Most Popular: “Anatomy of a Protest” How last year's student activism provoked paradox from campus protest.

At 8 a.m. on May 2, 2014, a throng of 100 students gathered on the field outside the Charles F. Knight Executive Education & Conference Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Before the entrance stood a row of police officers—some equipped with riot gear—from St. Louis County and the Washington University Police Department (WUPD). Within the five-story, 135,000-square-foot interplay of Missouri red granite and Indiana limestone that loomed before them was the quarterly meeting of the University’s Board of Trustees, of which one particular member—Greg Boyce, the CEO of Peabody Energy—was the target of students’ ire.

Chanting and donning t-shirts declaring “Cut Ties With Peabody,” the students demanded Boyce’s resignation from the Board of Trustees with raised signs proclaiming “People Over Profit”; “Greg Boyce Against People”; and “I’m Here Because I Care!” among other provocative slogans in bolded capitals.

The rally followed a 17-day sit-in beneath the archway of Brookings Hall, the iconic administrative building that proudly adorns every brochure and media pamphlet for Washington University with its collegiate gothic façade. From April 8 to 26, students had set up tents beneath the archway, refusing to leave until the university granted their requests. Washington University’s partnership with Peabody Energy, they claimed, only makes the university complicit in corporate aggression. The sit-in called for an end to the university’s “toxic” relationship with Peabody, whose “unscrupulous behavior tarnishes our name by association.” After negotiations with the administration collapsed, the students concluded the sit-in and decided to pursue a more direct course of action: hand-delivering a resignation letter to Boyce at the May 2 Board meeting.

On the field outside the Knight Center, the poster-sized resignation letter stood propped against a tent-pole, written in the ostensible voice of Boyce. “The University community and I face irreconcilable differences in our values, in our standards of acceptable behavior, and in our visions for the future,” it read. “There is a conflict of interest between my company’s values and the values of this University.”

The police formed a line that they warned students not to cross. An hour later, seven students attempted to cross this line to deliver the letter, only to find themselves handcuffed before reaching the doors of the Knight Center.

When asked in an open forum to comment on the arrest of a student in a similar protest at Harvard, the renowned author and environmentalist Margaret Atwood replied, “Any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place.” How was it, then, that a peaceful protest at an elite institution could culminate in the silence of shackles?

 

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The students began their boycott on the following grounds: Peabody Energy Corporation is the world’s largest private-sector coal company, a fact that until April 2001 remained unequivocal in its former name of Peabody Coal Company. In 2011, Rolling Stone placed Boyce at number four on its list of “Who’s to Blame: 12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming,” describing “the darling of Wall Street, beloved for his crisp management style, nice suits and political muscle” as the prime “example of how capitalism profits from overheating the planet.” Boyce has since stepped down as CEO of Peabody Energy, but remains a member of Washington University’s Board of Trustees. In addition to the coal industry’s unparalleled contribution to global greenhouse emissions, Peabody’s mining operations have been accused of marginalizing indigenous and rural communities residing near its extraction sites, notably bolstering a 40-year-long resumé of alleged wreckage in Black Mesa, Ariz., that includes bulldozing burial grounds, violating federal mining laws, polluting pristine groundwater with pulverized coal in a slurry pipeline hundreds of miles long, and in so doing, depriving native tribes of potable water in the Navajo Aquifer, all the while maintaining that coal can end global energy poverty at the cost of displacing adjacent residents who to this day live with neither power nor running water. Moreover, the company has recently proposed to expand a strip mine in Rocky Branch, Ill., which would extend within 300 feet of some homes and expose the local farm community to blasting and toxic coal dust that, in the neighboring Cottage Grove mine, had left what author Jeff Biggers describes in the Huffington Post as “only a cemetery in the ruins of a once thriving rural community.

