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President Smith rejects Sabra boycott, SJP responds

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In an all-campus email sent out on Monday, April 30, President Valerie Smith announced that Swarthmore would continue to sell Sabra products, despite calls from Students for Justice in Palestine and allied campus groups to boycott the company for its ties to the Israeli Defense Forces. Instead, Smith declared that the College will begin selling an alternative brand of hummus alongside Sabra hummus.

“Following discussions with colleagues and representatives of various student groups, and having now conducted background research, the College has decided that this solution best addresses the concerns that have been raised,” Smith wrote.

In March, members of S.J.P. began circulating a petition calling upon the college to boycott Sabra. Over 500 Swarthmore students signed the petition. Several campus groups, including Swarthmore Queer Union, Swarthmore African-American Student Society, and Muslim Student Association, released statements in support of the boycott.

S.J.P.’s boycott is part of the larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led movement which seeks to end the Israeli occupation by targeting companies that support Israel. S.J.P. has specifically highlighted how the Strauss Group, which is a co-owner of Sabra, has ties to the Golani Brigade, an IDF infantry that S.J.P. describes as being particularly violent toward Palestinians.

Prior to President Smith’s official decision, several S.J.P. members met with President Smith to discuss the boycott. Members of Swarthmore Students for Israel also met with administrators.

Once President Smith sent out her email, S.J.P. quickly released a statement denouncing the college’s decision. In their statement, they referred to her email as “deeply disturbing and morally indefensible.”

“On a personal level, I was deeply frustrated and disappointed with the email,” S.J.P. member Abby Saul ’19 said. “We think that, by continuing to support this company, Swarthmore continues to remain complicit in the occupation and in the atrocities of the Israeli Defense Forces who continue to kill unarmed protesters.”

Smith did not take an official position on the boycott on behalf of the college in her email, but instead offered students an opportunity to purchase a different brand of hummus on campus. However, Saul feels that by not ending its purchase of Sabra products, the college is making an immoral decision.

“[The email] shows that the administration has made a choice,” she said. “They have chosen to continue to support this company that is intimately involved in human rights violations. We think that is a really reprehensible choice.”

However, Swarthmore Students for Israel President Matt Stein ’20, who met with President Smith recently to express his opposition to the boycott, was happy with her statement.

“We were definitely pleased that she took a stand for anti-discrimination policies and for ensuring free speech on this campus,” Stein said.

He feels that Smith made the right decision to let students decide whether or not to purchase Sabra products on campus.

“Students have every right to buy whatever they want,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, S.J.P. rallied in Parrish against the administration’s response to the hummus boycott. S.J.P. members erected four giant pieces of plywood in Parrish to symbolize the Israeli West Bank border wall. They had painted the wall with the initials of students who signed the petition and symbols of Palestinian resistance.

“Today we will be installing our own wall in Kohlberg courtyard to shed light on the magnitude of the occupation as a concrete reality, to show that this is about more than hummus,” Ozsu Risvanoglu ’20 said. “We hope the installation will prompt reflection not only on the wall and on Palestine, but also on the walls that both enact and obscure violence in the U.S.”

S.J.P members delivered impassioned speeches to the crowd, criticizing the college for its decision not to boycott Sabra.

“Swarthmore, you say you’re committed to justice and social and ethical concerns, yet in the face of occupation, human rights violations, and ongoing atrocities, you cannot even discontinue a hummus brand,” Najla Nassar ’21 said.

S.J.P. members were particularly dismayed by the last few lines of Smith’s email, where she defended her decision as a way of furthering “dialogue” on campus.

“Our community is passionate about addressing issues of public concern,” Smith wrote. “While that passion is commendable, we must continue to value the importance of remaining in dialogue with each other, especially those whose views and experiences differ from our own.”

At the rally, S.J.P. members repeatedly denounced Smith’s call for dialogue as a diversionary tactic.

“We need more than just dialogue,” Nassar said. “The ongoing violence of the occupation demands concrete action. The occupation is not just an individual issue, it is actively upheld by institutions and structures and thus requires an institutional response. As long as the college continues to purchase Sabra products, it continues to endorse the murders of nonviolent protesters in Gaza.”

Samme Sheikh ’19 talked about President Smith’s decision in the context of the ongoing “Right of Return” protest in Gaza. Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed by IDF soldiers since the protests started on March 30.

“That Swarthmore should, at this crucial historical moment, find it conceivable, whether through willful blindness or conscious decision, to align itself with these tendencies under the guise of a desiccated and sterile notion of dialogue, is beyond distressing,” Sheikh said. “This indicates to all members of the Swarthmore community who are conscious observers of the situation in Palestine and the world more broadly, there are leaders at the college who are drawing us all deeper into a relation of complicity.”

Killian McGinnis ’19 also read from a petition from several Palestinian and Jewish alumni in which they expressed their support for S.J.P. and call on President Smith to rescind her statement. The alumni began to circulate the petition on social media on Wednesday afternoon.

When the rally came to a close, S.J.P. picked up the walls and carried them through Parrish. Rally attendees poured out the doors and into the Kohlberg courtyard, chanting “Hey hey! Ho ho! Sabra has got to go!”

