[Don't forget this when you're done reading: Come to the General Assembly on Friday at 4 PM in the Warner Hemicycle]
Opening Statement – Molly Stuart, Jay Saper, Jenny Marks, Amitai Ben-Abba, Sam Koplinka-Loehr
Hello, Friends and Community Members. We are the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee. We have been asked to discuss our activism from October. We’d like to start with a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone. He said “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” We appreciate being heard together, as a group of students who have worked in a deliberative and consensus based process to do our part in honoring the words of the Dalai Lama. Every word of our press release, coming clean letter, and testimony was written collectively. Thank you for being here to bear witness to our story and the testimonies of people who support the Middlebury community as it seeks a higher level of moral integrity.
The 21st Century has begun with war. The 21st Century foreshadows the planet’s demise. Thus far, the 21st Century is not the century of peace. If we all won’t “be the change we wish to see in the world,” Gandhi’s words, who will? We cannot trust corporations to create the world we want to see. At this point we must stand up for our values as a community, choose to put our corporate interests behind, and do what is right. Bureaucracy is not a shelter for our hypocrisy. There comes a point in life when you must take a stand and do the right thing. At this point, neutrality is atrocious.
We must begin with an explanation. A great effort has been made by the administrators we’ve met with to ensure that we separate the issues we have raised from the method of our action. In this hearing, the college would like us to talk only about the alleged policy violations, while sifting out all of the content of our message. Respectfully, we deny this request, as we cannot separate our method from our message.
The college may well ask: “Why a press release? Why direct action? Why not straightforward negotiation?” As Martin Luther King Jr. responded to those who asked similar questions regarding his marches in Birmingham, “Indeed this is the very purpose of direct action: to foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue [...] so that it can no longer be ignored.” And so, you see, our method is inextricably bound to our message. We feel that the call to divestment is urgent. We believe that our method was successful in nonviolently and constructively creating a situation in which the nature of our endowment can no longer be ignored. Tension is necessary for growth. We have seen negotiation stalled for many years now. And so, we stand by our method, and we hope that it will provide the gust of wind necessary to open the doors to swift negotiation.
Furthermore, we would like to make clear that we do not identify as an “us” fighting a “them,” but rather that we are part of the Middlebury community, equally responsible for the implications of our endowment. It is true, in fact, that much of our inspiration for our action we learned right here in conversations and classrooms at Middlebury.
In one of our classes, for example, we read Paulo Freire’s statement that, ”education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” We have been incredibly fortunate to experience an education at Middlebury that is aligned with the latter- with the practice of freedom. We believe that when education truly is a practice of freedom, it necessitates transformation not only on the part of the student, but also on the part of the institution. We must all be freed from the limitations of our minds; from the imaginary boundaries that keep us from moving forward. Just as our professors create tensions in our minds that allow us to break the shackles of ignorance to facilitate critical thought, we hope that our action can create the tension necessary to break the shackles of secrecy and lift the shroud off our endowment.
Middlebury was founded in 1800, two hundred and twelve years ago. This year marks the 212th year of our college valuing profit over people. Maya Angelou reminds us that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” We cannot unlive Middlebury’s history, but we can write its future. Unfortunately, two hundred and twelve years is a very long time, and after so long, the college administration may find the change we are asking for difficult to prioritize. Like King said, privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily, and this college certainly benefits from our current endowment. Two hundred twelve, though, is also the temperature at which water turns into steam–the point at which water transforms into a new state and rises up into the air. Two hundred and twelve years, and we are ready to rise up. Almost fifty years ago, King taught us about the “fierce urgency of Now.” In response to those who asked him to wait for change he said, “this is no time to engage in the luxury of the cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
We no longer have the luxury of cooling off as our planet continues to heat up. We no longer have the luxury of cooling off when this year marked record temperatures, Arctic ice melt, and drought around the world. We no longer have the luxury of cooling off when our seas are churning with Sandy, Irene, and the next “century” hurricane. What more immediate sirens are needed to make us see that we cannot wait to stop funding climate change? We have committed to “carbon neutrality,” and yet our endowment remains invested in big oil. Two hundred twelve years is too long. We ask the college community, will we continue to drown in the waters of complacency or will this year be the one when we finally rise up?