Even at home in St. Louis, the corporate giant has garnered a reputation as a bully to the powerless. Despite the company’s generous donations to various organizations throughout the city, the activist group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) cites that Peabody received tax breaks in 2010 from the St. Louis city government on $61 million (a figure that Peabody places at $4 million) of purchases for new equipment and office renovations, $2 million of which would have otherwise gone to St. Louis public schools. In response, a coalition of groups led by MORE collected over 36,000 signatures for its “Take Back St. Louis” ballot initiative in 2013, a campaign to place a proposed city charter amendment on the following April 8 ballot that would effectively end tax incentives for fossil-fuel companies and require the city to instead invest public money into renewable energy and sustainability projects. However, on Jan. 31, 2014, Peabody’s lobbyists filed suit against the initiative, calling it “disastrous public policy”; eleven days later, St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker, a controversial jurist and avowed conservative, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and placed an injunction on the initiative, deeming it “facially unconstitutional” in part because banning tax breaks to fossil fuel companies was a “patent denial of equal protection to those entities.”

In light of these controversies, the company has already begun to rectify its reputation. After a savvy logo change in 2011—in which the formerly coal-inspired angular black font of the company name morphed into a warmer blue with softer edges—Peabody launched its Advanced Energy for Life campaign in February 2014, rebranding coal as the key solution to energy poverty, which it calls “the world’s number one human and environmental crisis.” Behind the marketing effort is public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

Washington University’s association with Peabody, as the students argue, only assists the company’s attempt to cloak its alleged wolfskin with lamb’s wool. In 2008—a year before Boyce joined the university’s Board of Trustees—Peabody pledged to donate $5 million over five years towards the establishment of Washington University’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, a research entity that operates under the university’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) and aims, in its own words, to “foster the utilization of coal as a safe and affordable source of energy, and as a chemical feedstock, with minimal impact on the environment.” Wary students were quick to decry the term “clean coal” as nothing more than a misleading—if not wholly oxymoronic—slogan that “greenwashes” the dirty realities of the fossil fuel industry. “Clean coal,” they pointed out, promotes the guilt-free illusion that coal combustion can occur without adverse environmental impact, a scenario that as of yet seems but a distant pipe dream; critics predict that the proposed carbon capture and sequestration methods and other unproven emission reduction technologies will not be commercially viable for a long time to come. To the students, coal was a moral opprobrium from which all associations must be severed.

Research engineers who have spent years studying coal technologies appreciate the views of clean-coal skeptics, but not to such a degree, and only in the context of other energy sources.

“It’s been ten-plus years since the Rio meeting [Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development], and fossil fuels are strong as ever,” said Howard J. Herzog, senior research engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “People are going to use them until there’s concrete policy to force things the other way. Coal is cheap, low-cost energy, and it is not going away.”

Herzog said that while it is true that clean coal technology has miles to travel before its promises become reality, it would be foolish to stop researching its possibilities for continued use, but with fewer carbon emissions that concern environmentalists. One such technology is Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage, or CCS, which captures carbon emissions into a liquid-like state for future storage. “No energy technology has zero impact, or no externalities, including solar,” Herzog said. “If people don’t like CO2 in the atmosphere it’s wise not to impose that not only on coal, but on every technology. Right now our policy makers don’t have even enough courage to increase the gasoline tax by one nickel.”

­­­­­­­­­­­A precursor to the 2014 protest against Peabody Energy came in 2010, when a group of roughly two dozen students stood to protest a PowerPoint presentation—with slides titled “Fossil Fuels are Here to Stay”—delivered by Boyce at the University’s Symposium on Global Energy Future. While Boyce continued to lecture for 20 minutes on the potential for coal to “eliminat[e] energy poverty” in the Third World, the students stripped off their outerwear to reveal bright yellow t-shirts and raised signs declaring “Clean Coal is a dirty lie,” “Coal kills,” and “Get off my board.” The peaceful protest had even garnered commendations from Washington University’s Chief of Police. When asked for his take on the students’ stand, Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton noted: “It was fine with one exception—they were obstructing the views of some members of the audience.”

 

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The Students Against Peabody movement of 2014 began with a few undergraduates who had grown weary of the university’s continued involvement with Peabody. Spearheading the effort was Caroline Burney, who at the time was completing her double-major in anthropology and environmental policy. Burney’s commitment to environmental causes stems from her sophomore year, when she enrolled in a thought-provoking environmental policy course and joined Green Action, a campus advocacy group that campaigns for various sustainability initiatives across the university. The summer after her junior year, Burney interned with MORE to collect signatures for the “Take Back St. Louis” ballot initiative, the failure of which intensified her drive to call for an end to the University’s ties with Peabody. As her final semester rolled around and the prospect of graduation became increasingly real, Burney decided that she no longer had a reason to hold back. “As a senior, I thought, ‘We should try everything!’” she reflects.

