Harvard Climate Justice Coalition: diverse campaigning tactics

guardian harvard

 

I read this article today, which tells the story of the “Harvard Climate Justice Coalition”, a group of students at Harvard, the second best university in the world (and the richest), and how they are trying to influence their institution to stop investing in fossil fuel companies.

I hadn’t seen coverage of this before today – a quick Google shows that this is the only UK-based story on this at present. This might be because the tactics going on up to now were fairly ‘typical’, including a sit in at the President’s office, an open letter signed by over 200 Harvard academics and social media presence to tell the world about these actions and drum up support:

The article gives us the text from a Harvard spokesman’s statement on the sit-ins that happened last week:

We are deeply disappointed that divestment advocates have chosen to resort to a disruptive building occupation as a means to advance their view. Such tactics cross the line from persuasion to disrespectful and coercive interference with the activities of others.

This clearly displays Harvard’s position on what is a ‘standard’ student campaign tactic, a sit-in. Well, Harvard, hold onto those hats (mortarboards?!), because in addition to the ‘standard’ tactics a student campaign might use, the Coalition are also – unusually – taking the university to court in an attempt to compel it to cease investing in industry responsible for climate change.

On their website, the campaigners give more information about Harvard Climate Justice Coalition v. Harvard:

we allege that the Corporation’s funding of global warming harms its students and future generations, and that Harvard’s leaders have a duty to divest the university’s endowment from the reckless activities of the oil, gas, and coal industries.

Legal challenges can sometimes be a useful tactic for campaigning groups, for example Disabled Rights UK assisting disabled people to take discrimination cases to court with the help of solicitors, or Just For Kids Law. However legal action can become too expensive for vulnerable groups without significant financial support, and legislative change isn’t going to be suitable for all types of campaigns (e.g. most of those focusing on individual behaviour change).

In the Harvard case, the students aren’t using lawyers, but instead bringing the case themselves. Some of them are law students, so may have some knowledge needed to fight the case, but they are up against a hugely powerful organisation that is almost a byword for legal prowess. With the case costing $3000 to bring, they are financing their action via crowdfunding.

The Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, to me, look like a David to Harvard’s Goliath here, which might be where I imagine they will be able to create interest within new groups. It’s a slightly unusual, very public, high-stakes tactic with a well-known story, and this should create some great news hooks. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Suffolk County Courthouse come Friday, and if/how it is reported.

Aside

No porn protests please, we’re British

I saw a few articles this weekend about a protest against changes the Government has made to porn regulations in the UK and wanted to jot down my thoughts on it. It seems to be a good case study for a number of the themes I’ve explored on the MA Media, Campaigning and Social Change course so far:

– protests don’t tend to get much coverage in the media at the moment (see my media bias blogpost for more analysis on why this might be) – so why was this one? Was it the unusual nature of it? Sit-ins are part of the ‘regular’ campaign lexicon, but I’ve never seen a face-sitting protest before! As it turns out, I shouldn’t have doubted the media in this case – some reports stated they outnumbered protesters four to one. I suppose sex, like conflict, sells. This is a strength of the campaign at the moment, but I’m unsure if it will continue to be…

– thinking about framing: in the context of British public life, which is often considered prudish and uncomfortable with sexuality, I’m not sure what kind of framing or storytelling this kind of campaign could use, while remaining ‘acceptable’ to the general public. It seemed to be playing on a humourous or “shock-value” angle (or at least that’s how the media were presenting it), but the participants/organisers also talked about core issues of government censorship, personal freedom, consumer choice, supporting British industry and moralising by the state. These are all things that could appeal to motivational values as discussed by Chris Rose [1], and so inspire support, without even mentioning porn.

ethics of campaigning was brought back into focus. As with campaigns involving bare bodies and fake blood for PETA, or pictures of graphic war injuries, would a protest like this be deemed offensive, particularly to families or tourists visiting Westminster? I am sure this would have been considered and I would imagine they felt, as I do, that sometimes offending the public is a necessary step. In this case it could even have been the aim of the protest in ensuring that it was talked about. However, deliberate offence could discourage people from participating or even engaging with the protest.

– leading on from this, the group of protesters used costume and the names they gave to the media to create a strong collective identity. I wonder if the current approach could alienate potential members of this collective, as it’s current identity relies on stories of perceived deviance and behaviour at odds with what might be considered ‘decent’ by the general public? This links with Polletta’s analysis on collectivism through storytelling [2].

– I wonder, if this campaign continues, whether this group will continue to use such visible methods or move to looking at lower-profile tactics involving legal work or direct engagement with power-holders? Particularly as there is bound to be some backlash against such bold and different action.

This campaign will be interesting to follow and hopefully revisit, as it places core societal values alongside non-mainstream actions and it’s framing is not as straightforward as some other campaigns I’ve seen due to this. I also think depending on how it develops, the media response could be entertaining – particularly in more traditional outlets such as the “stiff upper lip” BBC. I’ll also be looking out for the response of power-holders: will they be able to ignore this kind of action?

I’d be interested to hear other people’s take on this one too – is it’s unusual and sensational topic a strength or a weakness do you think? Will the media lose interest if they continue with similar actions or is this their only hope for coverage?

 


1. Rose, C. (2010), “How to Win Campaigns”, 2nd Ed, Routledge, p71

2. Polletta, F. (1998), “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements”, Qualitative Sociology, 21:4, pp. 419-446