The walls will be up through at least the end of week, according to S.J.P. members. They will also hold an event to take down the walls. For now, the walls stand in Kohlberg courtyard as a concrete symbol of S.J.P.’s continued calls for a Sabra boycott.

O4S occupies offices of Dean Braun and Dean Miller in ongoing protest

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At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, May 1, over 30 students filed into Dean of Students Liz Braun’s office on the first floor of Parrish Hall. As Braun rose from her seat, the students — members of Organizing for Survivors, a group that has protested Title IX handling at the college since early March — placed their backpacks on the floor beside them and announced their plans to stay there indefinitely.

It is now over 50 hours later, and neither the students nor their belongings have moved. Dean Braun had picked up her bags and left silently after Shelby Dolch ’21 delivered a statement on behalf of O4S, and by 5 p.m. on May 2, she had not returned to her office. No protesters have received citations.

Dean Braun’s office, its lobby and the hallway outside have been packed with students since. Provisions for the sit-in — coffee, Qdoba catering, Federal donuts, home-baked cakes, carrots — proliferate in the office space; most were either donated by professors or funded by sympathetic alumni through O4S’s Venmo. Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Shà Duncan Smith remained with students throughout the first day until around 2 a.m. and provided Chinese takeout for the group. By noon on the second day, over 175 students had participated in the sit-in and 17 students stayed overnight on the night of May 1.

O4S had not publicized the sit-in outside of private meetings and a Nonviolent Direct Action training meeting, hosted with help from Sunrise, a divestment advocacy group that staged a 32-day sit-in in Parrish last spring. For many, the sit-in is a response to growing dissatisfaction with the administration.

“I feel like there’s a narrative that it’s not that bad or something, that this is the best administration can do, but I’ve really seen how jarring it is to be a survivor and feel like no one will support you and just have so many little things that happen that are institutional mistakes that shouldn’t be there,” Omene Addeh ’21, who participated in the sit-in, said. “I think that the responses we’ve gotten from administration are just not satisfactory to me, and if this is what it takes, I’ll do anything I can to help.”

At 9:55 p.m., as protesters prepared to spend the night, two Public Safety officers took down a banner from the Parrish hallway that read “Accountability looks like Beth Pitts resigning.” Pitts is Associate Director of Investigations for Title IX cases. The officers cited a policy against “singling someone out” on banners and the policy that banners receive pre-approval five days before being hung, though the former policy is not listed in the student handbook and banners are not allowed in Parrish in the first place. They also removed two locked file cabinets from Braun’s office around 11:00 p.m.

“Per the Student Handbook, any language that is, ‘harassing, demeaning or uncivil,’ is grounds for removal. In this and other instances if the banner/poster or chalking specifically identifies a community member by name or position in a derogatory manner, it is considered ‘harassment, demeaning, or uncivil,’” Public Safety Director Mike Hill wrote in an email to the Phoenix.

Other administrators who have called O4S’s methodology adversarial and uncivil include President Valerie Smith, who emailed students, faculty and staff of the college at 12:43 p.m. on May 1, alerting the community that the protesters’ presence in Braun’s office violated school policy because it prevented Braun and her staff from being able to work.

“I will go to great lengths to protect our students’ rights to peaceful protest and assembly,” Smith wrote in an email to the Phoenix on May 2. “However, I can’t support ad hominem attacks on individuals. We are capable of, and willing to allow for, disruptions of activities on campus, but no one should be prevented from doing their job, as our policies state plainly. At present, some of our students are in violation of those policies.”

Smith refers to Pitts, Braun and Dean Nathan Miller, from whom O4S has demanded resignations. At rallies during the sit-in, the group chanted songs such as “Hey hey, ho ho, ______ has got to go,” for each of these administrators as well as for frat housing. But in contrast to Smith’s assertion, O4S and supporters feel their demands are based on professional competence, not personality.

For Dean Braun, O4S asks that she apologizes for her dismissal of student reports and concerns about sexual assault and mishandling of Title IX procedures. They believe that Dean Miller failed to correct violations of Title IX policies during Title IX adjudication processes, such as processes that lasted over 6 months. And they write that Beth Pitts asked victim-blaming questions and “belittled” complainants.

“I am evaluating every allegation that has been brought against members of the staff,” President Smith wrote to the Phoenix.

O4S addressed those who disagree with their tactics at their Speak-Out rally on May 1. O4S core members Priya Dieterich ’18 and Lydia Koku ’18 feel that their movement is not unnecessarily combative towards administrators.

“We think that we’re being disruptive and that we’re engaging in nonviolent direct action and we understand what comes with that,” Dieterich said. “But sitting in is not adversarial, being public about our demands is not adversarial. We push back on the idea that just being loud and angry is necessarily adversarial. We have been committed to working collaboratively, we have not portrayed Val Smith as our adversary. If she’s viewing us as adversaries, that’s a decision on her part.”

“These are controversial demands and because of that people see them and our accompanying tactics as adversarial,” Koku added.

