About 100 people gathered on Nassau Street in front of Princeton University on Saturday afternoon to demand that the Ivy League school share its COVID-19 resources with residents of Princeton and neighboring communities.
“Our demands are to expand testing, contract tracing programs, and vaccines, when they get them, to all those in the community,” said Hrishi Somayaji, a Princeton undergraduate who is part of the group Princeton Mutual Aid. “We want the university to make COVID-19-related decisions in a truly democratic manner via an elected commission with members of the university as well as members of the community.”
The protest was organized by organizations based at Princeton University and other community groups. In addition to Princeton Mutual Aid, representatives from Unidad Latina en Acción, the Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition, and Princeton Graduate Students United participated in the protest. Speakers said the university should be doing more to help area community members who are uninsured, underinsured, or undocumented.
“They’re the ones who need this the most, so we’re out there with them,” said Marc Schorin of the Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition. “Town people are suffering, and there’s this institution with billions of dollars right here that has the resources to mobilize and relieve that suffering.”
The protest, which included both students and community members, began at 4 p.m. in front of the FitzRandolph Gate and continued until about 5:30 p.m. Organizers required participants to socially distance themselves and wear masks.
“UC Davis, Tufts, and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls have all opened testing clinics, albeit temporarily, for the university community,” said Somayaji. “If those universities can find a way to offer community testing clinics, then Princeton can as well.”
The University of California, Davis is providing free COVID-19 testing, masks, and quarantine housing to thousands of people in the surrounding community. This month, Tufts University partnered with the cities of Medford and Somerville to launch a new COVID-19 pooled-testing program that will support K-12 schools.
Princeton University has a COVID-19 testing clinic for faculty, staff, and students, but testing is not open to the surrounding community. The university has cited test licensing restrictions as a reason for not being able to provide COVID-19 testing to residents of the town or to students and teachers in public schools. The university has hosted a municipal COVID vaccine clinic and has also provided pandemic relief funding to support local businesses and nonprofits.
Jeremy Kim, a Lawrence resident and volunteer at Princeton Mutual Aid, said community members do not resent Princeton University students, but feel unsafe with the way the university handled the return of undergraduates.
During the protest on Saturday, organizers led chants in Spanish and English and speeches were given by members of various organizations. Translators made each speech available for the gathered listeners in both languages.
“It was a unilateral decision from the university without consulting the community,” Kim said. “Their responsibility extends beyond their students. It extends to the surrounding community.”
The university consults with state and local health officials in making COVID-19 related decisions, but protesters said the school should have also received input from residents and listened to their concerns. University neighbor Princeton Theological Seminary went remote for the entire academic year due to safety concerns. But students returned to many other schools across the country this semester. Princeton made students quarantine when they returned and tested all returning students. The school also put other safety protocols in place to try to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Both Princeton undergraduate and graduate students attended the protest on Saturday. Two undergraduates from the Class of 2022, Diego Ayala and Harshini Abbaraju, said they are grateful for the COVID-19 resources afforded to students and believe those resources should be available to the community at large.
“I think Princeton has the resources to provide greater support in terms of testing, and vaccines, when it can, for the surrounding community,” Ayala said. “With testing in particular, I think Princeton does have both the responsibility and the resources.”
Both students expressed concern that essential workers, faculty, and students are not represented in the health and safety decision making of the university. Some speakers said too often that decisions are made behind closed doors by a select group of university administrators, without feedback from workers.
Princeton University administrators have not yet responded to the protestors’ demands. Planet Princeton has reached out to the university for comment on the protest. This story will be updated when the university issues a comment.
“This is not the end of the fight,” Somayaji said of the protest. “We will be exploring other methods of targeting the university and pushing for this, but we feel that this demonstration is an important part of that struggle.”