Why I risked arrest for divestment
As a Masters student with a squeaky clean record and parents who don’t want to see me getting into trouble, the concept of getting arrested for a political purpose was pretty scary and anxiety-triggering for me.
It may seem crazy to some that I decided to put myself at risk, but three years in, we came to a point in our campaign where we realised that our voices were being ignored and sidelined by our University administration. We needed to take bold action in order for the University to realise that we meant business. Climate change is a critical global emergency, and we need to act with urgency.
At 6:55am on Wednesday morning, we huddled together in our makeshift campsite just 20 metres from the uni’s admin building, under the watchful eyes of a campus security guard. We psyched ourselves up for the lock-on that we had been been planning for six months.
For most of us, this was the first time that we would put ourselves in arrestable positions. Were understandably nervous.
Our security liaison Anisa went to distract the security guard, we were given the signal, and we went for it. Three barrels went down in front of entrance doors, arms locked together, and quick-set concrete was poured in so that the barrels could not be moved. Ten people sat on the steps in front of two additional doors to seal off all non-emergency exits (this building has a lot of doors, but we left two fire-exits free). We were locking in and I felt a wave of relief and exhilaration that the plan had actually worked.
Around 8 am, staff started turning up. Many were supportive, most seemed bemused, and a few were clearly upset and let us know about it.
We intended for this to be a disruptive action. It’s unfortunate that some staff members’ days were caught in the middle of our plans, but climate change will be more disruptive than shutting down a university building for a day. It’s already disrupting people’s lives – bushfires, floods, coral bleaching, losing Pacific islands – the impacts of climate change are serious and urgent and we need to treat them as such.
Given the extreme circumstances, we can’t afford to be scared of disrupting a few people’s days when institutions like Melbourne Uni are contributing to a fossil-fuel driven economic system that is disrupting people’s lives today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
At around 1 pm the police came and inspected our protest. They told us that we risked arrest for besetting (blocking all the entrances of a building) and trespassing. Earlier in the day, a university representative told us that we risked expulsion. We stayed strong. We knew that a future with a safe climate was worth a future with a criminal record. The police never came back.
At 6pm, a small group of university representatives came down to meet with our negotiation team. They wanted us to unlock and pack up the camp. For this, they were offering a two-hour meeting with Robert Johanson, a university council member and Chairman and Independent Director of Bendigo Bank (a bank that has divested from coal and coal seam gas) and Allan Tait, our Chief Financial Officer. After presenting our case to them, they will present the case for divestment to the University Council.
We discussed the offer amongst ourselves and added a few stipulations to the agreement, including greater transparency about the sustainability plan and the right to keep a stall opposite the Raymond Priestley building for the next 2 days, and gave them a call.
At 11pm, the negotiations were finalised, and we unlocked our chains and packed up the camp.
I still can’t believe that 16 strategically-placed students and three barrels shut down the admin building for a day, AND that we weren’t arrested! Apart from access to the University Council, the protest was a massive public-engagement success. Dozens of people stopped by throughout the day to give us messages of encouragement, and we got hundreds of people to sign onto our petition. I’m so excited that there are people on campus that will be inspired to join us in the fight for climate justice.
This action showed the University our power and made them realise that they could no longer ignore us. I have always supported the uni’s upcoming Sustainability Plan, but felt disheartened that they didn’t mention divestment in the preceding Sustainability Charter. I’m now confident that the University will have an incredibly difficult time omitting divestment from the Sustainability Plan.
The University administration know that we can disrupt them in a major way if they try to discount our voices again. At over 4000 people, our supporters are not a silent minority of the University community. We are a loud and passionate bunch and we have just grown stronger.
By Jesse Kalic