In addition to her update on the sit-in, President Smith’s email included a copy of an email that Dean Braun had sent to O4S members after they met the week previous. O4S had not replied. In the email, Braun states that she will create a “student transition team” that will work with the new Title IX Coordinator and Violence Prevention Educator, that the ad hoc committee on wellbeing, belonging, and social life will release their report on the fraternity houses by July, and that she will oversee the creation of enhanced training during freshman orientation, among other updates.

Yet according to O4S members, Braun’s decision to create a student transition team does not solve the issues they’ve identified.

“[The administration] has to decide that they’re going to commit to shared governance with students,” Dieterich said. “It’s not just occasional committees or occasional invitations to the table, but permanently being at the table. And so I don’t want the narrative to be that everything depends on who those people are, I don’t think that that’s true.”

O4S has consistently pushed back against administrative suggestions about committees and external reviews, asking instead for immediate action. At 8:45 a.m. on the second day of the sit-in, a handful of O4S members walked into a meeting of the same ad hoc committee to which Dean Braun referred in her email to ask questions directly to Deans Braun and Miller.

“How many times will you make survivors retell their stories and retraumatize themselves to committee after committee year after year before it means enough for you to take action?” Anna Weber ’19 said to the committee.

The room was silent after O4S delivered their questions. “I think that’s revealing,” Dieterich said before leading the group out of the meeting.

Afterwards, the protest intensified. At noon on May 2, over 150 students lined the Parrish hallway to hear a “special announcement” that O4S had publicized that morning on their Facebook page. They announced their decision to expand their sit-in to Dean Miller’s office as a result of the events of that morning; they said they had planned to address Dean Miller, but could not, as he was out at lunch.

Both The Philadelphia Inquirer and PhillyVoice published news stories online about O4S.NBC News Philadelphia continuously aired and posted two clips of video coverage of the sit-in. Students in the organization expressed anger after hearing that the college had removed NBC journalists from campus, as multiple students posted on the “Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens” page with memes about the “banning of free press” on campus.

“This afternoon, after the news crew was done filming in Parrish, the officers met the reporters and advised them that they should leave, and the reporter complied,” Hill confirmed.“The media on hand were never interrupted during their reporting of the protest. Media access to campus is routinely requested, coordinated and approved through the College Communications office and neither of these visits followed that protocol. We are always happy to help accommodate media requests and do so fairly often.”

One of NBC’s clips was titled “Swarthmore Students Stage Sit-In to Protest Sexual Violence.” Yet what distinguishes O4S’s protests from broader national movements such as #MeToo is its focus on the Swarthmore administration over cultural issues, according to Koku.

“What I’d liked to do, or had hoped to do if we had had more time [and] more energy to do so, was connect with some of the other students, the other schools who are organizing specifically around the MeToo movement,” she said. “We haven’t explicitly discussed MeToo around our own organizing because it is so specific to Swarthmore and to transformative justice, but I think that the same challenges and impediments MeToo has experienced, we also have experiences as Organizing for Survivors.”

For Koku, leading O4S during her last semester at the college, despite the challenges she’s faced — which included the fear that she would not receive her degree — changed how she viewed herself and administrators at the college.

“This has made me find my voice in a more real and authentic way that I didn’t have access to before,” she said. “For me to say … You were complicit in the harm that was caused to me and for that reason I need to fight not only for myself but for every single student who’s gone through a similar experience and every single student that was subjected to those experiences and could be vulnerable to administrative harm.”

Because all of O4S’s original core members except one are graduating seniors, the group made efforts to recruit underclassmen to take leadership for next year. Underclassmen such as Dolch held larger roles in the sit-in than they had previously. According to Dieterich, the timing of the sit-in, two weeks from the end of the year, worried her, but the turnout exceeded her expectations.

“A lot of what we’re doing and my willingness to do it publicly in this way is just that I want the concerns of people who are in my year not to be waited out and not to be buried,” she said.

“Seeing all of the people who came out today and especially the younger students who I haven’t even met yet is incredibly heartening, and I have absolute faith that this is going to keep going next year and we’ll all be watching and phoning it in and helping out as much as we can.”

As of the publication of this article, O4S has not announced an end date or condition for the sit-in.

“I deeply regret any pain or burden students have borne unnecessarily due to our Title IX processes and procedures,” President Smith wrote in her email to the Phoenix.

Dieterich, too, regrets that students will continue to spend time on the movement.

“I wish that the administration had listened all the times that these things had been raised in meetings so that students wouldn’t have had to sacrifice so much of their energy, so much of their time, so much of their creativity and imagination and just all of their capacity and resources,” she said. “That’s on the administration.”

Engaging to Disengage: Mark Wallace Inaugurates the Faculty Fast for Divestment

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When Professor Mark Wallace first came to Swarthmore, he introduced one of the first environmental studies courses into the religion department curriculum: “Religion and Ecology”, a course he still teaches today. Recently, in keeping with the widespread darkening of our environmental future, he has added a new course offering that also pairs religious and environmental thought — a first-year seminar on the apocalypse.

