Why I’m Occupying a Building at Columbia: Love, Power, and Climate Justice

by Iliana Salazar-Dodge

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I am currently occupying Low Library, the administrative headquarters of Columbia University, with six other students. I have been here for eight days. We are here in the hopes that Columbia will finally agree to divest from coal, oil, and natural gas. Before I express my thoughts on what is happening here, I want to offer my sincerest gratitude to the people who have shown us an immense amount of support. Organizers, friends, allies, moms, professors, strangers — all of you have helped by donating food, emailing President Bollinger (bit.ly/floodprezbo), signing petitions, cheering outside the windows, sending notes of solidarity, waving at us from afar, and more. Every effort counts and means a lot to us.

On Reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On the second day of the occupation, I stared out of the southwest window and tried to absorb what little sunshine I could from that spring day. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness, a bitterness, towards my peers and friends who knew that we were locked in Low. They silently commended us for it, yet continually passed us by.

On the third night of the occupation, the seven of us read aloud Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. For obvious reasons, it would be inappropriate to compare our situation to that of King’s; however, I can’t deny that his powerful words resonated with me. In his letter, King says “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.”

For King, the white moderate is a person who offers lukewarm support to people who fight against injustice. Such a person delays justice and upholds order because their aversion to rocking the boat outweighs their commitment to what they know to be right.

Reading King’s letter helped me understand where my bitterness was stemming from; I felt betrayed by those who cared but didn’t care enough about the atrocities perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry.

Reason versus Hope

I came to the conclusion that pointing fingers at “white moderates” is futile and unnecessary. Still, I started to wonder about what made me, specifically, willing to face academic and legal consequences in order to demand divestment.

I wondered why one of the campaign co-founders, also one of my closest friends, was not inside with me. I knew that she cared deeply about the cause and that she wanted a just world more than anything. Yet, she and I have had multiple debates about what’s politically feasible, what activism can accomplish. In contrast, another friend who has never directly organized for divestment, was sitting next to me and was willing to stay as long as necessary in order to achieve our demand. One night in Low, she repeated a quote from Shia Labeouf: “Don’t let dreams be dreams.” At that point, I just lost it. It didn’t make sense to me at all. I couldn’t understand why she was still occupying the building, why she hadn’t just walked away when we received warning after warning from the Rules Administrator. Why did she have so much faith in what we could accomplish? Why did she have such high hopes for a better world?

People have asked us multiple times to express why we are sitting in. This question baffles me because I think it’s pretty clear: fossil fuel divestment is about justice for those most impacted by climate change. It’s about demanding that we value the lives of millions over profits for a special few.

The real question is not why we are here. Rather, it’s why aren’t there more people with us?

Capitalism versus Unconditional Love

I had another conversation that night with another occupying student. Prior to sitting in together, he and I had rarely interacted and he had never been directly involved in the campaign. We are both Mexican — I am a Mexican immigrant and he is a second generation Chicano (four out of the seven students here identify as Latinx).

Among other things, we ended up talking about our families and our weird relationship with money. He told me about how his parents grew up poor but then managed to move up the economic ladder because his dad and grandpa developed a successful family company. His family’s shift in economic status has forced him to grapple with conflicting identities, conflicting narratives of needing to work to make ends meet and having more than enough resources. I told him about how I have also had to navigate a similar scenario. My family and I came to the US with nothing, worked hard to make our way to the upper middle class and, since the 2008 recession, have fluctuated between having very little and having more than enough.

What we described was this awkward limbo between our families being comprised of workers and being comprised of capitalists. Sometimes our families rely on others for survival and other times, we hire people so that they can survive. This ambiguity allows for confusion and a lot of moral self reflection. When you’re poor, you need people, love, and deep relationships in order to survive. When you’re wealthy, these are mere bonuses. Kindness and compassion become increasingly rare.

I have come to realize that every single student who gets accepted into Columbia — and any elite university for that matter — must have had access to an excessive amount of privilege throughout their life in some shape or form. Oftentimes, this privilege comes from being white, having wealth, having a high social status, having connections to people in high places, or some combination of these conditions. I admit that I am white-passing, or at least ethnically ambiguous, which in itself contributes to my privilege. However, my privilege has never been centered around my socioeconomic status. Rather, I now realize that it has revolved around an abundance of unconditional love from my family and especially my parents. My parents have always wanted me to succeed, but they have always emphasized that what’s important is doing my best. They never forced me to compare my abilities with those of others. They have always believed in me and had faith in the prospect of a better world.

