Occupying UMass for fossil fuel divestment

April 20, 2016

Kate Nadel reports on a sit-in at the University of Massachusetts that is putting pressure on the administration to immediately divest from the fossil fuel industry.

MEMBERS OF the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign held a weeklong sit-in mid-April in the Whitmore Administration building on the Amherst flagship campus to demand that the administration commit to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

Student activists in the campaign have been working for upwards of four years demanding that the largest public university in Massachusetts divest their endowment completely from the fossil fuel industry. Longtime student and community members in the divestment campaign were joined by newcomers eager to take part in the Whitmore occupation.

The hallway in front of the Chancellor and Provost's office was lined with students, alumni and community members for five days, beginning on the morning of April 11 when the building opened. At 5 p.m. that day the police issued a dispersal warning and the protesters left.

The following day, UMass Divest took the action a step further by deciding that 15 protesters would continue to occupy the building after closing time, resulting in 15 arrests after hours of negotiation with the UMass Police.

UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign on the fourth day of their sit-in
UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign on the fourth day of their sit-in (UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign)

That night, UMass President Marty Meehan pledged to "advocate for a policy that would see the five-campus UMass system divest and prohibit direct investment in fossil fuel companies."

But activists have heard these vague promises for years with no follow-up action and they were determined to continue the protest to pressure the president and board of trustees to take immediate action to divest. The day after Meehan's announcement, 19 more protesters were arrested for remaining inside the building after the dispersal warning.

The 34 students were arraigned on trespassing charges. All were offered the same deal of four months of probation and 20 hours of community service. Charges will be dropped if they are not charged with new crimes during the four-month period and if the community service hours are complete.

The sit-in continued on Thursday and Friday with no arrests. The UMass Divest leaders repeatedly stated that the occupation had "demonstrated the power" that students and community members hold in pressuring the administration to "lead with us" and "stand on the right side of history."

AFTER EACH day's sit-in, a crowd of supporters stood outside the building to welcome the protesters with cheers, songs, speeches and chants such as "One, two, three, four, climate change is class war! Five, six, seven, eight, racial justice cannot wait!" and "I believe that we will win!"

Protesters had previously gone through trainings about how to stage a sit-in effectively. Once inside the building, occupiers were quiet and respectful, and there was continual encouragement to not disturb anyone trying to do their job.

The intention was to draw attention to the campaign, and actively put pressure on President Marty Meehan and Board of Trustees Chair Victor Woolridge to take action by telling the UMass Foundation, which controls the endowment, to divest completely from fossil fuels.

Actions are continuing. As this article was written, students were camping outside the Whitmore Administration building, holding teach-ins to keep building the campaign. Divest organizers have encouraged participants to "be empowered by and comfortable with the uncertainty" of how the protests will formulate next, and congratulated everyone for building solidarity and creating a community of power.

Students were organizing an event for April 19 called Orange, Red and Green: Climate Justice, Corporate Power and the Fight for a 99 Percent Future. The panel, organized by UMass Divest, the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party and the International Socialist Organization, will feature students from the sit-in, striking Verizon workers and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

During the sit-in, a journal was passed around in which participants were encouraged to contribute their experience. One anonymous entry captured the way that the divestment campaign has inspired UMass activists:

"I am invigorated by the sense of solidarity, passion and self-discipline that I am experiencing during this sit-in right now. I cannot express my gratitude to be a part of such an important and trail-blazing movement."

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