Moreover, the second weekend of April 2014 would see the arrival of more than 600 newly admitted students and their families for Celebration Weekend, along with the return of graduates for alumni reunions and an influx of local community members for the ThurtenE Carnival, the oldest student-run carnival in the nation. “It was an opportunity for us to reach a wider audience,” Burney explains. This convenient convergence of people and circumstance made early April the perfect spring of protest.

On Monday, April 7, members of Green Action met with Chancellor Wrighton to discuss a March 19 resolution that had passed by a 14-2 majority vote in the Washington University Student Union and that would commit the university to divesting from fossil fuels by 2025. Although the chancellor acknowledged their concerns, students from the meeting reported that he maintained a different opinion, leaving them with the reassurance that he would address the issue at the May meeting of the Board of Trustees.

The sit-in began on Tuesday, April 8, with a 6 p.m. rally of around 50 students, alumni, and members of environmental groups gathered beneath the Brookings Arch, listening to the organizers take turns at the microphone. That same day, Burney released a statement on the official website of Students Against Peabody, explaining the reasons for and demands of the protest. “We are engaging in a sit-in of our admissions office to tell Chancellor Wrighton that our university can no longer legitimize destructive fossil fuel corporations,” she wrote. After enumerating the countless times that students have dropped banners, disrupted speeches, and striven in vain to sway the university administration through proper channels since 2009, she announced that “We’ve decided that it’s time to escalate to let Chancellor Wrighton and Boyce know that we’re running out of time and we’re not going to back down.” They would remain beneath Brookings Arch for as long as it would take for the administration to remove Boyce from the Board of Trustees. Within two days, the site swelled with the virtual voices of students, supporters, and victims of Peabody’s mining practices, calling for environmental justice through almost every form of social media available: photos of students waving signs, videos of campus and community members decrying Peabody, quotes from letters of support, links to news reports, updates on the quotidian lives of student protesters, and tweets and retweets galore.

Elsewhere in the United States, the crusade against fossil fuels was gaining national momentum. In 2010, the environmental organization 350.org launched the Fossil Free divestment campaign, urging investors across the country to withhold money from the fossil fuel sector as a way of pressuring the industry to undergo “transformative change.” Since then, the campaign has found allies with over 40 institutions and spread across several college and university campuses throughout the United States, faster—according to a study by the University of Oxford—than any previous divestment initiative, including those against tobacco and apartheid in South Africa.[1] In the context of this larger movement, a campus-wide protest against Peabody Energy made perfect sense. “The momentum is only growing,” proclaims an ad for Students Against Peabody, “and now is the time for universities to get on the right side of history.”

Not all students embraced the movement, however. Some students criticized the protest for oversimplifying the issue at hand. An April 19 article by Kaity Shea Cullen in the student-run Washington University Political Review argued that, “speaking pragmatically, the efforts of the protestors exemplify an idealized approach to complex business practices that rightfully lie beyond the sphere of student influence.” Reforming the coal industry is no cakewalk; given that coal has become so deeply entrenched in the world energy market, Cullen argued that it would make far more sense for the university and Peabody to sustain their partnership through the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization and thereby continue developing methods that would mitigate the current environmental impact of coal extraction. Cutting ties with Peabody would only reduce funding for such research at the Consortium, and “[t]o have an environmentalist group seeking to choke off funds just seems a little bit counterproductive.”

Other students saw the protest as but another parade of privilege. An editorial cartoon in the April 10 issue of Student Life, the university’s independent student-run newspaper, depicted one student ardently crying for “No more unsustainable energy!” while a swarm of faceless peers stood behind him beneath the Brookings archway—serviced by a space heater—murmuring in unison “I’m so pumped to miss class all week.” Four days later, another cartoon in the same paper portrayed the protest as a whimsical democracy that unanimously opted to “camp out in front of Brookings to ruin prefrosh Instagram photos.”

Meanwhile, the chancellor’s office quietly waited out the scene. In the first three days of protest, no administrator had approached the students regarding the prospect of negotation. On day four, Students Against Peabody issued the chancellor a formal invitation to a 1 p.m. public presentation of the sit-in’s demands (which, at the time, urged (1) that Boyce be removed from the Board of Trustees, and (2) that the chancellor’s attend community-led tours of Peabody extraction sites and issue a public statement about his experience). An hour before the rally, the Assistant Vice Chancellor Rob Wild and Assistant to the Chancellor Steve Givens offered the students a meeting with the chancellor for the following morning.

Thus, on Saturday, April 12, five student representatives entered Brookings Hall to commence negotiations with the chancellor. A crowd of students and community supporters gathered outside, eagerly awaiting the results. By 11 a.m.—half an hour after the five students had entered—the negotiation team reemerged from the building, announcing that the chancellor had denied their core request to expel Boyce from the Board of Trustees. When asked whether he had the power to take a stand against Peabody, the chancellor was reported to have said, “I could, but I won’t.” Immediately after the negotiation team’s exit, a group of 40 protesters entered the chancellor’s second-floor North Brookings Hall office, handing him a letter that beseeched him to honor their demands, after which the WUPD Chief asked them to leave.

By then, the chancellor had become almost an abstraction, a gateway to moral rectitude and an addressee to whom the protesters wrote with their entreaties. Some caricatures of the chancellor took a more critical turn; an April 14 Student Life cartoon depicted the chancellor seated in a plush chair before a wall of books—the titles of which included Coriolanus, a lesser known Shakespearean tragedy about a Roman military hero whose caustic pride and stubborn resistance to popular rule led to his own demise—stroking his dog with a smirk on a his face, beside the caption: “Some men just want to see the coal burn … and I am one of those men!”

The prototypical protest narrative establishes an opposition between student passion and institutional indifference. Yet as Burney recalls, a far more complex and at times amicable relationship transpired between the protesters and the university administration. She observes that most of the administrators seemed surprisingly sympathetic to the movement and “reiterated support of the students’ protest.” No one seemed to be in a hurry to herd the students out of Brookings. “It was an interesting dynamic,” Burney tells me. “They would wave and say things like ‘Stay as long as you want!’” An April 10 article in Student Life reports the chancellor’s recollection of strolling by the protesters’ camp in the wee hours of the morning: “I went on my normal walk this morning; I guess I left my residence at about 5:30. I typically take a walk around campus including the Quadrangle; I saw the students, and they were all sleeping. I didn’t disturb them and my dog didn’t bark at them.”

Nevertheless, Burney found their attitude “a little bit condescending,” noting that administrators’ sympathies seemed to align more with the act of student protest per se than with the substantive demands thereof.

Life beneath the Brookings Arch continued with its ups and downs. Two protesters, Brian Redline and Christa Peterson, had raised their own shared tent there, in which they slept almost every night, with Peterson missing only one night in preparation for a test the next day. Not all students had that convenience; some tents without explicit owners simply remained available to anyone who wished to occupy them, leaving nightly uncertainties as to who would sleep in each tent. At night, tents would slide about beneath the windswept archway, for the concrete floor—on which the students had agreed to sleep instead of the adjacent lawn so as to avoid charges for landscaping damage—did not lend itself to tent stakes. “I don’t think anyone was really getting good sleep there,” Peterson notes with a laugh.

Sleep-deprivation aside, the sit-in space offered wifi access, electricity, bathrooms, as well as a makeshift study space. The administration instructed WUPD officers to treat the students well and ensure that the students remained reasonably warm outside. In the mornings, administrators would wake the students up on their way to work, after which the students would walk straight from camp to class. Food—a persistent worry for the cash-strapped student—had become almost a second thought for them, as they filled an entire tent with a constant supply of food donations from businesses, parents, and students with extra meal points. Promotional photos of the protest frequently featured students in the company of noodle bowls, cookie plates, and late-night pizza deliveries.

Redline describes the occasion as a “surreal” experience. “You woke up and it felt like your front porch was Brookings,” he recalls. Over time, what was once a motley group of protesters evolved into a community of activists united by not only a common cause but also a common space saturated in sound and soul. Evenings beneath the archway became especially memorable. Watching the blue skies fade to black—punctuated by a red-purple sunset on the St. Louis horizon—amid the hum of guitars and singers, the community grew close in the sentiment that they had approached the cusp of something big. “It felt like something important was going to happen,” Peterson reflects, “like everything was on the verge of something.”

 

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Students Against Peabody ascend on the Brookings Quadrangle. (Credit: Stephen Huber)

Students Against Peabody ascend on the Brookings Quadrangle. (Credit: Stephen Huber)

Why are elite institutions of higher learning such frequent hotbeds of student activism? One explanation is that protests are pieces of larger political movements that take place only in universities because they are the most convenient venues at hand. This account, however, does not explain the ironic fact that the most agitation seems to take place in the most selective institutions with the highest endowments and most successful students. Some scholars consider this phenomenon a result of elite universities attracting more liberal faculty and students; others posit that elite universities provide students with more resources for mobilization.

Students residing at the pinnacle of a privileged existence are beset by a certain sense of frustration with the injustices of a world they feel unable to change.

Historian and journalist Garry Wills offers a more pointed observation in Nixon Agonistes that students—or “kids,” as he calls them—recognize that education is “an ornament of the privileged,” and that “we send them to school because we do not have anything else to do with them, or for them to do.” In this “rather aimless if pleasant world of cultivated ‘stalling,’” the trappings of privilege sequester students from affecting or being affected by the world beyond. “[P]rivilege without correlative responsibilities leads to frustration,” writes Wills, and nowhere but at America’s best schools is this paradox more apparent and more irritating. Wills writes further that this sense of stagnation ultimately explains the propensity for students to take risks and call for change, in a kind of Sturm und Drang against the banality of their insular existence:

“The kids, stranded for a decade or more in the difficult years of adolescence, in a world transitory yet enclosed, not inside their parents’ family yet unable to begin their own families, not responsible for anything or to anyone, suspended in a sterile world of dorms, travel, tests, of long-range decisions without quick results, facing an education that becomes more lengthy and competitive as its goals lose definition, do not care where change is tending if only it will take them somewhere.”

Some may find Wills’ description of studenthood too reductive. His analysis comes close to the oft-held sentiment that protest is but a phase for the young, a starting point from which people—particularly the educated—drift rightward on the political spectrum as their hair grays. In particular, the last word—“somewhere”—suggests that student movements are but a blind attempt to agitate extant circumstances. The Students Against Peabody movement resists such reduction, for it committed, at least initially, to a distinct goal. In a Student Life op-ed penned by alumni, the writers—many of whom graduated in the past two years—exhorted fellow alumni to suspend contributions to the university, pointing out that “[t]his week’s sit should not be mistaken as an isolated act of youthful disobedience, it is the culmination of years of going through ‘the proper channels’ only to collide with the coal train that runs through chancellor’s office.”

Yet despite the infantilizing undertones of his account, Wills makes an astute point: Students residing at the pinnacle of a privileged existence are beset by a certain sense of frustration with the injustices of a world they feel unable to change. This annoyance moreover intensifies when the university they attend conducts research or forges partnerships that they deem contrary to their moral sensibilities—sensibilities that mature far more quickly than society can accommodate them. The cognitive dissonance born from discerning this discrepancy between their beliefs and their life situation therefore compels them to act in whatever way will resolve the inconsistency.

“I’ve always had anxiety about studying philosophy,” Peterson says, “especially those areas that are separated from practical concerns.” She tells me that she would not have felt as compelled to join an activist cause had she majored in a field more relevant to real-world affairs. Her involvement with Students Against Peabody has since encouraged her to explore more politically pertinent topics in the philosophy of language, such as the philosopher Jason Stanley’s work on the role of silencing speech in propaganda. She is now working towards her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Southern California.

 

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According to an April 26 announcement on the official website of Students Against Peabody, the sit-in came to an end on day seventeen because the university’s refusal to meet the students’ demands was “symptomatic of a greater crisis: the very real and very deep relationship between our university and Big Coal, and between Chancellor Wrighton and Boyce.” Instead, the movement would focus on “redirecting our collective energy towards the source of the problem: Wash U’s close relationship with Peabody CEO Boyce,” which they planned to sever by formally disinviting Boyce from the May meeting of the Board of Trustees. Yet behind this apparent unison of voices lay a fragmented movement, one that had already begun to crumble inwards on the widening cracks in its foundation.

