Andrés Gonzalez–Bonillas (C ‘23) is one of two students currently facing disciplinary proceedings from Penn’s administration after the Convocation protest in August 2022, despite over 100 protestors taking part in the action. They're one of the most visible organizers on campus through their involvement with Police Free Penn and the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes—and their activism is motivated by a desire for justice and a keen sense of empathy. Yet despite the doom and gloom of our capitalist world, he manages to navigate it all with kindness and humor, taking everything in stride while also holding Penn accountable for the violence it perpetrates against its surrounding community.
Name: Andrés Gonzalez–Bonillas
Hometown: Chandler, Ariz.
Extracurriculars: Kelly Writers House, The Excelano Project, La Casa Latina, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA de Penn), Police Free Penn, Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes
On campus, you’re pretty well–known for your activism and the work you do for your community. What motivates your activism and community organizing?
I’m an English major focusing on postcolonial literature and theory—the things that I was learning about were immediately applicable to the world around me. Growing up, we came up during Trayvon Martin and other events that pulled people towards not only social justice, but also towards activism. Then 2020 happened—that was a huge catalyst for a ton of people to get really involved. It also brought this idea of police and prison abolition to my attention a lot more.
I knew that as a Penn student, I had a place where I could be politically active and that my voice would carry a certain weight. Police Free Penn was the responsible place for me to actually make some difference, and it allowed me to call out the institution that I and a lot of other people benefit from.
And could you elaborate on your involvement with Police Free Penn?
I was living back in Arizona—it was the COVID semesters, and we were totally online. But I was able to get involved. We started book clubs for our members and for people throughout the U.S. We got to organize a lot during 2020. But right now, since the UC Townhomes stuff started, that's been where most of our energy is going because that is what's immediately necessary. This is violence that's happening right here, and the University just wants to turn around and not do anything about it. We need to make sure that they know that they are responsible to the community that surrounds them. Even though this work isn't specifically anti–police or anti–prison, it is pro–people—which is anti–police and anti–prison.
Part of abolitionism is creating a world where you don't need police and prisons, and that includes a world where housing is free and a guaranteed right for all people. As students and faculty at Penn, and as community members, we are people who benefit from a place that has taken a lot from its surrounding community. The University has taken so much in terms of land, money, and resources. It has displaced people. It has created one of the most heavily policed areas in the city, having the largest private police force in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It's our responsibility to make sure that this violence stops where it is, and that we can try to minimize any more violence that happens. The University doesn't seem to be keen on that idea, as we've seen with their reaction to the organizing of both the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes and Fossil Free Penn.
Going off of that, how did it feel to be one of the two students singled out by the University for the Convocation protest?
I didn't identify myself that day. I'm gonna put that out there right now. I'm always trying to be careful with my language because I haven't had my meeting with administration. While we were at the protest, I was asked for my PennCard. I refused, as is my right. But they still identified me, which is really strange, because how were they able to if they did not already have my name and image somewhere?
There were also a ton of other students with me. By singling me out, what they're saying is that my actions alone stopped Convocation—and that's just not true. This was a huge protest from community members, students, faculty that came through on a public space and said, “No, you are going to hear us because you have a responsibility to the community, and you should put up funds to help this community that you've taken so much from.” Singling me out showed me that the University would rather worry about punishing students than worry about actually sitting down with the residents of the People's Townhomes.
Switching gears, could you tell me more about your involvement with Kelly Writers House?
I'm the events photographer at Kelly Writers House. I've been working there since freshman year. Whenever I'm working, if there's an event, you'll see me taking pictures. It’s very chill—I love the community here. It's given me a lot of support; I think it's a very special place. It's one of the places on campus where I feel like I can just hang out. It's a beautiful space. Also, it has been completely open to the public, which is something that I love about Kelly Writers House, and it has great events. As a writer, poet, and English major, it has stuff that I really care about, and I enjoy being a part of it.
And for you, how do writing and activism work together?