Deeply inspired by Bill McKibben’s book, “The End of Nature,” when he encountered it in the early nineties, Wallace’s involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement at Swarthmore since its inception has largely been spurred by an awareness of impending cataclysm. This sense of urgency also motivated Wallace’s decision to begin a weeklong fast this past Monday in order to express his concern about the Board of Managers’ refusal to divest from fossil fuels. As outlined in a campus-wide email sent by Professor Lee Smithey on April 20, Wallace will be the first of three faculty members who will fast until the Board meets in early May. At this meeting, President Smith has promised to introduce the results of the student referendum to overturn the college’s 1991 ban against considering social impacts when investing the endowment, which passed with 87 percent student support.

The timing seemed coincidental — Smithey announced the faculty action less than a week after prominent gay rights attorney David Buckel had committed suicide by self-immolation in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in protest of the fossil fuel industry. Though obviously of vastly differing scales, there seemed to be a certain shared physicality to the protests.

“There is some continuity between self-immolation and practicing a bodily discipline where you don’t take food,” said Wallace when I brought up the incident. “It’s a way of signaling to yourself and to others how dire the circumstances are.”

However, when I met with Wallace for an interview on the first day of his fast, the end of the world seemed far away. The weather was perfect, and Wallace and Smithey sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs in front of Parrish, where there had been a small student rally for divestment. The two professors had hosted office hours outside of Parrish, talking to anyone who stopped by about divestment at Swarthmore and beyond, and the future of the fossil fuel industry more broadly. When I walked over, Wallace and Smithey had already been there for several hours but remained deep in discussion, integrating me into the conversation without missing a beat.

While we were in the middle of discussing why the administration refuses to divest, Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown suddenly emerged from Parrish and walked down the front steps, passing between Wallace and Smithey. The greetings exchanged on both sides were only slightly tense.

This moment drove home a sense that activism at Swarthmore is a family affair. Faculty are protesting the actions of people they know and work with every day, which makes the stakes feel a bit higher. Yet it also seemed like a moment of Quaker interchange: unflinching but civil disagreement.

Later, in describing his reasons for fasting, Wallace repeatedly situated his actions within the Quaker tradition of nonviolent social protest and expressed his feeling that the college had strayed from its roots.

“I want to put pressure on the college to square its investment policy with its social values. I don’t think there should be some aspect of the college’s common life in which we take social responsibility off the table,” he said.

He went on to note that almost any action supporting sustainability — such as installing a green roof — will have a certain financial cost, but taking such actions remains an important part of our role as environmental stewards.

“We’re at a time in our history where climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels is an existential threat to the future of the planet,” he continued. “If we don’t integrate that concern into all aspects of the college, we run the risk of living an incoherent and contradictory life, together.”

Wallace clarified the terms of his fast, as several students had expressed confusion to him about the fast.  He isn’t going on a hunger strike, which would mean refusing to eat until the college agrees to divest.

“I might be dead if that were the case,” he said, chuckling.

Rather, he will simply abstain from any sort of food for a week, only drinking water. Wallace has fasted for periods of one or two weeks throughout his life, but always as part of a private, spiritual practice. Yet he feels that there is a natural continuity between his personal and public fasting.

“This is also a kind of spiritual, symbolic protest,” he said. “It’s a way of saying I’m withdrawing from food because I want the college to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry, so I’m going to symbolically engage in this ritual because I want the college to disengage from an industry that’s destroying the planet.”

For Wallace, fasting serves both to symbolically enact the sort of abstention that he believes is necessary for the college to display as well as to symbolize and connect with the suffering caused by climate change and environmental degradation.

“In times when I’m undergoing a painful transition, I find that fasting helps me to bring into myself the suffering that I’m feeling and to hold it without the distraction of food, and that’s kind of how I think of this personally — we need to quickly transition to a fossil-free renewable economy, and Swarthmore College refuses to do that. I think of fasting as a kind of self-imposed suffering — I want to connect with the suffering of others, and through this very mild suffering I am undergoing this week, all of us become more cognizant of our complicity with a toxic industry.”

When asked about the reception of the fast from students and administration, Wallace was circumspect.

“I think there is a large number, probably a majority, of students who share my deep, existential terror at the prospect of continuing climate catastrophe. I’d say there’s a minority of faculty and board members who share that concern to the point that they think we need to divest from fossil fuels, and so tragically, this debate is in part a generational debate. My generation is spending the capital that your generation is going to need to live a healthy future.”

I asked what his response is to critics who argue that divestment is a merely symbolic tactic.

“To me it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “It’s one of the many tactics that we can use to attach a social stigma to the fossil fuel industry — to say, this is an immoral industry that is betraying our collective future. I think of the fossil fuel industry as a merchant of death, just like I think of the nuclear weapons industry that way, or the chemical weapons industry, or the tobacco industry — these are merchants of death that need to be stigmatized, quarantined, and hopefully driven out of existence through regulation.”

Wallace and I discussed his history of involvement with divestment on campus, which he says has historically been hampered by an association with a brand of white environmentalism that is negligent about the needs of under-resourced human communities.

