By Christiana Freitag & Jessica Pink
The sun was peeking up over Wilson Hall on an early Saturday morning in April. The JMU Quad was flooded with students awaiting a speech from President Alger to kick off a day of community service. Volunteers handed out purple t-shirts, students sat in the grass socializing and a cappella singers gathered on the steps of Wilson Hall.
Unexpectedly heard among the chaos was the familiar tune, “Here Comes The Bride”, playing loudly on a speaker in front of Alumnae Hall. Heads turned in the direction of the abrupt music, as the crowd noticed a blonde girl walking in step with the tune. With her face painted black and wearing a matching black dress, she tossed dollar bills like flower petals down the walkway as she approached the ceremony across the Quad. As she walked up the steps, the girl in black passed a basket of orange clementines with “Quad 4/10” written on each in magic marker. April 10 was the following Monday. Three students held a large banner splashed with paint that displayed the names of the “bride” and “groom”: “JMU + Fossil Fuels.”
Amelia Morrison, dressed in a purple robe, spoke into a microphone and led the wedding as the officiant. “The couple soon became partners in business and in crime,” Amelia announced. She joined the hands of the groom, with fossil fuel logos taped to his top hat and one-hundred dollar bills falling out of his pockets, with those of the bride, dressed in a purple and gold gown.
Amelia addressed the crowd, asking if anyone objected to the union. Elise, a tall brunette with curly hair, stood to the side and took photos of what was happening. In response to Amelia, Elise and the other students holding the banner, dressed in black and orange, chanted “Free JMU!” Ignoring the shouts, Amelia sarcastically stated, “Great, well I see there are no objections! Let the wedding proceed.”
This demonstration, a form of “Guerrilla Theatre,” or impromptu theatre, was organized by an activist group called Divest JMU, a student-led campaign aimed at pushing James Madison University to remove its investments from fossil fuel companies. Beginning in the fall of 2014, six close activists decided to start their own group called the Climate Justice Coalition, including Rosie Lynch, the “bride” of the Quad wedding, which transformed into the Divest campaign.
For the past two and a half years, Divest JMU worked alongside JMU to convince the university’s endowment to remove investments from the fossil fuel industry.
The Foundation conducted a feasibility study and once completed, Amelia received an email in February 2017 from them, wishing to discuss their decision on the matter. After a year’s worth of collaboration, the Foundation told the group they had rejected their proposal because “it was incompatible with their investment strategy.”
In the weeks following the rejection, the group shifted its strategy from collaborating with the administration to organizing a series of protests and demonstrations. In March, the group chained themselves to one another to signify the chains that bind JMU to fossil fuels and dropped a banner that read: “More than 1000 Dukes said yes, and you said no. Divest JMU” in and around populated campus locations.
On March 22, Amelia led a meeting in preparation for their big protest on 4/10. “What we’re doing hasn’t worked,” admitted Amelia, regarding the past protests. “That’s because our campus is not very politically engaged at all,” reasoned Rosie.
One week before the (4/10) protest on the quad, Amelia and Quintin worked on an awareness video to educate JMU students on their mission. They sat in an ISAT study-room and chose “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers as the song to convey their message. The lyrics I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier played as photos of Divest members at sit-ins and protests filled the screen.
Divest released the awareness video on Facebook and received over 1,000 views with the message “Join us for teaching, connecting, and building solidarity tomorrow from 11-3.” The members of Divest set up their tents that evening to camp out in protest on the quad, but were asked to leave by campus security.
The following Monday morning, 4/10, Amelia, along with her fellow Divest members, arrived at the Quad at 8 a.m. sharp to get their day of protest started.
The JMU Quad was flooded with students scurrying to and from class. It was a warm 70 degree day, which meant a campus alive with students studying and socializing. But this morning was especially busy with the addition of hundreds of prospective students and their families visiting the campus for CHOICES. Families clustered around a white sign for "west campus tours" near the steps of Wilson Hall.
And on the opposite end of the steps about 10 students, dressed not in purple, but in orange, handed out free bagels and the clementines that read “Quad 4/10.”
A few parents wandered off momentarily from their tours to see what the commotion was about.
Quintin and other Divest members informed curious onlookers of their campaign while Amelia, dressed in an orange floral dress, circled the area playing her guitar to the tune of “Revolution” by The Beatles.
Aware of the cautious glances from CHOICES coordinators, Amelia delayed setting up their tents and other materials until later that afternoon.
The sun was beating down on the JMU quad. Amelia laid out her orange elephant tapestry and acoustic guitar to get ready for a day of protests, awareness and teach-ins. She laid a large canvas and various paint colors out on the grass and launched the protest by painting a wave across the canvas. “It represents what the world could be if we ‘divest’,” Amelia said.
To kick off the day, the members of Divest gathered in a half circle and began chanting a song about climate change. People gonna rise like the water, we’re gonna calm this crisis down. Rosie in her overalls and orange shirt clapped and passionately sang, I hear the voice of my great granddaughter saying shut down Wall Street now. One member, Frank Marazzo, sat on the steps to the right with his guitar in hand.
Frank grew up in an environmentally conscious family but it wasn’t until he came to college that he became an advocate for climate justice. “I meditated for the first time on mushrooms and that was the most peaceful place I’ve ever been. I think that was the moment,” Frank confessed about his mental shift to take action.
Two others stood behind the half circle holding the large canvas banner and singing along.
Following the chant, Ally Fisher, an economics major, read “Dear Matafele Peinem”, a poem written by a woman suffering the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands. Ally passionately read the poem aloud as students walking on the quad paused to listen. “No one’s drowning, baby. No one’s moving. No one’s losing their homeland. No one gonna become a climate change refugee.” Quintin leaned on the steps listening to Ally while he held a poster saying, “Divest JMU. Climate Change Kills.” Elise, with her camera, captured the moment.
Ally concluded and was soon followed by Amelia who stood up to read an excerpt from the novel, “Great Tide Rising”, another piece of climate change literature. The members, along with an elderly local, Cathy Strickler, clapped for the two after sharing their readings. She and her husband Charlie are climate change activists in Harrisonburg and supporters of Divest.
As the afternoon came to a gradual close, Amelia, Ally and Marian Phillips sat in the grass alongside the protest art and conversed while snacking on chips and salsa. Ally was telling the two about how she’d learned to make her own vegan shampoo while Marian, the “flower girl” from the wedding, with her face still painted black, quietly ate her sandwich. Frank sat off to the side and played his guitar some more while answering questions about their campaign to an interested student.