Anti-Peabody rally elevates support as students await negotiated terms
The collection of speeches, comments and performances marked the 12th day students have been camped out under the Brookings Archway to dispute Washington University’s affiliation with Peabody, which they argue implicates it in the company’s human rights and environmental transgressions.
As of Saturday night, the group’s four demands were removing Peabody CEO Greg Boyce from the University’s board of trustees, having Chancellor Mark Wrighton visit communities where Peabody has established mines and release a statement about his experience, removing the term “clean coal” from the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization’s name, and giving student representatives to the board of trustees voting power and seats on the committee that selects new trustees. While the University has not agreed to any of the group’s four demands, organizers said the administration agreed to provide a response on Monday with a negotiation.
“We’ve been in negotiation with them, and the ball’s kind of in their court right now,” junior Madeleine Balchan, one of the sit-in’s organizers, said. “They know where we stand, and they said they would take the weekend to talk about things, so we definitely hope to have a meeting with them Monday or at least hear their response.”
Balchan praised Saturday’s event as a powerful statement of the support the group has garnered over nearly two weeks’ effort, although turnout was lower than she had hoped.
“I wish more people had come just because I think it was so great to get so many [speakers] from so many different places,” Balchan said. “We were shooting to get as many people there as possible, and…I wasn’t disappointed at all.”
“Friends who previously were purposefully choosing not to be engaged came out and said they really appreciated it and learned a lot,” she added.
Associate professor of anthropology Bret Gustafson challenged administrators to tell his asthmatic son that they are doing the best they can to keep harmful chemicals that cause heart conditions and respiratory conditions out of the air.
“Every time I bend over to puff that [inhaler] into his mouth when he starts coughing and having trouble breathing, I think about Chancellor Wrighton and Holden Thorp, Greg Boyce,” Gustafson said. “I’d like to have one of those guys come to my house and look my 7-year-old son in the eye and say, ‘We’re doing everything we can to make this air cleaner, young man.’ Because he’d have to be a good liar.”
In a Saturday statement to Student Life, the University affirmed its commitment to tackling global energy issues, highlighting its renewable energy research, but added that it is not going to stop coal research.
“Coal is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, an essential source of energy for the United States and the world,” the statement read. “Our focus must be on continuing our research to find viable and scalable alternatives and to reduce impacts.”
“The University’s important work is made possible through a combination of government funding and the support of private sector partners,” the statement continued. “Such support is what allows our talented faculty, staff and students to make a meaningful difference and improve the quality of life in our own community and across the globe.”
At the rally, Gustafson argued that the University’s partnership with a company that directly harms the environment stands contrary to its professed mission.
“They’re putting up a new center for social work—what does it say over there on the sign? ‘Defending public health.’ I’ll try to avoid using profanity, but nothing that Washington University’s relationship to Peabody Energy does is in defense of public health,” Gustafson said.
Judy Kellen, a resident of Rocky Branch, Ill., spoke about her experience trying to keep Peabody from expanding its mining operations to Rocky Branch to the harm of local residents, which has left her pessimistic about individuals’ willingness to stand up to harmful corporations. However, she said she has been astonished by the recent outflow of support from students.
“We were so amazed,” Kellen said. “We didn’t know there were people that believed [in this cause] like y’all.”
Junior and WU-SLam president Sam Lai performed a letter he wrote to Peabody’s CEO, concluding with a plea to the executive’s humanity.
“Dear Mr. Boyce, Greg, someone tells me that you are a nice guy,” Lai said. “And I believe that; I believe that you are just one person; you are not the incarnation of all the gross injustices of American institutions. I don’t believe you’re evil. I believe you’re a coward. How easy it must be for you to forget the past, to ignore the present, to shut out the world you are making and let it burn.”