Like those who asked King to wait for equality, Middlebury has asked time and time again to wait for divestment. For years now, we have been told that we must be patient, that our finances are complicated, that we must do more research. We have been told that divestment is unrealistic, unprofitable, and even impossible. With all due respect, we humbly dissent. Divestment is not only possible, but it is inevitable. If Middlebury is to adhere to our own proclaimed values, we have no other option. We hope that, given the circumstances, you can understand our impatience. The truthfulness of possibility has long been suppressed. It has taken time and energy to see through the falsehoods that protect the status quo and allow Middlebury to pursue its unethical corporate interests. Years of negotiation and dialogue between students and administration have resulted in little change. Jay and Sam joined the Socially Responsible Investment Club in their first year here at Middlebury; they are now seniors. They have seen their peers graduate every year with goals unmet and hours of hard work undelivered. And so, we hope you will understand the intention of our action. As students who are weary of waiting, we acted upon our moral beliefs to bring attention to divestment as it must be seen: as an urgent necessity.
The truth is, not only is divestment from destructive industries possible, but it is already being done. In 2009, Hampshire college sold the stock of one of its endowment funds after determining the fund had investments in over 200 companies that violated the college’s “socially responsible investing” policies, including investments in arms manufacturers. The fund represented one quarter of their endowment. Hampshire has also divested from Northrop Grumman, one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world, which makes missiles, combat jets, and attack helicopters. Hampshire is not alone, over 30 universities across the country have launched divestment initiatives. We are calling on Middlebury to be a leader among universities around the world in creating a century of peace.
We recognize that divestment is not simple. When we finally honestly commit to divestment, we will have to consider many difficult technical and philosophical questions: What qualifies as an industry of violence? Microsoft is essential in the manufacturing of Predator Drones. Building dams around the globe is a so-called sustainable energy source, but while it may not put carbon in the air, it puts people out of their homes. Ask Sam, he’s writing a thesis about it. The discussion of these complexities has to be held. In our coming clean letter, and in person, we invited the administration to further this dialogue. It is unfortunate that we are spending much time and energy on the nuances of our disciplinary charges instead of the nuances of divestment. As we address these charges, let us remember that this action served a function far beyond the implications for the five of us individuals.
The first charge is that we have violated the handbook policy of “communicating with integrity and honesty.” It must be made clear that the “coming clean” letter, on which we signed our names and honestly communicated our concerns, was drafted before we sent out the initial press release, which the evidence will show. This exemplifies that our intention was never to deceive the Middlebury community or to communicate a falsity, but rather to shine a light on the honest truth about our endowment. The coming clean letter was also published very soon after the initial press release, leaving little time for confusion. The names “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee” and “Tim Schornak” were made up for the purpose of satire. The use of the email address and the phone number were tools for achieving the believability of the press release for a very short time period. In fact, no school day passed between our press release announcement and our coming clean letter. Our intention with both press release and coming clean letter was not to create more deception but rather to cut through the deception of our college and its investments. As the Dalai Lama has stated, “The purpose of education is to reduce the gap between appearances and reality.” It is out of respect for liberal arts education that we align our Middlebury with the Dalai Lama’s intentions. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education points out, the charge of violating honesty and integrity must be discounted in terms of moral culpability in light of our subsequent ownership of responsibility.
We would also like to ask the college how it defines communicating with integrity and honesty. For years, students have asked administrators to see the College’s investment portfolio and have been denied any transparency. We find it ironic that the college can easily access our email inboxes without our consent or knowledge, while we have zero access to our portfolio.
We have also been charged with sending a mass email which was deemed “unwarranted” or which “created a public nuisance.” As we have conveyed, we feel that our actions are completely warranted given the urgent nature of the issues at hand. We also feel that the charge of creating a public nuisance might be another name for the previously mentioned moral tension that we feel is necessary to bring about change. For this we do not apologize. Please remember that last year dozens of unwarranted and unapproved all emails from students participating in “The Hunt” filled our inboxes without any disciplinary implications. Now, because the content of our email challenged the status quo, the administration has chosen to take selectively repressive judicial action.
We have also drawn inspiration from those in history who sought to change unethical practices, and have been suppressed for their actions. The US Government called Abolitionist publications “unwarranted” in the 1850s, burning them in an attempt to control the thought of the American public. Charges that our coming clean letter and press release are “unwarranted” attempt to suppress resistance to unethical practices.
We believe that the dialogue that has swelled up in light of our actions has been incredibly constructive and empowering for our community. Any nuisance that our press release created has been superseded by the positive platform for dialogue that it created. If there are people who have been inconvenienced or harmed by our action, we would be very interested in hearing from them personally and giving our apology. Such honest disclosure would be welcome. It was out of respect for the intellect of our fellow community members that we provided a satire from which to engage these issues. Last Friday we held a general assembly for students to share reactions, ask questions, and continue the conversation. There will be a similar forum, to which we invite all of you, tomorrow.
