By Andrea Baumgartel
From Friday at 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Monday, a team of five students from Grinnell College Student Action (GCSA) — Holly Barton ’17, Ross Floyd ’19, Sean Haggerty ’19, Eli Shepherd ’18 and Lucid Thomas ’19 — camped out in Nollen House to demand that the College financially divest from the fossil fuel industry.
President Raynard Kington was the intended recipient of the pressure resulting from the GCSA protest, which voiced dissent surrounding the College’s investment in the fossil fuel industry that has been festering since the 1990s.
“I thought a great deal about this issue,” Kington said. “I have a great respect for those students … [In] the role of our College and the tactics that are best for addressing the problem —there we have a difference of opinion. And that’s ok.”
GCSA has been steadily building support for divestment since its initiation as a group more than a year ago. In Nov. 2015, GCSA held a similar, 60 person march in conjunction with other student organizations, calling for a number of actions, including divestment, to be taken by the College.
The group has met with both Kington and the College’s Chief Investment Officer Scott Wilson ’98 several times to discuss divestment, but “we are effectively shut out of all decision-making processes,” Shepherd said.
No clear progress was being made on the issue, and as a result, the divest campaign only felt like it could express itself in organized action.
The campaign calls on Kington to support the College’s full divestment from fossil fuels and urged the Board of Trustees to divest over 100 million dollars of the College endowment.
On Friday, Feb. 4, Sandy Barnard ’17 and Nyx Hauth ’19 organized a 150-plus person (students and security marshals) march to Nollen House, in which they effectively shut down the building until 5 p.m.
The protest was first and foremost peaceful and controlled. Floyd stressed that all of GCSA’s demonstrations have had a clear, highly organized structure, with constant communication between action leaders and the other protesters. Before the march to Nollen House, he said, “Everyone met in the ARH at 3. We held a short program about climate change, about our reasons for fossil fuel divestment and practiced some call-and-response protest chants before heading out,” Floyd said.
The 100-plus students and security marshals walked silently in a tight, two-by-two line from the ARH to Nollen House. Once everyone was in the building, Haggerty gave a brief statement via megaphone to the administration inside the building explaining the rationale behind the protest, as well as the commitment made by the five students to stay at Nollen House until Monday morning. He then handed off the megaphone to Hauth, who would lead many of the call-and-responses.
“The people, united, will never be divided!” “People’s needs not corporate greed!” “We are unstoppable, another world is possible!” and of course: “Divest or arrest! Divest or arrest!” were just a few of the demands and morale-fueling chants sang throughout the demonstration. Intermittently, poems and stories were shared: Ella Williams ’19 sang and played guitar while her brother Nate ’20 improvised on the trumpet; Deniz Sahen ’20 jammed on the tambourine; Felipe Gentle ’18 turned over some office bins and played percussion with salad tongs; and somewhat squished in a corner, a group worked furiously to sew a monumental banner (made completely of second-mile fabric) that would eventually span the length of Gates Tower for a few hours on Monday morning until it was removed by administration.
“[The divest action] incorporated so many different kinds of protest and activism. … As someone who makes art and is intending to continue making art as a reaction to politics and oppression in the next four years, it is especially inspiring to see art and activism come together the way it did at the action,” said Steven Duong ’19.
“I think protest music can be so healing, and help bring protesters together in unity,” Ella Williams said. “I hope to bring music to more demonstrations in the future, and think the presence of music will help students remain angry, remain outspoken and remain unified.”
Everyone exited the building at 5 p.m., except for the remaining five students seated in front of Kington’s office who were committed to risking uncertain consequences such as expulsion or arrest.
Kington arrived around 6 p.m. and, according to Barton, the first thing he said was “So it’s come to this.”
“It was very tense … emotions were high on both sides,” Floyd said. “People shutting down his office isn’t something that happens very much.”
