DemVoices in Boston: Hundreds fight for students’ right to assemble over climate justice at BC

“People gonna rise like the water,
‘Gonna calm this crisis down.
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter,
saying Divest, BC, NOW!”

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“Father Leahy; Where are your Jesuit values? Stand with students. Not against us.”

Last weekend, April 12, on what was otherwise a peaceful and leisurely Sunday afternoon in Boston, Massachusetts, I found myself singing and chanting these words with a group of approximately 150 environmental activists.

Organized to march through the main thoroughfares of the pristine campus of Boston College (BC for short)–a prestigious Jesuit university located in Boston–these activists, myself included, were all non-affiliates of BC. We were gathered there in solidarity with student activists at BC, though these students–for reasons I will explain–were effectively banned from attending the protest. BC had already taken disciplinary actions against certain groups of student activists within their university for previous attempts to engage school administrators and policymakers in dialogue over their desire for a campus-wide divestment from fossil fuels.

The protestors chose an ideal time for the demonstration to occur, as that Sunday was also Admitted Eagle Day for the class of 2019. As you may imagine, the university was not thrilled to have an angry group of protestors on campus, calling attention to their dissatisfaction and frustration with an openness that all of these prospective students and families could see.

After marching through campus, past the dormitory where some students who’d been banned from protesting crowded by a window and waved in solidarity and gratitude, the rally paused in the center of campus to listen to commentary from a number of speakers. Environmental activist and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben spoke, along with two students from Yale University who were recently arrested for a divestment-related sit-in on their own college campus.

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My main purpose for visiting Boston was to see one of my closest friends from high school – Sissi – who is a second-year student at BC. For as long as I have known her, Sissi has been extremely passionate about issues related to the environment and, in particular, fighting climate change. During her time at BC, she has been actively involved in student activism groups that work to organize rallies and other demonstrations around campus and in the Boston area. Sissi’s passion and motivation for social justice is inspirational. As her friend and ally in this work, I am so proud of all that she has accomplished, and am beyond excited to see the future impact of her work.

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Sissi (right) and I at Copley Square in Boston.

Sissi is also one of the student activists currently on disciplinary probation as a result of her efforts to raise awareness about environmental issues on her own college campus.

Recently, one of the groups that Sissi organizes with, Climate Justice at Boston College (otherwise known as CJBC), has run into some problems amidst attempts to initiate talks with the administrators of BC on the issue of campus-wide divestment from fossil fuels. According to gofossilfree.org, ‘divestment’ is the principle of eliminating “stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous,” such as those that would continue the burning of fossil fuels despite available alternatives that are less negatively impactful on the environment.

Since BC is a private university, school policy prohibits organized student protests without a permit being issued from proper university administrators. I should also mention that protest permits are only distributed to student groups that have been given the status of a “Registered Student Organization” (RSO) from the University. That being said, as they were denied RSO status by the university, CJBC is forbidden from holding protests on campus.

Earlier this year, Sissi attended a “die-in” on campus (which was not sanctioned by BC, due to the aforementioned reasons), in which she joined others in urging the university to formally condemn the then-recent grand jury decisions not to indict the policemen responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The university responded by sending letters threatening “disciplinary outcomes” against 21 of the students in attendance, including Sissi.

“I have absolutely no idea how they managed to single me out,” Sissi told me.

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A few weeks later, Climate Justice at Boston College organized a rally to urge administrators to consider the possibility of campus-wide divestment. Knowing that the rally was not sanctioned, Sissi decided to heed the university’s disciplinary threats against her and opted not to attend for the sake of her academic future. However, feeling strongly invested in the cause, Sissi did send out a press release, indicating the time and place that the rally would occur, so that others who wished to join could do so–albeit at their own risk.

After the divestment rally, Sissi soon received notice from the university that she had officially been placed on disciplinary probation (despite not attending the rally), and that any further incidence of protest would result in her suspension or expulsion from Boston College.

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“Boston College, practice what you preach. Climate justice and free speech.”

Legally speaking, yes, Boston College is entirely within its rights to limit the autonomy of those who wish to protest on their campus, including students, as the campus is technically private property. But, part of the problem with this line of thinking lies in BC’s identity as a Catholic institution, one that both preaches and claims to abide by Jesuit values.

During the course of his papacy, Pope Francis has been outspoken about the need for Catholics to preserve and nurture the well-being of our planet. The Pope has specifically acknowledged the “sin” of “exploiting the Earth”. Not only has Boston College ignored this call of responsibility from Pope Francis, they have also failed to uphold the Jesuit tenant of “Contemplatives in Action,” which issues a call to all those abiding by Jesuit values to take action in pursuit of social justice.

By essentially ignoring the core tenets of their faith, BC has instead opted to heed the Draconian creed of neo-conservative climate denial supported by key corporate interests (school donors, perhaps?). In the process, they have also managed to disenfranchise many passionate members of their student body who refuse to be silenced on matters of basic human justice.

All of this begs the question: Where are these Jesuit values that BC supposedly holds in such high regard?