It was a trickle, and then the trickle turned into a flood, and then all of a sudden we’re in the middle of a giant mass of engaged people… we just felt powerful, emboldened, excited, and I’d say hopeful, really hopeful that this fight is ours to win,” Danielle Losos ’21 told me, describing the stream of fans who poured into the center of the Yale Bowl last Saturday to join protesters from Fossil Free Yale, the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition and Divest Harvard calling for both schools to divest from the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt.
The image of students occupying the field, demanding that their universities be held accountable, went viral across social media. But this phenomenon didn’t captivate our screens just because students dared to speak out; they had to organize and convince an initial 150 students to risk arrest to stand up for our environment. Nora Heaphy ’21, an organizer with Fossil Free Yale, told me that just two years earlier, Fossil Free Yale reached out to Divest Harvard about putting on an action at the game. “A couple of people” decided to “table and pass out flyers” at the tailgate, but “even that plan fell through.” How did they pull it off this time around? Danielle and Nora are two of nine organizers I interviewed to find out.
The first thing you need to know about Fossil Free Yale is that it’s nonhierarchical, a refreshing reversion of the typical structure of Yale’s organizations. This means that there are no formal roles, no president calling the shots, so that every voice at the table has an equal say. This engenders a deep devotion to the work from the activists behind the organization.
Alex Cohen ’21 told me, “In a lot of these organizations, you have all this political drama [and] we just don’t really have that … Decisions are made through conversation and consensus … We’re all made more efficient because of the lack of drama.”
Rachel Calcott ’22 told me, “Once you show up to a meeting, the barrier for entry is really, really low. You can be as active and integral as your energy and dedication allow you to be.”
It is critical to understand that Fossil Free Yale’s organizing is distinctly human-centered and welcoming. When asked how they convinced so many students, 150 without the later flood from the crowd, to commit to risking arrest, nearly all the organizers provided the same answer: They relied primarily on face-to-face communication, contacting friends and those who had previously expressed interest in environmental advocacy.
Describing the recruitment process, Calcott noted, “It felt really organic … A lot of it was done by talking to friends who talked to friends and kind of tapping into networks that we already knew were existent … and attuned to [divestment] concerns.”
Capitalizing on existing environmental activism might just well be how they pulled it off. They combined a tireless devotion to their cause and intricate planning with an enthused student body and a little luck.
Martin Man M. Arch ‘19 told me, “Build ing on first our teach-in, which launched this coalition, and then through our sit-in, two more sit-ins, to a huge climate strike in September with 1,500 people, that kind of momentum carried us into this action. Immediately, right after the climate strike, we started thinking how do we harness the energy.”
Seeing this energy, Fossil Free Yale got to work planning out every aspect of the protest. Multiple organizers relayed to me how they separated their operations into different working groups with volunteers floating between them: the strategy team, the art team, the outreach team and the media team. Importantly, their nonviolent direct action training organizers hired outside experts for mandatory three-hour trainings to teach those willing to risk arrest the importance of resisting peacefully. But the police at the game responded with harsh tactics indicative of Yale’s general intolerance for disruptive speech.
A source granted anonymity for fear of legal or administrative reprisal told me, “Everyone who took to that field as part of the initial action was prepared to face legal and/or other consequences … The action became so much more than we thought it could. That complicated how we were taken off the field. That resulted in a lot of law enforcement frustration and just general chaos.”
In describing police actions after the majority of fans who joined the initial protesters left, this source told me she “heard a lot of verbal threats” and “witnessed a lot of manhandling” including “physical picking up of people. Dragging them and pushing them. They were picking up people left and right and just tossing them.” This source tried to complete her job as a police liaison but was “ignored” by officers.
Max Teirstein ‘21 describes a similarly chaotic and violent scene. When asked if the police treatment was fair, he told me that the police treatment was “not fair,” “totally out of proportion of what was going on” and “pretty disturbing.” When asked if he saw shoving or physical behavior, he responded, “I was shoved pretty hard. It was indiscriminate. It was everybody. Everywhere I looked somebody was getting shoved and thrown around by the police.” He also claimed that he heard and was the recipient of verbal threats from officers.
These organizers put their time and bodies on the line because they care about this planet. They spent months meticulously planning a demonstration of their commitment to their cause. Their message is grounded in the concerns shared by the majority of students. It’s time Yale listened to them.
JACOB HUTT is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .