Posted in: Campus

A Semester with Divest

By | September 2, 2014

divest button suit

By March 24, 2014, I had been embedded in the organization Divest Harvard for five weeks, and there was little sign the group was about to grow.

Its members told me they’d congregated every Monday for a year in this sterile, broad-windowed room in Quincy House. Since mid-February, when I started attending, I’d seen no more than nine or ten members show up any given night. Of those, only six or seven were regular attendees.

This came as a surprise to me, as it would to many people who have followed campus politics over the past two years. The organization, which is calling on Harvard to divest its $32.7 billion endowment from the fossils fuels industry, is at the center of a lively, at times polarizing political debate that stretches far beyond the borders of Cambridge. Well-known commentators from Chris Hayes to Walter Russell Mead have spilt gallons of ink debating the strategy everywhere from National Review to The Nation. The group’s organizers have fielded long interviews with NPR and Rolling Stone, snagged endorsements from the Cambridge City Council, and met behind closed doors with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Even President Obama has implicitly endorsed the group’s methods. “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution,” he said at Georgetown University last year. “Convince your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Divest.”

On campus, opinion is split, but among politically active liberals—a significant chunk of Harvard’s student body—the general sentiment is aligned heavily in favor of Divest and against Harvard President Drew G. Faust, who has maintained a staunch, unmoving anti-divestment position over the past year and a half. During the only Undergraduate Council referendum on the matter, 72 percent voted in favor of the group’s goals. And though less than 40 percent of students voted—as many are quick to point out—that still comes out to about 2,000 undergraduates, many of whom are among the school’s most politically passionate.

But here, at this diminutive meeting in Quincy, one feels far from the epicenter of a major student movement—much less one with thousands of students, politicians, and activists behind it.

On the agenda are a potential co-sponsorship for an event with other activist groups on campus, including SLAM, or the Student Labor Action Movement, and Perspective, an all but defunct leftist paper. The measure comes to a vote. The Divesters raise their fists toward the center of the table, and, once instructed to by the meeting’s leader, Canyon Woodward ’15, give either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The measure passes easily and a moment of silence follows. But these administrative votes among a handful of students rarely seem like a substantive step toward goading Harvard to reallocate the $35 million it has tied up in the fossil fuels industry, and I’m not the only one getting this impression.

“I’m worried that we’re having these conversations with just a small number of Divesters,” says Henney Sullivan ’15, a long-haired, flannel-wearing junior, from the mountains of northern New Hampshire. “I definitely think about how I spend my time in this room occasionally. I mean, this is a stretch to determine whether or not this group even exists next year.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment—in fact, it’d become something of a theme, if only by implication. Just two weeks prior, Alli Welton ’15, who once infamously chained herself to an exurban office building in central Massachusetts in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline, expressed unease about a ‘teach-in’ outside Mass Hall in the middle of the March. “If we only have five or six people there, which is a real possibility, we’re going to look really weak,” she warned.

The teach-in, to be sure, was small—just a few students gathered around an empty chair symbolizing the administration. It wasn’t an embarrassment or anything partially because so few students knew about it. That gathering, in other words, like so many gatherings by Divest as of late, flew far under the student body’s radar.

***

But none of this is to say that Divest Harvard had been a failure so far—far from it.

It’s true that in terms of real impacts on the university’s policies, the organization hadn’t yet been effective. It was also true that the movement was growing tired outside its central core after about a year and a half of roughly the same tactical schtick.

But the group had and continues to spark a tremendous amount of dialogue. As of this writing, both The Atlantic and Commonwealth Magazine—popular among Bay State political junkies—had opined on the strategy in the past day alone, and, in concrete terms, several towns in Massachusetts—including Cambridge, Northampton, and Provincetown—had at least partially divested from the fossil fuels industry. Nationally, several major cities, from San Francisco to Portland, Ore., had also jumped on the Divest bandwagon.

So the sparking of conversation in a way that provokes concrete change—at least outside the Harvard bubble—had been one of the group’s practical strengths. Divest supporter and English professor Jim Engell said this to me in May, citing an Oxford study on the long-term effects of dialogue on actual regulations. But it seemed that in the more limited context of dealing with the Harvard administration, this activism-through-dialogue method had also been one of the group’s weaknesses.

