Butts on the Floor

What does institutional power really look like? As student divestment activists we lobby our colleges to get them to activate their institutional leverage on behalf of people and planet, but when do we get a glimpse of this force?

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I believe I caught a peak last Friday. On that day at noon, 272 Whitman College students, faculty, and alums took seats on the well-carpeted floor of Memorial Hall. On the mezzanine outside of conference room 321 where the Trustees had been seated in leather office chairs, the group settled in for their hour-long occupation. These 272 of all different sizes persuasions, sitting close together in this gilded hall (right beneath our campus’s ivory-white clock tower I kid you not) were to me a breathing portrait of an institution mobilized, and a constituency ready to act together.

Behind the doors of room 321 were also three members of student government lead by senior and President Tatiana Kaehler. Tatiana would have 15 minutes to present two pieces of divestment legislation on behalf of the Divest Whitman campaign and their legion of supporters ensconced outside, and ask the trustees for a timely response to the demands of those documents. As usual, the board’s functioning was kept pretty opaque in the lead up to this action and there was no way to know whether or not we would have a response by the end of the hour. But that didn’t dampen the spirits of our sitters in the least. 23 boxes of pizza provided by a generous alumni supporter fed the crowd, and 3 different student photographers captured the scene from all angles. About twenty minutes in, it became clear that those taking part in the sit-in weren’t there just to see the trustees emerge from their room and address the crowd. Instead, those sitting in were there to say that this characteristic unresponsiveness would be no longer acceptable. Their presence marked the beginning of a new wave of campus action that will make itself heard, felt, and seen until it is met with commensurate attention from higher-ups.

We might not hear from our board in response to our legislation until fall 2015, and they will most likely decline to take the serious action that the campus they supposedly steward is demanding. But they also won’t be able to huddle in inaction forever. The Whitman College community has been mobilized, and we will sit, stand, shout, and speak for however long it takes to get our school on the right side of history. This is what our record-breaking action showed me. That is why I know what institutional power looks like—it’s not the ominous ivory tower; it’s the sea of people crowded beneath it who put their butts on the floor for climate justice.