On October 22, 2022, during halftime at the University of Pennsylvania homecoming football game against Yale, around 75 climate activists with the campus group Fossil Free Penn (FFP) stormed the field to protest the university’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels. The game was delayed by 55 minutes, displaying a powerful message from the students advocating for climate action and reallocation of university funds towards community justice.
FFP had been practicing various forms of activism before the protest at UPenn’s homecoming game. The club recently camped out on the campus green for 39 days to draw attention to the university’s investment in fossil fuels and negligence toward the community it is supposed to be serving. FFP has been advocating for divestment from fossil fuels, preservation of the affordable housing complex University City Townhomes, and fair payment for people in lieu of taxes (PILOTs). These community issues are interconnected, as UPenn’s refusal to reallocate their funds away from fossil fuels and towards the community will result in further gentrification and the eviction of Philadelphia low-income townhome residents.
“Penn, and BC too, are very elite institutions,” one FFP member (who requested to remain anonymous to avoid disciplinary action) explained. “A lot of the students coming here don’t really understand the politics and the issues surrounding the community. Our goal was to at least inform and have people talking about the fact that there is a problem.”
Despite the FFP protests and movements being entirely within the regulations of the campus open expression guidelines, the club’s actions have still been looked down upon by the administration as a means to inconvenience student life. The club acknowledged that their methods may inadvertently cause disruptions to student life, but only as a means to achieve their greater goal of bringing more attention to their message and convince the administration to formally meet with FFP and hear their concerns.
“If they just ignore a problem, sometimes it really does go away in their eyes,” said UPenn grad student Eden Harris. “We peacefully protested [at the homecoming game], and the administration was pretty aggressively yelling in our faces and trying to intimidate us. But there was such high energy around us…I know this is certainly not the last time that we’ll need to stand up for what we know is right.”
The demonstration began near the end of halftime and halted the game for almost an hour until campus police arrived on the scene, threatening and eventually arresting 19 students who refused to leave the field. Free speech and assembly rights should have been guaranteed to FFP in accordance with the university’s open expression guidelines, but instead the club’s peaceful protest was met with police force.
“[There is not] a system to ensure that our right to academic freedom, expression, and assembly is maintained,” said one of the protestors who had been detained, who also requested to remain anonymous. “Everything is basically puppeteered by admin to bully, harass, and intimidate us so that we stop. They didn’t even start letting us go until [the rest of FFP] showed up and started creating a scene.”
The actions taken by these UPenn students urging the university to divest are not exclusive to Pennsylvania. Boston College’s own Climate Justice club, CJBC, has been working tirelessly for almost a decade to stop the university from investing in fossil fuels and harmful environmental practices.
CJBC has been a prominent environmental and social justice club on campus, and their activism throughout the years has ranged from petition signing and campaigns to marches, town halls, and open forums for students and faculty to voice their concerns and grievances about social justice issues present on campus. While the administration has largely been unresponsive to these actions, one recent demonstration caused the club to be put on probation until March 2023.
Being put on probation caused a few new problems for CJBC, since the club had already been under supervision from OSI and is now under even more scrutiny and control. Having to meet with OSI directly for approval of every event has caused limitations on the abilities of the club to fulfill its mission of advocating for climate justice at BC.
The recent protest from UPenn’s climate activists has put this in perspective. CJBC wants to continue advocating for BC’s divestment from fossil fuels, but it has been difficult to organize larger events due to the university’s ever-growing list of restrictions. Recently, OSI went so far as to ban the use of the word “divestment” from the title of flyers for CJBC’s town hall. Despite this setback, the town hall remained a success and proved that many BC students still have an interest in and support the issue.
“It will happen. BC will divest,” remarked CJBC president Cece Durcan. “The climate crisis is imminent, and with the more attention that is brought to it, and the more schools that divest, it’s at the point where it’s no longer in BC’s interests to be invested in fossil fuels.”
As a Jesuit university, it would stand to reason that BC would follow the pope’s own message to enact climate justice and environmental protection, especially as other Jesuit universities like Marquette and Georgetown have already started to move towards divestment from fossil fuels. As more and more universities across the nation choose to divest, and climate justice clubs like FFP and CJBC continue to put constant pressure on their administrations, it may be only a matter of time before BC and UPenn uphold the moral and environmental justice standards they should be held to.