We would also like to address the technicalities of the electronic charge. We in no way falsified our identity to gain use of computers, nor did we send emails under a false address. The Gmail addresses we used are completely legal and have no connection to the Middlebury server. We also did not send emails to all students, all staff, or all faculty. As confirmed by LIS representatives, we sent the message to only two-thirds of the student body. Our message was warranted to send out to the entire campus, but an all-campus email was not sent. This being part of our charges, despite our complainant’s evidence to the contrary, illustrates the political nature of this case, highlighting even more so why these words are so warranted. In fact, warranted is defined: “justified or necessitated for a certain course of action.”
Dean Collado just presented her own narrative of what happened. The refusal to talk about the political nature of our charges, undermines the importance of the issue in question. The issue of the destruction of human beings and earth. Personal testimonies that we submitted on behalf of community members as evidence to how our email was warranted, were rejected and the board has no access to them. We would like to remind Dean Collado and the entire community of Desmond Tutu’s words:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Dean Collado quotes Vermont Law. Clearly, we did not access any Middlebury College computer, computer system, or computer network. We sent the warranted email from Gmail accounts off the Middlebury server, and the Constitution of the United States protects our right for the freedom of protest and satire. The whole clause is irrelevant in view of the evidence submitted by LIS. Our own legal sources supporting our action on legal fronts were rejected before we even had access to Dean Collado’s statement. We hope the board is still able to review our case in “fundamental fairness” in light of already biased access to evidence.
Middlebury students have acted as global citizens for many years. Our friend Abigail Borah courageously interrupted the UN Climate Change Conference and spoke for the USA when she felt her voice wasn’t being adequately represented. Her interruption effectively challenged the State Department to acknowledge its lack of urgency and proved that putting pressure on our leaders compels them to represent our values. In this case, we also feel there are unrepresented voices that desperately need our attention. Our fellow students dressed in red and put tape over their mouths today in order to expose the lack of free speech on our campus and represent the voices that are silenced here today. People around the world are calling for divestment. We are witnesses to them. How can we honor Abigail Borah while fueling the corporations she stood up against?
Our actions are a continuation of previous actions against the corporatism that has captured power on this campus. Last semester, the four of us who were at Middlebury organized a satirical action to draw the attention of the Board of Trustees to our unethical investments. We sat outside Old Chapel pretending to be board members and passed our own resolutions for divestment. We saw first hand the effectiveness of satire and creativity in starting constructive dialogue and empowering student voices when board members spoke with us at great length about our action. The Board of Trustees and Administration, however, continue to act against the values of our community, every day making money from violence.
In this latest action, we were influenced by the Yes Men, a group of political performance artists who sent a press release and held a press conference posing as representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce. They declared the Chamber would reverse their climate change policy for a more ecologically sustainable America. The Chamber publicly denied the shift, which drew attention to how they value profit over the planet. Remarkably, the Chamber did change their climate policies just two weeks after the action. Learning from the Yes Men, political satire that calls out ethical dissonance requires engaging the larger community. For this purpose, we reached out to media sources with our press release and coming clean letter to provide an avenue for wider social criticism. As the evidence shows, divestment from corporate destruction is what we as a college community value, so let us now put this into practice. It is not only a matter of calling out hypocrisy, but rather providing a tremendous opportunity for us all to collectively grow. In the words of one student responding to our action,
“I received the email from the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee and had never felt so proud of Middlebury. It inspired me. I forwarded it to my parents and family friends, with the hope that Middlebury College would act as a role model and encourage them to follow in its path. I received an email back almost immediately from a family friend who stated that she was so inspired by Middlebury’s actions that she had decided to look over her portfolio to make changes inspired by the email.”
In 1928, two people at Middlebury invented Teargas in the hall across the street from where we are now. In the past year, from Oakland to Montreal to Bahrain, Teargas has been used by police and military forces against non-violent demonstrators, killing dozens of people who were standing up for their rights. Amitai has felt the implications himself: [partially improvised spoken word piece … some snippets included]
“I’m in a cloud of tear gas in the village Nabi Saleh protesting Israeli occupation and apartheid
This is December 2011, a week earlier Mustafa Tamimi was killed on this same spot by a teargas canister shot directly at him
It hit him in the eye and ricocheted from his face and made that terrible buzz that it does when it shoots out the gas…
[Exemplification of symptoms of tear gas]
…‘we have become slaves of money’ he said, slaves of money blind to the river of tears of unarmed Palestinian protesters.”