For the past two semesters, the group had hosted a number of forums, lectures, panels, and teach-ins—about one for every month of the school year—but these gatherings were not gaining steam, and the administration, or at least Faust, wasn’t about to budge.

The group had also engaged with the administration more directly, meeting multiple times with members of the Harvard Corporation on and off the record, as well as other administrators with some nominal control over the endowment. Among them was the Harvard Management Company official in charge of ‘sustainable investment’—even Faust herself. But all these interactions had eventually led to frustration among the Divesters, who felt that the higher-ups weren’t taking them at all seriously.

“The attitude of the administration has been, ‘Go ahead, run along little children,’” Divest supporter Dr. Jim Recht told me at his soboxin clinic in North Cambridge.

Perhaps a representative interaction occurred between student Divesters, and Robert Reischauer and Nannerl Keohane, two of four members of the Corporation’s Corporate Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, or CCSR. At the second of three meetings, this March, Reischauer noted that he had been personally affected by climate change, as he was forced to build a $50,000 bulwark for his vacation home in Canada. But—first world problem aside—both him and Keohane reiterated their belief that aligning against fossil fuel companies was a foolish strategy. “You should thank BP,” said Keohane, disaffectionately referred to as ‘Nanners’ by the Divesters.

In this context of starkly worded rebuffs behind closed doors, “dialogue” wasn’t a sufficient standalone tactic, the Divesters felt, especially because the group was growing no stronger on campus.

A change of strategy was in order. And so Divest, an organization of conciliation and conversation, would add another tactic to its repertoire: confrontation.

***

The first sign of this shift occurred that March, when, on a frosty, hard morning with the Yard still covered in a skift of snow, several members of Divest followed Faust to Massachusetts Hall, making their case for divestment and fielding a couple of constrained responses from the president.

During the back-and-forth, Faust made a tactical error, claiming that the fossil fuels industry did not hinder the practical application of green research. Divest had been filming, and from the clip of Faust’s claim, the group launched a small media campaign to expose the perceived holes in her logic. Faust was pissed, and she wrote an open letter to Divest calling the group down for its lack of “civility and fairness.”

But “civility” was no longer a priority for Divest, at least until ‘civil’ interactions reaped results. That film clip—which, for one of the first times publicly and properly situated Faust and the Divesters as foes rather than partners—was just the harbinger of a larger tactical change within Divest, one which certain group members had begun to murmur about months earlier.

Since at least February, the group had talked of an ‘action’—activist speak for a protest or a creative, conspicuous gathering that challenges the administration. This was nothing new in of itself, but this action would take a far more aggressive approach. It would be a capstone to the group’s activities this semester and a launching point for the group’s activities come autumn—perhaps even a defibrillatory shock to the sleepy atmosphere those Divest meetings had come to assume. And at the end of March, after the release of the Faust video, I first got word of the specifics.

Basically, the action would be a human blockade of Mass Hall, which Chloe Maxmin ’15, a razor-sharp, salt-of-the-Earth Mainer with bylines in Dissent and The Nation, dubbed a “symbol of the administration.” A group of Divesters would physically surround the building, and demand a conference with Faust that the public could also attend—called an “open meeting” by Divest. Hopefully, the action would end with Faust giving in to the group’s demands, or in a round of arrests by the Harvard University Police Department. In the former case, the Divesters hoped an open meeting would expose the flawed logic that they had reportedly been fed during closed-door meetings with administrators. And in the latter case, the group hoped to demonstrate the intransigence of Faust and the Corporation.

Over the month of April, those once-snoozy meetings in Quincy took on a headier tone. The number of attendees swelled into the mid- and upper-teens, and the concrete details of the blockade were slowly, but steadily fleshed out. Members reported back from their talks with legal counsel regarding the possible arrests. Code names were developed. A documentary film crew consisting of two bearded gentlemen with hanging microphones and video cameras even began to attend.

