March Against Debt at Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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After two assemblies  were held over the course of two weeks outside the Student Center on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus, giving people space to share stories regarding debt and how it has impacted their lives, participants decided to have a “March Against Debt” and “Mobile Assembly” on Friday, April 25.DSC_1769

Following some initial analysis in pithy speech form that Friday afternoon — and a few performative theatrics — people proceeded to march. They chanted, “Ho, ho. Hey, hey. We don’t owe. We won’t pay,” “Bring out your debt! We’re not dead yet!” “Corporate power – that shit’s sour,” and simply “Strike Debt!” as they made their way through SIU’s Faner Hall and later the Communications Building.

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DSC_1853As folks gathered around at Morris Library, an activist defined and denounced  “creditocracy,” rule by the creditor class, and called for collective debt resistance, following the lead of the Strike Debt movement, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot. Publicly assailing the extant “fantasy world of the rich and powerful, a finance capitalists’ wet dream,” like a flier from the previous assembly put it, the march reached its counter-hegemonic climax as participants moved through the Student Center. It ended with an assembly where the indebted and indignant reclaimed space again on campus for conscientization and continued mobilization.

Why We’re Sitting In at WashU (and We’re Not Leaving)

 

Source: STUDENTS AGAINST PEABODY ENERGY

I’ve learned many things in my four years at Washington University in St. Louis—not all of them in the classroom. For example, before I became a student at Wash U, I had never heard of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal corporation.

In St. Louis, Peabody ingratiates itself to the local community by posing as a benefactor of the arts, charitable corporate ‘citizen,’ and hero tackling “energy poverty.” It all sounds pretty good until you realize that Peabody Energy is the world’s largest private sector coal corporation whose business model propagates climate change and destroys communities. Peabody’s list of crimes is a veritable laundry list of social and environmental injustices: the destruction of mountains in West Virginia, the forced relocation of Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes in Black Mesa, Arizona, being a major supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which have been strong advocates of controversial legislation like “Stand Your Ground” laws, the destruction of Rocky Branch, Illinois through aggressive mining and logging, and the distortion of democracy here in St. Louis by striking down a city-wide ballot initiative.

Peabody CEO Greg Boyce also holds one more distinction: member of the Washington University Board of Trustees. Since Boyce was placed on the board in 2009, students have been actively organizing against Peabody Energy’s presence on campus. We have demanded that Boyce be removed from the Board of Trustees and that the University change the name of the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” a research entity to which Peabody and Arch Coal donated $5,000,000. We have met with the Chancellor — multiple times. We have dropped banners at coal events, peacefully disrupted speeches by Greg Boyce on campus, marched through campus and taken our demands to Peabody’s headquarters. We have protested with residents from Black Mesa, collected signatures for the Take Back St. Louis ballot initiative and rallied with the United Mine Workers in their fight against Peabody.

But, five years later, Boyce is still on the board, the name of the Clean Coal Consortium remains unchanged, and Chancellor Wrighton continues to stand behind Peabody Energy. Indeed, just this week he emailed us saying, “your opinion that peabody energy behaves in an ‘irresponsible and unjust manner’ is not one that I share.” The Administration has successfully used a “deny by delay” process by holding town hall meetings and developing task forces around renewable energy and energy efficiency while ignoring the role that coal plays on the campus.

Thus, like many campus divestment campaigns across the country, we are at a crossroads.

We’ve decided that it’s time to escalate to let Chancellor Wrighton and Greg Boyce know that we’re running out of time and we’re not going to back down. We are engaging in a sit-in of our admissions office to tell Chancellor Wrighton that our university can no longer legitimize destructive fossil fuel corporations. By having Greg Boyce on the Board of Trustees and hosting the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” the University is propagating the lie that coal is clean. But people who live in the communities where Peabody mines, including Black Mesa and Rocky Branch, know that coal is never clean.

Escalating on campus is scary. We know it is going to be divisive. We know our Chancellor fundamentally disagrees with us. But not escalating is even scarier. Not escalating means Peabody continues to destroy communities and our climate. And that’s a risk we cannot take.

Let Wash U know that you stand with us by signing our petition here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dENBVTZMTkcwSUlvQU5JbDVQMnR3LXc6MA

Written by Caroline Burney, Senior at WashU

Die-in for Divestment at SIU-Carbondale

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A group of students and Carbondale residents staged a “die-in for divestment” on the steps of the Coal Research Center on the SIU Carbondale campus early in the morning on April 16.Die-vest #2

Protestors held a banner that read “Fossil Fuels are Killing Our Future,” and laid their bodies down on the steps of the building, blocking the entrance. Their aim was to draw attention to SIU’s institutional support for the coal industry, which is accelerating climate change, polluting water, air and soil, and destroying the lives of communities both in Southern Illinois and around the globe.

The action was in solidarity with the ongoing sit-in at Washington University, now in its eighth day.1

Students at Wash U in St. Louis are demanding their university cut ties with Peabody Energy, a St. Louis-based company and the largest coal company in the world. Peabody is currently expanding its strip mining operations in Southern Illinois, threatening the community of Rocky Branch, just south of Harrisburg.2

Residents of Rocky Branch have called for the support of activists and anyone opposed to the coal industry. The elderly residents are on the verge of having their homes destroyed by a strip-mining operation in their backyards. But they aren’t going without a fight. Judy Kellen, a 74-year-old Rocky Branch resident who has become a vocal opponent of Peabody, expressed her support for the Wash U sit-in. In a video-letter, Judy had this to say about so-called “clean coal”:

If all this scientific work that they do in trying to burn cleaner coal or whatever – if that were put into other forms of alternative fuel that would be so much better than what they’re doing right now. Because all they’re doing is putting a bandaid on a bad situation. And when you’ve got a deep cut, a band aid is not going to take care of it. And chancellor, it would be advantageous to the future if you would cut all ties with Peabody. And students, you’uns are doing exactly the right thing, what you’uns need to do, because as long as you stand and fight for your rights, then maybe people like Peabody can be brought to their knees where they will do things that are right for the future of the country, the future of the kids.3

Judy’s message hits home here in Carbondale, too. The Coal Research Center provides support for so-called “clean coal technology” – a contradiction in terms, as shown by the residents of West Virginia, Rocky Branch, and other frontline communities endangered by coal extraction. The problem with coal is not just the burning, but the very process of digging it out of the ground, which today involves not just dangerous mine-shafts, but also strip mining and mountain-top removal. These processes cannot be made “clean” – they must be stopped.