90 years after our campus provided the intellectual seed funds for teargas and the military industrial complex, we say no longer. Not in our name. Jay and Sam have been fasting for three days in solidarity with people who are resisting violence around the globe; those most directly affected by the atrocities our endowment contributes towards. Their voices are not present in our hearing, but we want to ensure that their agency and dignity is honored. Regardless of the outcome of this hearing, our solidarity remains strong. We continue to fast until Middlebury commits to supporting life, bolstering the reputation of this incredible school we all love and contributing towards a more peaceful world.
The Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee’s actions are part of a large cycle of critical engagement with our educational institution and with our world. Individually and collectively, we have spent a great deal of time reflecting on the effects of our activism. We see the value in debating process and deliberating over tactics. Thus, it was only after careful consideration that we chose our course. Given the urgency of the causes for which we advocate, we believe our actions were justified. Further, we believe our actions have benefited Middlebury College. We were motivated by a strong desire to bring our college out of a terrible complacency in which our collective integrity and ethics have been compromised. We hope you will understand how ironic it is to us that our efforts are on trial while the hypocrisy we seek to expose remains protected.
In working for abolition, Frederick Douglas asked, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” We now ask, what to the people resisting TransCanada’s use of eminent domain to seize their lands and build Keystone XL is Hillcrest’s LEED platinum certification? What are our new solar panels to those who never see the sun because guns have taken their lives? What good is a house called Self-Reliance, when the only land you ever lived on is being taken at gunpoint? Guns that were made by US manufacturers, and supported by the endowments of institutions across the United States. We invite the Dalai Lama to speak to us of peace, but our administration is financially invested in the military-industrial complex responsible for much of the terrible violence around the planet.
We applaud the many actions of the College towards sustainability. We are proud of LEED certification, inspired by the solar collectors, and are fueled by the passion of the Solar Decathlon team. Yet, our administration keeps secret our policy of investing in industries that subvert these student efforts. It is a shame that our fund managers begin their meetings by saying divestment is off the table, instead of asking how they can better align their investment strategy with our professed values and the amazing efforts of our student body. We as a community ought to align our actions with our values and honor the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who said here at Middlebury, “the purpose of education is to reduce the gap between appearances and reality. Listen to different views – contradictory views.”
Our complicity in sources of violence and environmental destruction has on-the-ground implications every day. Heavy investment in the fossil fuel giants of our world has implications for climate change, human health, and the environment that reach far beyond Middlebury. Jenny is speaking to you all from New Orleans, a city where the impact of big oil is hard to miss. Just the other day, news came out that the trial for the 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf has been postponed for another year. The worst oil spill the US has ever faced is still turning up thousands of mutated fish, and creating health problems for countless local residents. And yet, another delay tactic has been put in place to stall justice. New Orleans is also adjacent to Cancer Alley, where oil refineries are accountable for a cancer rate that is through the roof. Fifteen cancer victims within two blocks, women who have had ten miscarriages. Armament manufacturers do not only fuel violence overseas, they also put guns in the hands of teenagers here in the United States. Just last week, a man who lived across the street from me shot and killed 9 people. While of course we cannot directly connect our endowment to these problems, we can confidently say that if Middlebury is invested in BP and Shell, we are extremely far from being “carbon neutral.” If Middlebury is invested in the company that manufactured the weapon used last week in the lower 9th ward, we are not working towards creating “the century of peace.”
If Middlebury truly seeks to educate “independent thinkers…with the courage to follow their convictions” as the college website indicates, then it makes no sense to discipline us for exemplifying just that. If we want Middlebury’s legacy in the world to be that of an agent of positive change, the whole community must take responsibility and encourage each other to seek greater truth. We are committed to moving forward with these principles in mind.
Principles Frederick Douglass outlined when he said “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Update on the verdict:
Here it is: We were found guilty of violating the community standards of integrity and honesty, and the ethical and law-abiding behavior clause. We were given a reprimand, meaning unofficial college discipline. They said this is mostly due to respect for individuals who might have been offended by our actions or to whom our actions were a nuisance.
We told them we respect the experiences of all individuals who were offended by our actions, and that we are willing to validate their feelings in person. We also expressed that we found their decision ethically wrong because it disrespects the victims of our endowment, those who are dealing with war rather than a judicial board. Finding us guilty comes from an osmosis of their authoritative positions, rather than their basic human judgment. We additionally noted that while we don’t agree with the role of the judicial board, we don’t question them as individuals and hope to engage with them in the future. We also invited them to the general assembly on Friday at 4 pm in the Warner Hemicycle. Then they said they think we are valuable members of the community, and that we should continue with our activism. Some board members said they were personally inspired.
We are deeply moved by the many community members who supported us from the beginning, and to those who expressed a reversal in opinion post-trial that allowed them to question their fears and biases toward authority.