The University has seen a large number of protests over the past three years, responding to topics ranging from sexual assault to divestment to the presidential election. Next week, protests will continue as the Inter-Sorority Council hosts the University March for Women, related to this weekend’s Women’s March on Washington. But protest at our school is not new: student activism has played a prominent role on Grounds throughout the University’s history.
“Student activism, expression, assembly and protest have been a consistent part of the college and university experience — including the experience at the University — for decades,” University Deputy Spokesman Matt Charles said in an email statement. “University administrators routinely engage with student leaders and student groups to hear their concerns and to facilitate constructive discourse.”
In the mid-2000s, students participated in large divestment efforts against corporations doing business in Burma and Sudan. Recently, student divestment efforts have shifted focus to the fossil fuel industry, though large protests related to sexual assault, race and the nation’s current political climate have also broken out on Grounds.
Divestment a decade ago
Of all protests occurring at the University since the early 2000s, demonstrations regarding divestment have occurred most frequently and with some success. Divestment refers to the withdrawal of University financial holdings from certain corporations — often those related to relevant social, political or environmental issues.
Divestment efforts in the early 2000s took the form of institutional changes, with petitions and written appeals to University administration.
In March 2001, more than 30 student organizations and close to 20 faculty members signed a resolution by the University’s Free Burma Coalition, urging the administration to disclose any connections to and cut ties with corporations conducting business in Burma.
At the time, the Burmese government was under the control of the State Peace and Development Council military regime, which was known to murder, torture, rape and enslave its citizens.
The resolution stated the University owned $2.1 million worth of investments in companies carrying out business in Burma. The large majority of those investments were in Unocal, a California-based oil company that profited from slave labor in Burma.
The Board of Visitors did not address the resolution, but in March 2001, Student Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution declaring continued support of the divestment of University funds in Unocal. Despite the resolution’s popularity among student organizations, the BOV did not address the issue.
However, divestment efforts experienced success five years later, when students pushed against investments in Sudan.
In March 2006, the contracted independent organization Students Taking Action: Darfur, or STAND, laid human cut-outs across South Lawn in a “die-in” to raise awareness of the mass killings occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Since 2003, the Sudanese government had been supporting violent, ethnically-charged attacks against certain demographics of the population. The regime funding the militias carrying out the killings, known as the Janjaweed, received 90 percent of their funding from oil. Members of STAND feared the University’s investments in corporations conducting business in Sudan were indirectly funding the regime and its killings.
The Board of Visitors decided to divest in Sept. 2006 from companies with business dealings in Sudan. Although University of Virginia Investment Management Company had no holdings that were directly impacted by the resolution, the BOV’s actions indicated the University’s stance against the Sudanese massacres.
Protests against sexual assault
Fall 2014 saw a particularly large number of protests following the now-retracted Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” The article discussed the alleged gang rape of a University student and called into question how University administrators respond to sexual assault cases.
“The article sort of said that the school didn’t respond in a helpful way to that sexual assault,” third-year College student Maria DeHart said. “While this was happening, U.Va. was also being investigated for non-compliance with Title IX regulations.”
In response to the article’s publication, DeHart helped organize the “Slut Walk,” in which protestors marched from the Amphitheatre to Mad Bowl and ended at Peabody Hall. The walk had the hopes of making their voices heard to University Dean of Students Allen Groves and other administrators.
“We were protesting against rape culture at U.Va. and all of the toxic aspects of Greek life being protected and not being criticized,” DeHart said. “The protest was against not just U.Va.’s administration, but against the culture at U.Va., and not necessarily individuals, but individuals [who] were a part of that culture.”
DeHart said the protest opened up a dialogue about sexual assault and created a space for those who were sexually assaulted to discuss their stories. However, the protest was not without its criticisms.
“Intersectionality was something we didn’t address enough,” DeHart said. The Slut Walk “further upholds the white, cis women dominance, which [was] definitely true and I welcomed that criticism.”
Overall, DeHart said the “bad press” the University received from the article helped their voices to be heard and fostered further action in support of sexual assault victims.
“U.Va. has been doing better in terms in Title IX,” DeHart said. “Still not perfect, but doing better.”
Present-day divestment efforts
Recent divestment efforts have combined strategies of resolutions and petitions with active protests and gatherings. Two years ago, Climate Action Society started a campaign called Divest U.Va., which is dedicated to pushing the University to divest from the fossil fuels industry.
“[In 2015, our campaign] was mostly trying to get support among the student body by spreading around the petition to support fossil fuel divestment,” Brian Cameron, second-year College student and CAS treasurer, said. “Then, spring of 2016 is when we really started meeting with a couple of key players in the actual decision making process to divest.”
The group continued to meet with BOV members this past fall in an effort to get divestment on the official agenda at a board meeting. However, Divest U.Va. experienced resistance in its effort to put divestment on the table for a vote, Cameron said.
“I think a big reason why … some of the big players on the board are hesitant about fossil fuel divestment specifically is how political of an issue it is,” Cameron said. “Climate change especially — there is such a big national debate around it.
Divest U.Va. has responded to divestment inaction from the BOV with action of its own. This fall, students gathered outside of a BOV meeting to engage directly with members as they left for a break.
“We had a lot of students engaging with administrators, and you could tell that administrators were really thrown off by this because they don’t expect it and they don’t like it, frankly,” Dehart, the CAS Divest Campaign Manager, said
First-year College student and CAS member Annie Ferguson said the action was intimidating but inspiring.
“When you’re interacting directly with the Board of Visitors, it’s such a daunting task, it’s such a daunting atmosphere [because] you know that those people have so much power over you, make such serious decisions that affect us as students at U.Va.,” Ferguson said. “It was super intimidating for me, but it was super cool to see the more senior members be able to get in their faces and … see [from] the work that we’re doing have an impact so far.”
Divest U.Va. experienced a setback in September, when their proposal for divestment from fossil fuels did not acquire enough votes from the University Presidential Senate for a Presidential Seal. The proposal would have given Divest U.Va. a stamp of approval from part of the University’s administration, but this was not their main goal, DeHart said.
DeHart said the success of past divestment efforts at the University, such as those in 2006, continue to be a motivation for current ones.
“U.Va. has divested before and we try to use that argument a lot with fossil fuels,” DeHart said. “The climate crisis does have a ton of effects on human beings so there are … [and] human rights violations that are a concern with fossil fuels too.”
Protesting today’s political climate
This past semester saw a number of protests centered around issues in our country’s current political and social climate.
The Black Student Alliance hosted a “die-in” Sept. 25 in front of Old Cabell Hall in order to bring awareness to the issue of police brutality. The event was part of a larger National Blackout Day, in which black student alliances and black student unions participated in creative forms of direct action against police brutality across the country, third-year College student Anelle Mensah said.
“In terms of the die-in, people were very receptive,” Mensah said. “We got a lot of great news coverage from some really well-respected reporters who were really interested in ensuring the message we were trying to make through that action was [received]. It was great to see so many members of the black community at U.Va. come together for that action.”
Mensah was also a part of a Nov. 11 protest directed towards the Board of Visitors, in which approximately 25 students walked into a BOV meeting and read a list of demands, which she said included “protections for undocumented students and undocumented workers” and “increased sections and assistance in terms of reproductive help and sexual assault survivors.”
This protest was largely motivated by an incident in which members of the University Police Department used the public address system in their vehicle to shout “Make America Great Again” at students who were walking back to their dorms on election night.
“Essentially, we just wanted the Board of Visitors to understand there were a lot of student concerns regarding these issues, specifically the incident with UPD,” Mensah said. “We just wanted them to be aware because the Board of Visitors is only around for brief periods so they may not necessarily know what is happening.”
As a result of the protest, some of the students were able to meet with University President Teresa Sullivan and Executive Vice President and Provost Tom Katsouleas to discuss why they protested the meeting.
“President Sullivan was pretty interested in hearing what we had to say and what we were looking to do,” Mensah said. “We sat down with her and we had a conversation. Following that, President Sullivan hosted an open forum-town hall sort of event.”
Mensah said the climate at the BOV protest was different from what protesters experienced during the die-in.
“There were some individuals who voiced their disagreement with what we were doing, but that is to be expected and that is something we knew going into the action,” Mensah said. “We were mainly focused on doing what we came to do and getting our message across, loud and clear.”
Students are also expected to protest the day of the upcoming inauguration, with walk-outs and teach-ins planned.