24 May 2016

DIVEST was spelled out in big cardboard letters on Raymond Priestly lawn during the Flood the Campus campaign. To the casual observer, it might have seemed oddly reminiscent of the massive block letters that often mysteriously appear around campus, either to remind people of the name of the university they’re attending or inspire them through single word slogans like BELIEVE. But this time, the letters had a real message behind them.

Started by Fossil Free Melbourne University (FFMU), Flood the Campus launched on 15 March, after FFMU had campaigned for the University of Melbourne to divest from fossil fuels for three years with little success. FFMU gave the University exactly one month to divest from fossil fuels. The deadline was reached on Friday 15 April and since then, FFMU launched a continuous series of public actions pressuring the University to divest.

The first of these kicked off on Monday 19 April. Overnight, a tent city sprung up on the lawn outside Raymond Priestly, to the surprise of bleary eyed students on their way to morning classes. Intending to camp out as a method of protest, FFMU erected up to 20 tents, as well as banners and a stall. This was to be their base for the week, where they ran workshops and connected to students and supporters.

Tuesday saw their most public stunt, when nine students got naked and stood on the roof of the Old Quad building, spelling out “Drop Your Ass-ets” on their backs. This referenced their demand that the University freeze new investment in fossil fuel companies and divest from direct or partial ownership of public equities that include fossil fuels within five years.

Rife with metaphors, it catapulted their campaign to national prominence, being covered by both the ABC and Nine News.

Activist Angus Dowell was one of the students who laid down the ‘bare’ truth about the University’s ‘bum’ deal.

“We showed a bit of cheek, but also wanted to be courageous and show the University that this has been an issue for three years. We want them to be as courageous as we’ve been.”

For Angus, it was a nerve-wracking and empowering experience.

“From our position — it went straight up to the administration building — we could see all the administration people staring up, looking at our bare bums,” he said, laughing.

The tipping point of the campaign came on Wednesday, when they shut down the Raymond Priestly building for the day. FFMU activists chained themselves to barrels filled with concrete placed in front of doors to the building, blocking all entrances except for the fire escape. As far as they are aware, no members of university staff entered the building that day.

According to FFMU activist Anastasia Gramatakos, the lock-in was about demonstrating the influence and power students have.

“Business as usual cannot continue the way it’s going. If we continue as business as usual, we will reach catastrophic climate change extremely soon. We need to change the way we invest our money and do business.”

During the more than twelve hours they were locked in, they were asked to move by security guards and at one point, told by police that they could be arrested for besetting and trespassing.

University staff agreed to negotiate at around 6pm that night. After five grueling hours, they came to an agreement.

In exchange for FFMU campaigners packing up their tents, the University made several concessions. A meeting was arranged between Allan Tait and Robert Johanson to discuss divestment.  Allan Tait is the University’s Chief Financial Officer and Robert Johanson is a University Council Member. It is also notable that Robert Johanson is the Independent Director of Bendigo Bank, which divested from Coal and Coal Seam Gas in 2014. After speaking with FFMU, Tait and Johanson will present the case for divestment to the University Council.

The University also agreed to send FFMU all of their perceived barriers to divestment a few days before the consultation takes place. FFMU explained that in previous negotiations the University maintained the upper hand by introducing new reasons against divestment during their meetings. This time, FFMU hope they will be able to plan solutions for any problems with divestment that the University might raise.

Although Anastasia doesn’t think the week has made university decision makers change their minds about divestment, it made it clear how many students and staff support the issue.

“If after all of this they turn around and don’t divest and don’t give us a good reason to, it’d justify our ability to keep this up and build on what we’ve just done.”

While the cardboard letters spelling out DIVEST have now disappeared, nearly as mysteriously as the block letters of the University, the divestment campaign remains as powerful and polarising as ever. Are the arranged meetings just another diversionary-tactic to prolong taking a stance on a contentious issue? Or have FFMU’s fearless efforts finally moved the University to take strong action on climate change?

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