On Thursday morning, I was sitting in seminar, as usual, when I got an email alert telling me that 48 Fossil Free Yale members had entered Woodbridge Hall and weren’t planning on leaving any time soon. I emailed a friend of mine in FFY, and she invited me to join. So, immediately after class, I ran over, entered Woodbridge and sat down. I would remain there for the next six hours or so. What follows are a few jumbled thoughts on the sit-in.
Let me get something out of the way: I don’t speak for FFY. I played no role in planning the sit-in. At the end of the day, I opted not to risk arrest. FFY organizers are brave activists who planned and executed an action I deeply admire. I’m a guy who writes about stuff.
That said, I was present at the sit-in from roughly 11:30 a.m. until we were kicked out at 5 p.m. So I have some insight into what happened at the sit-in.
A little before 9 a.m. on Thursday, 48 FFY members entered Woodbridge and presented University President Salovey with a bouquet of flowers and a polite demand. They were not asking Yale to divest on the spot; they were simply asking the University to publicly state its willingness to reconsider divestment. Otherwise, they wouldn’t leave.
Hannah Arendt has written about the banality of evil; when I got to the sit-in, I began to witness the banality of fighting evil. Those sitting in just tried to do work, talked or slept. When administrators scurried by, we made a path for them. When we were asked to keep down the volume, we did.
Sitting in wasn’t terribly comfortable. Those marble floors are hard, and administrators wouldn’t let allies on the outside bring us food. It got really hot in there.
Many protesters were preparing to sleep in Woodbridge that evening. There have recently been sit-ins for divestment at colleges across the country, including Harvard, Bowdoin and Swarthmore. At several of those sit-ins, the protesters spent the night. Their universities didn’t stop them. I began to consider whether or not I was willing to sleep there.
But then Yale did something I didn’t expect: Administrators told FFY they would arrest protesters if we didn’t leave when Woodbridge closed at 5 p.m. This surprised me because it has few recent precedents: No one has been arrested for any of the divestment sit-ins occurring across the country. Indeed, Swarthmore’s has gone on for nearly a month, with no end in sight and with no arrests to report.
University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews read us a statement, telling us in one breath how much Yale wanted to engage with students and that we would have to leave immediately or risk arrest and possibly “permanent separation from the University.”
This was a really dumb move by Yale, and not just because it was gratuitously excessive. It was dumb because it showed the world that Yale administrators would rather threaten students than engage with them on any terms but their own. It’s bad PR, and they know that the Yale name makes headlines. This could — drumroll please — hurt their yield.
I opted to leave the building when asked and thus not to risk arrest. This decision is not something I’m terribly proud of; it was motivated by a variety of factors, including a desire not to hamper my admission to the bar one day, where, hopefully, I can do some good. But, remarkably, 19 students stayed.
Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins told the protesters, “If anyone here does not want to leave, then you will be arrested.” The protesters didn’t leave, so the police arrested them for trespassing, issued them a fine and told them to exit out the back.
And then the truly messed up thing happened. Later that evening, University spokesman Tom Conroy and Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith claimed these weren’t formal arrests. Rather, they were just the issuance of infractions. In spite of Goff-Crews’s threats and Higgins’s affirmative statement, in spite of what police told students, University officials maintained no one was actually arrested.
This is dishonest. This is an attempt to keep the Yale name out of the Times. By doing this, the University not only threatened to arrest its own students for nonviolent, non-disruptive protest. It lied to them.
I speak for no one but myself, but I don’t think many protesters would have left Woodbridge at 5 p.m. without the threat of “arrest” — with all the brutality and force and compulsion that word entails. Students were told, if you don’t leave, we will arrest you. They didn’t leave; they were thus arrested. In a statement, FFY reported, “our legal counsel confirms that arrests took place.” University officials made very clear what was happening — literally telling the students they were being arrested — but, later, in a craven attempt to avoid controversy, changed their story.
In so many ways, Yale no longer operates in good faith.
And yet, let’s remember that at the end of the day, as the 19 were being arrested (or whatever), hundreds of supporters linked hands and entirely encircled Woodbridge and sang and chanted. Our last chant was, “We’ll be back.”
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .