By: J. Adam Brinson
For many students, career fairs are a place to don their swankiest clothes, do some serious networking and score free schwag.
Karim Ahmath is not one of those students.
University Police arrested Ahmath at the Winter Career Fair on Feb. 15 after he got into an argument with a U.S. Army recruiter. He and six other students were handing out brochures entitled “Do You Know Enough to Enlist?” to students near military recruitment tables.
Ian Morgan, one of the students handing out brochures, was with Ahmath at the time. “He just offered the army guy one of the brochures and the army guy was like, ‘No, I don't need that.' From there, fairly quickly, it became a heated argument,” Morgan said. “Both sides very much disagreeing, raising their voices.”
Ahmath said he wasn't trying to be confrontational. “It was not a protest, but a simple act of civil participation,” Ahmath said of their presence at the career fair.
“[We were] students coming together to provide alternative information to the military.”
The other students engaged in similarly intense discussions with other recruiters, according to both Ahmath and Morgan, but University Police was only called in response to Ahmath's actions when the army recruiter felt threatened. Ahmath said he thinks he was singled out because the police racially profiled him.
“I was the only non-white person there,” Ahmath said. The other students were all white, he said, and none of them faced legal consequences. The police arrested Ahmath for disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is defined in the Revised Code of Washington as disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting without legal authority.
On top of feeling racially profiled, Ahmath thought the arrest was unjustified in the first place. “I don't believe that my actions were disorderly,” he said. “I went to participate in an event on campus.”
Ahmath said no one from the career fair asked him to leave or told him they would call the police. Ahmath and Morgan both felt the arrest was a drastic reaction.
“At no time did anybody from the Career Fair give a warning … it just went straight to arrest,” said Morgan. “We [Morgan and Ahmath] were both surprised to see the police come.”
According to Jim Schuster, the director of Viking Union Facilities, anyone who wants to distribute information at a Career Fair must have prior permission to do so. “The fair is specifically oriented to provide students with information about career paths and possible jobs,” Schuster said. “Anything else going on there is not appropriate.”
As an officer of the university, Schuster could not comment on the specific events surrounding Ahmath's arrest, which is a currently pending court case. However, he did say that policy regarding student demonstrations and distributing information in the Viking Union can be found in the Students Rights and Responsibilities code. He also referred to the various Washington Administrative Code and Revised Codes of Washington that have to do with free speech and right to assembly. Schuster described himself as “the de facto champion of free expression on campus.”
“We're looking to make sure peoples' rights are observed. At the same time, as a university, we have a primary mission, which is to educate people,” Schuster said. “We have a right to set time, place and manner of regulations on activities that go on.”
Ahmath feels differently.
“There shouldn't be any rules about handing out flyers,” he said.
“There shouldn't even be rules about arguments on campus.”
Ahmath said students were here to learn, and active discussion was part of that process.
“I didn't know I would be arrested for handing out flyers and talking to the military and other students.”
Ahmath said he was also racially profiled at the Spring Career Fair. According to Ahmath, he and a white student, Jennifer Henley, were holding signs for the AS club Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that denounced racist career fair policies. Both students were standing outside the entrance to the Viking Union Multipurpose Room. Ahmath said a woman from the Career Services Center approached him, forcibly put her hand on his shoulder and threatened him with arrest if he didn't move. Ahmath said that she completely ignored Henley.
Ahmath said they were not in the way, but decided to move to a nearby Vendor's Row table with other SDS members to avoid more trouble.
“It's not fun being arrested. I'm in debt because of it,” Ahmath said.
Schuster acknowledged that the university authorities talked to SDS.
“For the [Spring] career fair, we asked the SDS club to stay outside of a certain boundary so that they weren't interfering with people moving in and out [of the Multipurpose Room]. It's a traffic issue,” Schuster said. “I'm neutral on their content.”
Morgan was skeptical about the motives behind the request.
“Once I heard [about] that second incident it confirmed for me that there was some racial profiling going on,” he said.
Ahmath said he has gotten little response from the university regarding his arrest. He said he met with Michael Schardein, the university judicial officer in the Office of Student Life, who admitted the arrest was a mistake, but Ahmath is now the one paying for it.
Schardein was unavailable to immediately comment on this issue.
Ahmath said no one from the university has acknowledged that he was racially profiled.
“Nobody likes to be called a racist,” he said. “They just ignore it and hope it goes away. … The administration likes to promote this school as liberal and says that it promotes diversity. But you can't support diversity when placing racial minorities in handcuffs.”
Ahmath is currently collecting what he believes to be other incidents of racial profiling on campus. He has talked to a few students so far and recorded their stories. He hopes to publish them in a zine soon and bring more attention to the issue.
“I'm not alone,” he said. “This is not an isolated event. This happens all the time to students of color on campus.”