Dozens of Boston College students risked arrest to gather at Boyden Park last Thursday for a Fossil Fuel Divestment Day rally. The rally, hosted by Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC), was part of a national day of action in which hundreds of students from over 50 colleges around the United States took part in rallies, sit-ins, die-ins, walk-outs, and other forms of protest.
At the CJBC rally, protestors hand-delivered a letter listing divestment and climate action demands to President Father Leahy's office. The letter states that if the administration fails to respond with a clear plan to address these demands, CJBC and other students, faculty, and alumni have committed to taking non-violent actions to disrupt business as usual on campus.
Protestors also distributed pink paper hearts to several administrators as Valentine cards that stressed the overarching message of the rally: 'Breakup with fossil fuels.' The notes were created by more than 100 students and faculty.
Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore and Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Tom Mogan met with CJBC members on Monday. The administrators told CJBC that they would further discuss responding to the letter by this Thursday, as requested by the club. CJBC is hoping that the administration’s response does more than reaffirm the university’s position, but instead leads to action moving forward as united students and administration.
Conversations around divestment at universities around the nation were sparked by a protest at a Harvard-Yale football game last November. About 70 protestors stormed the field at halftime, eventually drawing up 500 people to the demonstration.
Kyle Rosenthal, CJBC spokesman and CSOM ‘21, said that prior to the rally, the club communicated with students at other Catholic universities, many of which were within the Catholic Divestment Network. Together, the schools eventually decided on one day of action.
“Our whole intention was never to get to a point where there needed to be arrests,” Rosenthal said. “We think this event was really escalated by the administration.”
Rosenthal says CJBC didn’t originally intend for a large demonstration but realized that students would need a gathering place from which to walk and deliver the letters. Because CJBC didn’t want to register the rally—required by university policy for any on-campus events—they chose Boyden Park, the lawn between 2150 and St. Ignatius Church, which is considered state land.
Mogan reached out to CJBC the day before the event. Rosenthal said that in their meeting, Mogan told CJBC that even though they were gathering off-campus, delivering the letters as a group would be considered a march and would still violate the policy—which meant BCPD could become involved.
Rosenthal continues to explain that Mogan told CJBC he would inform the Boston City police (and potentially state troopers) of the rally. Boston and Newton city counselors also reached out to CJBC about the event.
“I met with Climate Justice to discuss the rally and supported their rights to do so in a manner that was consistent with University policy. We have responded to the letter and have invited the leaders of Climate Justice to meet with VP Moore and myself,” said Mogan in a statement emailed to The Gavel.
Rosenthal says CJBC has struggled with recognition and funding from the university in the past. The organization was initially named 'BC Fossil Free' and when students attempted to register as a student organization, they were told the name was contentious and inappropriate. Climate Justice has now been established for around six to seven years, and Rosenthal says that since getting the club off the ground was so hard, the organization tries to stay within its boundaries in terms of requesting resources and funding.
Georgetown University’s administration pledged to divest from fossil fuels on Feb. 6, and student groups at other schools took part in Divestment Day with the hopes of achieving this as well—Cornell University students shut down campus roads, students at Harvard occupied one of the university buildings, and at Mount Holyoke, hundreds of students walked out of class and crowded a university hall in protest.
BC’s position on fossil fuel divestment remains the same. In a statement emailed to The Gavel, BC’s spokesman Jack Dunn said, “Calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies seems inconsistent and contradictory, given that Boston College and other institutions and businesses are dependent on oil and gas for everyday energy needs, and likely will be for the foreseeable future.”
“The University’s position is that the best way to respond to the important issue of climate change is for all members of the BC community–along with corporations, organizations, and individuals—to reduce energy consumption and promote sustainability,” Dunn said.
To Rosenthal, the actions and intentions of CJBC have been received much more positively by students, and he referred to the UGBC referendum on divestment passed just last year as evidence.
“It ended up getting 86% support—or somewhere in the mid-80s—which was a testament to how much student support there was, and we’re very proud of that,” said Rosenthal.
Last semester’s protest against proposed funding from the Charles Koch Foundation was a collaborative effort between Climate Justice and EcoPledge and had an impressive turnout. The Divestment Day rally, despite not being publicized much, drew in over 40 people.
“Every year that I’ve been here, the incoming class has been more supportive... and every time a class graduates and becomes new alumni, they seem to engage with us more,” said Rosenthal. “The wheels are turning, the momentum’s there.” Parents, faculty, and alumni have been getting more involved; according to Rosenthal, some alumni have even refused to donate until BC divests.
However, the campus is decisive on where the push for sustainability should come from. “Every time I talk to an administrator, they tell me that they need a culture of sustainability to come from the students,” says Rosenthal. “And every time I talk to students, they say that they’re doing everything they can and they think a culture of sustainability needs to come from the top-down.”
Although CJBC does encourage actions taken on the individual level, it believes that climate action should occur primarily on the institutional level. Rosenthal makes it clear that the club has no intention of making students feel guilty about their individual decisions surrounding climate change.
Among the speakers at the rally was Robert Ryan, one of the leaders of Alumni for Climate Justice, which is a sister organization of CJBC. He reiterated the basis of the argument against BC’s divestment—the university’s values.
“[Boston College] presents itself as a Jesuit Catholic university, and the Jesuit Pope Francis has told all Catholic leaders to take bold, drastic action to do something. That was 5 years ago. And Boston College has done little,” said Ryan. “[The university] has essentially ignored attempts by students.”
Ryan said that as an alum who cares about BC, the issue of divestment has been particularly troubling to him. “I just want it to live up to its stated values... men and women for others, light for the world—all those wonderful ideas—but with a focus on this crucial issue, which I think most people would say Francis believes is the most significant, existential threat facing this species.”
Rosenthal says CJBC has a variety of further events planned in case the administration doesn’t take action, including more demonstrations and eventual formal legal action, but they hope the situation never reaches this point.
More than anything, Rosenthal repeatedly referred to Boston College’s mission as a reason that divestment is so important. He sees it as an issue based on the same love and acceptance as BC’s values.
“Here are some Jesuit, Catholic things to do,” he said, referring to the letter. “Let’s do them.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 2/25 to reflect that demonstrators directly delivered the letter to Fr. Leahy's office.