Sitting in to save the planet

April 25, 2016

Students at Columbia and New York Universities are saying enough is enough--and their actions are winning support for fossil-fuel divestment, reports Bennet Wilcox.

STUDENTS AT Columbia University and New York University (NYU) sat in this month to demand the next step on the road to divestment of school funds from the endowments from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

On April 18, members of NYU Divest launched their action, which occupied the elevator to the university's administrative offices in Bobst Library. The sit-in ended after 33 hours when the school's Board of Trustees committed not only to allowing students to present their case to the entire Investment Committee, but also to a goal of bringing divestment to a vote at the board's next meeting in July.

Activists in Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) began their sit-in of the Low Library administrative building four days earlier, on April 14, and it continued for more than a week before the protesters left on Earth Day while negotiations with the university continued.

Campus cops at Columbia held students' belongings hostage in a successful effort to remove them from University President Lee Bollinger's office and even drilled shut the windows used for fresh air during the occupation. But the students persevered through these efforts to force them out without the embarrassment of calling police and remained committed to occupying Low Library until Bollinger publicly recommended divestment to the Board of Trustees.

A sleep-out for fossil fuel divestment at Columbia University
A sleep-out for fossil fuel divestment at Columbia University (Columbia Divest for Climate Justice)

But Bollinger, rather than engaging with the overwhelming campus consensus in favor of divestment, chose to stay home from work and eventually abandon Columbia on a trip to California. The occupation of Low Library ended only after the president had left the city and promised a response from the administration to student demands.

THE NYU administration's quicker concession wasn't because it is more willing to engage with students. Prior to the sit-ins, each school's administration has used similar delay tactics to undermine student activism and wait out the four-year "graduation cycle," which makes it difficult for students to continue to participate in movements on their campuses.

At each school, there have been trails of meetings and negotiations to stall the progress of the fossil-fuel divestment movement.

At Columbia, students met for three years with Bollinger, members of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, and even members of the Board of Trustees, only to be consistently met with the same response: "We're on your side, but give us more time."

Meanwhile, CDCJ garnered widespread support from the university community, winning votes of student government bodies and a referendum of the student body itself. But all were met with the same inaction, not only from the Board of Trustees, but also the administrators who advise the board.

At NYU, repeated requests by student activists for meetings with the Board of Trustees to present their case were denied. Instead, they were offered meetings with select individuals--meant to appease the students while pushing off divestment into the distant future.

The verbal statements from administrators have been largely supportive of the goals of the movement, despite the stonewalling--that is, until last week, when students actually began exerting their power, deciding that enough was enough and demanding that their respective administrations keep their promises to push for fossil-fuel divestment.

Immediately after the sit-ins began, intimidation became the main response of administration officials.

According to a statement released by NYU Divest: "The university administrators made it clear that they do not stand on the side of the students...They were willing to kick students out of housing, prevent them from graduating, and fail their grades. This to their own students, members of this community that they steward."

At Columbia, administrators were sent several times a day to threaten student activists with trumped-up charges. Before school started on Monday, students were told that suspension would be recommended if they did not leave immediately.

Columbia has a "free speech scholar" for a president, and institutions across the country voice support for the right to dissent. But it is moments like these--when students are forced to struggle against their administrations to demand a just place to live and learn--that their true character comes to light.

SO HOW will climate justice activists around the world fight back against this most recent wave of attacks on their right to make a public case for divestment and demand an ethical response from institutions including colleges and universities?

Both the NYU and Columbia sit-ins provide inspiring examples of how communities can come together in support of shared interests and stopping those who are profiting off of the destruction of the planet.

Both NYU Divest and CDCJ reached out in all directions for support from broader layers of people in order to support those brave enough to partake in a protest under fire.

Since April 14, more than 50 on- and off-campus organizations have released statements in support of one or both of the two sit-ins. Almost 400 faculty from the two universities have signed statements of support for their students, and hundreds of e-mails and phone calls have poured into administrative offices demanding amnesty for the students and support for fossil-fuel divestment.

This support comes from communities much larger than the activist left on campus. People signing on in solidarity with the protesters have ranged from feminist organizations, unions and Black radical groups to the College Democrats, student councils and environmental research institutes. The campaigns also received two high-profile shout-outs from actor Mark Ruffalo, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein.

While this movement may have been started by a small number of students deciding to take a stand and demanding that their universities cease profiting off of environmental destruction, these two actions have now involved much larger numbers of people standing in solidarity and saying "yes" to divestment.

Winning climate justice is going to take more than university divestment from fossil-fuel companies. If we are going to keep climate change to below the 2 degree Celsius temperature threshold that would prevent catastrophic climate devastation, it will require the democratic restructuring of society in order to put people over profit.

But victories like that at NYU, and hopefully soon at Columbia, are the first steps in creating the kind of mass movement necessary to make a system that doesn't require destroying our planet in order to produce the things we need to survive and thrive. In order to win more, we are going to have to reach out to even broader layers of students, workers and organizations to stand up for their own interest--and be in solidarity with the movement for climate justice.

Further Reading

From the archives