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Amherst sleeps out to protest climate change

Christopher Potter has been living in a tent on the University of Massachusetts campus for 121 days.

The sophomore political science major is protesting the use of fossil fuels for electricity by refusing to sleep in the dorms as part of a statewide campaign called Massachusetts Power Shift.

Potter started on Oct. 24, 2009, which is the International Climate Day of Action, and has slept outside every night since. He even slept on his roof at home over winter break.

“My family is very supportive, but worries about my health,” he quipped on his lifestyle choice.

Potter says he hasn’t been politically active all of his life, but has been interested in politics from a fairly young age, recalling George W. Bush’s election in 2000 as a moment cementing his political interest.

The first political campaign Potter joined was the Leadership Campaign, a component of the group Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF).

Craig Altemose, a Harvard law student and coordinator of the organization, said the group was founded in hopes of making Massachusetts a leader in clean energy production.

“The Leadership Campaign started as Massachusetts Power Shift in the spring of 2008 by embracing the goal of 100 percent clean energy by the year 2020,” he said. “There are now 20 organizations signed onto the campaign,” he added. “We started sleeping out last fall and got 17 legislators to create an emergency task force bill that we are still working to pass by Earth Day this year.”

SJSF have been taking part in regional sleep-outs throughout Massachusetts, the most recent one taking place last Saturday in Amherst Common. Students came from all over the state to sleep on the common overnight, with Amherst state Rep. Ellen Story speaking that afternoon.

Last weekend’s sleep-out was the western Massachusetts version of SJSF’s Boston Common sleep-outs, which took place for seven weekends beginning on Oct. 24. During those sleep-outs, some 200 students were arrested on charges of trespassing on the common after hours. Even more slept out at least one night, said Altemose.

UMass sophomore environmental science major Katie MacDonald is the regional co-coordinator of the campaign for western Massachusetts. She coordinates the student efforts with the Leadership Campaign at different campuses in the region. She said she first got involved with the global warming issues as a senior at Winchester High School in Winchester, Mass., and, along with Potter, helped develop the Leadership Campaign last summer. Unlike Potter, she sleeps out only when there is a group event.

Potter thinks he has personally made an impact on the issue.

“Hopefully people see me and realize that there are people out there who care about the Earth’s future and civilization’s stability enough to do something about it,” he said. Though he doesn’t live inside, he says he charges his electronics with “dirty fossil fuels,” because “right now there’s no escaping them, and it makes us all contribute to climate change, unfortunately.”

The police took his tent one night, citing it as abandoned property.

“I think it was an intimidation tactic,” he said. Potter was forced to go to the station and claim his tent.

When asked what he wants to do for a career, Potter says he wants to continue pushing for clean electricity.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. MacDonald also hopes to go into social justice work for the environment.

“We’ve been lucky that our bill has caught the attention of legislators,” said MacDonald.

Lauren Vincent can be reached at

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