Penn students took over Penn President Amy Gutmann’s annual holiday party on Tuesday night, demanding that the University pay money to support Philadelphia schools.
Tuesday night's protest follows one from last week where students from the Student Labor Action Project demanded that Penn pay $6.6 million in payments in lieu of taxes — also known as PILOTs — to the School District of Philadelphia.
The students, who were members of Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation and SLAP, first laid on the ground for four and a half minutes in memory of Michael Brown, the Ferguson teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer. Caught off guard, Gutmann joined the protesters, lying down on the ground to participate in the “die-in.”
Remarks from protesters linked the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., to racial issues related to the Philadelphia School District, which serves primarily students of color.
“Selective disinvestment in black and brown communities is racism,” SOUL member and College junior Gina Dukes said in remarks addressed to Gutmann during the protest. “Every day that Penn lobbies against PILOTs, it writes a new page in this country’s legacy of racial justice.”
PILOTs are contributions that property tax-exempt organizations voluntarily make to local governments to cover costs of services like police and firefighters. Local property taxes are used to fund schools.
“Penn is a nonprofit, so it doesn’t pay taxes on any of its properties and Penn is the biggest property owner in the city, so this a big reason why schools are closing and the district is really underfunded,” SLAP member Chloe Sigal, a College senior, said after the protest.
Protesters demanded a statement from Gutmann following the remarks by Dukes.
"Black lives matter — all lives matter. Black lives have not been served the way I and others would like them to be served," Gutmann said. "Let me say that again: Black lives matter," she said to cheers.
On the note of PILOTs, Gutmann defended Penn's commitment to Philadelphia schools.
“I’m doing everything we can to strengthen schools in Philadelphia,” Gutmann said, taking the microphone. “We must be consistent with our mission of higher education. We’re very proud of what we’ve done with the Penn Alexander school.”
However, Gutmann was interrupted multiple times while speaking. Finally, annoyed, Gutmann stopped talking, instead attempting to continue with the holiday party.
Dukes, along with SLAP member Daniel Cooper, addressed Gutmann personally as she was leaving, asking her for comments about the PILOT contributions.
Gutmann responded that this was not the right time, and described the protest as an “ambush."
Dukes requested to arrange another time to talk, but Gutmann did not commit to a meeting.
“I’m glad we have your attention,” Dukes said as the conversation was ending.
“You had my attention before this," Gutmann responded.
After Gutmann left, the demonstration continued. At one point, party organizers made the holiday music louder in order to drown out the continued chanting, angering protesters.
“Don’t you dare try to turn up the music to shut us down,” one protester said.
Penn has previously attempted to head off calls for PILOTs, commissioning a report along with other Philadelphia universities last year defending their economic contributions to the city. At a Board of Trustees meeting in October, Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Jeff Cooper argued against PILOTs.
“We’re not a social service agency — we’re a university,” he said at the October meeting.
Despite the protests, many students continued to eat, although many were also visibly uncomfortable. “I feel trapped,” said one student, who was not a part of the protest.
The demonstration continued with protesters sitting cross-legged lining the hallway from the foyer to the back door of Gutmann’s house. They chanted and individual protesters took turns speaking to the group.
Holiday party guests left and the doors to the yard were closed, leaving Gutmann’s staff standing by the protesters. Penn Police were called to the scene, but uniformed officers only came as far as the front door.
Protesters left Gutmann’s house voluntarily and reconvened at DuBois College House to discuss the events of the protests. The groups requested that the meeting remain closed off from reporters.
Two men who identified themselves as Penn detectives arrived and stood outside of DuBois for 15 minutes before leaving.
Staff writer Huizhong Wu and City News Editor Harry Cooperman contributed reporting.
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