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Carleton College building occupied for four days by divestment activists

Screenshot 2022-11-16 at 20-42-33 Divest Carleton (@carletondivest) • Instagram photos and videos

On the morning of Oct. 27, several dozen Carleton students set up tents in the Weitz Atrium building at Carleton College. Students camped out in the building for three and a half days, demanding action on fossil fuel and military divestment. Their pressure led Carleton College president, Alison Byerly, to announce on Oct. 29 that the Board of Trustees would be voting on divestment in the winter. The college had been delaying the vote since 2015. 

The occupation was planned by the Carleton student organization Divest Carleton. The group started planning the occupation this past summer after frustration towards Carleton administration at their lack of support for represent students’ requests. 

Last winter, students from Divest Carleton met with Byerly and a board member on the Investment Committee to share their divestment proposal. “It was basically a filibuster with him [Board member] talking ten minutes for every sentence we got in and telling us why we don’t know what we’re talking about. He told us ‘Oh, you guys are just very vague on your demands and don’t specify what you mean by divestment’,” said senior Divest Carleton member Aashu Lele. 

Divest Carleton then wrote a 25-page manifesto specifying their demands regarding divestment, but were again met with a lack of commitment. “They didn’t give any indication that this is something they would actually take on,” Lele said. They said the meetings with the board members and the president were laying the groundwork for an escalation. 

Students from Divest Carleton centered the occupation around empowering students, specifically BIPOC and low-income students, by reclaiming space. “This is not just about our want for them to get their money out of fossil fuels, we want them to listen to us, we want them to actually represent us. We want other people to be representing us, people who are like us,” said Divest Carleton member Greta Hardy-Mittell. The occupation was also focused on building solidarity with El Centro De Trabajadores En La Lucha (CTUL), a Minneapolis/Saint Paul based worker center. Catherine Gainsbury, a Carleton College Board member, is CEO of a construction company that employs many CTUL members. Members of CTUL and some of their organized workers came to the occupation to confront Catherine Gainsbery with their demands of higher pay and better working conditions. As board members walked out of their meeting, CTUL affiliates and Carleton students handed out letters to board members detailing the situation of Gainsbery’s construction workers and calling on them to pressure Gainsberry to meet with CTUL members. 

Lele said the solidarity action was one of Divest Carleton’s first steps in forming worker solidarity outside of Carleton. “This action was really important to me and others because it was one of the few things we’ve done that was trying to burst out of the Carleton bubble and bring to light issues that people in the real world face as opposed to us on this little campus. It was the beginnings of student worker solidarity which, when it comes to affecting major change in the real world, is one of the biggest drivers of revolutionary change,” Lele said. Gainsbery has not commented on the event. 

On the second day of the occupation, Friday, Oct. 28, over 100 people, both Carleton and St. Olaf students and Northfield community members, held a march during the monthly Board of Trustees meeting taking place just above the Weitz Atrium. The protestors decided to enter the meeting room and confront the Board members present. 

“The energy was just electric. It’s so empowering to just walk in there and be like ‘oh, we can just do this’,” said Divest Carleton member Maya Stovall.

The protestors in the meeting room chanted, gave speeches, and attempted to talk directly with the Board of Trustees. Stovall did a satirical impersonation of a Board member, something which they also did in a video released in early October. The video, which criticized the Board of Trustees’ and Carleton’s perceived valuing of profit over student wellbeing, drew both praise and criticism.

“They [Board members] were clearly offended but had to sit there and listen to these things that they wanted to ignore, which is very, very powerful. The Carleton students absolutely called them out and were like, ‘you need to be accountable to this and you can’t keep pretending like you can use the school’s endowment however you want because we are responsible for the future of this school and for the future of this Earth and you can’t keep ignoring it’,” said St. Olaf student Hannah Neiderman ’23, who attended the occupation. After this confrontation, student Diana de la Paz ’23 read an unpublished article about her experiences as a Latina and first-generation American to Board member Nicholas Puzak. At one point during the conversation between the two, which was filmed and posted on Divest Carleton’s Instagram — along with the full protest ­— Puzak told de la Paz, “I don’t feel sorry for you.” This comment provoked outrage from many students. 

On Saturday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m., students were told that they must leave Weitz Atrium by Sunday at noon under the threat of disciplinary action from the school and the Northfield Police. After some deliberation, students complied with the order. To this day, students still don’t know why they were actually kicked out. “There is nothing saying that students can’t be in the building on Sunday at noon,” Hardy-Mittell said.

Divest Carleton members said the occupation met their expectations. “It’s still a win and a result of our pressure,” Lele said. “It went so well, so so well. The admin and campus security could have really worked to kick us out and delegitimize our protest and call us angry and call us wrong and make us seem like villains. But the student support has been so on our side and they perceive that,” Stovall said. “Also, we haave no documentation on anyone ever occupying a Carleton building that I have seen. Students are currently awaiting for the board to vote on divestment, which will occur this February. However, Divest Carleton will remain hesitant no matter the outcome of the vote. “Even with the vote, it’s unclear what they’re voting on, who is going to create the proposal that they’re going to vote on, what’s that going to entail. There is a very good chance that it’s going to be a very loosey-goosey ‘um, yeah, we’ll divest by 2050, maybe,’” Lele said. 

In the meantime, Divest Carleton members are working toward expanding their support on campus. “Because that’s ultimately where our power lies, having broad based support for the movement. If you want to actually substantially disrupt the status quo of this campus we need a large number of students to be involved,” Lele said. To see more news from the entirety of the occupation, see Divest Carleton’s TikTok and Instagram (@carletondivest) and the Carletonian’s coverage of the event

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