Climate strike sit-in at Fleming results in 10 arrests after rally

Sunday, March 17, 2019 - 4:48pm

Rackham student Rafael Rivero speaks about the science surrounding climate change at the sit-in for Climate Action at the Fleming Administration Building Friday evening.

Rackham student Rafael Rivero speaks about the science surrounding climate change at the sit-in for Climate Action at the Fleming Administration Building Friday evening. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

A light rain on Friday afternoon did not deter an estimated 2,500-3,000 Washtenaw-area students and community members from participating in the Global Climate Strike. The rally began with a school walkout at 11:11 a.m. Participants then convened on the Diag, where the event transitioned into a march around Ann Arbor that ended at the Fleming Administrative Building where Climate Strike organizers led a 7.5-hour sit-in.

The demonstrators said they would not leave until University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel addressed their demand for a one-hour public meeting about the University’s plan for climate change and carbon neutrality without screening questions.

Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police for the University of Michigan Police Department and public information officer for the Division of Public Safety and Security, wrote in a message to The Daily that 10 demonstrators — including two minors — chose to remain in Fleming after multiple warnings. The 10 individuals were arrested and given citations for trespassing. According to Overton, the two minors were held inside the building until their guardians arrived.

The Washtenaw County Climate Strike, organized by community members and students at local high schools and the University of Michigan, outlined a list of demands activists want enacted at both the local and national level. In the climate strike demands, activists asked politicians as well as the University to end the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, commit to carbon neutrality by 2030, use resources to adjust to renewable energy and create goals to address climate concerns, such as keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 Celsius.

The rally

Protestors in the gather on the Diag in support of Climate Action Friday afternoon.

Protestors in the gather on the Diag in support of Climate Action Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

The Climate Strike commenced with a school walkout at 11:11 a.m., referencing the 11 years reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the planet has to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Students from the University as well as Washtenaw County schools left their classrooms and gathered on the Diag, displaying posters and chanting.

LSA sophomore Zoe Bultman said she looked forward to seeing widespread support for combating climate change throughout the campus. She named three main reasons why she decided to attend the strike.

“One, because I was just in an environment class and the professor said it was a-okay,” Bultman said. “Two, because I have a lot of friends who helped organize it, and three, I think we should probably be taking climate change a lot more seriously than we have been, and this University is not really pulling its weight in that regard yet, so I’d like to see some change there.”

Bultman was among the estimated 1 million students who skipped school to partake in one of the more than 2,000 climate protests that occured in a total of 125 countries. The area was filled with protesters who engaged with the climate strike speakers, cheering their messages on and booing in frustration of the University’s perceived inaction.

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The rally included speeches from politicians and activists, including former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, activist Monica Lewis Patrick and former Washtenaw County Commissioner Michelle Deatrick. Multiple student organizers also spoke.

In his speech, El-Sayed discussed his support for the Green New Deal and said he looked forward to taking tangible steps to fight climate change.

“Climate change is health, climate change is dignity, climate change is justice,” El-Sayed said. “If we are not serious about solving the reasons why this is happening, then we’re not serious about addressing all of those ills that we keep watching right in our streets, in the lungs of our children. We’ve got a responsibility to act, we’ve got a responsibility to act right now.”

Alice Elliot, University alum and one of the lead organizers of the Climate Strike, criticized what she saw as the habitual negligence the University in regard to climate change.

“Somehow, this center of knowledge, power and privilege has managed to spend more effort and money on climate related PR and making excuses for inaction than it has on meaningful reduction of its carbon footprint,” Elliot said. “They have invested $1 billion of our nearly $11 billion endowment into the fossil fuel companies and they refuse to even consider the possibility of divestment ... They have planned an $80 million expansion of the Central Power Plant … which would tie that plant to fossil fuels for the next several decades instead of investing and building renewable energy infrastructure.”

In an interview with The Daily, Khadija Khokhar, a Washtenaw International High School senior who helped organize the rally, said she participated in the Climate Strike because she believes Ann Arbor and the University should be held accountable for their lack of actions against climate change, as they both serve as role models for schools and cities around the world.

“Enough is enough, and it’s time that we take back our future,” Khokhar said. “We have seen the effects of climate change just because we’re in Ann Arbor and we are much more privileged, and we should be using our voices to elevate those more unfortunate than us. Corporations need to be held accountable for their actions, and it is our responsibility to fight for the future because clearly no one else has been doing that.”

The march

Protestors march out of the Diag in support of Climate Action Friday.

Protestors march out of the Diag in support of Climate Action Friday. Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

Following the rally, demonstrators took to the streets of Ann Arbor at approximately 1 p.m. to march, concluding in front of Fleming Administrative Building.

Once demonstrators arrived at Fleming, organizers announced they would be holding a sit-in inside of the building unless Schlissel agreed to a one-hour meeting with students in which questions about the University’s plan to fight climate change were not screened beforehand.

The sit-in

A fifteen year old woman is interrogated by UMPD after refusing to vacate the Fleming Administration Building during a sit-in protesting the University's climate policy Friday night.

A fifteen year old woman is interrogated by UMPD after refusing to vacate the Fleming Administration Building during a sit-in protesting the University's climate policy Friday night. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharkan/Daily

Demonstrators entered Schlissel’s office on the second floor of Fleming at approximately 1:30 p.m. They said they had no intention of leaving until Schlissel himself addressed their request for a public meeting. As it neared 5 p.m. — the time the building normally closes — police began to enter and University representatives asked students to leave, saying they would relay demonstrators’ requests and Schlissel would respond as soon as possible.

