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Channels of Disturbance: A Response to the Divestment Protest

A friend of mine visited me at Boston College this past Sunday, the same day as an on-campus protest supporting divestment. I outlined for her what I had heard of the protest and its origins: 150 attendees from the greater Boston area and beyond would be attending, including activist Bill McKibben and two students recently arrested for a divestment-related sit-in at Yale. BC students involved in the fight for climate justice had removed their affiliation out of fear of serious administrative action against them. This Sunday was also Admitted Eagle Day for the prospective class of 2019, and this protest was going to be in the way.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 5.36.30 PMMy friend’s eyes widened to hear the background story. “That’s awesome,” she said. “I didn’t realize BC was so into that kind of activism.”

And that’s when I told her that we aren’t, usually. BC has a student body that prides itself on having big conversations, but this rally was not a conversation; it was a demand to start a conversation. It was loud. It was disruptive. It set out—and likely was successful—to anger administration, and ideally spur them into making big-time changes. It perhaps wasn’t entirely respectful and certainly not 100-percent-supported across campus.

But here’s my thing: in many ways, that’s good.

The protest this Sunday wasn’t sanctioned by BC, and no students from Climate Justice at BC were in attendance. Participants held signs, gave speeches, and showed solidarity for the silencing the divestment movement has experienced at BC. They marched through our campus, from St. Ignatius onto O’Neill Plaza. And all this occurred on BC’s annual Admitted Eagle Day, when hundreds of prospective students thus experienced not only a beautiful campus but its potentially ugly underside.

First, there’s the issue of divestment itself, which is defined as “when institutions remove financial support from select companies in order to promote certain behavior or policy,” according to a Harvard report. It’s been touted as both a financial benefit and an economic irresponsibility (by outlets like Forbes and the equally respectable comments on this Boston Magazine article). In spite of the disparity in this belief, a number of institutions—among them Stanford, University of Maine, and Syracuse—have already chosen to divest from fossil fuels.

Then there’s the issue of free speech, particularly relevant at BC this academic year in the wake of Climate Justice at BC’s rallies and the much-discussed die-in back in December. Students who participated in such events were threatened with disciplinary action; some of those threats went to students labeled “organizers,” even if they were not present at the events themselves. The limits and loopholes required by BC administration in order for students to take action became clearer. Tensions have been running high for quite some time between students and administration, and the arrival of outside protestors had support and dissent in terms of how much good it did.

And having the event on Admitted Eagle Day seemed to draw the most significant amount of opposition. Admitted Eagle Day is supposed to sell BC to potential students, put the best face of the campus forward. Outside protestors could have scared those students away by exposing the worst of the university; they could have enticed those students to a campus that is willing to ask itself, and respond to, hard questions; or perhaps the result fell somewhere in the middle. In terms of timing, the advantages and disadvantages were both pretty clear.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 5.39.43 PMSome students are thrilled with what went down on Sunday, others have their doubts. Me? I’m no activist; when it comes to social justice issues, I have my beliefs, but I stay pretty quiet on them one way or the other. I admit, more often than not in my 21 years, I’ve been afraid to rock the boat.

But this protest rocked the boat. It demanded dialogue between students and administration, dialogue that is transparent and honest, dialogue unfiltered by a press release or a third party. It scared me that BC students, after trying to work with the university, had reached a point of fear in pursuing that conversation. It floored me to see the turnout of people who believe that our planet is in serious danger and that we have a measure of power to change its course. It concerned me that prospective students might read that as a reason to keep away, when BC offers so many reasons to stay.

There is a poem that plays off of the St. Francis Peace Prayer, and its opening lines read as follows:

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance. Where there is apathy, let me provoke; where there is compliance, let me bring questioning; where there is silence, may I be a voice; where there is too much comfort and too little action, grant disruption.

BC is a Jesuit school. We know. I don’t think anyone here is so optimistic, or perhaps disillusioned, to believe that one protest would lead to next-day divestment. But if there are causes out there that keep us up at night and keep us coming to class to learn about how to change them, then it is our right to act, and act freely. It should not be condemned to be a channel of disturbance, and provoke questioning into things that perhaps don’t yet have clear or immediate answers.

It’s a fine line, for sure, between acting freely and acting respectfully, and an even finer line between acting freely and acting drastically. But drastic isn’t always bad. Drastic gets people talking. Drastic gets people listening. Drastic, if done in good faith with good intention, may not always be damnable. Because like it or not, talking is not always enough. In the case of the recent protest, I like to hope that if the recent protest is seen as a drastic action, then it can also see drastic results.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 5.37.24 PMI do not expect BC to divest right away. I don’t expect open-door meetings with high-up administrators to suddenly become available. I don’t expect this university to make a sudden departure from “business as usual.” (Maybe this paragraph is me saying, I don’t want to rock the boat. Old habits die hard?)

But here’s what I do expect: I expect BC students to keep fighting for causes they believe in. I expect us to look at the recent climate justice protest, and let it fuel us with courage and inspiration, making us unafraid to be channels of disturbance in the name of good. I expect conversation, I expect more questions than answers, and I expect that in my remaining year at Boston College, my world and world view will be disrupted time and again.

I am proud of Boston College. And I look forward to whatever disturbances its campus and its students have in store.

All photos courtesy of “Students for a Just and Stable Future” on Facebook.

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