Civil disobedience: student rethinks one tiny act of mailroom resistance

The protests against the World Trade Organization last week shook the globe from their epicenter in Seattle. Similar outbreaks of resistance led to riots in London and demonstrations even as close as Amherst. Alas, this new spirit of the times did not penetrate the Purple Bubble.

Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and assume Williams students were too busy tending to issues of social equity and environmental responsibility here on campus.

Indeed, for the last month, the Purple Druids have been admirably hard at work for more than a month, forcing us to take a long look at the endowment and the policies it supports. Just as well, scattered students whose spirit remains unbroken continue to push junk mail back through their boxes and onto the mailroom floor.

Now this is a cause we can get behind.

Everyone who has ever yelled at a telemarketer or forwarded a chain e-mail back to its sender 10 times over, knows the feeling. Nothing brings about the euphoric rush of good citizenship quite like littering.

Some see this as ineffective and downright mean. Many of these people work in the mailroom, or are mailroom sympathizers. Mailroom workers do not decide what people receive in the mail; they just deliver it. By distributing paid advertisements from various off-campus corporations (most recently Cowcom phone service) and free announcements from campus organizations such as the Health Center, the Office of Career Counseling and the Williams Christian Fellowship (to name a few offenders), those workers are just doing their job. Moreover, they are going to continue doing their job, only now they also have to pick up others’ recycling.

Nolan Burke ’02, a mail room worker, said “It’s just a waste of time for them and for us, because I’m just going to sit there all day picking stuff up and they are just going to sit there pounding away at the mailbox.”

A little lesson in history should set them straight. On a Saturday afternoon about five or so years back, workers in the mail room distributed fliers advertising a sale at Stop & Shop to every mail box. When they came back on Monday morning, “It was terrible. It was like a cyclone had run through the mail room,” said Ty Brooks, former Post Office Supervisor.

That was the last time Stop & Shop fliers found their way into student mailboxes. But, rather than pride in disobeying authority and changing the system, that memory evokes the unsettling image of an elderly woman forced to stoop down to pick up our mess.

That image is a hard one to ignore, even for junk mail refusers. Talking to those who have to clean up after your rebellion softens your heart a little bit. When your mother takes a job as a telemarketer, as mine did, because it is the only job she can find that allows her to spend the time she wants with her husband and four children, you tend to be more polite to telemarketers. After all, they may be somebody’s mother.

Simple as it is, rejecting junk mail is not for the soft-hearted. Just leaving it untouched in your mailbox risks not getting the point across.

Junk mail in my box still finds itself on the floor of the mailroom from time to time, but always with pangs of guilt. Mom, Ms. Brooks, Nolan, I’m sorry; please don’t either of you take it personally.

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