“ Reflections on the Right to Peacefully Assemble to Protest Fossil Fuels Endowment Investment at Swarthmore College”
The 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution states the right of free people to peacefully assemble, and to petition their governing body for a redress of grievances. In this spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1958 that the aim of the nonviolent resistance movement is not to “seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” Beginning five years ago, the on-campus campaign to persuade Swarthmore to divest its fossil fuels holdings has operated in the spirit of King’s constitutionally protected movement for social change.
But this peaceful effort has now provoked a disappointing response on the part of the College.
The core mission of Swarthmore College is to teach students how to pursue learning with a commitment to social change. Faculty agree with this goal, and on March 24 voted 53-9, with 4 abstentions, to urge the College to divest from Big Oil, Gas, and Coal. Additionally, on February 24, students sat in the administration’s Investment Office and surrounding public spaces to protest the college’s endowment policy. This action is the same action that was taken in the Spring of 2015, but the earlier protest lasted almost five weeks instead of one day. In the recent one-day sit-in, the same spaces were occupied as the one in 2015, including the so-called private work area of the Investment Officer. As a faculty ally, I was present at the beginning of the 2015 sit-in — along with student protesters who temporarily, and peacefully, occupied the Investment Office at that time. No action was taken against anyone involved in the 2015 sit-in.
Fast forward to today. Now, in response to the recent one-day protest, the college is charging student protesters with entering and failing to leave a private work area, and interrupting the work of staff members. This is a debatable charge for two reasons. Fundamentally, no college-owned work space is strictly private. Moreover, why was the current standard not invoked two years ago when faculty and students, in protest, entered the same office and surrounding space and interrupted the work of staff members?
On March 26, President Valerie Smith wrote an open letter charging the sit-in students with violating the student code of conduct. This letter followed a March 17 confidential letter by Dean Nathan Miller announcing an administrative review of the protesting students. But the mission of the college says “Swarthmore seeks to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” To me, this is the core issue at stake in this on-going disputation. I believe the nonviolent protesters were simply living out this mission statement and realizing its full aim by peacefully taking over an administrative office guided by their commitment to social and planetary well-being.
Contrary to President Smith and Dean Miller, the students’ action, fundamentally, was not a conduct code violation, but a courageous act of conscience.
Concerning the specifics of Dean Miller’s private letter and subsequent secret hearings, the college’s review of the students in question violates due process. The hearings assumed certain facts in question, gave the students only two business days to prepare, made no provision for students to secure outside counsel to assist them in their defense, prohibited the students from asking for a continuance, and announced a set of dire consequences if they failed to accept its terms. According to Dean Miller’s letter, the students were adjudicated under the Minor Misconduct Process, but the intended punishments were potentially severe, ranging from notations in students’ records to probation, monetary damages, and “additional educational sanctions,” whatever that means. In the end, it appears the college let the students off with a warning. But what will be their fate, or that of future protesters, if they attempt a similar act of peaceful dissent in the future?
Guided by conscience and good will, Swarthmore students today, as they did two years ago, are putting their education and their futures on the line by thoughtfully challenging the college administration to do the right thing and stop giving the toxic fossil fuels extraction industry its seal of approval. Nonviolent direct action is not a new tactic at Swarthmore. Previous peaceful occupations of administrative offices – for example, African-American students take-over of the Admissions Office in 1969, and Anti-Apartheid students take-over of the Admissions Office in 1985 – portended the fossil fuels sit-ins of 2015 and last month.
As King said, we should never demean or insult one another as we struggle in the communities we serve to realize common ideals. Fair-minded people of good will, then, can sometimes agree about long-range strategic goals, but disagree about immediate tactics to realize these goals. The College’s Sustainability Office, Environmental Studies Program, Climate Action Plan, carbon charge, green advisors, and much more, are central to its concerted efforts to facilitate learning and living responsibly in troubled times. But Swarthmore is also squandering its good name by lending its moral capital to a dying industry hell-bent on destroying the self-regulating climate system that sustains Earth’s biosphere. Instead of charging students with conduct violations who are living out the College’s mission through peaceful action, Swarthmore should crown each of these students as climate heroes whose fearless actions are an inspiration for all of us.