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Point counterpoint: In a tent for justice

Just last week a friend of mine turned to me in class and whipped out her phone to show me a picture. The little still on the screen of her Blackberry showed a tent where she told me a University of Massachusetts student was sleeping. “Who’d be nuts enough to sleep outside in this weather?” she said. It turns out this student isn’t nuts, not even close.

My friend was referring to Christopher Potter, a student who has spent the last 121 days sleeping in a tent to protest the use of fossil fuels for electricity. A member of Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF), Potter isn’t the only one who’s been sleeping outside. SJSF have been participating in state-wide sleep-outs throughout the state since Oct. 24. In the middle of a New England winter, with a recent snowfall and more expected, it’s easy to write off these sleep-outs as nuts, but are they really?

What better way is there to send a message about protecting our environment than to immerse yourself in it? If college is a place where one is supposed to have new experiences, I doubt anyone could refute living in a tent outside during winter is an experience that you’d likely forget.

I think the lesson he is gaining from this experience is one we should all take to heart. What living outside in less than ideal conditions can teach you is appreciation. One gains a newfound respect for the environment because one is experiencing a part of its extremes firsthand in a completely different light. There’s a big difference between walking around in winter and sleeping out in it.

Potter is not only in a position to appreciate the environment, but also the amenities we take for granted more since he’s distanced himself from them. Flicking on a light has become so routine these days that hardly anyone thinks twice about it. Chances are you don’t even blink.

Consider this. Ever since grade school we’ve been told that fossil fuels are a limited source of energy. Not only are they limited, but they contribute heavily to climate change. There’s only so much in the world to go around and yet some of us still leave lights on when we leave our rooms or maybe we leave one small light on downstairs when we go to bed. Well that one small light isn’t just draining your savings, it’s draining an insufficient supply of energy as well. And the best part? It only harms the environment even further and we’re literally paying to do so.

It is reminiscent of a time when students on college campuses attended university to broaden their horizons, find a cause and stand behind it. I believe Potter has rekindled the old spirit of what it really means to be a college student. Many people come to college with the idea that they want to change the world, to make a difference and that’s exactly what Potter’s protest stands for. It isn’t just the sacrifice of what this student has undertaken that’s so admirable, but what that sacrifice signifies. Christopher Potter is doing the right thing at college by standing up for a just cause. Isn’t that what our college education is all about? The value of our education isn’t just marked by a degree, a mere piece of paper, but what we learn and do. If anything, isn’t college supposed to be the place where one starts to become politically active?

He has suffered since his sleep-out began. On a daily basis he lives without many of the amenities we usually take for granted, heat, electricity, and a legitimate ceiling over our heads. He’s even had the Amherst police take his tent away from him, citing it under the guise of abandoned property. But it’s exactly those types of challenges that test a person’s commitment. If it wasn’t a challenge what would be the worth in standing behind it? Take for example the 200 students who’ve been arrested for trespassing in the seven weeks since SJSF started hosting sleep-outs on the Amherst Common. If they weren’t doing anything do you think the police would have bothered to arrest them? The fact that they were even arrested shows that what they’re doing means something. No one pays attention to the inconsequential, the irrelevant. Arresting these students only ensures that their message is spread even farther and wider because then publicity is generated. Perhaps those students should be thanking the police for helping their cause.

After Potter’s tent was confiscated by the police, he called it an intimidation tactic – but as anyone can see, he clearly wasn’t intimidated, since he got his tent back and went right back to camping. If Martin Luther King Jr. was intimidated after facing angry mobs, riot police and death threats, where would our country stand with civil rights? In a case like this, the intimidation factor only serves to boost the legitimacy of the cause. In fact, SJSF’s cause is so legitimate that they’ve gotten 17 legislators to listen, and draft a bill creating a Repower Massachusetts Emergency Task Force that they hope to pass this year. This just goes to show that when people come together to fight for change, advances can be made.

Kaya Swainson is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at kswainso@student.umass.edu.

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