Above photo: Protesters with Fossil Free Penn run from the stands to take over the field during halftime of Saturday’s football game between Penn and Yale at Franklin Field. Heather Khalifa / Staff Photographer.
Penn students, who are a part of the Fossil Free Penn organization, protested onto the field during the Quakers football game, looking for a response from their demands.
Students, parents, and alumni filled Franklin Field Saturday afternoon for University of Pennsylvania’s homecoming game against Yale. But it wasn’t until student protesters flooded the field that a football game — disrupted for about an hour — turned into a message.
Penn’s band was wrapping up its halftime show, and moments before the third quarter was set to begin, protesters rushed the field, holding three banners:
“Save The UC Townhomes”
“Divest from Fossil Fuels”
The protesters occupied the center of the field while security guards swarmed around them. At the top of the stadium, another group of students held a banner where Yale fans sat that asked: “Which side are you on?”
Approximately 75 student protesters, members of the Fossil Free Penn organization, planned the action after an ongoing fight with Penn’s administration over climate issues and community justice.
Penn did not comment on the protest, but the students believe the university knew about it beforehand. Security was high, students said, and the fences put in place to block off the field Saturday “are not normally there,” according to junior Sarah Sterinbach, an environmental studies major.
The protest didn’t go over well with fans. Prior to taking the field, the students handed fans an orange slip of paper stating, “We intend only to delay the game, not end it. We believe Penn can be a champion for climate and community justice.”
During the one-hour delay, people chanted “Get off the field!” and booed the protesters. Many were escorted off by security, but 13 students remained, holding the banners, before the game resumed. Penn would issue a statement later that evening, which read in its entirety:
The intentional disruption of today’s football game was neither an appropriate expression of free speech nor consistent with Penn’s open expression guidelines. It delayed the start of the second half by approximately one-hour, frustrating student-athletes from both schools, disappointing fans and alumni who had come to watch the Homecoming football game.
Further, the student protesters have been afforded multiple opportunities to protest, express their concerns, and genuinely engage in productive dialogue, but have instead continued to find ways to disrupt the operations of the University. The student protesters’ conduct does not advance their policy concerns and impinges upon the rights of others in the community to participate in the life of the campus. Consistent with University policy, any student believed to have been involved in disrupting and delaying today’s football game will be referred to the Office of Community Standards and Accountability.
The University of Pennsylvania supports free speech, thought, inquiry, and lawful assembly. Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression champion these rights while also affirming that University business – such as classes, meetings, games, or speaking events – shall not be infringed upon or disrupted by protests or demonstrations.
Sophomore Sabirah Mahmud, who’s studying international relations, said police told protesters “we’re going to fingerprint, take your pictures, and we’re going to lock you up” if they didn’t get off the field. “This was a police officer screaming at our faces, trying to scare us, acting like we don’t know our rights. That honestly freaked me out.”
Police cuffed the remaining 13 students with zip ties and escorted them out of the stadium. Those students were then put in a police SUV. A Penn police officer declined to say where the students were taken and if they were charged.
Even as other students watched protesters disappear into the SUV, they continued chants such as, “Stop eviction, do something good with Penn tuition.”
The student group has been camping outside of College Green for 39 days to pressure Penn into divesting from fossil fuels, along with other demands regarding environmental justice.
The university did not immediately respond to questions about the group’s presence on College Green or its demands, so the students decided to take matters into their own hands by holding a protest, which isn’t the first time they’ve done so.
“We know that Penn had the inauguration this week, with new president Liz Magill coming in and they wanted us off,” Mahmud said. “They did not expect us to stay this long. But here we are. We are still there.
“We recognize that at the homecoming game there’s a bunch of people there. There are rich alumni. We want them to take it seriously.”
The students are also seeking action from Penn’s administration to help primarily Black and Latino families facing displacement from the nearby low-income UC Townhomes. Residents of UC Townhomes have until the end of the year to find new housing.
And Penn for PILOTs is pushing the university to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to help city schools.
In November 2020, Penn announced it would donate $100 million over 10 years to the Philadelphia School District to remediate environmental hazards. But the students have questions regarding this donation, since it is not considered a PILOT, they said.
Sterinbach said by storming the field, students weren’t trying to upset the fans, football players or cheerleaders on the special game day, but rather were hoping to catch the attention of Magill and other members of the board of trustees.
“Public pressure is something we’re hoping for and alumni pressure,” Sterinbach said. “We’re showing Penn we are not going to stop fighting until we get these demands [met].”