On March 15, 2019, attendees and organizers of the Washtenaw County Climate Strike occupied the University of Michigan’s Fleming Administration Building. Though there was initially a long list of demands, by 5:00 p.m. (when the building officially closed), there was only one: A one hour, student-moderated public meeting with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss a just transition to true carbon neutrality. The administration refused to accept the simple request. Instead they arrested 10 people — six U-M students, one recent graduate, two high school students and a community member.
The University chose to arrest its own students over having a one-hour public meeting with them to discuss the climate crisis.
The case continues to hang over the arrestees’ heads. Most are still going in and out of court, they are technically not allowed to leave the state and all the students are banned from the Fleming Building for a year (the non-students were banned from all of campus). It is a stain on the University. Schlissel and the Board of Regents should recognize their failure and call on the prosecution to drop the charges against the climate strike protesters.
What is particularly appalling about the University’s behavior is that the climate protesters on March 15 did not show up out of nowhere. These students and their allies had tried everything in their power through the formal channels to get the University to take action on the climate crisis. They passed student government resolutions, applied for commission positions, wrote letters, demonstrated and spoke at board meetings. But still, there had been minimal progress beyond the creation of the flawed President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality — the body charged with coming up with recommendations for when and how the University will get to carbon neutrality.
Worse still, they ended up capitulating. Even though the administration refused to accept the climate strikers' demands and instead chose to arrest the protesters, they scheduled a special town hall in response to the strike right after (though not under the terms requested). They arrested students for demanding what they ended up giving.
While much of the harm caused by the climate strike arrests has already been done, there are still opportunities for mitigation. The University could admit that it was wrong to arrest the climate strikers and call for the charges to be dropped. Or they could decide that University employees, who were the only witnesses to the sit-in, have better things to do than testify against the students and not show up for court.
Instead of mitigating harm, they have exacerbated it. In response to a motion the arrestees and their lawyer filed requesting more evidence from the University, the University asked most of the arrestees to pay for these legal fees. The University arrested its students, and asked them to pay their own legal fees. It’s almost comical until you realize it’s real.
One of the purposes of the sit-in was to test what lengths the University would go to avoid talking with students about climate action. The conclusion? The University preferred to arrest 10 individuals rather than have a one-hour conversation. But the climate strike arrests and subsequent charges also clarified the way the administration views activism. The administration arrested protesters and is following through on the case to deter activism on campus.
The University’s behavior towards the climate protesters reflects its dismissal of activism and fear of politics. Right now, the University hides behind a policy of not negotiating with protesters for any reason. That is an easy position to take — but one with profound costs. It undermines the long history of organizing and activism on this campus since its underlying assumption is that there will never be a situation where the University needs pressure to change. The University need only look to the STI policy reversal last month as an example of when it messed up and students told them so.
Another fear the University seems to have is that if they drop the charges for climate protesters, then a precedent will be set for protesters of other issues. In other words, U-M will not call for the charges to be dropped because then they would be forced to call for charges to be dropped if, for example, there are white supremacists arrested on campus. Again, this is a false double standard. The University should not be afraid to say that some causes are more valid than others. Protesters trying to get the University to treat the climate crisis with urgency should be treated differently than hypothetical white supremacist protesters: It is sad to equate all forms of “activism,” regardless of the issue.
This fear seems to come from the University’s sense that as a public institution, it should not be taking political stances. While it is obvious that the University only sees itself as a public institution when it is convenient to do so (see only 54 percent in-state students), it should realize that it is already a political institution. The University is making political statements when it chooses the year by which it wants to fully decarbonize, when it decides to give Flint and Dearborn students only 25 percent of the per-student funding Ann Arbor gets or when it decides to let Fraternity and Sorority Life use the old William Trotter Multicultural Center. But even if the University does not think those decisions are political, its Board of Regents are elected in partisan elections! The University of Michigan is a political institution and it should own it instead of backing away. By recognizing that it is a political institution, the University should realize that it was wrong to intimidate, arrest and let the prosecutor continue to charge students.
That’s where we come in. The University does not realize that, but we can make it clear. Students need to be more vocal in our opposition to the arrests than we have been so far. We should support the arrestees because they are working to push the University to take the climate crisis seriously, a noble task that should not be punished. But more broadly, if the University gets away with convicting the March 15 arrestees, it will have successfully sent a message that activism is not tolerated on campus, and we will all have been complicit in letting that message through. Support the climate strike arrestees and activism on campus by telling the University to call for the charges to be dropped.
Solomon Medintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.