Students Protest Downtown’s Backless Benches

GABBY HARTZE | THE SPECTRUM Backless benches like this one at the corner of Third Avenue North and Fifth Street North in downtown Fargo have been met with outcry from homeless advocates.
GABBY HARTZE | THE SPECTRUM
Backless benches like this one at the corner of Third Avenue North and Fifth Street North in downtown Fargo have been met with outcry from homeless advocates.

Alice Wu believes a bench is more than a bench for some people.

On Friday, Wu, a senior in theater arts, and six other protesters including four North Dakota State students and one faculty, protested the Downtown Community Partnership’s installation of backless, armless benches in downtown Fargo, an instillation aimed at deterring transient and homeless individuals from loitering to improve downtown’s walkability.

Five benches lacking backs and arms were installed downtown in September. They were met with public outcry for having “a deeper meaning behind them,” Wu said.

Wu added the “well-lit” streets of downtown Fargo and its “higher population” are “safer” than other places for homeless individuals to sleep at night.

“If somebody doesn’t have anything … they don’t have a home, they don’t have a job … what do they have?” she said. “All they have is a bench; a place where they can sleep.”

The backless benches “take away from these people without giving something back,” said Matthew Dryburgh, a junior in theater arts who also protested the backless benches.

Christopher Taylor, a senior in theater arts, Mariah Spillers, a freshman in theater arts, and Chelsea Pace, theater arts assistant professor, joined Wu and Dryburgh in protesting, along with two community members.

The group held signs asking questions meant “to start conversations,” Dryburgh said.

They received mixed reactions.

“Some people were like, ‘Yeah, I complete agree, and you guys are doing the right thing,’ and there were other people who were just mad,” Dryburgh said.

Wu said people have contacted her asked her “why don’t you go out and do something instead of protesting on a bench?”

“The point of it was to start a conversation with the people in our community to get them really thinking about what does this means,” Wu said.

Wu said she can volunteer in homeless shelters, “but that doesn’t put beds in them.”

“The shelters in Fargo are just full. They’re full to capacity. And that’s wrong,” she said.

Dryburgh said citizens of Fargo should help and not “take away from these people because they have very little.”

The students’ protest has not been the first.

Homeless group advocates decorated the downtown backless benches with welcome mats, pillows and blankets on Sept. 25.

For “intentional or unintentional” reasons, Wu said, the benches send a certain message.

Wu and Dryburgh said they are still monitoring the bench controversy and plan to raise more awareness about helping the homeless should their “conversations” continue.

“We have started conversations on multiple levels,” Dryburgh said. “It’s just kind of wait and see what happens from here.”

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