“It’s important to integrate the story of fossil fuel investment with the story of how in concrete, particular situations, the fossil fuel industry is toxic to particular people and particular communities, and in that way it’s not an environmental issue — it’s a social justice issue,” he said.

Beyond campus, Wallace is currently involved with a group of activists trying to stop the construction of the Mariner East pipeline, which would run through the Delaware watershed. I asked what his overall outlook is after several decades of environmental agitation — has he managed to maintain a sense of optimism about the future?

“Not optimism but fragile hope,” he said, before qualifying himself further. “Not optimism but very, very, tenuous, fragile hope.”

He discussed how in the 19th century, America had a whale-blubber-based fuel economy that we only transitioned away from because of the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.

“Is there something in front of us now more impactful than the discovery of oil? I’d say negatively yes — it’s the existential threat to the planet based on carbon emissions. Will that motivate us to move to a renewable economy? Unfortunately, human nature is inherently addictive. Unlike other species, like oak trees, or box turtles, or …”

He trailed away, looking off across Parrish Beach as if waiting for the perfect species to cross his field of vision before continuing:

“… red-tailed hawks, for example. We as human beings can’t be happy with the habitat that’s been offered us.”

Wallace finds addiction to be a powerful metaphor for understanding our relationship to fossil fuels and once formed a group on campus called the Carbon Addicts that developed a twelve-step program to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s like alcoholism — it’s a collective social disease,” he said. “And like any mass social disease, it requires intense intervention in order to help people to move away from their addiction. And addiction by definition is irrational, so a person who is struggling with alcohol knows that this is not a healthy way to live, but she can’t stop, and that’s how we are as a society. We know this is not healthy, but now we can’t stop.”

This may seem like a bleak vision that allows little possibility for change, but, as in A.A., Wallace sees a potential way out through belief in a higher power. This may be in a traditionally spiritual sense, or it may simply be through developing a belief in the importance of protecting life on earth that is strong enough to drive one to inconvenience themselves in nontrivial ways, such as fasting or, perhaps, divesting.

“I’m cautiously hopeful that we will develop a spiritual orientation to life, such as we see the planet as our friend, or, in my religious language, as the body of the gods and the goddesses, as the living flesh of divinity,” said Wallace. “Not as an exploitable resource to be used and abused.”

Professor Smithey arrested for protesting at energy company headquarters

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Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Lee Smithey was arrested on March 29 for failing to disperse during a protest calling on the Philadelphia Electric Company to transition 20 percent of their energy distribution to rooftop and community-owned solar by 2025.

Smithey stood outside PECO’s Philadelphia headquarters with around 60 others, including former Lang Visiting Professor George Lakey, as a part of a three-day campaign co-hosted by the Earth Quaker Action Team. According to its website, the grassroots, nonviolent action group challenges beneficiaries of the current energy system to turn away from fossil fuels.

Smithey became active in the group in 2015 because of his belief that energy companies should invest in local communities and decentralized solar power, especially given the pace of climate change and extreme levels of income and social inequality in the country.

“Emissions rose in 2017 and are predicted to rise again in 2018,” he said. “That means civil society has to step up and spur change in the institutions in our own communities, especially in the absence of sufficient political environmental leadership.”

Smithey called nonviolent action and conflict transformation his primary fields of teaching and research for over two decades. Smithey was compelled by environmental justice and climate change concerns to become more active. Now, he supports Sunrise Swarthmore and fossil fuel divestment on-campus and participating in EQAT off-campus.

We feel that many institutions must take responsibility for a clean energy transition that meets the challenges of climate change endangering vulnerable populations here in the United States and around the world,” Smithey said, adding that about 0.5 percent of PECO’s current distribution is solar.

March 27, EQAT’s first day of action, was called a “Day of Mourning” over the impact of fossil fuels on communities, during which seven demonstrators were arrested for failure to disperse. The next included a “Day of Vision” planned by local youth, which involved drawing sustainability-related pictures outside the headquarters with chalk.

The final day on March 29, entitled a “Day of Reckoning,” involved a symbolic modeling of service through a foot washing ritual. After the service, the group attempted to enter PECO’s lobby, but security guards locked the doors. Teams of EQATers occupied multiple doors to the lobby, resulting in 18 arrests and citations, including Smithey and Lakey.

“We were engaged in the tradition of necessary civil disobedience, and the police response was professional and respectful,” Smithey said.

Lakey expressed mixed feelings about police giving citations instead of a night in jail.

“Relief, because I don’t like jail — that horrible clang of metal-on-metal when the cell door is shut. And disappointment, because it’s a lighter sanction, and reduces the degree to which we’re showing the depth of our conviction,” Lakey said.

Lakey added that an action campaign is all about “putting skin in the game,” which is why he joined 200 others in walking 100 miles around PECOs service area in March—to show the company that the cause was not going away.

Our demand is really common sense — anyone can see that, except those more enthusiastic about profit than about people and the planet. We’re on the side of history,” Lakey said. “My wish is to accelerate the process and step up the militancy of our action to incentivize an opponent who is so very, very stuck.”

