Student Group Profile: Wash U Students Against Peabody
This post kicks off a new move by REC to profile student groups around the country putting in great organizing work for social and environmental justice. Below is the bullet-points version-- to reach the longform version just follow the Read More link at the bottom. Also, if you know of any groups that you want to see featured on here let us know with an email to [email protected]
Greg Boyce, Chairman and CEO of Peabody Energy sits on their Washington University Board of Trustees
The Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, a research entity with a deceitful name and sponsored by three major coal companies has existed on their campus since 2008
Peabody Energy, a fossil fuel company with a heinous track record of human rights abuses and environmental degradations has a close relationship with their institution of higher education
What they’ve been up to this past May 2014:
7 students arrested while attempting to enter a BoT meeting
1 student arrested outside a Peabody Energy shareholder meeting in solidarity with activists from Black Mesa
What they’re generally all about:
removing bigmoneyed interests from college campuses
opposing and working to reverse the gross injustices committed by Peabody Energy
using social media and student privilege to elevate voices from frontliner communities
maintaining their longstanding involvement with residents from Black Mesa, and the groups Take Back St. Louis, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment
A student group that puts collective liberation into action
Challenging corporate power: Wash U students reject the presence of the extractive industry on their campus
A Sit-in That Boosted the Divestment Movement... without ever calling for divestment
You probably caught it on the news. This past May 2014, a group of students at Washington University in St. Louis broke records in their fight against Peabody Energy. During their historic 17 day sitin and consequent arrests, the endowment movement was escalated.
Students Against Peabody, the main student group behind the May 2014 actions, has been active for a long time against the energy corporation whose CEO sits on their Board of Trustees. Indeed, grassroots organizations from Arizona to St. Louis have also been long engaged in resisting the economic and social injustices brought by Peabody. This spring, they came together with those students and made the Washington University campus in St. Louis, MO their battleground.
This profile of Students Against Peabody recaps the May 2014 events and delves deeper into the history and workings of their group. Read along to understand how a group of students built longlasting solidarity relationships with outside community orgs to band together against Peabody one of the biggest private energy companies in the country.
The sitin was born originally out of group crossover. According to student and sitin organizer Caroline Burney, lots of sophisticated and dedicated activism had been going on for a while on Wash U’s campus. This past spring especially there were a lot of dedicated seniors who had been involved in one way or another for their entire time at Wash U, and who hadn’t seen their work come to fruition. Dissatisfaction seemed to abound, and a whole host of student changemakers were not seeing any tangible results. Brian Redline, a public health activist and another student involved in the sitin, noted how the Wash U administration had “institutionalized” student involvement and clubs by providing ample funding and supporting student initiatives that didn’t threaten or directly involve their higher bodies. Despite all the work getting done on campus, no real progress was being made. The students who came together for the sitin had realized that this kind of cooptation was the problem. It occurred to them that so much of their hard work was stagnant because there was no space for student demands or concerns within the administration. Student organizations and initiatives still existed fundamentally on a plain of action below the decision makers. It appeared that clubs could do all the events, canvassing, fundraising, writing, and rallying they wanted without ever reaching the channels of capital and influence that would make direct changes.
Perhaps there was not enough room for students on the decisionmaking plane because too much of that space was being held by corporate interest. Gregory Boyce, Chairman and CEO of Peabody Energy has held a position on Wash U’s board of trustees since 2009. Given the stagnation that student campaigners were experiencing, and the pervasiveness of corporate power in the situation, Boyce became the top concern of Students Against Peabody. It was inconceivable to them that the leader and figurehead of a unionbusting, democracy-blocking, and environment-destroying company could have a major role in steering their educational institution while they could not. They knew they had to escalate in order to get their voices heard outside of the typical circuits. It was clear that doing all their work on a sublevel of power was no longer going to be enough. Direct action would reject the ways that the admins had integrated social protest into the dominant workings of the university, and demand attention from the administration, so they planned a sitin. With Boyce, just one man, as their main target, they would push the ideas of direct democracy and return again to the channels of popular government known as protest.
A Throwback Action
Back at Wash U in 2005, students successfully occupied the admissions office to demand a fair wage for all campus employees. The current Students Against Peabody took inspiration from that event. The sitin would be used to voice three main demands: Boyce’s resignation from the BoT, a name change for the new campus research entity currently known as the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, and that the administrators attend a tour of Peabody extraction sites. The students organizing were driven by many questions, but the one that kept popping up here was: at what costs does our university run? What is our education worth? Fully educated about the wrongdoings of Peabody, and in solidarity with folks from Black Mesa, Take Back St. Louis, the St. Louis NAACP, and the United Mine Workers of America, they felt and still feel that there are better ways to finance their institution than with injections from Peabody. With their demands set, the tactics were simple: sitin until the administration hears and publicly answers their call.
The sitin went on for 17 days with 50-60 people constantly occupying for the entire period. The group took over a large and centrally prominent archway on the campus to insure high visibility and to encourage interaction with the campus public.There were about 15 people at the “core” of the group who were making decisions and keeping organized. That core was broken down into “working groups” with specific focuses. Brian Redline was part of the logistics group who took care of the important details involving a physical occupation, i.e. where trash goes and how tents were arranged. Redline suspected that part of the reason onlookers were so amicable with the occupiers was because of the camp’s “professional appearance”. He further noted that at most points the sitin appeared more like a “universitysponsored event” than a protest. Keeping orderly served the group well in making their space extrawelcoming and approachable for prospective students on tour and Wash U alumni back in town for alumni weekend.
