Apartheid Divestment Panel Puts Activism in Context

On February 9, 2017, in LC 101, Fossil Free Yale alongside Yale Students for Prison Divestment came together to present a panel of alumni that participated in now infamous protests and demonstrations pushing for divestment from the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The panel consisted of four alumni: Jon Ritter (TC, ‘88), Matthew Countryman (BK, ‘86), Elizabeth Juliver (BK, ‘89), and Michael Morand (‘87), all members and contributors, organizers, and mobilizers that advocated for humane investments through the support of black and brown bodies and lives, over the hedonism of profit.

The 10-week strike of 1984 introduced the panelists to Yale. Local Unions 34/35, fighting for union recognition and contractual agreements, organized a series of consecutive pickets and demonstrations on Yale’s grounds. Rather than bask in the frivolous, over the top orientation ceremony, Countryman recalls crossing “the picket line.” Protests became part of their daily routine, wedged between classes and nested in the cracks between meals.

With the Reagan administration elected into office and the apartheid regime thriving in South Africa, the political climate was filled with the need for action even as it was drenched with intimidation. Many people across the nation had cast their ballot in support of a questionable candidate and neglected to acknowledge the nation’s investments in a racial caste system abroad. Yale, as Jon Ritter recalled, preached of the importance of light and truth. Yet, like the rest of the nation, its investments did not adhere to its own self-proclaimed principles, goals, and virtues.

Coalitions were built both inside and outside of the Yale bubble, highlighting the importance of diversifying a foundation’s movement, and acknowledging the importance the greater New Haven area held and still hold. Dining hall tables became political arenas with napkin dispensers communicating the meeting places for organizing and locations for the demonstrations for the week. Rallies and sit-ins were overcast with threats of suspension and the African American cultural house was the grounds for charting the fight for divestment. It wasn’t the apparent discontent with the political climate, Ritter stated, that created the relationships which would allow partial divestment to be realized. It wasn’t the rallies that developed the friendships. People didn’t know each other only because they signed petitions together. Instead, Ritter stressed, it was the “living room stuff. The talks over dinner. Having real relationships paid off.”

And pay off they did. On April 4th, the day of action, the student activists placed shanty towns on Beinecke plaza, sleeping in them in order to avoid their demolition. Yale’s facility workers chose to disregard the President’s orders to remove them from the grounds, referring to a contractual agreement that allowed them to do so. Morand noted that by tapping into the global platform that the institution possessed, divestment became a tactic to remind the nation of its own principles. Divestment was not a movement in and of itself, but rather a medium that destroyed “the piece that connected the whole world of Western Capitalism at the butcheress of South Africa.”

The similarities to the current situation that we find ourselves in in the year 2017 are uncanny. When we acknowledge the fact that history repeats itself, we can emulate the tactics implemented by previous graduating classes. As Yale Students for Prison Divestment’s Joseph Gaylin stated in his parting remarks, we face a negligent administration, and are burnt out by the political mobilization of the past year. We must acknowledge that divestment from fossil fuels is not the end goal, but rather the beginning of resistance and revolution towards a more humane future.

Elizabeth Juliver closed with a metaphor to help frame the minds of all who attended: “It’s a strong wind out there right now. Hold up a sail with a name on it and people will come. Find people and other causes with a sail in the wind and can act and you’ll have a fleet…” With the winds of Grace Hopper and the fight for the overturn of an immigration ban, our sails will carry us forward.