Redline recalls a telling incident at once comical and sobering. During the alumni reunion on the weekend of April 11, Redline and other members of Students Against Peabody toured an afternoon barbecue on the lawn of Brookings Quadrangle, discussing the movement with graduates and encouraging them to participate. Many young alumni joined the movement with as much fervor as the students themselves, pledging to withhold donations and writing articles in support of the protest.

… behind this apparent unison of voices lay a fragmented movement, one that had already begun to crumble inwards on the widening cracks in its foundation.

“Then on the side, I overheard an older man and middle-aged woman discussing the university,” Redline recalls. He approached them and proceeded to give his usual pitch. Eventually, someone tapped him on the shoulder mid-spiel to say, “Do you know that you’re talking to the former Chancellor?” Redline, as it turned out, had been addressing none other than William H. Danforth, the thirteenth chancellor of Washington University, whose leadership from 1971 to 1995 brought the university to national recognition, tripled the scholarship count, and increased the endowment by an order of magnitude, among other major strides in university history that to this day remain honored in his countless namesakes on campus. Redline chuckles at the recollection.

Fortunately, the former chancellor was willing to engage with Redline on the topic of student protest. Danforth, who had led the university through the era of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, advised Redline that Students Against Peabody would have gained more traction in the fall. Administrators, unlike students, have the blessing of permanence; they often count on student activists to eliminate their own presence with impending graduation. Student initiatives therefore wield more negotiating power at the beginning of term, at which point the administration could not simply play the waiting game and expect protests to peter out with graduation. The leaders of Students Against Peabody, however, were less than a month away from commencement.

A Torschlusspanik of sorts—a German term for “gate-closing panic,” an anxiety that seizes those for whom time seems to be running out—reigned over the final days of the sit-in. The stresses of finals, frustration, and tent-induced sleep deprivation accumulated until the final days of negotiation with the administration. Within the movement, students often diverged in opinion, with meetings often lasting until 2 a.m. before members could reach a consensus. As the terms of negotiation grew progressively vague, a movement once vested with a vision began to splinter into two distinct camps: those willing to work within the system and those willing to escalate beyond it no matter the cost. Over time, students who believed in the good of the administration were more likely to abandon the protest. “We lost more moderate voices,” Peterson reflects with regret in her voice.

The chancellor and provost had initially agreed, after an April 19 meeting with Rocky Branch resident Judy Kellen, to comply with student demands to tour Rocky Branch and write a letter to Boyce about their experiences. On April 22, however, the Chancellor recanted the agreement upon further pressure from the students to visit Black Mesa as well. Redline explains to me that it would have been inconsistent for the administration to visit the more conveniently located community of predominantly white farmers while at the same time omitting the more removed community of minorities. In the eyes of the administration, however, the students had simply pushed too far. On April 22, the Chancellor and Provost recounted the results of the negotiations in an official statement to the university community. After acknowledging their willingness to engage in “constructive and respectful dialogue” with the students, the administrators stated: “The most recent communication from the student organizers lays out several demands that we cannot and will not meet.”

By that point, most of the protesters had grown weary of the glacial rate of progress. “Everyone was exhausted,” says Peterson. Most of them simply wanted to go home, study for finals, and graduate with an easy conscience.

It all came down with one written faux pas. The students included the words “bottom line” in the subject field of an e-mail to the administration, suggesting inadvertently that their e-mail constituted an ultimatum to which the administration appeared to take umbrage. The administration then refused to further negotiations. Peterson, who took part in that final meeting, recalls with a small laugh that “at that point we were all kind of looking at each other, confused.” Yet when I asked Peterson whether the administration had truly misunderstood the students’ intentions, she pauses and surmises, with a hint of hesitancy, that “they might have felt like they had caught us in something, like a loophole, that they could use as a reason to end things.”

And just like that, in one fell gaffe, all the conversations, conciliations, and camaraderie of the past few weeks crumbled. For the fervent activists committed to the cause, the one remaining option involved a direct confrontation at the May 2 meeting of the Board of Trustees. “The sit-in,” Burney observes, “was no longer sustainable.”

 

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Upon being handcuffed for attempting to enter the Knight Center on May 2, the seven students were taken at once into the very same building. Peterson, who was among those arrested, laughs at the irony.

