Members of Fossil Free Penn and other activists held a press conference and rally on College Green this morning to discuss their ongoing encampment and the alleged intimidation they have faced from Penn administrators.
In 13 short speeches, representatives from FFP and other campus and local activism groups explained FFP’s three major demands — that Penn commit funds to support University City Townhomes tenants, divest from fossil fuels, and make payments in lieu of taxes to contribute to Philadelphia schools. Interim Vice Provost for University Life Tamara Greenfield King and Executive Director of the Office of Student Affairs Katie Bonner were both present for the entirety of the press conference and rally.
Bonner told the crowd that she attended the press conference with the purpose of ensuring that the event’s noise level stayed within the open-expression guidelines – amplified sounds may not exceed 85 decibels. The press conference never exceeded this threshold.
After College junior and FFP coordinator Megha Neelapu introduced the purpose of their protest, four speakers discussed the UC Townhomes and Penn’s role in providing affordable housing in West Philadelphia.
College and Engineering senior Emma Glasser said that Penn developed its campus by purchasing land from the Black Bottom — a historically low-income, predominantly Black community that has since been transformed into University City. Glasser also claimed that Penn administrators failed to keep their commitment to providing public housing — a promise they made after students held a six-day sit-in in College Hall in 1969.
“[Penn’s] money and their land is only theirs because it was stolen from the Black Bottom,” Glasser said.
Guest speaker and longtime UC Townhomes resident Melvin Hairston said that he and other activists will take measures against Penn President Liz Magill if she "do[es] not change 'her' ways and change the actions."
College sophomore and FFP coordinator Eug Xu demanded that Penn divest from fossil fuels, while Penn Graduate School of Education professor H. Gerald Campano and College sophomore Kenny Chiu urged Penn to pay PILOTs to improve public schools in Philadelphia.
Speakers also highlighted interactions between Penn administrators and members of FFP. College junior and FFP coordinator Katie Francis, who is also a former DP staffer, told the audience that King visited the encampment nearly every day, asking students for their IDs.
College first year Omar Elsakhawy said that he was one of these students. Elsakhawy told the DP that when he was on the encampment doing homework, King approached him and asked to take his ID. When he refused, King attempted to take a picture of him. The next day, he said, King approached the encampment and asked Elsakhawy for his ID again, notifying him that disciplinary action can be taken against him if he refuses to give his identification.
“It was like a cold and calculating form of intimidation,” Elsakhawy said. “It wasn't direct, but it was actually worse than direct intimidation because she essentially took advantage of the power dynamic between us.”
After he complied, he added, the Center for Community Standards and Accountability sent him an email to attend a disciplinary hearing.
According to Francis, the University has emailed eight activists from the FFP encampment and two activists from the UC Townhomes protests so far. Francis demanded that the administration drop all disciplinary charges against students in her speech, at times directly addressing King and Bonner in the crowd.
Last week, FFP wrote a press release addressing comments that University spokesperson Ron Ozio previously wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. They subsequently posted several screenshots of their emails with Penn's Office of the President.
University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian on Sept. 16 that “students violated University policy when they erected tents on College Green and refused to comply with multiple requests to remove the tents and leave the area.”
He added that "there is nothing new in any of the student 'demands,' to which the University has responded repeatedly over the years. Even so, the Administration offered again to meet with the students, but they have declined."
According to FFP's Instagram post, the group sent the Office two emails requesting a meeting — one on July 25 and another on Aug. 9 — and received a response on Aug. 30. Administrators said in a message they would allow two to three members to speak with King.
In a subsequent email, FFP responded, requesting the Office allow more students to attend the meetings and for the presence of a University member with decision-making power. The Office denied this request, making what FFP called an “unprompted request that the meeting not be recorded in any way” and restating the 2-3 student limit.
FFP began camping out on College Green this fall on Sept. 14 and told the DP that they will remain until their demands are met.