But later, things started to turn around. Once Kington realized the full commitment of the GCSA protesters, he returned to Nollen House. “He came back at 10 p.m., and that’s when the negotiating started about what we could do moving forward,” Floyd explained.
Kington returned again on Saturday at noon to continue the negotiations.
Even when approaching day three sustained by crackers, rock-paper-scissor tournaments and homework in a 24/7 lit building, the group’s clear fervor for climate justice did not waver.
“[Kington] is either standing with the continuation of DAPL, the continuation of Keystone XL and a president that calls climate change a Chinese hoax … or he’s standing with Iowa students and community members,” Shepherd said, explaining the intrinsic human rights issue of the Divest campaign. “A corporate takeover of our government cannot be more clear than a corporation hiring a sheriff to take people off their land. That’s the choice President Kington has to make.”
Kington questioned the drawing of hard and fast lines, such as being a climate-change denier or divesting. “I think you hurt your movement when you do that. First of all … you diminish what it means for a person to say, ‘I don’t believe that there’s any climate change,’ and you hurt your own credibility. And so I actually think we have to be careful about that—everyone has to be careful about that.”
“What I think we also have to be really careful about is not recognizing that it’s ok to have differences in opinion about tactics. And we hurt ourselves and our community when everything is a yes or no, with an us or against us type thing. … That’s not smart. Because there’s a difference between someone who doesn’t believe there’s climate change, and someone who says, ‘yeah, I believe all of that, I’m with you on all the evidence, now we have to think about how we get there.’ And that’s where we have differences,” Kington said. “And you can’t treat them the same.”
On Tuesday, President Kington released a statement regarding the weekend’s protest via a campus memo. It stated that, “largely because of the engagement of GCSA,” certain policy changes (namely, a specified written proposal to the Board) are being made to determine how the Board of Trustees could potentially divest endowment funds from any given corporation.
Kington gave no other specific details on these policy changes.
Additionally, Kington refused to endorse the Divest campaign to the Board, citing for justification the production of renewable energy sources by fossil-fuel companies as well as the need for endowment earnings to fund 55 percent of the annual operating budget (which includes financial aid).
“30 percent of our students have grants that basically cover all of their tuition. That comes from our endowment,” Kington said. “So let’s have a conversation about that. Are we willing to increase student debt?”
However, Kington did commit to suggesting the creation of a “donor-requested investment fund whereby future donors [can] request that their contributions to the endowment not be invested in fossil fuel-related funds,” to the Board of Trustees, as he wrote in the memo.
“All investments are chosen based on their individual merits and not as political statements,” Kington wrote, continuing to explain that, while he “fully agrees with the student activists about the existence, causes, magnitude, and impact” of global warming, his perspective on solving those issues does not at the moment include full divestment. “Reasonable people can agree about the best tactics to use in accomplishing that goal [to reduce global warming].”
“Ultimately, this is not my decision. It’s the decision of the investment committee. I, at this point, am not comfortable recommending that they do that,” Kington said. “I don’t see myself recommending, but others can make that request to the board. I would be surprised if the board divested.”
The memo has received backlash from students, including on social media and in a Grinnell Underground Magazine article by Rachel Buckner ‘18.
Buckner wrote, “I feel a deep disconnect from Grinnell, as I struggle to commit to attending an institution that is invested in fossil fuel companies; companies that exacerbate the social justice issues that Grinnell educates us on and claims to support.”
Members of GCSA argued against investment in fossil fuels in economic as well as political-socio terms. “We can’t overstress the urgency of divestment,” Shepherd said. “The parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere is reaching towards the exponential level, so in terms of reversibility, right now is crucial. For there to be climate justice, the fossil fuel industry cannot continue to operate, and our institution is currently bankrolling this industry … it’s a terrible investment strategy.”
Lastly, Haggerty pointed out that other colleges with similar endowments have successfully divested from the fossil fuel industry. “We wouldn’t be unprecedented. Doing so would be staying consistent with the values we espouse on our website, the values of social justice.”