Mountain Justice sit-in wraps as national escalation and coverage mount

Ian Holloway/ The Phoenix

Over the course of the past month, Swarthmore Mountain Justice has increased its visibility in the national spotlight by intensifying its push for the Board of Managers to divest the endowment from fossil fuels through ramped up on-campus demonstrations.

The escalation began when 43 students and alumni began their sit-in in the Investment and Finance Office on the second floor of Parrish Hall on March 19. This core group of students remained in the office for 48 hours continuously, after which the group started rotating shifts of students remaining in the office until the sit-in ended earlier this past week.

One of the reasons that Mountain Justice’s escalation has become more visible in the past month, has been a series of endorsements from alumni and other prominent activists. Within a week of the start of the sit-in, renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben came to Swarthmore and joined the students and alumni in solidarity, leading a 150-person rally in Upper Tarble to call on the Board to divest.

MJ received another boost to its visibility when Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres ’79 endorsed the sit-in and called on Chairman Gil Kemp ‘72  to move forward with divestment. The endorsements continued to arrive as the month of March carried on, including support from 350.org, Dana Lyons ’82, and Ladule Lako LoSarah ’09, the first Swarthmore alum to play Major League Soccer. Mountain Justice also received a letter of support from social justice movement leaders including poet Andrea Gibson, United We Dream, Melina Laboucan-Massimo from the Lubicon Cree First Nation, Ed Whitfield from the Fund for Democratic Communities, and Gopal Dayeneni from Movement Generation, among others.

MJ also received attention from the national media. A story on Figueres’ endorsement of the sit-in, as well as the sit-in itself, was published in The Guardian the day after her endorsement went public. The Chronicle of Higher Education also covered the escalation of the divestment movement, focusing on Divest Harvard’s HarvardHeatWeek, Mountain Justice’s sit-in, and the McKibben rally at the college earlier in the month. Former Senator Timothy Wirth also penned an op-ed in support of divestment in the Washington Post, further pushing the divestment movement into the public eye.

The mobilization of student activists at Swarthmore also sparked the beginning of similar escalation movements at other college and university campuses across the country. Students at University of Mary Washington, Bowdoin College, Yale University, and Harvard University all mobilized sit-in demonstrations at their campuses in response to Mountain Justice’s mobilization efforts at Swarthmore. Members of Fossil Free Yale and Divest UMW were eventually arrested at their respective campuses when they refused to end their pro-divestment demonstrations.

Participants in the Swarthmore divestment movement’s actions over the last few months believe that the sit-in and other related escalation tactics have caused significant intensification in the push for divestment.

“I think the sit-in was incredibly effective; it was the right action at this point in the divestment campaign,” said Sarah Dobbs ’18, a member of MJ, in an email. She said that previous rallies, marches, and petitions as actions have helped the movement’s visibility. Dobbs also believes that the support from students not directly involved with Mountain Justice was also integral to the sit-in’s success.

“It was not just the action; it was the timing, the spirit, and the response we received within the Swarthmore community and beyond,” she said.

Two of the most significant responses Mountain Justice received as a result of the sit-in were a commitment from the Board to seriously engage with their proposal for divestment at the Board meeting in early May, and a faculty resolution formally recommending that the Board of Managers divest from fossil fuels.
Still, even though the divestment movement has many supporters on campus and achieved many successes in the past month, some members of the community have expressed reservations about the effectiveness of Mountain Justice’s tactics in the push for divestment, and others oppose divestment entirely. Divestment is still a divisive issue on campus, and many students have expressed reservations about Mountain Justice’s tactics.

“I think much of our school’s collective energy has been focused on divestment … And it may have drowned out other issues at times,” i20 Co-President-Elect Damien Ding ’18 wrote in an email.

Despite some conflicting opinions on campus, Stephen O’Hanlon ’16, one of the student leaders of Mountain Justice, believes that the escalation movement has been successful and has high hopes about the upcoming Board of Managers meeting taking place in May.

“Our endowment is one of our most powerful levers for creating social change… [and] we took escalated action in order to show the mandate from the Swarthmore community for action,” he said.

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