Moreover, my parents have never qualified their affection by forcing me to choose between their love and what I care about. For instance, I got arrested at the White House in spring of 2013 for protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline project. I called my parents before heading to DC to see if they would support me in fighting for what I believed in. They surprised me by saying that they wanted me to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. They wanted me to be safe, but they took pride in my conviction. Even now, they check in with me to make sure I’m ok, but otherwise, we just chat on Whatsapp as if I’m not currently contributing to the lockdown of Columbia’s iconic building.

I find that my peers on this campus usually do not have this kind of relationship with their parents. They are consistently faced with the choice of pursuing their passion or maintaining a good relationship with their parents. The fear of losing this sacred parent-child bond prevents students from standing up for what they believe in. Ultimately, this fear is rooted in conditional love.

“If you marry a man, you will no longer be our son.”

“If you decide to study anything other than economics or engineering, we’re not paying for your tuition.”

“Look at Jimmy. He has perfect grades. Why can’t you be like him?”

“Do you realize how embarrassing it would be if my friends found out I have a radical daughter?”

“I don’t care about your cute social justice cause. If you participate in a sit in, you’re on your own. You’ll have to take out loans to pay for school.”

These are the kinds of statements that limit students and people who want to live in a better world but are too afraid to fight for it. When they hear this, people usually understand that their parents want what’s best for them; however, what also registers is that they are not good enough. That they are less valuable than their careers, than their peers, than money. Because of this assumed inferiority, they feel they are not worthy of their own dreams and passions. They begin to believe that what they care about is not worth fighting for, impossible to achieve, or simply irrational.

These beliefs are detrimental to the recipients of conditional love, but a larger problem lies with the fact that the repercussions of this kind of love go well beyond just individual feelings. Once someone believes that they are not good enough or worthy enough, they project that belief onto others. They internalize that conditional love and reproduce it with their own relationships. In doing so, it follows that they begin to see humanity as unworthy of a better society. Those who only receive conditional love learn to value people as means rather than ends in themselves.

So while it’s true that “all you need is love,” if we want to live in a just world, we need to propagate a very specific kind of love. We need a dynamic love that is fully accepting of others as they are and as they may be. We need a love that is willing to take risks and that is disciplined when things don’t go according to plan. Our love must be malleable, able to evolve over time. When we say I love you, we should really be saying I love you no matter what. Unconditional love is the difference between a just or unjust world. Loving others unconditionally really is a revolutionary act.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that come into play when deciding whether to occupy a building or whether to partake in some equally risky direct action. Unconditional love is insufficient on its own, yet it is necessary for allowing us to commit to our moral convictions and stand up for what we believe in. When an action is strategic, albeit risky, and we have our families on our side,  it makes perfect logical sense to continue with the action. For those of us in Low, we are not here because we chose to be martyrs; we are here because it would seem irrational to not be here. Why not partake in something that can help change our dysfunctional system and create a better world?

The status quo forces us to prioritize profit over people and the planet. Part of our narrative with divestment is that we need to reverse these priorities in order to protect our communities and the generous earth. In order to reverse these priorities, we must learn to value people over money, material goods, fancy careers, etc. The only way we can do this is to learn to build relationships grounded in unconditional love. I will refer again to King’s letter:

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

A Better World is More Than Possible, It is Necessary

In case it hasn’t been clear, my belief is that our dominant extractive economy is not working for our communities nor for the environment. The prioritization of growth at any cost has led us into a spiral of self destruction.

In order to transition away from fossil fuels and towards a just, sustainable future, we must create a new dominant economy. We need to heal our traumas, build meaningful relationships, and love each other unconditionally. This new economy must be oriented around justice and equality for everyone no matter their race, appearance, gender, class, immigrant status, mental or physical ability, age, etc.

It must, at its core, deeply cherish our Earth and see it as a sacred entity that we depend on and ultimately cannot control. Life on this planet will continue with or without us. The Earth does not need us, we need the Earth.

Crisis and Creation

Moments of destruction make room for creation.

