Macalester College Students: Sour Beans, No; Divestment, Yes

In a dramatic escalation of a year-long effort by students to get Macalester College to divest the college’s finances from Wells Fargo Bank, 15 students at the Saint Paul-based liberal arts college occupied the office of college President Brian Rosenberg Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning, the sit-in in the college’s Weyerhauser Building was continuing, with administrators moving their operations to another building and students expanding their sit-in from Rosenberg’s office to the entire building as they continue to demand that the college move Macalester’s investments out of the national bank and into a community bank.

College administrators have not responded to the sit-in except to offer jelly beans to the students. Sour jelly beans.

Despite the genteel offer of candy and a tradition of polite protests at Mac, the students say they are serious about their protest and determined to get Macalester to change its ways, which they argue supports a bank whose behavior during the ongoing foreclosure crisis has been “negligent and immoral.”

The sit-in followed a year-long “Kick Wells Fargo Off Campus” (KWOC) campaign by students, activist groups and homeowners facing foreclosure. The activists allege that Wells Fargo — a target of homeowner protests across the country — profits from the foreclosure crisis and that Macalester, which runs its purchasing card system through Wells Fargo, enables the bank’s practices.

According to student Sarah Knispel, a sophomore from New York who was among the 15 students occupying Rosenberg’s office Tuesday, the sit-in began after students’ demands were rebuffed by college officials who informed them that the school has decided not to divest from Wells Fargo. Macalester confirmed that it has decided to leave the current arrangement in place. David Wheaton, Vice President for Finance and Administration, sent a letter to the KWOC student leaders that said, “In the end, we concluded that singling out Wells Fargo and moving a small piece of the college’s banking business is not the right course of action for us.”

Rosenberg is on an out-of-town trip today. He is generally well liked by students on campus, and in posters and signs calling for divestment from Wells Fargo, he is familiarly referred to as “PBR” (President Brian Rosenberg). But PBR is not a call for beer. It’s a call for the school president to join with activists and rebuke a big bank that has had a hand in putting thousands of distressed families on the streets.

“The administration would rather abandon their offices than listen to student voices, so we decided to take over the whole building,” said Leewana Thomas, who was arrested in February with three other Macalester students protesting Wells Fargo’s policies.

Students who had been sitting in in front of President Rosenberg’s office moved down to the first floor to meet other students and community members who stayed the night with them.

“It’s embarrassing that President Rosenberg left town at this moment of crisis instead of staying on campus to show the kind of leadership we expect from Macalester College,” said Knispel. “I’m excited by the support we’ve gotten since we began the sit-in, and I’m confident that students won’t give up on this important issue.”

After administrative staff left the building where Rosenberg’s office is housed, and campus security locked its doors to prevent anyone else from entering, several dozen Macalester students and activists held a spirited rally outside Weyerhaeuser Hall in support of their comrades locked in the building. The sit-in comes weeks after four Macalester students were arrested in an act of civil disobedience near Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

“We plan to stay (in Rosenberg’s office) until we get a pledge in writing from an administrator that the contract with Wells Fargo will be terminated,” Knispel said from other side of the locked door.

Activist groups supporting the Macalester sit-in include Occupy Homes MN, which helps Twin Cities homeowners defend their homes against foreclosure and eviction, and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a coalition of faith, labor, and community groups.

“Wells Fargo has foreclosed on the most homes in Minnesota,” said Macalester student Rebecca Hornstein, who was arrested in February while protesting Wells Fargo’s policies. “They’re responsible for the destruction of our communities. Thousands of families have been left homeless due to their greed. Dozens of schools across the state have had to close their doors because of this crisis. I’m a product of Minneapolis public schools, and they can’t afford to lose any more money than they’ve lost already.”

Hornstein’s father is Minnesota State Representative Frank Hornstein, himself a Macalester alum who took part in campus sit-ins during the 1980s to protest apartheid and encourage divestment from South Africa. Frank. Hornstein spoke to the crowd outside Weyerhaeuser Hall Tuesday about Macalester’s long history of student activism.

“You are building on a tradition of social justice activists that goes way back,” Rep. Hornstein told the crowd. “Justice never comes easy. But when it comes, you will send a message all across this country. This is a national story. … Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand’.”

The last time Macalester students occupied the president’s office was reportedly in 2001, as part of a nationwide college campus campaign against sweat shops.

Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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