At 6 p.m., there were approximately 60 demonstrators in the office. Rackham student Chris Karounos said students from middle school through graduate school as well as adults participated in the sit-in.

“One thing I’d like to say is how beautiful it is to have so many different-aged people here,” Karounos said. “We have middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, graduate students, adults, even more senior people, and this is all sprung out of a movement to protect future generations and ensure a world that they really deserve and that we all had.”

Multiple administrators present at Fleming over the course of the night did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment, but University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in a statement Friday evening that University officials informed the protesters during the day they must leave the building when it closed at 5 p.m., but later extended the departure deadline to 8 p.m.

Elizabeth Blackwell, a junior at Washtenaw International High School, said demonstrators inside were given an ultimatum by University employees to either leave the building by 8 p.m. or face arrest. If they chose to stay, they were told they would be photographed and the case would be referred to the prosecutor’s office. Blackwell commended the organizers of the sit-in on their communication.

“I was really amazed by all the work they did because they did a really great job of getting everyone together to have group discussions without alerting the people there, the security guards there, about what was going on,” Blackwell said. “When they gave us that final ultimatum, they (the organizers) did a quick straw poll of who would be willing to stay to get arrested and of those people they confirmed that they were actually able to do this and then made plans based on that.”

Overton confirmed 10 demonstrators — including two minors — chose to stay in the building after multiple warnings and were given citations for trespassing.

LSA senior Olivia Perfetti was one of the demonstrators who was arrested. She said multiple police officers interviewed her for approximately five minutes before she was charged with trespassing on University property after hours.

“Even if none of us went into this with the intention of getting arrested, I think we all became very stubborn towards the end given the fact that we realized this was such a simple, straightforward, easy request to approve on his part,” Perfetti said. “The fact that he (Schlissel) didn’t do it means that there’s something really wrong in the administration.”

While organizers said they didn’t want to cause trouble, they wanted their presence and demands to be respected. Office walls were covered with posters demonstrators brought inside from the rally.

LSA senior Tegwyn John, who was not arrested, said she interacted with a police officer while inside Fleming. John said the officer tried to warn her of how an arrest would impact her future, which she said she found hypocritical.

“I spoke to a police officer who warned me that being arrested and having a criminal record will affect my future,” John said. “I laughed because climate change is definitely going to affect my future — a criminal record may or may not, depending on what I chose to do with my life, but no matter what I do or where I am climate change is definitely going to impact my future.”

Fitzgerald also wrote in his statement that DPSS provided to demonstrators an outline of the situation and their options at 7:45 p.m., detailing what would happen if they stayed past 8 p.m. He noted additional time checks were provided to demonstrators inside at 7:50 and 7:55 p.m.

According to Fitzgerald, the remaining demonstrators were arrested and escorted from the building at 8 p.m. He said Schlissel recently met with some of the protesters during his regular student office hours and encouraged them to participate in town hall meetings hosted by the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality.

“We appreciate the urgency our students feel regarding climate change,” Fitzgerald wrote. “President Mark Schlissel shares that sense of urgency. President Schlissel has committed the campus to carbon neutrality and has appointed a special commission to explore a pathway to achieving that goal including solutions to climate change that go well beyond the borders of the campus. That critical work is now under way.”

Many demonstrators questioned both each other and University representative on why the University would rather arrest students than listen to them throughout the sit-in.

Elliott said the demonstrators inside Fleming tried alternative channels of communication, but nothing worked.

“It’s really come to this because everything else we’ve tried has gotten no response,” Elliott said. “This is the last resort we have to get them to listen to us and get them to talk to us, and I don’t see any other way to do that. And if that means I’m here until I’m physically removed, that’s fine. I’m here until I get an answer from the President.”

A press release from Washtenaw County Climate Strike organizers confirmed the identity of a previously unidentified demonstrator who was arrested and released earlier Friday night as Jeff Gaynor, a member of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education. The release noted another occupier was banned for a year from the entire Ann Arbor campus because of their status as a non-student.

Additionally, the press release stated a 15-year-old Black girl, who was one of the first demonstrators to be arrested, was held inside for longer than white demonstrators. Some demonstrators said this was racial profiling, while others questioned if it was because of her age.

“Most of the protestors (who are white) were arrested, processed, and released shortly afterwards,” the press release said. “However, the girl was detained for almost an hour ...  She was threatened with the fact that being arrested would have a negative impact on her academic record. She was released around 9:30PM. To be clear: we consider this treatment to be racist, and a clear example of how the police continue to uphold white supremacy.”

Overton wrote to The Daily that the minors were held until their guardians arrived and were released into their custody, but did not respond to an inquiry about the allegations of racial profiling.

Before dispersing for the night, the remaining demonstrators debriefed the day at approximately 9:30 p.m. Demonstrators emphasized the importance of contacting the Board of Regents to voice their concerns in addition to Schlissel.

Rackham student Noah Weaverdyck said the demonstration went as well as organizers hoped it would and that they plan to take further action. Ultimately, he considered Friday’s events as a victory for demonstrators.

“This outside pressure is really gonna convince people, especially because we were so well-behaved, so reasonable and so passionate,” Weaverdyck said. “The cracks are beginning to form. We called their bluff, we faced them down and we won.”