Last year, I studied abroad in Argentina and learned about the torture mechanisms, the disappearances, and other repressive tactics used by South American dictators (and endorsed by the United States) in order to implement oppressive, neoliberal economic policies in the 80s. As Naomi Klein elaborately explains in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and as Columbia Environmental Professor John Mutter makes clear in Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, crises are especially terrible not only because they destroy the livelihood of everyday people, but because they offer a prime moment for the wealthy to capitalize on people’s slow and cautious reactions. However, crises can also open up the potential for positive change.

Crises can take on many shapes and forms including hurricanes, droughts, war, earthquakes, economic collapses, etc. Many scientists and environmentalists would argue that climate change is THE crisis of our time, an apocalyptic nightmare that is bound to doom us all. This may be true, but thinking about climate change in this way will stir some people into action meanwhile paralyzing everyone else.

A fellow occupying friend brought up a folk theory that the Chinese word for crisis can be translated as danger and opportunity. This makes sense to me. Under moments of crisis, those who are traumatized and left without resources, remain in a state of shock and desperation about what to do. Capitalists, that is people with the means of production, on the other hand, are always prepared for crises and use these moments to advance their own agendas. In fact, sometimes they instigate them in order to increase their profit margins. In her book, Klein draws the connection between war and capitalism. She also explains how many developers became rich during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his book, Mutter mentions how politicians announce more “natural disasters” around election time in order to receive more funding and more public support. Clearly, capitalism thrives off of crises and, in fact, cannot survive without them.

Yet, my point here is not that we must again get angry at the injustices of capitalism. Rather, we must seize the climate crisis as an opportunity for creating a better world. We must act now and prepare for not only the adaptation to climate change but for the necessary transition to a just economy.

A Call to Action

Although I have been advocating for fossil fuel divestment for almost four years, I am also currently involved in a national reinvestment project which will soon launch publicly. A new network of groups including the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, grassroots community organizations (including the Climate Justice Alliance), democratically-owned business (such as community-owned solar cooperatives), and financial partners has been in the works for a while. Together we are building a movement for a transition into a just, renewable energy economy, a fossil free democracy.

As I occupy Low, I feel that the time is ripe for bringing in new hope. We must believe that we can change for the better and that we deserve better. In addition to symbolically taking down the fossil fuel industry and other villains of our capitalist economy, we must use this moment to redirect resources towards the creation of the beautiful.

Institutional endowments, specifically Columbia University’s endowment, must not only divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, but also reinvest divested funds so as to begin to fuel a just transition into a new economy that prioritizes people and the planet. Finance is and should be a tool for the people; people should not be a tool for finance. Therefore, endowments should serve the students and the communities it is meant to protect. Students and community members should not be at the mercy of the endowment.

There is no guarantee that our economic experiments or our social movements will be successful. There is no guarantee that we can save ourselves from the consequences of climate change. Yet, if we are going to make a wholehearted attempt, we must see this crucial point in human history as a moment of opportunity to stand together and believe that we can build a better world. We must rid ourselves of the fear that is holding us back. In order to do that, we must love each other no matter what happens.

 

Author Information: Iliana Salazar-Dodge is a senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Mathematics.

 

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4 thoughts on “Why I’m Occupying a Building at Columbia: Love, Power, and Climate Justice

  1. Thank you, Iliana, for illuminating the moral and personal foundation of civil disobedience, unconditional love. Those who experience it tend to see the world clearer than many others, alas, plus have the courage to act. Yes, unconditional love is a necessary condition for social change.

    I would add another necessary condition which Ms. Salazar-Dodge alludes to: strategy for building mass movement. Clearly, personal witness plays a role; so does the tough work of building relationships and coalitions that lead to mass mobilization. I’ve found that studying successful historical mass movements, as the Low divestment sit-in participants did in reading ML King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” can help teach us this difficult art of strategy.

    Thanks again for your clear thinking.

    Mark Rudd, 1968 CU strike

    Like

  2. Dear Alan and Mark,

    I am honored by your comments. Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. CDCJ members and other organizers on campus are inspired by your work. Mark, I appreciate the mention of strategy — it is most definitely necessary! It would do us a lot of good to continue to study the past in order to more strategically prepare for the future.

    I welcome any more of your thoughts, comments, and suggestions, via this platform or otherwise.

    In solidarity,
    ISD

    Like

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