One felt the group had, for an evening here and there, miraculously turned the clock back from 2014 to the late ‘60s. Divest, in other words, had begun to escape the small-ball, meetings-on-meetings cycle that wastes many modern activist causes on campus. A few months later in Dissent, Maxmin would sufficiently summarize the group’s new, confrontational attitude, writing that “Harvard’s representatives are so saturated in industry PR that they have been blinded to the facts.”

Those risking arrest, placing themselves directly in front of the doors of Mass Hall, were dubbed ‘doughnuts.’ Those merely lending support from a few meters away were dubbed ‘coffee.’ Physical, metal chains—once thrown around by the Divesters as a potential accessory in the blockade—were decided against, but only on tactical grounds. Orange divest shirts were ordered, and an aggressive schedule of speakers was put in place. Finally, a few Divesters ran three reconnaissance missions toward the end of April, in which they discerned the morning schedule of Faust’s zany, Scandinavian personal assistant, Lars Madsen, so as to determine when the blockaders would need to show up in the morning to effectively seal off the building.

“This is going to be so cool,” said Welton, at the end of one planning session in late April.

***

One of the more common criticisms of student activism that one hears on campus is that agitation is often performed for the sake of agitation—that is, students like to raise the stakes without sufficient reason often to draw attention to themselves rather than their cause. Because of this ingrained, sometimes valid suspicion, it may be necessary to clarify that it wasn’t only a series of unproductive meetings with Nanners and the CCSR that had originally pushed the movement in this more confrontational direction. Every other avenue for dialogue with admins was looping into a cul-de-sac, a reality that was becoming clearer over time.

Among the other key figures with whom the group had met more than once was Jameela Pedicini, who was hired one and a half years ago as the HMC’s Vice President for Sustainable Investing. Though her position would seem to foster interaction with Divest, the student group complained that Pedicini, who did not respond to an interview request by the HPR, had been inaccessible.

“In October, she said, ‘I’d love to meet with you soon to continue talking about these issues,’ but she didn’t respond to us again for months,” said Maxmin.

On top of her perceived inaccessibility, the group had also come to doubt the effectiveness of her position. “She’s the VP of Sustainable Investment, but that’s a fucking choice word,” said one Divester after a meeting. “All they mean by sustainable is consistently high returns forever and ever.”

After the organization’s second rendezvous with Pedicini, which took place in late March, Maxmin put it more bluntly. “Basically, she said to us she’s powerless.”

At the top of the administrative chain and removed from the day-to-day workings of the endowment, President Faust was of no use to the organization, which is to be expected. What wasn’t expected was the reactionary stances she would adopt, even in relation to her own advisors. More than one high-ranking faculty member has suggested she divest from coal, sources say. Among them was Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor Daniel Schrag, a formal advisor to President Obama and an informal advisor to Faust, who advised her to “throw em’ a bone” rather than “give em’ the finger,” as one graduate student with knowledge of the interaction put it.

Of course, Faust wouldn’t move on this suggestion—even as other several universities, including Stanford, would in the months that followed. And it wasn’t as if a majority, or even a large fraction of professors were pushing her all that hard to do so—a tepidity that Divesters have attributed partially to the internal politics of Harvard’s faculty.

To elaborate, multiple Divesters had told me that junior faculty said to the group they supported the movement, but would not do so openly for fear of reducing their chances at tenure. I might’ve dismissed this as activist propaganda had more than one junior faculty member not told me this directly—or if I hadn’t had a fruitful conservation with Professor Timothy McCarthy, pro-Divest literature professor, in the Barker Center one May afternoon.

“I’ve had many, many, many conversations with junior faculty that refuse to speak because they’re concerned for their career,” he told me. “Perhaps it’s my own obsession with mortality—being Irish, being gay, being a lefty—but I never wanted to die with my head buried in the sand. And there are faculty here with their heads buried in the sand.”

Is this just a problem for those without tenure? Maybe, maybe not. But for McCarthy, at least, the answer was definite.

“There’s a whole system of rewards, privileges, chairmanships, et cetera,” he said. “If the faculty stood up and spoke, Harvard would divest tomorrow.”

