t tell policy,” which bans openly gay individuals from serving in the military.
UCA senior Amanda Harris was contacted in July by Soulforce. According to their Web site, righttoserve.org, Soulforce is an online network “committed to research, teach and apply the principles of nonviolence as taught and lived by Gandhi and King on behalf of sexual and gender minorities.” Soulforce was looking for someone in Conway to organize a sit-in for openly gay students who want to join the military. Harris turned to UCA graduate Esther Mead.
As Mead later told reporters at a press conference on the day of the sit-in, Harris thought of her because she is “a perfect candidate.”
“I have a strong will to achieve. I desire a real challenge. I’m healthy and I’m fit,” Mead said. “I’m a graduate of a four-year university. I have achieved a bachelor’s in psychology, a bachelor’s in finance marketing and a master’s in business administration. I possess the leadership skills and above all, determination.
“These points render me eligible to apply as a Navy officer by attending the Navy Officer Candidate School.
“I’m not the first in my family to express a genuine interest to serve in the US Armed Forces. My brother served in the Air force, my uncle in Vietnam. My father and mother’s father both served in the army during the Korean Conflict. Also my father’s father was part of the brave fighting forces sent to Europe during World War II,” Mead said.
Mead said she has known about the federal “don’t ask don’t tell” policy since 1993, but didn’t think of the influence it would have over her life until recently.
“It wasn’t until a few years ago when some friends who were openly gay wanted to serve that I thought about it, because I had been thinking of serving as well,” Mead said. “What happened is they served and lied about their sexuality, and I knew I wasn’t willing to do that.”
On the day of the sit-in, Mead allowed the recruiters to conduct an entire interview with her before telling them that she is openly lesbian. Harris said that the long interview made the other protesters, who were waiting to begin the sit-in, nervous, but she understood Mead’s need to prove a point.
“She scored twice the Arkansas average on the test they gave her,” Harris said. “She wanted to prove what a good candidate she actually is. Even though she was doing it to prove a point, it was still an emotional moment. For her it was a personal point as well as an overall point, because when the protest is all over she still won’t be able to serve her country.”
Harris is a public relations major and said the skills she has learned in her classes helped her organize this and other protests.
“I got a lot of experience organizing this, which is great, because I want to organize things for a living,” Harris said. “But we were also really lucky. Everything went perfect.”
For those who question the need for a sit-in, Harris said that it was the only tangible means of protesting the policy. She said the protesters were not expecting anything from the recruiters, but instead hoped that the media coverage of the arrests would spark conversations.
“I just want to have a conversation with the American people about the policy,” Harris said. “A recent poll shows that 60 percent believe the ban should be lifted and another 8 percent were apathetic.
“I would just like to raise awareness among the American people, and maybe get those who are apathetic to think twice, and those who already oppose it to start speaking out.
“I hope that people who read the stories about this will see that there are young, able-bodied and intelligent youth who want to serve and can’t. I hope that when they see that, they will realize how ridiculous it is,” Harris said.
Hendrix students Houston Hughes, Joseph Hayden, Greg Cooper, Derek Easttom and Jacob Fluharty were arrested; along with UCA student Jeremy Gosnell and former UCA student Leila Nations, as well as Mead.
They were released on $1840 bail later that evening. Soulforce provided the bail money, but Harris said the process took much longer than expected.
“There for a little while we thought our protestors were going to have to learn a lesson in civil disobedience 101 – by spending a night in jail,” Harris said. “I’m still thankful that didn’t end up being the case.”
The arrests were covered by Arkansas news sources KARK NBC Channel 4, KATV ABC Channel 7, KTHV CBS Channel 11, KUAR National Public Radio, “The Arkansas Times” and “The Log Cabin Democrat,” among others.