Student protesters dissatisfied with the University of Michigan lagging behind its peers in tackling climate change now face criminal charges, despite assurances from the university that no charges would be filed.
“Protest has always been a strong part of the U of M community, and they are selective about who they choose to arrest or not arrest,” student activist Hoai An Pham told Grit Post. “It is disappointing that they chose to follow through with arrest, particularly because the climate strike has been youth-led, and hundreds of children attended and planned our climate strike. The message that the university is sending to these children is that speaking up and fighting for your rights should be punished.”
Protest has a long and storied history nationwide, but particularly in Michigan. It was students at St. Clair County Community College who framed the seminal work of the modern progressive movement with the Port Huron Statement in 1962.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that a young and engaged college population would take up protest again, and makes the response found in the state that gave the world the Port Huron Statement all the more disappointing to U of M students.
University of Michigan Climate Strike and Following Protests
As part of a global student climate protest held March 15, demonstrators gathered in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the main campus of U of M. Several protesters staged a sit-in in the campus’ Fleming Administration Building, demanding the university set a date for a public question-and-answer session on what U of M was doing to address climate change.
The protesters were given a warning for trespassing, questioned, and forced to leave the facility. Protesters were told they would be notified in two weeks if charges were going to be filed.
The event itself was major, and featured students, community members and even former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and rising progressive star Abdul el-Sayed.
Protests continued in the form of sit-ins long into April and college press was critical of the university’s response. Eventually, the public meeting protesters sought was held at which university president Mark S. Schlissel welcomed input from those more versed in climate change than he.
“I can certainly say the advocacy significantly by students around the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate change is coming through loud and clear, and I want to spend this hour really listening to you and hearing directly from you,” he said. “I do not pretend to be an expert on climate change and global warming and greenhouse gases — I’m a biologist and a medical doctor and I’m responsible for making the best decisions I can on behalf of our community.”
The story did not end at this meeting.
Following graduation May 4 — well after the point protesters would be notified of criminal charges (March 30) — the first summons for an arraignment on charges stemming from these protests was received on May 22.
“It is disappointing to us that UM has taken stronger action in pressing charges than in what our main focus is, which is actual, tangible action on climate justice,” said Pham.
Charges for Climate Change Protesters
Formal trespassing charges coming almost two full months after students were told to expect charges was more than just an unwelcome surprise. The summonses began arriving two weeks into the summer recess, which had a real impact on students whose determinant residence is not Ann Arbor.
For some protesters, the highly unusual lag time between incident and filing charges — and the fact that those charges were filed at such a time as to make several students return from out of state to be arraigned — made the act seem deliberately timed.
“This kind of retaliation against activists is an embarrassing sign of the lengths that U-M is willing to go to to resist the pressure to adopt effective climate mitigation practices,” said one of the protesters facing charges.
Ten total people were arrested at the March 15 protest. Of those ten, two minors were not charged. The remaining eight consisted of six students or employees and two community members not affiliated with the university directly. One minor and one community member are banned from the Fleming building for a year. It is unclear why their charges are different. The protesters are represented by Angie Martell, managing partner of holistic law firm Iglesia Martell.
The eight charged pleaded not guilty as a crowd of students, politicians and community members turned out to show their support.
Pham said that protests must continue despite the chilling effect of these charges. While she couldn’t specify particular future protests, despite the rising tensions between the university and its students Pham was certain activism would continue.
“Pressing charges is a clear way to silence students and could certainly play the role of deterring future organizers,” she said. “People are dying, cities are flooding, and the quality of life for people has been reduced. We don’t often talk about climate change as having a big impact now, because the reality is that most of this impact has been faced by marginalized people who are not often given platforms. Our house is not just burning in the future: our house is on fire now.”
And that silencing effect goes far beyond climate, and far beyond Ann Arbor.
The War on College Protest
The situation unfolding at the University of Michigan is arguably a symptom of a fight that has nothing to do with climate and everything to do with student voice.
Since students at the University of California at Berkeley squared off against conservative provocateur, internet troll, and rape and pedophilia apologist Milo Yiannopoulos (who is banned from Australia), a conversation has played out about what, exactly, free speech means on college campuses. What ideologies get free expression rights and what ones don’t has become a bitter battle.
Michigan’s Republican legislature is weighing in with a proposal to allow any speaker to be hosted on a campus and would criminalize any protest of that speaker. Interestingly, U of M opposed this proposed legislation on the grounds that criminalizing protest curtails the freedom of speech.
The University of Wisconsin system can expel students for protesting speakers.
There can be reasons to limit speech on campuses, but limiting protest to protect speech is a fundamentally misguided approach that only serves to diminish the power speech can have when united.
And in fairness, the fact that free speech cuts both for and against any given cause has created some problems with how speech is perceived, both on and off campuses nationwide. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, drafted a harsh policy that could expel students for “disrupting” the free expression of other students. As such, some argue that a free speech is in no way endangered on college campuses. But the reality is a tangled web where protest is often characterized as antithetical to free speech, and not an inextricable part of it.
But the spirit of punishing protest moves beyond public speakers and into simply protesting on subjects universities don’t like. As happened with the climate protests at U of M, students at Macalester College in Minnesota were punished for blocking access to a building in a divestment protest.
In this case it was a protest called Kick Wells-Fargo Off Campus. The students who took part in the unsuccessful effort were prohibited from holding student leadership positions, participation in fine arts programs, studying abroad or receiving internships.
“We really feel like the purpose of this was to punish us not for breaking a rule, but to deter student activism and send a message to people that nonviolent protests are not welcome at Macalester anymore,” said a Macalester student, Rebecca Hornstein.
Hornstein’s concern echoes Pham’s — that universities are seeking to silence speech they find problematic. And that trend isn’t limited to just two schools. The University of Arizona could jail students protesting at the border, for instance.
Where Climate and Speech Collide
“While the length of time it took to charge people was unusual, U of M unfortunately has not had the best history of responding to student activism,” said Pham. “Given the reputation of U of M as being liberal, and the best public university in the country, however, we would like for it to live up to this name by caring for its students and community.”
Over a half century of time, and a scant few dozen miles, stand between Pham and the Port Huron Statement. And while its worth mentioning that the history of crackdowns on college protests lasts as long and is as storied as the history of the protests themselves, it also is worth mentioning that though U of M has resisted addressing climate change, many universities haven’t.
“Arresting people who are pushing for climate justice at the same time that our university is directly invested in fossil fuels and only has taken preliminary measures towards carbon neutrality seems to be counter to their mission of advocating for their students and the surrounding community,” Pham said. “This kind of retaliation against activists, two months after the actual climate strike, is positioning itself as an unfortunate sign of the lengths that U-M is willing to go to to resist the pressure to adopt effective climate mitigation practices for climate issues that already exist today.”
Pham called on U of M to use its enormous political power as one of the top — the primer, in her words — public universities in America to address issues like clean water, indigenous rights and climate change, all of which are problems for the country as a whole but also uniquely Michigander in some respects. Instead, that power is punishing students for protesting.
With all the university could do, what it is doing can seem a waste of time on a petty squabble. After all, as Pham said, the house is already on fire.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.