Students hold sit-in to protest UMass investment in fossil fuel companies

By Stuart Foster

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Members from the University of Massachusetts Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign held a sit-in in front of Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s office in the Whitmore Administration building from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday.  The group is demanding that the UMass Board of Trustees revoke all of the UMass system’s investments from the fossil fuel industry, and planned to stay at Whitmore until Wednesday.

UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said that at 5 p.m. members from UMass Divest peacefully left the Whitmore Administration building after receiving a letter from the Chancellor’s office. The letter confirmed that four to five members of Divest UMass will have an hour-long conference call with the Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees Victor Woolridge and UMass President Martin Meehan Tuesday afternoon to discuss “whether or not the UMass Foundation will be given a public directive to fully divest.”

Mica Reel, a UMass Divest core team member, said that the campaign strategy was working and that the sit-in would continue Tuesday leading up to the conference call at 1 p.m. Reel also anticipated the Board of Trustees giving the group a yes-or-no answer Tuesday.

While members sat quietly along the hallway leading up the Chancellor’s office, approximately 150 students and local residents also staged a rally in front of the Student Union from noon to 1 p.m. before marching to Whitmore where more members joined the sit-in.

“Right now there are 30 students in the Whitmore building putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest,” Shawn Provost, a member of the campaign, said at the rally in front of the Student Union before the Chancellor responded.

Provost, a civil engineering and political science major, reiterated a message put forward by many of the students who spoke at the rally.

“Our power is derived by our commitment to justice and our commitment to each other,” Provost said.

Throughout the day, speakers framed divestment as more than a climate change issue but argued that it intersected with multiple social and racial justice campaigns.

Josh Odam, the Student Government Association’s Student Trustee elect, said that minority populations in America are disproportionately affected by environmental pollution.

“I would not be responsible if I did not come out here and say that we need to make sure the climate justice movement is intersectional … the environmental, social and racial justice movements are inextricably linked,” Odam said.

Odam said that campus leaders at UMass need to be held to a high moral standard on climate justice and should serve the interests of students, not the corporations which hold their investments.

“It is unacceptable to be complacent to let the University contribute to violence,” Odam said.

Gabriel Shapiro, a Hampshire College student, echoed Odam’s call to view climate, social and racial issues as intertwined campaigns.

“We need to show up for all other movements and look at the intersections. Energy justice is racial justice,”

Shapiro also condemned a project proposed by Kinder Morgan, a Houston-based natural gas corporation,that would establish a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to the New England coast, cutting through multiple communities in Massachusetts. Shapiro claimed the proceeds for the sales would contribute to the U.S.’s overseas imperialism by funding the fossil fuel industry’s expansion into foreign markets.

As Filipe Carvalho, the emcee of the rally and director of the Center for Economic Policy Advocacy, passed the megaphone from speaker to speaker, attendants repeated a series of chants and brandished hand-crafted signs that read “Money can’t be eaten, put your money where your mouth is.”

Crowd members echoed the individual speaker’s chants such as “one-two-three-four, Climate Change is class war, five-six-seven-eight racial justice cannot wait” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Fossil Fuels have got to go.”

After the rally concluded, organizers led the crowd of roughly 150 in a march to the ramp leading up to Whitmore. There, the group broke in sections to receive “non-violent” protest training before joining the sit-in.

Inside, members who’d been sitting outside the Chancellor’s office since the morning received fruit, bagels and other food items from organizing members.

Samantha Gerdes sat atop one of the vents on the third floor of Whitmore and helped distribute food along the row of participants.

“We hope to polarize the administration enough that they publicly acknowledge their wrongdoings and take responsibility and divest the rest of their investments in fossil fuels,” Gerdes said.

Reel said that the demonstrators in Whitmore were not physically disrupting the building and were being supported throughout the day by volunteers.

“We have people delivering meals throughout the day,” Reel said. “It’s really amazing to see the amount of support we have on campus and we’re hoping the Board of Trustees recognizes this.”

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @bdeady26. Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.