When a gaggle of tents cropped up on Northeastern University’s Centennial Commons quad, it certainly caught a lot of students’ attention. Hung around and beside the tents were banners reading messages like “Stop Funding Climate Change,” “Fossil Free NU” and “Divest NU: Standing for social justice, pushing for climate action.” The tents belonged to members of Divest NU, a campus organization committed to getting the board of trustees of Northeastern to eventually “divest,” or stop investing, in fossil fuels and other non-sustainable forms of energy.
The group, which has been working for years to promote their cause with the school administration, landed a huge win last year when they were able to put a successful memorandum vote on the student election ballot. According to head of Divest NU Austin Williams, “75 percent of student who voted voted to take [Northeastern’s] money out of companies like Exxon and to invest in real solutions.”
The administration responded positively at first, vowing to create a council to explore the possibility of divestment, called the Social Impact Council. The council released the report, recommending full fossil fuel divestment, but there was no response from the administration, eventually prompting this “camp-in” by the group. With the tents occupying Centennial, they hope to produce a response from the administration and are refusing to move until that happens (or they are arrested).
Members like Tyler Hall, a senior mechanical engineering student, say that the protest has been a good experience. Hall said of camping overnight, “Centennial’s actually pretty peaceful at night because you don’t have the T running and it’s pretty quiet so I got a good night’s sleep. I wasn’t too cold.”
Each evening, Divest NU held a rally attended by some 100 people, to explain their positions and engage with students on a wide variety of environmental issues (like the current standoff in Standing Rock Indian Reservation) by means of song and speeches. Several students also pinned orange felt squares to their outerwear to show solidarity. The protesters also get another visitor each day – the police, who have been consistently parked just by Centennial Commons to monitor the situation. “There was a cop car here all night,” said Hall when recounting the camping experience. “I think they just kind of kept to themselves all night, made sure there wasn’t any funny business happening.”
And it’s not just Divest NU who supports divestment – the Student Government Association passed a resolution reaffirming the 2014 vote, a document which ends up right on the desk of President Aoun. Many student activist organizations such as Progressive Student Alliance, Students for Justice in Palestine, NU Buddhist Group and Real Food Challenge, have all showed up to the rallies in support as well.
There are many reasons Divest NU cites that Northeastern is hesitant to acquiesce to their plan, such as Ed Galante, the former senior vice president of Exxon Mobil and a current member on the Northeastern board of trustees. While the university touts that it has taken action in the divestment cause by investing in renewable energy, Divest NU members have said that it’s not enough.
“While we’re fighting here…Northeastern is trying to like disenfranchise us by ignoring our voices and hiding behind these disingenuous statements about what they’re doing,” said Nick Boyd. “So we’re here to claim our voices and demand that Northeastern listens to us. They’ve committed and it’s time that they act.”