“The County Police were very chatty,” Peterson recalls. “They even asked us about Boo Boo the bear,” whose plight had by that point become the talk of the town: the black bear cub had, a few days prior, nipped and scratched at least eighteen students at a petting zoo on campus and therefore faced the prospect of euthanization in order to test for rabies.

… officers immediately shuffled the students into an elegant conference room. The whole event evoked the impression that the officers did not quite know how to go about the booking process.

The seven students then switched to flexicuffs and were transferred to the WUPD station via the Campus Circulator—or “Circ,” as students call it—which on normal days shuttles students between various campus locations, a luxury of its own for students otherwise without transportation. Peterson laughingly recounts how, at one point, the Circ proceeded to ignore a student who had been waiting for a ride, oblivious of the day’s events.

At the station, the officers immediately shuffled the students into an elegant conference room. The whole event evoked the impression that the officers did not quite know how to go about the booking process. Freshman Elayna Levin, another one of the arrested students, told Student Life: “It was very obvious to us that they weren’t prepared to deal with it. It took them a long time to get organized and a long time to figure out paperwork. The process of booking us one by one took forever.” Redline puts it more curtly: “They just didn’t know what they were doing.”

At one point, one of the officers inadvertently locked themselves out of the room, and required their handcuffed detainees to re-admit them.

The students were ultimately issued citations for trespassing and peace disturbance. Peterson explains in hindsight that the students felt “privileged as protesters,” to be handled so delicately by the police. All in all, the process lasted two or three hours, after which the students were free to resume their usual lives, with a summons to appear in the St. Louis County Court a month later.

A few days later, on the morning of May 8, at least 10 other community protesters[2]—this time including Burney—were arrested in their attempt to enter the annual Peabody Shareholders Meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the adjacent city of Clayton. A group of more than 65 demonstrators, including community members from Rocky Branch and Black Mesa, had gathered across the street from the hotel, some of whom had also bought Peabody shares in order to gain access to the meeting. Instead, many of these new shareholders were corralled into an “overflow room” equipped with a “teeny screen” from which to watch the meeting’s proceedings; at least two of those in the overflow room were then detained in their attempt to enter the meeting room. Burney remained outside, across the street from the hotel. Fifteen officers from the Clayton Police Department flanked the entrances, and were joined by another group of St. Louis County Police officers after an hour. As with the week’s preceding episode of arrests, the police again formed a line that they warned protesters not to cross; Burney and a group of fellow protesters then proceeded to lock arms and sit on the line, after which they found themselves shuttled to the St. Louis County Jail in Clayton.

The St. Louis County Jail, Burney recalls, had cement-block walls and exuded an ambiance of segregation. The protesters were detained in different rooms according to gender.

I asked Burney whether she felt scared at any point in the process. “Although I definitely had a ‘What am I doing?!’ moment,” she noted with a small laugh, “I later realized that everything was going to be fine.”

“As a young person, I’m willing to be arrested and have a slight citation on my record,” Burney explained. “It’s a small sacrifice for me to make.”

The police processed them, recorded their names, issued them citations for trespassing, and sent them out within an hour. All charges were eventually dropped.

 

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Some bystanders remained skeptical of the students’ sincerity. One comment to a blog post on the Peabody protest reads: “These student protests are really not about the substance of the issue at all, but rather an attempt to live the trope of student protester [sic], which is oddly lionized.” As uncharitable as this claim may be, it holds a grain of truth: the sweeping social movements of the ’60s and ’70s have become mythologized in American history as the peak of protest and passion, a yardstick by which students today measure and deplore the relative apathy of their own generation. In this vein, environmental activists have frequently juxtaposed their cause with the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, hailing the climate change movement as the defining revolution of their time.

In this sense, the romantic trope of the student activist does not lie far from the frequently espoused belief that sports of extreme physical exertion can somehow edify the soul. As German sociologist Georg Simmel aptly put it in his famous 1895 essay “The Alpine Journey”:

“In alpine clubs there is the idea that the surmounting of life-endangering difficulties is morally commendable, a triumph of the spirit over the resistance of the material, and a consequence of moral strength … The less settled, less certain and less free from contradiction modern existence is the more passionately we desire the heights that stand beyond the good and evil whose presence we are unable to look over and beyond … Nevertheless, this is only a soothing, a forgetting and a reverie and, as such, merely a passive enjoyment … Only a romantic excitation can delude itself that every voluntary risking of life is part of tradition when social and religious commitments could supposedly only be gained at the price of life, thereby conferring on their goals the veneer of ethical dignity.”

