Last Friday, Swarthmore Mountain Justice held a protest reiterating their demands that board members Samuel Hayes III ’57, Rhonda Cohen ’76, and Harold Kalkstein ’78 recuse themselves from future board discussions regarding divestment due to their fiscal ties to the fossil fuel industry. M.J. members washed the windows of Kohlberg where the board was meeting last weekend in a symbolic act of protest before moving to Parrish. John Braxton ’70, assistant professor of ecology at the Community College of Philadelphia and a longtime social justice activist who received an honorary degree from the college in 2010, attended the event. Though they resisted engaging in any directly confrontational actions with the Board, Mountain Justice members repeatedly said that if their demands were not met they would engage in escalating action.
Mountain Justice members had high expectations for the protest. M.J. member Ethan Chapman ’19 said he hoped the protest would send a message that the student body demanded accountability from the board.
“I hope we get a good turnout and show how serious we are about transparency and having a transparent dialogue with the board about divestment,” he said.
Students Annie Zhao ’18 and Killian McGinnis ’19 spoke at the event. Lee Smithy, assistant professor of sociology, introduced Braxton, the event’s main speaker. Their speeches advocated for divestment, demanding board members with ties to the fossil fuel industry recuse themselves from board discussions about divestment.
“Just as the power of the fossil fuel industry has stifled meaningful action on climate change nationally, ties to the fossil fuel industry from members of our own board hold back meaningful climate change discussion here at Swarthmore.” Annie Zhao ’18, the first speaker, said.
Braxton, a biologist and ecologist, served 17 months in prison in the early 1970s for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, has been involved in labor and social justice activism for most of his adult life. He recently collaborated between Noam Chomsky, Arlie Hochschild, Lotte Bailyn, Lorene Cary, and Barbara Hall Partee in a letter to the Board of Managers calling on them to enact divestment. In his speech, Braxton connected the activism of Mountain Justice with activism at the college in the past, including the 1969 sit-in held by black students in the admissions office to increase diversity on campus.
The protest started with about 15 people, all members of Mountain Justice, but as time went on the crowd grew to about 40. In addition to students, several faculty and staff came, including college gardner Sheila Magee ’81, who has been involved with the movement since the beginning.
After the speeches, the crowd walked up to the second floor of Parrish and delivered a letter addressed to Valerie Smith stating their demands for Hayes, Cohen, and Kalkstein to recuse themselves. Assistant to the President Brexton Eason accepted the letter with no comment.
“I think this rally was very successful. I looked around and saw a lot of really excited participants,” said Mountain Justice member Christopher Malafronti ’18.
The board did not address Mountain Justice’s demand but did announce a new $300,000 carbon charge. According to a Daily Gazette article, the charge will be assessed at a rate of $40 per metric ton of carbon emitted from new construction and a .5% charge on all department’s budgets. The charge will “increase the visibility of the campus’ sustainability programs and aid in the college’s efforts to include the entire campus community in the effort to address climate change,” according to a press release on the college website.
Malafronti stated that board’s inaction would mean escalated protests from Mountain Justice, but said that what those protests will look like has not yet been determined by the group.