Josephine Steuer Ingall had no idea what to expect when she ran onto the Yale football field a year ago today. As kickers were warming up for the second half, the Yale student activist and freshman wondered if the protest she had helped plan for weeks would actually succeed.
“I was like, there’s absolutely no way this is going to work,” Ingall told Deadspin.
Jordi Bertrán, another Yale student activist and freshman, was by her side.
“I have to say that I mirrored the feelings of dread,” he said. “Part of me was scared. What if no one comes down with us?” He wondered.
In a matter of minutes, both would be proven wrong.
I was there too, by happenstance. I drove up I-95 that morning with my dad to meet my grandfather, a Yale alum. We got to the Yale Bowl a little before noon expecting a football game. We got that… and something else entirely.
When we saw folks from the student section storm the field at halftime, we were some of thousands of spectators trying to figure out what was going on.
We learned pretty quickly that this wasn’t a special halftime show.
Student activists had begun a demonstration that took over a month to plan. They stormed the football field in front of a national TV audience and thousands of alumni. The activists called for both universities to divest from fossil fuels and cancel Puerto Rican debt holdings.
“The idea for this action arose out of the basic argument that if it’s wrong to destroy the planet, it’s wrong to invest in that destruction,” Connor Chung, a sophomore at Harvard and member of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, told Deadspin. “If our planet is on fire, our most powerful institutions shouldn’t be standing with the arsonists.”
So Harvard and Yale students sat.
And when more students joined the demonstration, ESPN promptly cut away from the game, pivoting to studio programming.
But students in 2019 didn’t need ESPN to get their message across. The protest was the No. 1 trending story on Twitter, and quickly made headlines around the world. Even right-wing media loved to talk about it!
“I found it hilarious that Fox News ran a bunch of segments about how no one listened [to us] and [the demonstration] was ineffective. And yet they talked about it for four days straight,” Chung said.
On the field, an estimated 500 students sat together around the 50-yard line for an hour. As a result, the game was pushed back and both teams played two overtimes in twilight. Yale won, but few will remember that, and that’s probably not why you’re reading this.
The message student activists wanted to send was simple, Bertrán said. “When Harvard and Yale are complicit in the climate crisis, nobody wins.”
It was a message supported by both the Harvard and Yale football teams.
But the alumni were not happy.
A chorus of boo’s reverberated throughout the Yale Bowl. I saw fans throw drinks on the field, and swear at teenagers and twenty-somethings who had the audacity to fight for a better future and livable planet.
The students were perceived by many, predictably, as elite liberals who claimed victimhood and gave unrealistic fiscal demands to two schools with insane endowments. But that’s obviously not what the activists intended.
“We were really trying to be thoughtful about presenting ourselves, not as the victims, but as people empowered to make change by merit of our privilege,” Ingall said.
Still, the fans in the stands were not happy with their football game being temporarily taken away from them.
Bertrán remembers getting escorted off the field, with Ingall, by police. On their way out, Bertrán said alums cursed them out, flipped them off, and “spit at us.”
“It was such a weird balance between feeling such immense joy at a collective movement and feeling such sadness over a community that was meant to be mine that I had just joined,” the freshman thought at the time. “I mean, we had just been at university for what, two-and-a-half months? And we felt like we were joining a new world, but simultaneously felt so shut out for speaking on what we thought was vital.”
That hostility was partially expected, according to Chung.
“One of the reasons why we were kind of nervous about this work is because there is a certain Ivy League mindset of, ‘oh, let’s just change systems incrementally, bit-by-bit by asking nicely.’ That’s something that shapes a lot of discussion around things like climate at these institutions.”
Instead, demonstrators wanted to send a clear message directly to both institutions and their alumni base — the status quo cannot continue.
But, one year later, it is. Neither school has divested from fossil fuels, but both Ivy’s are making some progress under student pressure.
“Harvard brags about having the smartest faculty in the world,” the Crimson activist told me. “Now they’re on record as supporting divestment.” And in August, pro-divest candidates won three seats on the Harvard Board of Overseers,
At Yale, the student government is actively polling undergrads about their opinions regarding divestment. But, according to Ingall, the school “dumped it’s holdings in distressed Puerto Rican debt.” A major blow to student activists and other groups on campus.
The three students I spoke to were not one of the many activists cited for disorderly conduct at the Yale Bowl. One student I spoke to says the citations were “quite random.” But for the students who were cited, charges were annulled in January after protestors completed five hours of community service in New Haven, Connecticut.
During the course of this reporting, Deadspin reached out to Harvard and Yale to give the schools an opportunity to comment on the student demands made last year.
Harvard pointed us to a statement from “roughly a year ago” that “holds true today.” In it, Harvard writes;
The commitments made in Harvard’s Climate Action Plan explicitly recognize what the science has made clear: the world must move quickly to end its use of fossil fuels. While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree that divestment is the means by which a university should confront it. Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions.
As it has done for well over a decade, the University will continue to support its faculty, students and staff as they pursue a range of innovative and ambitious efforts to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable sources of energy and to help mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change that are already being realized.
And Harvard Management Company, which manages the University’s endowment, engages directly with companies to address issues related to climate change through its work with the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and the Climate Action 100+.
A university spokesperson also directed us to a recent message from Harvard President, Lawrence Bacow, about climate change. In it, Bacow says that the school’s endowment will go greenhouse gas-neutral by 2050.
Yale sent us this statement from last month, announcing a new committee “to guide the university as it evaluates its investment policies in relation to companies producing fossil fuels.”
Deadspin also gave Yale the opportunity to comment on Puerto Rican debt holdings. The spokesperson did not comment.
Updated on Monday, November 23, 2020 at 8:54 p.m.: After the story was published Monday evening, Yale sent Deadspin this statement from the Yale’s Investment Office on Puerto Rican debt.
Despite some signs of progress, the students I spoke to are not willing to concede their demands for incremental change.
“The common strategy that administration uses [when] faced with things like activism is to ignore and wait it out,” Chung says. “I think that’s unfortunate because as much as a lot of us have problems with our institutions, a lot of us are also proud to be part of that community. I think what this [protest] showed to members of the community administration, to alumni, and so on, is that the divestment movement isn’t going away.”