The annual Harvard-Yale football game was disrupted on Saturday by student activists from Divest Harvard, Yale Endowment Justice Coalition and Fossil Free Yale who demanded that the two universities divest from the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt. After almost an hour of delay, some protesters were taken off the field while those who remained were arrested. This action must be seen as a significant part of the climate change fight and used as a catalyst for future divestment protests at NYU.
This protest is part of a larger trend of youth climate activism and the fight of young people against environmental injustice. In December 2017, Canadian indigenous activist Autumn Peltier confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his destructive pipeline projects. In September of this year, Greta Thunberg criticized world leaders’ lack of action on climate change in her speech to the United Nations. Both of these instances show how youth have been at the center of environmental change on the global stage. In the same way, the Harvard-Yale protest was a direct confrontation against powerful alumni and university administrations that refuse to let go of profits in favor of environmental sustainability.
The sit-in also signifies an important transition in climate change politics. Its close proximity to Harvard and Yale highlights how the fossil fuel industry and the Ivy League are intimately intertwined. It also cuts across this elitism by holding it within the intersectional space between sport and academia. It was therefore able to be seen by a broader audience while still rooting itself in opposition to the corruption of the ivory tower of academia.
Like Harvard and Yale, NYU also has significant investments in the fossil fuel industry. NYU Divest — a group of students, alumni, staff and faculty calling for the university endowment’s divestment from fossil fuels — has spoken on this issue, and staged major protests in 2016-2017 to highlight the university’s complicity in the climate issue. Even in the midst of these movements, the university still did not recognize most of the organization’s demands. This was seen in 2016, when NYU decided against divestment even after a 2015 University Senate resolution recommended that there be no further investment in fossil fuel companies. Clearly, the university has no interest in divesting from fossil fuels by themselves.
It is important to recognize the privilege of the Harvard-Yale protesters. Their status as Ivy League students gives them unique protection from the violent repercussions of protest. Other climate activists have not had this benefit. A notable example is Standing Rock in 2016, when indigenous demonstrators rallied against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. There, police violently forced back the protesters using weapons like water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and tasers, injuring more than 300 people. The fact that this level of pushback would not occur for the Harvard-Yale divestment protesters is important in discussing the sit-in’s role in the broader scope of climate activism. Understanding this privilege is essential to knowing how future climate protests can be best organized. At the same time, though, both types of protests should still be seen in the same vein of opposition against the root causes of climate change and environmental injustice.
Students and other youth must be at the forefront of any movement for divestment. Organizers at Harvard and Yale have shown the power of student movements through organizing and direct confrontation as well as the way they can garner national support. NYU students must build on the efforts of young activists around the globe as well as NYU Divest’s work in order to force the university to listen to its students and stop contributing to the planet’s downfall.
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