A few months ago, Omar Elsakhawy was finishing high school in Orlando, Florida. He hadn’t heard of Fossil Free Penn, and he certainly hadn’t anticipated spending hours speaking, writing speeches, and occupying the central green space at his new school to demand action against it. climate crisis. Now, she takes the helm at a press conference with vigor, pointing her megaphone in the face of the tight-lipped administrators standing in the edge of camp at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Community control! No oil, no coal!” Elsakhawy yells into a megaphone. He paces back and forth through a widening circle of students and onlookers framed by painted cardboard signs, half a dozen tents, and a banner with the words “PENN FOSSIL FREE” under a bright orange X. . “When we are under attack, what do we do? Do?” Elsakhawy cries. “Get up and fight!” the crowd echoes.
Fossil Free Penn is far from alone: It’s just the first of dozens of youth-led organizations occupying college campuses to demand an end to college investment in fossil fuels. Over the summer, students from around the world connected with End Fossil, an organization that coordinates indefinite occupancies of educational institutions beginning this fall. The expected setback will ensure students have a long semester. Fossil Free Penn members have already faced intimidation from school administrators and campus security, bolstered by the crushing weight of the fossil fuel industry. But the movement spans four continents and hundreds of student organizers, each with their own specific demands for the school to move forward. climate justice.
“The internationalist perspective is one of the essential parts of social movements and the climate justice movement,” says Matilde Alvim, a 20-year-old climate organizer and student in Lisbon, Portugal. Alvim has been advocating for climate action since high school, when she participated in Fridays for Future, an international school strike started by Greta Thunberg. She was drawn to climate activism in 2018 when hundreds of protesters demonstrated against oil and gas exploration in Portugal.
“[My advocacy] it evolved from oil drills to a more systemic perspective. ‘What is climate justice and what needs to change in the system?’” says Alvim. Portugal is a small country, but its students should not be underestimated when it comes to climate justice, he explains.
In January 2022, Alvim planned an international conference of climate activists in Lisbon with climaxwhere the group connected with young climate leaders from around the world. The activists put their heads together and came to two conclusions: the climate justice movement needed to scale up fast, and this could only be done with a sustained and replicable form of protest.
“In 2018, everyone was talking about the weather… the Overton window really changed,” says Alvim. “But with each passing year, more radical action is needed. So we thought: ‘You are a student, you go to a school or university, so you can occupy it'”.
In the summer of 2022, Alvim and a fellow organizer spent three weeks touring the United States, meeting with young organizers to recruit for their global vision. Visiting Philadelphia, they spent the night with a West Philly-based group of climate activists they had connected with via email: Penn Fossil Free. The group was already familiar with the occupation of the campus. In April 2022, Fossil Free Penn organized a six-day camp on Penn’s College Green, the same space they have currently been occupying for the last two weeks.
The first camp, the same familiar grouping of tents surrounded by hand-painted banners and flier-covered tables, captured the interest of the student body and sparked camaraderie among the coordinators. In partnership with local movements for justice in housing and education, the spring camp filed five categories of demands focused on divestment from the fossil fuel industry and investment in local community reparations.
Sophomore Eug Xu approached the first camp with trepidation: his previous experience with climate justice movements had been “overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly individualistic.” However, they quickly became attracted to the Fossil Free Penn community. “I felt at home in space so we were all fighting as a unit,” says Xu. “This was a way for me to get involved in something that I really care a lot about but had trouble defending earlier in my life.”
Although the students became a close-knit family, the first camp was not easy. At night, protesters faced harassment from security and administrators: University officials opened tents, illuminated the interior with flashlights, and grabbed a sleeping student. After the students were granted a meeting with the university’s interim president and the tents were taken down, the organizers went through a lengthy disciplinary process that ultimately required sympathetic professors to defend the students’ right to express themselves openly.
Entering the second camp, coordinators prioritized the health and safety of the students. They organized overnight shifts, consulted with teachers about disciplinary action, investigated the sprinklers on College Green, and filled the camp schedule with community events. Their demands also changed: the University should donate funds to save residents of a nearby affordable housing complex from eviction; the university should get rid of fossil fuels, and the university, a nonprofit organization that pays no property taxes, should disburse payments in lieu of taxes to help fund Philadelphia’s public schools.
Xu, now one of the coordinators at Fossil Free Penn, says the camp is more prepared to engage the student body and face backlash the second time around, but the administrators’ intimidation tactics “have absolutely changed this year.”
Elsakhawy knows this firsthand. In the early days of the second camp, the freshman wandered over to the Fossil Free Penn table out of curiosity. He chatted with the coordinators, then sat on the grass next to them to work on some homework. Less than an hour later, an administrator approached the camp, pointed a camera at him and demanded his student ID. The coordinators surrounded Elsakhawy to shield him from view, and the administrator told him that he could stay and provide details of his student ID or leave the camp. Elsakhawy stayed but refused to give your identification information. The administrator took a photo of him instead.
“I refused to give my ID because I didn’t know why they wanted the ID, they didn’t explain it properly at all,” he says. “I think she was being vague on purpose to intimidate me…I later found out that the reason is to identify you for the disciplinary hearing.”
Last year, nearly a dozen students faced a disciplinary hearing along with the support of professors, but this year, the university is insisting that each student have a separate hearing. Xu argues that the students have not broken any rules by participating in a protest, and that administrators should not assume “guilt until proven innocent.”
“The Administration believes that the students have violated a number of University policies and have failed to comply with reasonable conditions of time, place and manner,” the University of Pennsylvania said in responding to a request for comment. “The matter has been referred to Community Standards and Accountability for review.” The representative also clarified that in 2021, the university has committed to reducing “net greenhouse gas emissions from Penn endowment investments to zero by 2050” and to cease “any new commitments to private equity vehicles dedicated to investments in the production of fossil fuels. However, Xu counters that the university still has almost a billion dollars currently invested in the fossil fuel industry that should be sold.
Despite these interactions with administrators and the advancement of disciplinary hearing procedures, students remain hopeful. This movement is bigger than themselves, at least several hundred older students, and they won’t leave until their demands are met. “It may seem like what we are doing here is on a small scale, but we all [our demands] They are global issues.” says Xu. “The billion dollars that Penn has invested in the fossil fuel industry is going to hurt people in the Global South. That’s something we have to be very aware of.”
In the coming months, students from dozens of universities everyone will join the occupation, with schools in Lisbon, including Alvim’s own, starting in November. He says this fall marks his school’s first occupation, but he’s been learning from the work of other groups like Fossil Free Penn.
“History also gives us many examples of times when students were really powerful, [to the point where] the workers and the rest of society came together,” says Alvim. “This is not just about the students, but we have to do our part, our part as young people.”