Approximately 30 members of Fossil Free Penn protested outside Penn's Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, creating a "partial blockade" outside the room and prompting most of the trustees to leave through the fire exit.
Protesters arrived towards the end of the hour-long meeting and sat directly outside the conference room at the Inn at Penn. They held signs cut and painted to look like gravestones with epitaphs citing facts about the climate crisis and demanding that the University divest from fossil fuels. FFP coordinator and College sophomore Emma Glasser said that FFP wanted to create a "partial blockade" outside the meeting that would allow the trustees to walk out of the meeting but not without having to migrate through the "graveyard" of students.
Glasser added that the purpose of the protest was not to shut down the meeting, as they had done in November by entering the meeting room, but to confront the trustees as they exited.
“Anticipating that, given our last action, security might be heightened and the meeting might be made less public to large groups of students, we decided to do something else,” FFP action coordinator Jacob Hershman said.
Some trustees who checked their coats before the meeting had to wade through the students seated outside the board meeting room to retrieve their coats. Trustees' reactions varied, with some looking confused, annoyed, or amused.
Walking single-file through the protesters, one trustee member told another, “I have to get a picture of you going through that minefield."
The protesters chanted the perennial labor movement lyric, “which side are you on?” and chanted statistics concerning the fossil fuel industry, which included that 1.1 million people had died in India due to coal pollution in 2015 alone, and that climate change would kill over 250,000 people each year between 2030 and 2050.
Several police officers, Penn's Open Expression Observers, and Penn security guards were stationed at the Inn at Penn in anticipation of protesters. Before the meeting ended, Open Expression Observers asked protesters to clear a larger walkway to allow trustee members to more easily exit the meeting. Fossil Free Penn’s legal observers from Philadelphia legal collective Up Against the Law walked through the crowd of students to show the Open Expression Observers that the protesters had made a clear pathway.
“You need to move. That means now,” an Open Expression Observer told protesters, but the students refused to clear a larger path. Penn’s Open Expression Observers then told the students they would be asked to present their Penn Cards, and threatened that the University would be within their rights to photograph them if they refused to provide identification.
Members of the public are not allowed to “interrupt, interfere with, obstruct, disturb, or disrupt the conduct” of the open meeting, according to the meeting schedule webpage.
FFP leaders rallied their members outside on Walnut Street after the meeting. The protesters cheered when passing cars and trucks honked their support and passersby stopped to express their solidarity with the students. Two Philadelphia civil affairs police officers, who police demonstrations, protests, and marches, did not directly engage the protesters, but spoke to FFP’s legal observers and recorded the students on video cameras.
FFP campaign coordinator and College sophomore Katie Collier, who was one of the few students in the room observing the meeting, said the trustees kept looking at her and seemed surprised at the initial absence of protesters. Collier added that one trustee approached her afterward and thanked FFP for being respectful of their time and space.
“Time is running out for others, but they’re asking us to respect their time and their space for their meeting? Other people’s resources and land are being destroyed,” College junior Elsa Wefes-Potter said.
FFP members said they found it “symbolic” that most of the trustees left through the fire escape.
“Not everyone has an emergency exit,” FFP coordinator and College senior Claudia Silver said.