The value in activism: Reflections from the Columbia University climate sit-in

By Nikita Perumal | May 12, 2016

The day after the Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) occupation of Columbia University’s Low Library ended, I overheard something at a coffee shop. Two students stood in front of me in line, complaining lightly about the delay it was taking to get their drinks. “We should do a sit-in!” one of them joked.

I bristled but didn’t say anything. I didn’t quite have the energy to point out that our carefully orchestrated, eight-day occupation was the result of more than three years of relentless campaigning for Columbia to divest its $9.2 billion endowment from the top 200 publicly traded oil, coal, and gas companies. Jokes like this were relatively rare after the occupation and its associated protests, but I did hear a lot of questions echoing similar sentiments: “Did anything come of it all?” “So … what did you achieve?” On a comment-laden Facebook thread, a few peers from my school painted me and my fellow occupiers as unreasonable, immature students who had just decided, on a whim, to one day sleep in a building—without the slightest recognition of the years we had spent exhausting all available administrative channels.

Eight days, many moments. One of my fellow CDCJ organizers commented recently that activism is a thankless task. To a large extent, it is. When you put your evening on hold to do last-minute outreach, only to see a trickle of people show up to your direct action because the weather isn’t cooperating, it feels thankless. When you receive icily worded emails from administrators threatening suspension if you continue your nonviolent civil disobedience, it feels thankless. When you find yourself overworked, your commitments slipping through your fingers because it’s a particularly busy time for your campaign and you simply can’t take a step back right now—it feels thankless. And when you wake up, back aching, on the chilly marble floor of a cavernous administrative building—it certainly feels thankless then, too.

But the days I spent in Low Library during our occupation—as well as the time I spent on the outside providing support, food, and supplies to my brave peers who remained—were the most energizing of my semester. For every disheartening moment in activism, there is a moment of blinding inspiration that counterweighs it.

There was the moment when 100 fellow students showed up to sleep outdoors on the library steps, in solidarity with the ongoing sit-in. There were the hundreds of signatures and emails from students, faculty, and alumni affirming their belief in our cause. There was a moment at midnight when I should have been asleep, but instead found myself cheering with my friends because we’d heard that yet another undergraduate school at Columbia had passed a referendum in favor of fully divesting Columbia’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Unquantifiable rewards. Despite the occasional snide remark or skeptical question, those eight days of occupation taught me to believe in activism more than I ever had before. CDCJ did not get its precise ask—that Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger publicly recommend divestment to the Board of Trustees. But we got a lot more. In the span of eight days, I saw my fellow organizers transform into leaders and teachers. I saw myself transform. I saw our campaign strengthen as we all grew immeasurably closer to one another, both as organizers and as friends. I saw my school politicize around climate justice—an issue of utmost importance that all too often is not discussed consistently in campus discourse. I saw faculty mobilize, students unaffiliated with our cause write passionate op-eds, and countless donations of food, time, and money from strangers who were simply touched by what we were doing.

I’ve noticed a tendency among skeptics of activism to demand the quantifiable, the precise metrics by which we can associate activism with meaningful change. Sometimes I’m able to provide them with detailed statistics or events—for example, Columbia was the first US university to divest from private prisons last year after an effective, yearlong campaign by Columbia Prison Divest.

But most of the time, I don’t have much by way of response—and that’s because the accomplishments of activism aren’t entirely quantifiable. Rather, activism is an amorphous and hazy process of discovery, growth, and relentless commitment. It is a process of learning from the movement, of making noise and shedding light, of trainings and teach-ins and targeted direct actions—all of which work to illuminate the underlying cause at hand. CDCJ’s cause—the reason my peers and I do the work we do—is climate justice. We keep organizing because we realize that vulnerable communities, from the South Bronx to rural Appalachia to the small island nations of the Pacific, continue to face the devastation of climate impacts and fossil fuel extraction. We keep doing what we are doing because we realize that this isn’t right. CDCJ activists did not engage in nonviolent civil disobedience lightly or senselessly. We did so after three years of sustained campus organizing, to an unresponsive administration, on an issue that we are passionate about. We keep organizing because we are not ready to give up.

As a result of this passion and illumination, things do happen. I know they do. I have seen our campaign grow and flourish before my eyes; I have seen it evoke support from every corner of Columbia’s campus. CDCJ’s campaign has cultivated broad-based campus support—three school referenda, 350 faculty endorsements, and 2,000 petition signatures—over the past four years, and in doing so my fellow activists and I have seen awareness seep into the subconscious mind of the administration. Indeed, during the time we were in Low Library, Columbia’s Earth Institute formally submitted a proposal for fossil fuel divestment that aligns largely with our own. Our occupation—our seemingly frivolous, meaningless sit-in—helped to propel a formal, institutional call for divestment from within Columbia itself.

Beyond the confines of Columbia, we saw transformation as well. Our occupation took place during a national moment of escalation—with an occupation at New York University, arrests of Harvard and University of Massachusetts Amherst students, and recent announcements of divestment or partial divestment at the University of Mary Washington and Yale. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein tweeted about us, and a host of national media coalesced around the wave of fossil fuel divestment protests cropping up around the country. Every moment of our collective activism, across our various campuses, contributed to something greater: a larger national awareness about the moral bankruptcy of fossil fuel companies and the need to move away from that kind of extraction.

The successes of these other campus campaigns also demonstrated the inspiring (but sometimes intangible) impacts of activism. The divestment decisions by Mary Washington and Yale came almost exactly one year after escalated occupations on both campuses. Their administrations, perhaps out of a need to save face in light of student demands, did not immediately capitulate, but student voices were ultimately heard. In essence, their activism worked. I am confident that the same will be said of CDCJ’s activism when we look back, years from now, on the events of April 2016.

So whatever the naysayers in the coffee line say, I don’t mind. I know—I have seen—the transformative power that climate justice activism can have both on Columbia’s campus and internationally. When the status quo—in this case, the political and social power of extractive and destructive industries—is too strong to be undone on its own, it sometimes needs a push. I believe, wholeheartedly, that activism is that push. It is our way of reclaiming power, and catalyzing the policy changes that we so desperately need for a more just world. In this sense, activism is hardly thankless. It is one of the most gratifying ways of making change.

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