Some Penn students are boycotting their classes on Nov. 3 and 4 to demand that Penn prioritize student wellness and meet activist demands to abolish Penn Police.
The Penn Scholar Strike for Wellness was announced in an Oct. 29 Instagram post from the Penn Scholar Strike account run by students to promote the protest. Students participating in the strike cited the elimination of fall break this semester, Penn’s failure to cancel classes on Election Day despite widespread student demands, and the Philadelphia police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. as causes of students' mental health struggles this semester.
The initial Instagram post called on Penn students to boycott their classes on Election Day and the following day. A second post later that day added demands that Penn administrators arrange a meeting with Police Free Penn, an organization pushing for the abolition of the Penn Police Department, and prohibit the Penn Police from operating west of 43rd Street.
Specific instances of Penn Police operating west of 43rd Street during last weeks' Walter Wallace protests have not been provided, and the Division of Public Safety maintains that the normal patrol zone is not a binding area to which Penn Police are confined.
Penn Scholar Strike wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the plan for a boycott of classes had been in the works for several weeks prior to the announcement. The strike is not only to promote the wellness of Penn students but also the physical wellness and safety of the West Philadelphia community, the group wrote.
“We see this strike as a moment of critical engagement amongst ourselves and our peers to build some organizing power on campus,” Penn Scholar Strike wrote. “We hope this is just a beginning to more activism and striking on campus that organically can grow from this moment.”
The strike has been endorsed by several student groups, including all six branches of Penn Student Government, UMOJA, Fossil Free Penn, the Student Labor Action Project, and the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault.
College and Wharton junior and Undergraduate Assembly Speaker Janice Owusu said PSG has a responsibility to use their platform as representatives of the student body and stand up for student wellness.
“It's important, especially as student leaders and PSG just in general, that we take an active look and an active stance, especially since this is the Year of Civic Engagement,” Owusu said.
Owusu said the strike is important to show that students, including student leaders on Penn’s campus, are willing to demand that Penn prioritize student wellness, both in the form of breaks and the defunding of Penn Police.
Fourth-year English Ph.D. student and Police Free Penn member Jane Mize said that student organizers of the strike reached out to Police Free Penn for their support, and subsequently incorporated Police Free Penn’s demands as part of the strike.
Mize said she views the demands concerning Penn Police as part of the broader goal of achieving student wellness.
“Wellness also means fostering a sense of campus safety, and one that isn't centered on the Penn Police, because these are police who routinely discriminate against BIPOC students and participate in the criminalization of Black life in West Philly,” Mize said.
Mize, who is not participating in the strike because she has finished the coursework for her program, said that the power of a boycott is in students’ refusal to cooperate with and participate in the harm they understand Penn to be perpetuating.
College senior Amanpreet Singh, a former DP staffer, heard about the strike through Police Free Penn, and is boycotting her classes. Singh said that students should be able to exercise their right to vote on Election Day, a day that Penn, citing state regulations, did not provide off this year.
Singh added that Penn has failed to provide any breaks this semester after canceling fall break, a move she believes has harmed student wellness.
“Students deserve time off from school," Singh said. "We're not just students. We're also people with our own interests and desires and we should be able to have the time to express those."
Singh said that she is boycotting class not just for Penn students’ wellness, but to also protest Penn's harmful history to the West Philadelphia community by refusing to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes to support public schools and financially supporting the Philadelphia Police Department.
“I think what's really powerful about this strike is that it's showing that there is widespread support for the demands of Police Free Penn, which call for the defunding and eventual abolition of the Penn Police force,” Singh said.
College junior Kaday Kamara said she heard about the strike through social media, and said she believes a boycott is a powerful tool for student protest.
“It can be really hard to find a way to push back on things that the University is doing that we might not agree with, but I think not going to class — for students who feel like they can do that — I definitely think that's a good way to send a message,” Kamara said.
For Kamara, skipping class, while potentially harmful to her academic standing, is worth taking the time to advocate for students' own wellness and the police brutality happening in Philadelphia.
“Penn isn’t life,” Kamara said. “There are other things to fight for, and other things that are really important, so it's just taking the time to kind of do something. It could be at your own personal expense, but doing it for the greater good.”
College first year Megha Neelapu said she heard about the strike on social media, and decided to participate because of the lack of breaks from Penn this semester, as well as the University’s refusal to give Election Day off. Neelapu said she also wanted to support the demands of Police Free Penn.
“It's not just a break from classes, but it's also calling for Penn to reevaluate the way it treats its students and to think about how the police are harming their students,” Neelapu said.
Neelapu praised Penn Scholar Strike's collaboration with several activist groups like CAFSA, SLAP, and FFP to promote the strike.
Wharton first year Halla Elkhwad said she decided to participate in the strike after hearing about it from a friend. Elkhwad said she believed it was hypocritical for Penn to encourage voting and civic engagement but not give students the day off to vote, leading her to boycott classes on Election Day. She plans to do the same for her classes on Wednesday.
She also called on Penn to completely divest from Philadelphia Police and Penn Police.
Owusu said she sees the boycott as an opportunity to show that students want to see genuine change in Penn’s relationship with its students and the community.
“I hope that people are participating and honestly taking an active role and not just skipping class to skip class, but having conversations with their classmates and with their professors,” Owusu said.