EQAT Communications Director Greg Holt called on PECO to revamp how it does business. In particular, the company must take responsibility for the jobs it could create with the profits it takes from local communities, the sickness and climate change caused by its electricity distribution, and to employ its influence to empower neighborhoods to build their own sources of power.

“What’s powerful to me is that after two years of asking PECO to turn to local solar, what we’re doing now is refusing to acquiesce when the company says it won’t,” Holt said. “When PECO requires the backup of police to open its doors, it starkly reveals that the utility’s commitment is to its profit, not its people.”

Smithey stressed that the campaign is centered on climate change and the needs of local communities — not just arrested professors — and hopes people will continue to join the movement in urging PECO to become a model corporate leader.


Some thoughts on “Queering God” and traditional religion

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

A seldom spectacle arose in Ben West parking lot on the afternoon of Jan. 29 to the delight of some and chagrin of many others – a conservative Christian group protesting on our campus. The demonstration seemed to be a mixture of prayer, protest and bagpipes. The latter, I must admit, did not help their cause. I do, however, want to consider the question of whence their indignation comes.


Neither I nor the protesters have very much knowledge of “Queering God,” or “Queering the Bible,” besides the title, so I am in poor position to critique the course. Nonetheless, these two words, “Queering God” seem to point to a program of Queer Theology, which many people of traditional faith might find blasphemous by applying to God a term that implies sexual activity that the Bible treats rather disfavorably. But why should some conservative Christians from who-knows-where take issue with a course taught in a small liberal arts college? I could ask why any of us would take issue with a misrepresentation of our own views. I, for example, considerable myself an ardent proponent of the Romanesque style. I completely understand if the cathedral at Bamberg may not enthuse others so thoroughly as it does myself, but to interpret my preference of barrel to rib vaults as an implicit endorsement of fascism would be ridiculous and offensive. Traditional Christians might find a “queering” of their deity equally outlandish, and even make them feel powerless when this interpretation comes from a place of prestige. To traditional Christians any reworking of the faith is, moreover, not only a misrepresentation but an attack on what is held most near and dear, namely their sense of the sacred. All the more so with a course that seems to propose a sexualization of God.


This is not the first provocatively titled religion course to be offered in our college. Take “Is God a White Supremacist?” for instance. I do not doubt that these courses present some valuable theological perspectives, but what are we telling students of traditional faith when a course so brazenly undertakes to handle, according to the fads of recent discourse, what some believers reserve for the deepest reverence? I doubt that a course called “Gender depictions of the Divine” would provoke so much ire and indignation as “Queering God.” Consider an intelligent prospective student brought up in and practicing Christianity in the American South, but hoping to expand her horizons and challenge herself at Swarthmore. What if the most she heard about Swarthmore recently was an article about a “Queering God” or “Is God a White Supremacist?” course that her family has recently discussed with contempt. Even if she may be open to consider new opinions about her lifelong faith, the self-presentation of this course does not help to diversify our college with experiences such as hers.


To offer a course in queer theology may be utterly inoffensive to the majority of the campus population, but there are also believers whose pious sensibility these courses offend to its very core. Ought we not take care for them as well? The answer is not to suppress the speech of secular (Quakers, forgive me) college professors. On the contrary, it is the academic endeavor to critically evaluate the import of the perspectives presented in every course. Nonetheless, a clickbait course title, which can be taken by believers as irreverent, may do more to perpetuate a sense among them that “this course intends to attack my faith,” than “this course is presenting new and interesting theories that might challenge, but can respectfully engage with my faith.”


When I briefly observed the protesters, they were praying the rosary. I, for one, believe that I am in no position to refuse the prayers of anyone. Nay, my spiritual economy will always enjoy a gratuitous deposit. And, however much I regret how these Christians voiced their dissent from the Swarthmore curriculum, prayer is a rather mild manner of resistance. On that note, God bless the protesters for having so great a sense of religious propriety so as to come out and demonstrate. And God bless the academic investigations pursued at Swarthmore.

Conservative group protests “Queering the Bible” religion course

in News by

On Monday afternoon, a group of protesters, dressed in red sashes and carrying bagpipes, gathered on the sidewalk outside of the Benjamin West parking lot. They were demonstrating in order to, as one sign read, convince Swarthmore to “STOP attacking God.”

These protesters were members of a conservative Catholic organization called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Their protests came after several right-wing news organizations, including Fox News and Breitbart, reported that Swarthmore would be offering a Religion course titled “Queering the Bible” in fall 2018. The course will be taught by associate professor of religion Gwynn Kessler, who is on leave and could not be reached for comment.

TFP Student Action leader John Ritchie took a break from reciting Hail Mary prayers to express his dissatisfaction with the college for offering the course.

“A college that purports to thrive on tolerance is committing an act of intolerance by attacking Christianity, and many people are offended. Most of all, God is being offended and as one nation under God, we want to keep it one nation under God as a country. That’s why we’re here praying.”

