On Tuesday, February 16, seven CDCJ members interrupted a presentation by BP’s group chief economist, Spencer Dale, at the Center for Global Energy Policy of SIPA. By Friday of that week, we learned that Rules Administrator Suzanne Goldberg had opened a disciplinary investigation against us in response to a complaint by the Center for Global Energy Policy. In our initial meetings, she emphasized that our seven-minute action had threatened the sanctity of the new Rules of Conduct by compromising the Chief Economist of BP’s “freedom of speech.” According to Suzanne Goldberg, freedom of speech simply means not being interrupted, and everybody’s right to not be interrupted is guaranteed-–so long as they book space through University Event Management.
We chose the tactic of disruption because BP is a corporation with a devastating legacy of human rights violations that nonetheless retains immense economic and social capital. Agreeing to engage in discourse only when corporations like BP ask us to, on their terms, would be agreeing to leave the voices of those fighting for liberation on the margins of conversation–while BP continues to destroy the planet and inflict violence with impunity. BP’s definition of acceptable discourse ranges from buying platforms for propaganda, to financing the kidnapping and torture of labor and environmental activists in Latin America. Respecting the boundaries of discourse that BP and the CGEP put forth would entail complicity in the violence BP inflicts upon marginalized communities. By disrupting this event, we aimed to disrupt Columbia’s silent endorsement of BP’s oppressive actions and its role in driving global climate change. It is truly absurd that our administration leaps into action faster and more decisively to punish activists for interrupting a talk than they do to address the injustices that we fund and profit from.
Fundamentally, Suzanne Goldberg’s misguided notion of “freedom of speech” fails to confront the vast power imbalance between those who call for an end to structural oppression, and those who are responsible for upholding oppressive structures. On campus, this power imbalance looks like Public Safety calling dozens of police officers on peaceful student protests, student activists facing the threat of suspension or expulsion for non-violent disruptions, and Columbia’s bastions of academic and scientific discourse taking enormous donations from violent and destructive industries. Beyond Columbia, this power dynamic looks like oil companies funding paramilitaries to kidnap environmental and labor activists, police and military forces beating and imprisoning protesters, and a mass media that caters to profit and power more than truth.
The fact is that we live in a world where some people have the money and power to buy speech and enforce silence. We reject any idea of “free speech” that lacks a critical lens towards different people’s unequal access to speak and be heard. If the spirit of the Rules means that it’s more important for oil company executives not to be interrupted than it is to take action on climate change and persistent human rights abuses, then the problem is not with the people who break them. We stand by this nonviolent action and all other students who choose to fight violently oppressive individuals and organizations. From banner drops and disruptions to building occupations and hunger strikes, activism has a rich history of bringing about change at Columbia and beyond. It will continue to do so in spite of all those who want to stop it, until we live in a world that is truly just and free for all people.
We do not know yet whether the disciplinary proceedings will continue. Suzanne Goldberg has informed us that we will hear back by the end of this week. If we move on to the hearing stage, it is possible that we will be denied an open hearing under the new Rules of Conduct. No matter where this process goes, we will continue to fight for climate justice and accountability for the destruction that our University and fossil fuel companies have brought to local and global communities.
We continue to call upon CGEP and Columbia to cut their ties with corporations like BP, Exxon, and other top fossil fuel companies. We also call upon students and faculty to critically examine who and what the Rules of Conduct were written to protect.