Or, in the plain-spoken words of Polly Harper in the hit series Orange Is the New Black: “Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self.” Perhaps the tendency of mountaineers to conflate their sport with moral virtue reflects the extent to which students believe that activism—going to extreme ends to reconcile their circumstances with their ethics, no matter the cost to their personal well-being—constitutes a civic duty both crucial to and transcendent of their university education. And perhaps it is yet another mark of privilege that students have the resources to conduct their activities in the first place, to afford to take risks and realize that, at the end of the day, the very institution against which they are railing has already ensured their ability to do so. As Simmel put it, “It is said that it is part of one’s education to see the Alps, but not education alone for its twin sister is ‘affluence.’”

Their privilege notwithstanding, it may be more productive to consider why student protests attract so much attention from the public. In this world of total noise, filled with the clamor of voices in both cyberspace and dust-laden air, defending every permutation of ideology and interest, the attention of a public has become the most precious commodity a cause can have. Students, in particular, enjoy a remarkable abundance of media attention that remains elusive for members of many other demographics. Although Burney does not consider the Peabody sit-in entirely successful, she acknowledges that the amount of coverage it garnered demonstrated “the importance and the power of students organizing on campus.” A month after the May 2 arrests, The New York Times touted the protest against Peabody as “represent[ing] the face of a new activism that the nation’s largest environmental groups are encouraging to revive a climate-change movement that seemed stalled not so long ago.”

The true legacy of student protest does not necessarily lie in its ability to negotiate concrete solutions … but in the extent to which it has tested the limits of free speech and forced its audience to grapple with their own assumptions on the particular issues at hand.

Such national attention stands in stark contrast to her current job. Burney now works in Long Island as a community organizer for Green Corps, a training program for organizing environmental campaigns through hands-on fieldwork. Her latest project involves pressuring Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to ban fracking in New York. “It’s so much more challenging to reach people,” she observes, now that she campaigns without the aegis of studenthood.

Perhaps student activism remains salient in the public eye precisely because it highlights the contradictions within institutions of higher education. The university, in theory a bastion of free speech, remains constrained in by political and economic necessities. “The university has been intertwined with our society from the outset, a servant to its political ideals, a partner in its procedures,” Garry Wills explains. “In fact, the university concentrates and throws into relief the inconsistencies of society, makes them particularly striking because of the academy’s claim to a superior standard of intellectual purity and consistency of behavior.” No one is more aware of these tensions than students themselves, and when students denounce these contradictions, they force the rest of the world to think with them. Attacking the rationality of student protest is beyond the point, for such movements often insist on nonnegotiable demands. The true legacy of student protest does not necessarily lie in its ability to negotiate concrete solutions—for the glacial pace of institutional change can never keep up with the wildfire rate at which students come and go—but in the extent to which it has tested the limits of free speech and forced its audience to grapple with their own assumptions on the particular issues at hand. Activism, in its own way, can be a contagious intellectual exercise.

 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

 

Two weeks after the May 2 arrests, the Brookings Quadrangle was clear of tents and once again abuzz with people, this time not with placard-wielding students, but with the camera-waving families of graduating seniors.

Burney, along with many other like-minded graduating activists at the May 15 Recognition Ceremony, pinned a small white sleeve patch proclaiming “Cut Ties With Peabody” to the green of her gown as a final act of resistance. One by one, students heard their names announced and greeted the chancellor with a handshake. Filled with the enthusiasm of a graduating senior, Burney heard her name and walked across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand.

“He scowled at me,” she laughs.

And with that, the newly graduated students against Peabody threw their caps into the air and bounded down the Brookings steps, out of the Quadrangle and into the futures that awaited them, whatever they may hold.

[1] Damian Carrington, “Campaign against fossil fuels growing, says study,” The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/08/campaign-against-fossil-fuel-growing. The same study, however, notes that while the direct financial impact of divestment campaigns would be negligible, the reputational damage incurred by such movements could potentially have substantial financial consequences.

[2] Reports vary as to the exact number of those arrested, which hovers between 10 and 14.

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