TFP has a long history of protesting institutions that it believes are violating its conservative values. This includes, according to the TFP website, organizations that support “abortion,” “the social acceptance of homosexual practice,” “transgenderism,” “international communism,” and “public blasphemy.” The Student Action wing of TFP, which led the Monday protest, has protested at many colleges and universities. TFP members have protested at Catholic colleges who have granted charters to LGBT affinity groups, including Notre Dame, and has held rallies in support of heterosexual marriage, which they refer to as “true marriage,” at colleges across the nation. Another wing of TFP, America Needs Fatima, has staked public opposition to works of art it finds blasphemous, including the film “The Da Vinci Code” and the HBO series “The Young Pope.”

By holding an in-person protest, the TFP members hoped to push President Valerie Smith to change the school’s curriculum.

“We’re really hoping that Dr. Smith will cancel the course and find a better way to teach religion,” Ritchie said. “We’ll have a delegation to present 14,000 petitions that we’ve collected … over 14,000 people have signed a petition asking Dr. Smith to cancel this course. We’re hoping that she will hear us favorably and resolve this question.”

A small crowd of student onlookers began to gather in the parking lot. At first, many did not know what the protest was about.

“When I got there it was me and a couple of other friends,” Peter Chong ’20 said. “People were walking by in the parking lot and we just got into a conversation about what this was because no one seemed to know.” Chong described student attitudes as “confused amusement.”

“A lot of them were trying to look and see because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often,” he said. According to Chong, several TFP protesters began to play the bagpipes, and students jokingly requested songs.

Chong himself chose not to engage with the protesters and recalled that a faculty member encouraged student bystanders not to take the protesters’ “bait.”

Bystanders who did talk to protesters did so calmly. Nathan Holeman ’18 noted that religion professor Mark Wallace was one of the first to engage with the protesters.

“Professor Wallace brought with him a mood of patience and respectfulness, and the students followed suit,” Holeman wrote. “That does not imply that any professors/students present agreed with any of the protestors. Instead, it was understanding for the sake of intellectual honesty.”

Holeman followed Wallace’s lead and ended up talking with a protester for about 20 minutes. During the dialogue, Holeman attempted to explain to her why the college would offer such a course.

“We told her calmly — and quite slowly — that sometimes it’s valuable to consider all sorts of ideas, even if they’re challenging. We explained that people should sometimes even scrutinize beliefs that they know are wrong,” Holeman wrote.

Though the protester did not dramatically change her view, Holeman believes that the conversation was somewhat fruitful.

“I determined that my conversation with [the protester] was getting somewhere. Her starting point was, ‘It’s stupid,’ which taken as an argument is vapid. Her ending point was ‘Some ideas are dangerous,’ which is indeed a real argument. She made one tiny step toward engaging in productive dialogue with us.”

John Woodliff-Stanley ’21 also attempted to engage in dialogue with a protester.

“I believe that they absolutely have the right to practice their religion and hold their own views,” Woodliff-Stanley wrote. “But their own religious freedom does not grant them the right to impose their views on others.”

While Woodliff-Stanley believes that dialogue between groups can lead to deeper understanding, he emphasized that it would be unfair to expect marginalized people, such as LGBT students, to engage with groups that oppose them.

“If a group is bringing into question someone’s fundamental identity or worth, I do not believe it is the responsibility of the oppressed people to engage in this in order to defend themselves,” he wrote.

The protest was ultimately a peaceful affair. “There were no explosions, tensions weren’t high,” Chong said. 

President Smith was out of town on Monday and was not available for comment. However, the Communications Office released an official response which showed no indication that the college would make changes to the curriculum.

“Swarthmore is committed to fostering intellectual freedom, respect for diversity of thought and expression, and the examination of ideas in pursuit of truth. We affirm the rights of our faculty to explore new ideas in their teaching and research, and the rights of our students to learn within and beyond the classroom. Members of our on- and off-campus community have the right to engage in peaceful demonstration and free expression as long as those rights do not interfere with the rights of others to work, to teach, and to learn.”

Boy Scouts and Burning American Flags

in Campus Journal by


When I was a Boy Scout, I burned hundreds of American flags. Once or twice a year, at summer camp or at a Court of Honor (basically a barbeque where merit badges and rank advancements were awarded), my scoutmaster would bring boxes and boxes of tattered and worn American flags to be “retired,” as he called it. This was done in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code provision that directs: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The flags themselves varied in size; some were the size of envelopes, while some were so big it took six people at each bisector of the rectangle to hold the flag so that no part of it touched the ground. My scoutmaster was a notable man in the small town where he had lived in all his life. He had been fire chief and he was head of the security at a large hospital nearby, he smoked cigarettes and was the scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop. By virtue of all these different hats he wore, he came into contact with many people who regularly felt compelled to give him their torn and tattered flags to be respectfully disintegrated. Additionally, my scoutmaster regularly put American flags on the graves of war veterans, many of which were the recently uncovered graves of Civil War veterans buried nearby in an overgrown church yard that had been cleared by an enterprising Eagle Scout at the request of my scoutmaster. Putting flags on the graves meant checking to make sure they were still in good condition, and those that did not meet the standard were also added to the collection of doomed flags my scoutmaster would accumulate.

