Marisa Peryer

Chants of “okay boomer” and “this is what democracy looks like” echoed across the Yale Bowl on Saturday as hundreds of students and alumni from Yale and Harvard stormed the field, demanding that both universities divest from fossil fuels.

The joint action also called for both universities to divest from private prisons and Puerto Rican debt, according to the students’ chants. While the majority of protesters left the field after roughly half an hour — at the urgings of the Yale Police Department, the New Haven Police Department and the game’s announcer — a small number of students and alumni was arrested after they refused to give up their ground. The protest delayed the start of the second half of the game.

Per a press release from Divest Harvard emailed by the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, both Harvard and Yale are “losing badly in their efforts to address the climate change emergency.”

Students are tired of Harvard and Yale profiting off of climate destruction and neocolonial investments in Puerto Rico’s debt,” the release states. “It’s time for more than lip service and greenwashing from academic leaders. Harvard and Yale must address the climate emergency at the scale and with the urgency it demands. This action is only the beginning.”

The release cited various global issues, referring to wildfires in California, a United Nations report on climate change, and Puerto Rican families who have not recovered from Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Other signs held during the demonstration referenced the human rights abuses China has committed against Uighers.

In a statement to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote that Yale stands “firmly for the right to free expression.”

“We stand with the Ivy League in its statement that ‘It is regrettable that the orchestrated protest came during a time when fellow students were participating in a collegiate career-defining contest and an annual tradition when thousands gather from around the world to enjoy and celebrate the storied traditions of both football programs and universities,’” Peart wrote.

She added that the University is grateful to the staff members and police officers who responded to the situation, and that the exercise of free expression on campus is “subject to general conditions” — according to Peart, Yale does not allow disruption of University events.

Harvard Director of Media Relations Rachael Dane told the News in an email that Harvard will not comment on the student protest nor on the subsequent police activity.

She added that while the University agrees that climate change is an urgent global challenge, it “respectfully disagree[s]” with divestment activists about what type of action Harvard should take to confront the issue.

“Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions,” Dane wrote.

Divest Harvard Press Coordinator Caleb Schwartz, who said he was arrested at the event, told the News that law enforcement officers did not seem prepared to handle a large-scale protest, and that reactions from those officers toward protesters were mixed.

“Some people were grabbed and shoved and pulled and kind of verbally intimidated, others were asked to leave and just talked to,” Schwartz told the News.

Peart did not comment specifically on the police’s conduct. In an email to the News, she said that 42 individuals were issued misdemeanor summons for disorderly conduct.

Schwartz added that the arrest process went quickly — protesters were taken from the field and given tickets and court dates for within the next “one or two weeks.”

According to Yale Coalition member Rachel Calcott ’22, the number of people who joined the demonstration was “not expected.” She said that her team had planned for 100 to 150 students sitting on the field, linking arms and calling for divestment. Arrests were inevitable, she said. But after a “really interesting surge” of people stormed the field — many of whom did not receive nonviolent protest training — Calcott said her team was worried about the protest and how it would end. Still, even though many dispersed before getting arrested, Calcott added that the student involvement was an “amazing show of support.”

“We really appreciated the people that joined us,” she said. Calcott and the Coalition are working to confirm how many total participants were arrested Saturday.

According to the press release, Academy Award-winning actor Sam Waterson ’62 faced arrest during the protest.

One Yale alumna who joined protesters on the field said that while neither she nor her companion knew about the planned protest, it was “really great to see that there’s still so much activism around this, and student body support.” She added that she looks forward to seeing how both the Yale and Harvard endowments proceed beyond the protest.

Some students emphasized the urgency of climate change and the need for continued action.

“We’re showing them that games like these, like life at Yale, cannot go on as usual until Yale divests, and we’re going to continue doing this,” Sophie Lieberman ’21 told the News from near the 50-yard line.

Schwartz told the News that his organization at Harvard has set a deadline for the university to divest: Earth Day 2020, or April 22. Calcott, on the other hand, said the Yale Environmental Justice Coalition wants to see the University divest as soon as possible.