***

As the Divest crowd began to surreptitiously swell, President Faust, as if on cue, threw a curve ball the group’s way. Acting under the informal counsel of Daniel Schrag, she announced that the university would adhere to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, or PRI. Under these guidelines, which the UN describes as “voluntary and aspirational,” the university would conform its new investments to PRI’s “ESG” credo—ESG standing for ‘environmental, sustainable, and governmental.’

For the Divesters, this was little more than a shrewd, tactical move, meant first and foremost to erode Divest’s base of support; for them, it could be roughly analogized to Faust’s appointment of “the powerless” Jameela Pedicini.

“Faust’s a wiley one,” said Sullivan at the time, half-jokingly.

Materially, while PRI might have been a step in the right direction in their eyes, both Divest and its supporters treated the measure with the cynicism that voluntary ‘guidelines’ typically engender. “What we’ve seen with other signatories is that some have developed robust programs, and some have not.” Daniel Wood, director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at the Kennedy School, told The Crimson.

Perhaps students saw Faust’s move as a false olive branch—perhaps this was only true of Harvard’s environmental vanguard—but despite the temporary anxiety of Divest’s leaders, the group’s meetings only grew after the PRI declaration in mid-April. On Monday, April 28—two days before the blockade—this growth reached its crescendo.

The venue, far from the pallid sterility of that room in Quincy, had been changed to the Democracy Center, a charming, if shabby clapboard colonial on Mt. Auburn Street with peeling eggshell blue paint. When I arrived, 27 people were stuffed into a 15’ by 15’ room, which was adjacent to a temporary nude portraiture gallery and a tango studio.

“It’s unlikely that we’d get into legal trouble,” said Kelsey Skaggs, a doughnut and a Law School student, about those blockading Mass Hall in two days-time. “But academic punishments are possible. The first level is a reprimand, but it could lead to an expulsion.”

“Will anyone go to bat for us if it comes to that?” asked a new face in the crowd.

“Yes,” replied Woodward, listing a number of high-level faculty members that had pledged to defend the Divesters should they be referred to the administrative board. Among them was Sharon Howell, then the college’s senior resident dean. “She said she’s absolutely willing to defend us.”

The group then designated a police liaison—someone who would communicate with HUPD during the action—and formulated a strategy for communicating between the ‘coffee’ and the ‘doughnuts’ should the police cordon separate the two.

Whereas some evenings in the past, the meetings ended early and lacked a driving focus, tonight there was hardly any pausing as, at any given time, several Divesters had their hands raised to speak. The meeting ran over—well over—but no one left, and the pace of speech never slowed. The physical atmosphere framed this heady brand of activism well: the dimly lit room was illuminated only by a small porcelain chandelier with mismatched lightbulbs and the backlight of the documentary film crew; the walls, made of knotty, diagonally paneled wood, were covered by posters that read, “Occupy Sisterhood,” and “Central America: Reagan Wages War. Let’s Wage Peace.” The bookshelves held volumes ranging from left-centrist policy works, to tomes defending Lenin.

At the end of the meeting, when the loose ends were seemingly tied up, there was a ra-ra group hug, but no one left. Instead, the group hung around, talking excitedly, drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and stenciling in orange and black posters to hold up at the blockade. Eventually, at 11 p.m. I left, having no idea when the last Divesters would drift out that evening.

divest blockade
***

Whereas the Divesters stayed late on Monday, they exhibited an ungodly, though necessary, earliness on Wednesday, congregating in Grays Hall at 5:50 a.m. From there, they migrated 150 yards across the Old Yard donning bright orange Divest shirts—about 35 of them—to the main entrance of Mass Hall, the entrance which faces southeast and is framed by short hedges. Once there, the group’s six doughnuts—meaning those risking arrest—stood directly in front of the forest green door, and the coffee—those not risking arrest, but making their voice heard nonetheless—ringed the central group.

Slightly before 7 a.m., a short woman with frumpy blonde hair and a black raincoat who works daily in Mass Hall, escorted by three gruff HUPD officers, approached the main entrance. The coffee moved out of the way, but six doughnuts linked arms in response, obstructing their path.

“I’m sorry, but we’re blockading the building,” said Skaggs, in a timid way, as if acknowledging the awkwardness of the encounter.

“Are you shuh?” asked the first policeman, in a dry Boston accent.

The doughnuts nodded.

He looked back toward his mustachioed captain. “Tell me what to do. Tell me what you want.”

The captain, in turn, addressed the group. “We’re trying to get this woman into her office, so…”

After three or four seconds of silence, Ted, a thick-bearded and crunchy Divinity School student, responded, “We’re looking for an open and transparent dialogue with the Harvard Corporation about divestment, so we can only speak with someone with the power to negotiate on behalf of the Corporation.”

The policemen then escorted the woman back from whence they came, and, once the trio was out of range, the blockaders let out of very audible, collective sigh of relief. The blockaders smiled, then laughed, as did some of the surrounding coffee.

“Good job, guys,” said Skaggs, with a grin.

After more than a month of organization, this new tactic was going according to plan; after more than a year of being swept aside by the administration, it was finally the Divesters, if briefly, sweeping aside the administrators. And based on the atmosphere of those early morning hours this reversal of roles was, for the time being, a damn good feeling.

divest from bridges
***

Over the next few hours, the Divesters set up camp. Banners were strung across the main façade of Mass Hall, a food table was established and, eventually, a small tent was erected above the building’s entrance where the doughnuts lingered. Leland Cheung, a Democratic Cambridge City Councilor and candidate for lieutenant governor, and environmental activist Bob Massie, among others, spoke at a rally at ten. Another assemblage, featuring The Nation writer Wen Stephenson followed at noon. But despite the fact that the Divesters had programmed the day heavily—there were other rallies at 3 and 6 p.m.—morale began to sink precipitously toward mid-morning for reasons that were partially bad luck, and partially bad tactics.

The spring of 2014 in Cambridge, to clarify, had been cold, and though the coffee and doughnuts bundled up heavily, puffing outward like Michelin men under their orange shirts, no degree of layering could fully counter the 24 hours of torrential rain that began around 9 a.m. The tents the group had purchased were flimsy and insufficient, and the coffee numbers dwindled as a result. This problem would have been a mere inconvenience for the core doughnuts, if it weren’t for the fact that they somewhat puzzlingly decided to leave two of Mass Hall’s three doors unguarded. As each entrance accesses the entirety of the building, administrators, by midday, simply started walking into the building via the alternate entrances. The police decided to leave the scene of the protest, and the Divesters—via its surprisingly robust web of informants—got word that the administration planned to simply wait the protestors out.

The doughnuts hadn’t envisioned playing this game, nor was it clear that the game was winnable. This protest, in other words, was in grave danger of fizzling out into obscurity, as had many other Divest actions in the past, and the Divesters were acutely aware of this reality. So at 2 p.m., they held a meeting to re-strategize.

One of the first speakers, a visibly shivering doughnut, suggested they call the blockade off, and settle for the media buzz that they’d already created. “The administration already looks bad, so I say we end it now, and put our energy into the next action in the fall,” she said.

None of the other Divesters present, however, were willing to pull the plug. “We’ve been organizing for months, and we’re still doing essentially the same thing,” said Maxmin. “I don’t want to let everyone supporting us down.”

Welton seconded Maxmin, as did Sullivan, Woodward and many others. To pull the plug on this, the group agreed, would be to fall back into the organizational and tactical stagnation that had begun to rear its ugly head that spring.

“I think our best option would be to move to block the doors tonight, and either get an open meeting or get arrested tomorrow,” said Ted. The group agreed and soon, it was decided: the now partial blockade would, by tomorrow morning, be airtight.

Divest
***

HUPD, it turns out, had other plans. When I arrived at Mass Hall early the next morning, the police—a cordial bunch the day before—were yanking the doughnuts out of doorways. The Divesters were shouting their demands for an open meeting, and when the opportunity opened up, they’d re-occupy key passages only to be removed again when an administrator approached.

One doughnut proved more a bit more difficult to yank away than the others, however, and it was not one whom I’d have originally suspected. Named Brett Roche, he was a full head shorter than me—I’m about 5′ 11”—and skinny, too. His smile was constant, his personality warm, and, yesterday, he’d spent hours petting and feeding a baby gray squirrel. But when the cops approached he clawed on to the knob of one of Mass Hall’s side doors and refused to let go. After a few unfruitful tugs, they communicated to him that he’d be arrested if he refused to move. Roche acknowledged, and with that, he was cuffed, stuffed, and sent in a HUPD squad car to the Middlesex County Jail.

The blockade ended within two hours, and the university had dropped all charges against Roche within four, but a number of narratives had already accrued around the action—some organically, some with the help of Divest’s modest media machine. “What we saw was pretty disappointing,” said Tim DeChristopher, a vocal divinity school student and well-known affiliate of the group, at a well-attended rally the next day. “We saw this university respond to a request for open dialogue with repression and bullying, and it needs to be known that that kind of action is unacceptable for this institution.”

It wasn’t just core Divesters that expressed this sentiment—celebrities and many students did as well. “Any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place,” said author Margaret Atwood, after accepting an Arts First medal at the college the following day. Among college students themselves, many—in fact most that I talked to after the action—were put off by Faust and the Corporation’s seemingly fervid determination to avoid an open meeting with the Divesters.

“I don’t really have an opinion about Divest. I don’t pay attention,” a junior neurobiology concentrator in Pforzheimer House told me. “But when I see Faust refusing to grant a pretty reasonable request like that, it makes me sympathetic to the Divesters. I don’t know why Faust is so stubborn about this.”

If the student body’s view of Faust is any indication, this stubborn image of the president has proliferated beyond by unscientific sample: according to late May survey of the senior class conducted by The Crimson, only 47 percent of the class approved of Faust’s performance, far worse than in years past, and her handling of the Divesters is almost unanimously cited as the reason for this discontent.

To be sure, not all of the media buzz was positive, as some viewed the blockade as overly confrontational. “Turning from reason and persuasion to confrontation weakens the group’s arguments,” read a piece by The Crimson’s editorial board the following week. A sizable minority of students shared this view, including some ex-Divesters who had been alienated from the organization during the early stages of its tactical shift.

The core Divesters, however, who had been involved in unfruitful, and by then broken dialogue with the administration for over a year, didn’t at all see the action as a source of weakness at all, but rather as a source of strength. A plateauing movement had finally stood up to those in the Corporation, the college administration, and the HMC who’d deftly kicked the divestment can down the road, while the student group drifted into organizational apathy. Thanks to the blockade, this was no longer the case.

Now, the Divesters had an acute sense of their capacity to work not only within the confines of the institution, but in opposition to it. They had an acute sense of themselves as practitioners of civil disobedience—seemingly effective ones, who could force the administration into tactical fumbling, even when their demands were technically unmet. In other words, they had a sense of their own strength as student activists representing campus’ environmental vanguard.

“It felt amazing,” said Sullivan the following week of the action. “The two to four period was an altered state of being. I’ve come down a bit since then, but not all the way.”

***

A few days after the blockade, Divest held a debriefing in Adams’ festively trimmed Coolidge Room. Like the meetings leading up to the action, the room was packed—and the tone was ebullient. According to Maxmin, the administration was likely to offer measures short of divestment in the near future as a means of appeasement. “But we’re not going to stop,” she said. “We’re only growing stronger.”

Had I heard these words a month before—in that pallid, sterile room in Quincy—I’d have thought them ridiculous. But now, with Divest’s core recharged and its tactics revamped, it’d be hard to claim the group lacks energy.

This was true when the Divesters stood up to the first Mass Hall worker and her HUPD protectors early on a cold April morning. It was true when Roche clawed onto that doorknob 26 hours later. It was also true when the group held a raucous kegger the night after at an off-campus place near the law school.

Then, as the group celebrated their victory, noise complaints caused the police to again come and confront the student group. And come they did—twice.

 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article referred to Jameela Pedicini as the Vice President of Sustainable Investment at the Harvard Corporation. She is in fact the Vice President of Sustainable Investment at the Harvard Management Company. 

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