A few months ago, Omar Elsakhawy was finishing up high school in Orlando, Fla. He hadn’t heard of Fossil Free Penn, and he certainly hadn’t anticipated spending hours tabling, speechwriting, and occupying the central green space at his new school to demand action against the climate crisis. Now, he takes the helm at a press conference with vigor, pointing his megaphone in the face of tight-lipped administrators standing at the edge of the encampment at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Community control! Not oil, not coal!” Elsakhawy shouts into a megaphone. He paces back and forth across a growing circle of students and spectators framed by painted cardboard signs, a half dozen tents, and a banner with the words “FOSSIL FREE PENN” under bright orange X. “When we are under attack, what do we do?” Elsakhawy cries. “Stand up fight back!” the crowd echoes.
Fossil Free Penn is far from alone—it is just the first of dozens of youth-led organizations occupying college campuses to demand an end of universities’ investment in fossil fuels. Over the summer, students across the globe connected under End Fossil, an organization coordinating indefinite occupations of educational institutions beginning this fall. The expected pushback will ensure that the students are in for a long semester. Fossil Free Penn members have already faced intimidation by school administrators and campus security, reinforced by the crushing weight of the fossil fuel industry. But the movement spans four continents and hundreds of student organizers, each with their own school-specific demands to advance climate justice.
“The internationalist perspective is one of the essential parts for social movements and for the climate justice movement,” says Matilde Alvim, a 20-year-old climate organizer and student in Lisbon, Portugal. Alvim has been advocating climate action since high school, when she participated in Fridays for Future, an international school strike started by Greta Thunberg. She was drawn to climate activism in 2018 when hundreds of protesters rallied against oil and gas exploration in Portugal.
“[My advocacy] evolved from oil drills to a more systemic perspective. ‘What is climate justice, and what needs to change in the system?’” Alvim says. Portugal is a small country, but its students should not be underestimated when it comes to climate justice, she explains.
In January 2022, Alvim planned an international climate activist conference in Lisbon with Climáximo, where the group connected with youth climate leaders from around the globe. The activists put their heads together and came to two realizations: The climate justice movement needed rapid escalation, and this could only be carried out with a sustained, replicable form of protest.
“In 2018, everyone was talking about climate…the Overton Window really shifted,” Alvim says. “But with each year that passes, more radical action is needed. So we thought, ‘You are a student, you go to a school or university, so you can occupy it.’”
In the summer of 2022, Alvim and a fellow organizer spent three weeks touring the United States, meeting with youth organizers to recruit for their global vision. Upon visiting Philadelphia, they stayed the night with a West Philly–based crew of climate activists they’d connected with over e-mail: Fossil Free Penn. The group was already familiar with campus occupation. In April of 2022, Fossil Free Penn staged a six-day encampment on Penn’s College Green—the same space they’ve been currently occupying for last two weeks.
The first encampment, the same homely cluster of tents surrounded by hand painted banners and flyer-covered tables, captured the interest of the student body and stoked camaraderie among the coordinators. Partnering with local movements for housing and education justice, the spring encampment presented five categories of demands centered around divestment from the fossil fuel industry and investment in local community repair.
Sophomore Eug Xu approached the first encampment with trepidation—their prior experience with climate justice movements had been “overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly individualistic.” However, they quickly warmed to Fossil Free Penn’s community. “I felt very at home in the space because of what we were all fighting for as a unit,” Xu says. “This was a way for me to get involved in something that I really care deeply about but had trouble advocating for in the previous part of my life.”
Although the students grew into a tight-knit family, the first encampment wasn’t easy. At night, protesters faced harassment from security and administrators—university officials opened tents, shone flashlights inside, and grabbed a sleeping student. After students were granted a meeting with the university’s interim president and the tents came down, the organizers went through a lengthy disciplinary process that eventually required sympathetic professors to argue for the students’ right to open expression.
Going into the second encampment, coordinators prioritized students’ health and safety. They organized shifts for staying the night, consulted professors about disciplinary action, researched the sprinklers on College Green, and packed the encampment’s schedule full of community events. Their demands also shifted: The University should donate funds to save the residents of a nearby affordable housing complex from eviction; the university should divest from fossil fuels, and the university, a nonprofit that doesn’t pay property taxes, should fork over Payments in Lieu of Taxes to help fund Philadelphia public schools.
Xu, now one of Fossil Free Penn’s coordinators, says the encampment is more prepared to engage the student body and face backlash the second time around, but administrators’ intimidation tactics “have absolutely changed this year.”
Elsakhawy knows this firsthand. In the early days of the second encampment, the first-year student approached the Fossil Free Penn table out of curiosity. He chatted with the coordinators, then took a seat on the grass beside them to work on some homework. Less than an hour later, an administrator walked up to the encampment, pointed a camera at him, and demanded his student ID. The coordinators surrounded Elsakhawy to shield him from view, and the administrator told him that he could either stay and communicate the details of his student ID, or leave the encampment. Elsakhawy stayed but refused to give his ID information. The administrator took a photo of him instead.
“I refused to give my ID because I didn’t know why they wanted the ID— they didn’t properly explain it at all,” he says. “I believe she was being purposely vague in order to intimidate me.… I later learned that the reason is to identify you for the disciplinary hearing.”
Last year, almost a dozen students faced a disciplinary hearing together with the support of professors, but this year, the university insists that every student have a separate hearing. Xu argues that the students haven’t broken any rules by engaging in a protest, and that administrators shouldn’t be assuming “guilty until proven innocent.”
“The Administration believes the students have violated a number of University policies and not complied with reasonable time, place, and manner conditions,” said the University of Pennsylvania when responding to a request for comment. “The matter has been referred to Community Standards and Accountability to assess.” The representative also clarified that in 2021, the university made commitments to reduce “the net greenhouse gas emissions from Penn’s endowment investments to zero by 2050,” and cease “any new commitments to private equity vehicles dedicated to investments in fossil fuel production.” However, Xu counters that the university still has almost $1 billion currently invested in the fossil fuel industry that should be divested.
Despite terse interactions with administrators and advancing disciplinary hearing procedures, the students remain hopeful. This movement is bigger than themselves, at least several hundred students bigger, and they’re not leaving until their demands are met. “It may seem like what we’re doing here is small-scale, but all of [our demands] are global questions.” Xu says. “The $1 billion Penn has invested in the fossil fuel industry is going to hurt people in the Global South. That is something that we have to be very acutely aware of.”
In the next few months, students at dozens of universities across the world will join the occupation, with schools in Lisbon—including Alvim’s own—beginning in November. She says that this fall marks her school’s first occupation, but that she’s been learning from the work of other groups like Fossil Free Penn.
“History also gives us a lot of examples of moments when students were really powerful, [to the point where] workers and the rest of society joined in,” Alvim says. “It’s not only about students, but we must do our own part, our dues as youth.”