“We as a campaign really believe that we’re living in a time of climate emergency, and the fact that our universities are failing to address their own role in continuing to profit on fossil fuels is something that needs to be urgently addressed,” Schwartz said.

He added that while about 150 people originally expressed their interest in the protest before it happened, the fact that several others spontaneously joined the protest as it happened also speaks to the urgency of the issue.

Saturday’s demonstration courted national media attention and received mixed reactions  both on campus and beyond. 

In a video statement, Harvard football team captain Wesley Ogsbury called on the two universities to follow the activists’ demands for divestment. According to Ogsbury, some of his teammates joined him in wearing orange wristbands — the color of the divestment movement — after the game in solidarity.

“We’re coming together to call upon President Bacow and Salovey to divest from the fossil fuel industry now, for the sake of our generation,” he said at the end of the video.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro — as well as U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and celebrities like George Takei, Kenneth Cole and David Hogg — took to Twitter to congratulate the protestors. But the proceedings also drew ire across the internet: Chairman of Students for Trump Charlie Kirk wrote in a tweet that he hoped the activists — whom he called “narcissistic” and “entitled” — would all be arrested for trespassing after a warning. (Calcott said that she had expected the “trolling.”)

Several Yale faculty members also shared their support for the demonstration. 

One of these faculty members, AIDs activist and Yale epidemiology professor Gregg Gonsalves, gave the protest an “A++” in a Twitter post. In an interview with the News, Gonsalves said the demonstration was at “the perfect place at the perfect time … I wish I could have been there.”

“We are in this mess because my generation and the generation before didn’t take climate change seriously,” he said. “I can’t think of a more salient issue that’s going to face your generation than climate change.”

Well into the demonstration, fans in the Yale Bowl grew restless at the interruption. As the announcer requested that students on the field leave “as a courtesy to the players,” several students yelled profanities. “F–– the players,” one said. Others called for the protestors to be arrested — and promptly. Once the last remaining demonstrators left the field, those in the Yale Bowl began cheering.

The demonstration comes two months after the Endowment Justice Coalition and other activist groups staged a campus-wide walkout in support of the same issues. A similar protest at Harvard drew hundreds, too, according to Divest Harvard’s press release.

The Endowment Justice Coalition also staged sit-ins at the Yale Investments Office last December and March. This April, dozens of the protestors received notices to appear before the Executive Committee for trespassing, as they remained in the building long after closing despite police officers’ numerous warnings. A similar fate could come to the Yale-Harvard protestors: According to Yale’s Undergraduate Regulations, demonstrations or protests that exceed Yale’s limits on free expression — including disrupting its “regular or essential operations” or significantly hindering others’ rights — “will subject the participants to temporary or permanent separation from the University.”

Even though Calcott could not confirm that more protests were coming, the press release charged the two universities with addressing climate change “at the scale and with the urgency it demands.”

“This action is only the beginning,” the release states.

Several students who participated in the sit-ins faced fines of roughly $90. Calcott said that this Saturday’s demonstrators could face the same punishment. But with so many participants, she said, “we don’t know what to expect.”

The Yale Investments Office manages the University’s roughly $30 billion endowment. According to a report, it decided in 2014 and 2016 to retain its holdings in fossil fuel companies. But increased scrutiny from activist groups led the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni, to address the issue of Puerto Rican debt. They found that divestment “is not warranted when an investor is abiding by the applicable legal framework.” In the ACIR’s decision from 2018, they added “there have been no allegations of unethical debt collection efforts or practices.”

In a statement from September, spokeswoman Peart said that the Yale Investments Office has requested that the endowment managers not “hold” companies “that refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change” and that do not take “economically sensible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Yale does not disclose its investments, she added. Earlier this semester, President Salovey formed a task force to determine how quickly the University can achieve net zero carbon emissions.

Yale and Harvard began their annual Game tradition on Nov. 13, 1875.

Nov. 23, 11:08 p.m.: This article has been updated from its original version to include additional details about the protest and reactions to it.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu