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Fossil Free Penn protestors demonstrating on Franklin Field at halftime on Oct. 23, 2022. Credit: Michael Palacios

Thirty-nine days after setting tents up on College Green, students involved with Fossil Free Penn have ended their encampment in the center of campus.

After an hour-long protest interrupted the Homecoming football game on Oct. 22, which led to the arrest of 19 students, FFP organizers packed up their belongings later that night. FFP coordinator and College junior Sarah Sterinbach said that the organizers collectively agreed to end the encampment in order to leave on a "high note," but they plan on continuing to push their demands through other avenues.

The encampment began on Sept. 14, with three demands for Penn: a public commitment toward preserving the University City Townhomes; total fossil fuel divestment; and making payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, to Philadelphia public schools. Students continued to camp on College Green for over a month despite harsh weather conditions and alleged intimidation from University administrators.

During the Homecoming football game, roughly 75 students rushed onto the field right before the second half of the game was set to begin. Protestors brought out banners with their demands while other students passed out orange flyers in the stadium that explained that FFP intended to "only to delay the game, not end it." 

Sterinbach said that it is never FFP's goal to "ruin student events," but she said that after eight years of organizing for fossil fuel divestment and a month of sleeping on College Green, this was a "necessary step."

"We really are sorry to people that had to wait outside and sit for a bit. We know that was not fun, and Homecoming is an exciting event," Sterinbach said. "We did it because these are things that are urgent, and going through the usual channels, or even less usual channels, still didn't work."

As protestors led chants in the middle of the field, some people in the crowd held up the orange flyers in support, but many began to boo the protestors and demand that they get off the field so the game could continue.

FFP coordinator and College junior Megha Neelapu said that while external pressures and safety concerns were not ultimately the main reason for ending the encampment, FFP members present at the encampment later in the afternoon received harassment from adults passing by after the game.

Sterinbach echoed this sentiment. She said that most of the responses she saw from students were predominantly positive, but Sterinbach said more alumni criticized FFP's protest during the game.

About half an hour into the demonstration, Sterinbach said that the group planned for the majority of protestors to peacefully walk off the field — leaving students who were willing to risk getting arrested on the field with the banners.

Twenty minutes later, police officers escorted the remaining 19 student protestors off the field in zip-tie handcuffs. The students were detained at the Penn Police headquarters and "received citations for defiant trespass for refusal to leave the field," according to a statement provided to The Daily Pennsylvanian by the Division of Public Safety.

Sterinbach said that FFP moved their planned press conference from College Green to outside of the Penn Police headquarters in order to support the students who were detained.

After student organizers and residents of the UC Townhomes spoke about the protest at the Homecoming football game, the press conference attendees began to spill onto the block of 41st and Chestnut streets and demanded the immediate release of the arrested protestors.

"We did not stop chanting or singing until every last person was released," Sterinbach said.

College junior Alyssa Chandler said she was the first student protestor that was released by Penn Police. She said that after taking down her information, officers told her that the consequences were "to be determined."

"I am not worried. I think that, hopefully, city and state consequences will be fine," Chandler said. "I am just interested, and a little scared, for what Penn is going to do."

The other 18 students were released one-by-one. Sterinbach said that seeing each protestor released brought a "sigh of relief," and the last student was not let out of custody until nearly 7:30 p.m. – about four hours after they were first apprehended.

Previously, the University released a statement saying that "any student believed to have been involved in disrupting and delaying today’s football game will be referred to the Office of Community Standards and Accountability," according to an email sent to the DP by University spokesperson Ron Ozio.

Sterinbach said that it is important for the student body and Penn administration to understand that the end of the encampment does not mean that FFP's work is over. She said that their first priority right now is to ensure all charges are dropped against the 19 people arrested at the football game.

"We said to everyone who was coming to this action that this doesn't end when when you get off the football field, and this action doesn't end if we get arrested or when people get out of their holding cells," Sterinbach said. "It ends when everyone who was participating in the action receives the lowest charges possible."

Chandler said it was important for them to participate in the demonstration because it seemed like the best way to draw a lot of attention to an issue that matters to them.

"The protest was a great way to garner media attention," Chandler said. "Also, within the school, Penn only really cares if alumni are threatened — specifically alumni who donate. The action was able to target that directly through the sports game."

Looking forward, Sterinbach said that FFP plans to push for their same demands in different ways. She said that the group knew this was their "power weekend," with lots of eyes on the University due to Penn President Liz Magill's inauguration and alumni visiting for Homecoming.

"The encampment showed that we are dedicated students, but we need a ton more dedicated students," Sterinbach said. "You heard us probably a million times repeating the same spiel about our demands, and we can repeat it to you again a million more times. But, at a certain point, it's just saying the same facts. We need action, and we need all of you to join us in taking this action."