The flags also varied in material, meaning they all burned differently. Some were made out of some kind of thin cloth, and these would burn fast and turn immediately to dust. Some were plastic and only melted when the fire became extremely hot, leaving a hardened mass of black goo behind the next day. Some of the flags were truly massive and would throw off tremendous heat and light and burn in a spectacular variety of ways depending on the angle at which the cloth was lying and such variables. Pretty much everything burned, since fire does a very good job of burning things. For some reason though, the little sticks with the small American flags that are put on soldier’s graves or used as decoration for somebody’s walk for the fourth of July, mostly didn’t burn up but just blackened a little.

I do not remember exactly what was said at these ceremonies, but it was very much like the, to turn a phrase, “typical flag patriotic stuff” they play in big stadiums from loud speakers you cannot see, from an announcer who does not sound human. I do remember that several times a particular speech was read that described the symbolism of each part of the American flag, including the white stars, the blue field on which they lie, and each of the thirteen stripes, which were said to stand not for the colonies but for the cardinal American principles and supreme sacrifices that were made and would continue to be made by those fighting in our wars on behalf of our government. After each statement was read to some effect, a stripe would be torn by a Scout and thrown into the fire.

The fire gave off an unbelievable amount of light and heat.  Everyone had to move back behind the benches that enriched the fire circle, and it was as light as day when the fire reached its zenith, illuminating us as we stood around in silence watching all the flags burn.

I have more patriotic leanings than the average swattie, partially for ideological reasons, but in no small part because of the terrific impression left on me by watching these ceremonies two or three times a year during my adolescence.

That being said, I think the idea of outlawing the burning of American flags is dangerous and hypocritical. Additionally, the idea of people facing social or economic consequences for protests related to the flag seems unbelievably authoritarian and stupid. To treat such protests like a problem that needs to be stamped out is woefully unpatriotic, since it takes a clear attempt at engagement and treats it like some sort of curse-imposing magic trick. These people treat refusing to stand for the national anthem as if it were the greatest political problem we have in America, as if Colin Kaepernick is causing more social ill in this country than then the ill-gotten gains of some of the billionaire owners of NFL teams. Additionally, the idea that burning an American flag is somehow ipso facto “desecrating it” is ill-informed considering 1) that it is the prescribed manner of disposal, and 2) because the American flag code, which is the source of the directive to stand for the national anthem, also specifically bans using the American flag to emblazon clothing or as festoonment. Where’s the outrage over American flag ties and suits and t-shirts and underwear?

When I heard about the group of Native students burning an American flag on Columbus Day, I was incredibly moved by the events described. I cannot begin to understand what something like Columbus Day means for Native students going to this school anymore than I can understand what life in America is for many other minorities living in this country; I cannot ever even know what an American flag looks like to them.

But I was also struck by the similarities I saw between what the students did on Columbus Day and what I used to do in Boy Scouts. The destruction of the American flag in the exact same way, done solemnly and silently and accompanied by words of considered reflection. I do not want to equivocate the two very different events. I, feel, though that there must be some common ground that sees much meaning in the burning of the same symbol, whatever that meaning may be. The flag code says, somewhat mystically, that “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” But debates over the flag are certainly lively, and it seems the meaning of America is being continuously examined and reconsidered in the minds of all those people fighting the good fight. And if America’s meaning is up in the air, so too is its future up for grabs.


Statement on kneeling during anthem

in Open Letter/Opinions by

Dear Friends,

This past week, President Trump released several tweets chastising athletes who have not stood during the national anthem as well as those who have declined White House invitations. His blanket critique speaks to a reckless pattern of racist sentiment that now endangers the very diversity that America is built upon. Our country’s history suffers from the remnants of massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, discriminated against Latinx Americans, persecuted Muslims, economically marginalized Whites, and others disenfranchised by American society. Our own grandparents — some of whom are proud American military veterans — recollect stories of lynchings, church bombings, and police brutality. As young women, we fear a future in which our children will not come home for dinner because they have been assailed or shot in the streets simply for being black or brown.

We are patriotic Americans who value our freedoms to speak against injustices. President Trump struggles to recognize that to be patriotic might at times also require dissent. Our Founding Fathers acknowledged that as much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. Patriotism and dissent are not mutually exclusive; America’s greatness is manifest in love and equality for all, not hate and privilege. Thus, in solidarity with athletes and activists around the country who have taken a knee in hopes of addressing a long-standing and systematic pattern of racial violence aimed at brown and black people, we feel compelled to join this action. As black athletes, we especially understand the hateful perception of our bodies as valuable on the court, but disposable on the streets.

We invite all athletes and spectators to express solidarity with a movement that believes America can do better.

Trust in our love and faith in our country. Trust when we question an America that does not afford all its citizens security and safety. Only when we address the disease of white supremacy and racial injustice, can we truly become, as our anthem states, the land of the free. Today we kneel because this sense of security remains unattainable for the average young brown and black person walking or driving in their neighborhoods; today we kneel to honor the brown and black lives lost to violence, and to remind ourselves that none of us can truly be free until we all are.


In solidarity,


Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 and Lelosa Aimufua ’20

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