Wash U administrators did eventually agree to meet with the leaders of the sitin. But in negotiations they remarked that the student demands were “unreasonable” and “couldn’t be met”. Disappointed but undeterred, the students ended the sitin after 17 days. They broke down camp and reconvened to plan their next move.
Luckily, they were able to time their final action in sync with the spring meeting of the Board of Trustees. Seeing as Boyce remained their prime target, they decided to take their concerns to him and the other board members directly. They needed to enter the BoT meeting and have an unmediated audience with Boyce himself. During planning meetings, one question spurred much of Caroline Burney’s thoughts: who is the university for? Students, faculty, and staff or wealthy individuals? The idea that the university should be for and with the students and faculty on all levels of leadership drove the next action. They would go to where their targets were.
A Desire for Transparency
On May 2nd, 2014 seven students were arrested as they tried to make entry into their University’s Board of Trustees meeting in St. Louis. 100 more rallied behind them, all calling for what their sitin had previously demanded: remove Boyce from the board and delegitimize the partnership between the fossil fuel industry and the realm of higher education. The students had prepared for these arrests, but they were still surprised at the eagerness with which the police arrested them. Arrests are typically an administration's worst PRnightmare, and yet the Washington University BoT had no qualms about blocking the students from entering their quarterly meeting. The haste with which the police denied the students entry to their own leadership made Caroline Burney question what the higherups truly had to hide? If they were so ready and willing to have their own students arrested for trying to reach them, they must have a serious interest in blocking transparency at all costs.
What could be the ugly truth about the way the Washington University BoT runs? Students Against Peabody seem to already know it, in a recap of their May 2nd action the group wrote: “The administration’s refusal to act is frustrating, but not unexpected. Indeed, it is symptomatic of a greater crisis: the very real and very deep relationship between our university and Big Coal, and between Chancellor Wrighton and Greg Boyce." In an attempt to be heard by the only viable powers, and in order to demonstrate exactly the problem with Boyce's interests getting partnered with their educational institution, the students went after their board. By physically entering the room holding the meeting, they might have been able to metaphorically bypass the political blockage in place against them, and all students nationwide, who were trying to make true progressive change on campuses where progress was only to be doled out in safe portions by the administrative hegemony.
Of course, they were stopped before they fully made it here. But their action draws an instructive picture for meaningful student activism that implicates the world beyond campus borders. Students Against Peabody implicated the partnerships between higher education and corporate interest; blaming both parties for forging bond that, at the end of the day, result in blocking and reversing all the efforts towards social or environmental justice that any student could ever dream of making peer-to-peer.
A Network of Strong Roots
Student Against Peabody (SAP), is in some respects an incredibly unique student group because of their outstanding solidarity work. SAP’s work has honored and been done in conjunction the work of other community organizations and grassroots establishments.These establishments have often been actively opposing Peabody in one way or another for much longer than most of the students have even been around. For Students Against Peabody, building this solidarity network against Peabody took place on an extended time scale. Founded as a social justice group, SAP has always believed that in order to fight big moneyed interests like Peabody Energy and any other number of corporate entities you may find behind ALEC, people must organize strategically together and lever human power against political clout.
Far before they needed support for the May action, indeed years before, Students Against Peabody started using their student privilege to elevate the voices of different campaigns around them. Using social media and general wordofmouth, SAP would share the stories from communities on the frontlines of extraction, or document the progress of other organizing groups. They found that using their following they could “elevate” the voices of other organizers, and present the virtual sphere with important issues outside of the typical student-news echo chamber.
One of these under-heard stories in particular were the experiences of residents from Black Mesa, AZ. SAP worked with individual resistors to support their stories and struggles. When a small group of Black Mesa residents visited Wash U, they met with SAP and spoke their gratitude for the student's work. Having Peabody as a common enemy allowed them to align as allies.
Historically, there has been individual and collective resistance on Black Mesa for many years. A community group based in Flagstaff Arizona, Black Mesa Water Coalition was founded by young Hopi and Navajo tribe members to counteract the damage to the Navajo aquifer done by Peabody Energy as part of their coal mining operation in Black Mesa Arizona. Now they continue to oppose Peabody Energy while also building sustainable communities and green economies for indigenous peoples. Since aligning themselves with residents of Black Mesa, Students Against Peabody not only fights the corporation as it appears in their hometown of St. Louis, but also as it appears in coal slurry pipelines, mines, and generating stations in Northern Arizona and all over the Southwest.
Leaders of the leaders
Students Against Peabody have deep partnerships with powerful organizations and a long, thorough track record of hard work. And to think their first seriously escalated action only took place this past May. Looking forward, SAP will continue to grow and challenge Peabody and their own administrators in new and innovative ways. And, as the national groundswell against extraction and for transparent leadership builds and builds, SAP should only have an easier time moving Peabody and other corporate interests away from the table.
* all photos courtesy of Students Against Peabody