Swarthmore students launch first indefinite occupation for fossil fuel divestment

(Flickr / Anjali Cadambi)

Swarthmore students plan to occupy the Finance and Investments Office until the Board of Managers agrees to negotiate a plan for fossil fuel divestment. (Flickr / Anjali Cadambi)

In 1630, aboard a creaky wooden ship bound for the coast of what would later be known as New England, English settler and future Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop gave an address to the vessel’s weary passengers: “We must consider ourselves as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present support from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

Like most elite institutions, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania fashions itself as a sort of secular city upon a hill, just as Winthrop had imagined the Puritans’ early tenure in the Americas — an example for the world of how best to merge moral and intellectual prescience. In Swarthmore’s case, its self-image is geographically serendipitous: Parrish Hall, Swarthmore’s picturesque administrative hub, sits atop a literal hill, just 20 minutes by train from nearby Philadelphia. Formed in 1864 by Hicksite Quakers seeking pacifist refuge from the Civil War, Swarthmore — in the years since its founding — has birthed generations of progressive organizers, from suffragette Alice Paul to young leaders in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. This legacy has congealed into the college’s institutional identity as a place that prides itself as an incubator for social change.

Last week, 44 students and alumni of Swarthmore continued that legacy, launching an occupation of Parrish’s Finance and Investments Office to demand that the Board of Managers enter into good faith negotiations with students towards fossil fuel divestment. As sophomore and organizer Stephen O’Hanlon told me shortly after the sit-in began, “We have no plans to leave.”

In the last several months, Swarthmore’s campaign has made a considerable impact on campus. A petition drive this year garnered 61 percent of student body support and 1,100 signatures from alumni and faculty. “It’s been a multi-month organizing effort that has involved building both popular support on campus among students and faculty and also with alumni,” O’Hanlon explained Thursday night, adding that his group has “leverag[ed] that pressure at increasingly high levels over the last two months.”

Walking around the occupation on its first day, it was clear that demonstrators are here to stay. A sign-in sheet, complete with 63 signatures, has been taped up on the wall, along with a schedule of the day’s events. Calls have gone out on Twitter for outside supporters to phone orders for hungry protesters into the town of Swarthmore’s lone pizza shop, Renato’s. This weekend, the occupation hosted a screening of the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, about Alice Paul, a member of Swarthmore’s class of 1905, and the fight for the 19th Amendment. As one organizer described the ongoing organizational system, “We’ve laid out paths and roles and decided on a basic structure of keeping a rotating base of 15 people here every night for the sit-in.” By the end of Thursday, they had 28, many using their downtime to chip away at the week’s homework assignments.

Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland, a lanky, redheaded freshman from Portland, Ore., is both part and product of recent organizing efforts. He first got involved in the campaign after attending the People’s Climate March in New York City along with 200 classmates in September.

For me, a lot of it comes from the fact that we are at an institution that calls itself progressive,” he explained, “and all we’re doing is telling them to live up to the values they claim that they have.”

Of his political involvement prior to joining the divestment fight, Fitzgerald-Holland said he “was never really involved with campaigns, but made a point to go to all the protests.” Swarthmore divestment organizers hosted an orientation training the week after the People’s Climate March in an attempt to attract students like Fitzgerald-Holland, and bring them into the movement’s fold as full-fledged organizers. It worked. This semester, he has joined the campaign’s core, and corralled professors to publicly support divestment. For him and many of the campaign’s other young organizers, trainings — on the functions of power and techniques of organizing — have been a crucial bridge between an interest in climate change and sitting in for divestment.

As I’ve written in the past, the fossil fuel divestment movement is something near and dear to my heart. In my freshman year at Swarthmore, I helped to co-found the campus’s divestment campaign, Swarthmore Mountain Justice, which would become the first of hundreds nationwide. We took our name and inspiration from the communities we visited on a fall break trip to southern Appalachia, who were continuing the lineage of those that have resisted extractive industry in the mountains for generations. The tradition has continued in Swarthmore Mountain Justice to this day, with many of the campaign’s core organizers periodically traveling back to Appalachia.

Miraculously, the now four-year old campaign at Swarthmore has outlived the dreaded four-year death knell of student organizing, often limited by the time of students’ average undergraduate tenure. As it was in 2011, the answer to divestment is officially “no.” The main difference in 2015, though, is that there is both a thriving, broad-based campus campaign, and a 400 campus-strong international movement saying “yes,” mounting pressure on and off campus to fundamentally shift society’s relationship to the fossil fuel industry. As evidenced by recent industry-fueled backlash to divestment, even coal, oil and natural gas executives seem to be taking notice.

Since the start of the sit-in, somewhat unexpected forms of support have poured in from different sectors of the campus and beyond: Media Services employees dropped off cookies to protesters, along with the college’s Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor, Joyce Tompkins. One professor brought his dog through for moral support during a morning planning meeting, and Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and a leader in the push to involve the philanthropic world in divestment, answered the call for pizza with eight pies. According to Fitzgerald-Holland, the Outsiders Club, which organizes periodic camping and hiking trips, lent its stock of sleeping bags for protesters to sleep in at night.

Swarthmore’s sit-in is the first indefinite occupation for the fossil fuel divestment movement, the kick-off to a wave of escalated actions taking place this spring at campuses from the University of California-Berkeley, to Harvard to Tulane University in New Orleans. The series of demonstrations is being planned by something known as the Escalation Core, a joint project of the Divestment Student Network and They are calling for administrations’ cooperation on divestment, as well as for a commitment to reinvest funds in community-led alternative energy solutions “at the frontlines of poverty and pollution.”

It feels like my entire Swarthmore education has pushed me to think critically and act responsibly,” said Abigail Frank, a senior and sit-in participant. “I’ve developed both of these skills here, and now I’m going to use them.”

Swarthmore’s reputation may now hinge on how it responds to students and the growing campus community calling for divestment. At this moment, as the climate crisis deepens, John Winthrop’s warning against profit worship has seldom seemed more relevant. This spring, the eyes of the world will be on Swarthmore and other colleges as they are forced to answer a critical question from student organizers and their growing base of supporters: “Whose side are you on?”