During the sit-in this morning, a worker at the Coal Research Center insisted to us that the center did not receive any private funding. This is not true. ComEd, owned by Exelon Corporation, granted the university $25 million dollars “to support clean coal programs and projects.” The Coal Research Center is devoted to supporting these projects and encouraging institutional research to produce new coal technologies.4 As state funding dries up for higher education, corporate funding, offered through grants and donations, plays a larger role in determining research projects. In other words: the kind of knowledge SIU is producing is skewed by the interests of corporations profiting from the destruction of the earth’s eco-systems – and the corresponding loss of human life.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force determined that fine particle pollution from existing coal plants was expected to cause 13,200 deaths that year, in addition to causing “an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year,” as “emissions continue to take a significant toll on the health and longevity of millions of Americans.”5 Further, “low income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted as well, die to the tendency of companies to avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities.”6 The coal industry has reaped huge profits, while poor people and people of color have had to deal with the pollution.

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People are dying, and the time to stop institutional support for fossil fuel research is now. We are in solidarity with the students of Wash U, the residents of Rocky Branch, and people all over who believe that another world is possible.

Shut down the Coal Research Center!

Divest from fossil fuels!

Corporations out of the University!

 

Notes

1. http://ecowatch.com/2014/04/16/washington-university-sit-in-peabody-coal/; see also this piece about previous convergence of activism and art at Wash U to push for fossil-free investment at the university: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/18947-student-artists-activists-aim-for-fossil-free-investment-at-washington-university
2. http://www.wsiltv.com/news/local/Justice-for-Rocky-Branch-Continues-Fight-Against-Mine-241558191.html; see also http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22835-two-log-jail-time-to-stop-logging-strip-mine-expansion-in-illinois
3. See Judy’s video letter here: http://www.vimeo.com/92105905; see also this short documentary, entitled “Judy’s Rock”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vR6iAaTVwQ
4. http://www.crc.siu.edu/ccrb/
5. http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/The_Toll_from_Coal.pdf
6. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Exelon

Report-back from the first SIU Debtors’ Assembly

Photos Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Photo Provided by Jake Haines Photography

By Strike Debt Carbondale

We held a Debtors’ Assembly on April 10 outside of the Student Center on Southern Illinois University campus. Inspired by Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, our only plan for the assembly was to come with some personal stories about how debt affects our lives and our visions for the future, and to invite others to share their own thoughts on these topics.

Speaking at the assembly, one organizer confessed that during the planning, he found himself at a loss as to what kind of “personal story” to share at the assembly.

So he called his mother.

Mom taught literature at a junior high school in rural Illinois for more than 20 years. She also raised two kids, with some financial help from grandma, a little from dad and a lot from loans.

Stress, mom said, is inseparable from debt. It weighs you down; you feel it in your neck and back. Debt impresses itself onto our lives and our bodies through stress. This is one of the ways debt limits and controls our actions, thoughts and desires. It changes us; we are less alive because of it.

The assembly against debt sparked recognition of that disciplinary function. We are wrapped in promises that are impossible to keep, owing our futures to banks whose power we abhor. The choice seems stark. Either we live out our lives as indentured servants, or we challenge the very principles that undergird this capitalist creditocracy.

“For me, what I like about this sort of collection – this collection of people that are also indebted – is that I can begin a transformation with myself and along with others to receive my debt as not a personal source of shame or guilt or embarrassment, but as a source of a sort of collective outrage,” said Philip Brewer, a graduate student studying philosophy. “I think that’s a really important emotion. That we need to be outraged at the creditor class that has fundamentally indentured thousands, millions of students. Our future has been erased.”

The university, an increasingly financialized capitalist institution, demands exorbitant tuition dollars from students while it sucks surplus value out of its workers. On average, graduate student workers at SIU pay more than two months of their salaries back to the university in fees. This means that even with a stipend, grad students often have to take out loans, promising to work in the future as a condition of going to work today.

Photos Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Photo Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Mitchel Morden, who helped coordinate the assembly, said he isn’t as directly afflicted by debt because he “sold his soul to Uncle Sam,” serving in the military, which paid him. But, Morden said, he understands the importance of consciousness raising and solidarity in the face of such a sweeping “systemic problem.”

The aim of the assembly was to create a space in which students could concretely understand the systemic problem of debt through sharing and listening, while at the same time creating a disruption in campus life: a moment when school is interrupted so some real learning might begin. Toward the end of our assembly, spirits were so high that we decided to do it again next week, and to bring more of our friends. Our hope is that a regular, public assembly held outdoors will seduce the shy and become a body out of which new relationships are formed across ages, disciplines and employments.

We think the time is ripe for a new round of student struggles, and the issue of debt needs to be front and center. The debt assembly is one tactic that we hope will contribute to a movement of students and teachers looking to one another, and taking both their lives and the university back from a class of creditors, administrators and corporate investors, whose capitalist logic has erased the very idea of education and foreclosed on our future.