So for me, during the lockdown like many others, I read a lot. I read a lot of different political theory and literary theory like Fanon, George Jackson, Assata Shakur, the Zapatistas, Domitilla Chúngara—just different people around the world, especially in the Global South that had a lot of really, really good political ideas about the nature of American imperialism and colonialism. Reading informed how I came to my ideology, but you can't just read. You can't just inform yourself. You have to actually be out in the streets and try to bring attention to these issues.
With Police Free Penn, we're making a statement because people's lives are on the line. We need to make sure that people everywhere know about these issues. We want to communicate that Penn or the city—whoever—has to listen to the people and give reparations. This stuff is so evil. It's so heartbreaking that people are being evicted just to make somebody $100 million. Whatever they build there will probably benefit Penn students—but at what cost? One of the big things with the UC Townhomes struggle is that we're not going to let this stuff go anymore, and we never should have let this stuff go. Because the cost of us having all these benefits and being in the city is violence and displacement. And that has to stop.
Switching gears again, looking back at your time at Penn, what are you most proud of?
I'm most proud that I found a community that uplifts me and that I feel at home with, despite what the university is built around. I think I speak for a lot of students of color when I say that being here is really hard. Being here is a huge challenge, especially knowing that Penn is not a place that's built for us, and knowing that it is not a place that even pretends to try and make up for what it’s done to people of color. For La Casa Latina, we just got ARCH. But that's not what we asked for. We asked for a house on Locust Walk. And that's not what they gave us. But I have found places where I do feel like a priority. I do feel like I’ve found a real, genuine community despite whatever Penn is doing.
Another thing I’m proud of is just making it. There were a lot of times where I—very often still—didn’t want to be here. And I think finally getting through college is something I'm very proud of. But I’m not proud of it in the sense that “Oh, Penn is such a great place.” It’s in the sense that I've done so much in spite of the fact this place does not care about me. And I made it out anyway. I think that is something that I'm definitely gonna carry with me for sure.
What have we forgotten to ask about?
Fossil Free Penn. They've been out here for like a month. Lots of admiration for them. Everyone is there, every day. They're doing amazing, amazing work. Admin is trying to get them with the same type of disciplinary process they're getting me with. That’s not right—they are trying to call out the University and they are using their First Amendment right. And the University is going to lie—they lied to the DP about FFP not wanting to take the meeting. But that's not true. They did ask for a meeting.
The Save the UC Townhomes Coalition also just came out with a really great article. I hope everybody reads it. There’s been a lot of misconceptions about the organization in the media, and it’s shown through the daily interactions that we have with people. People say, “Penn’s not responsible for this, why are you guys trying to call them out?” or “What's Penn going to do about this?,” but Penn has a responsibility to our community and we wrote down exactly why. Anyone that was at a BLM protest over the summer, we better see you out here. These issues did not go away, because a couple of years have passed—this is the same stuff. Displacement is a racial issue. It is a class issue. The University doesn’t want working class Black and Latino families here. We need to be telling Penn, “No, this is their home.” We need to respect that and embrace these people as our neighbors. We should be paying PILOTs because that’s money that goes directly back to the community, and not just to Penn Alexander or the other schools that they’re partnering with.
What’s next for you after Penn?
You know, like all of us, I've been doing school since I was six, seven years old. I don't want to do school. I want to chill. I want to maybe work in a bookstore or work at the Free Library, or maybe even substitute teaching. I want to stick around in Philly for a few years. I like it here. I want to just prioritize rest, because I think that's something that we're not taught to do.
Last song you listened to? “Method Man” by Wu–Tang Clan.
No–skip album? I have so many. The Vince Staples albums are amazing—Ramona Park Broke My Heart and Vince Staples. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Los Reyes De Los Sonidos—it's like a compilation of different cumbia artists.
The actor who would play you in a movie? People say I look like Jordan Fisher, which I don't know if I agree with, especially because my hair's longer now. But I think that's the only person that comes to mind.
If you were to describe yourself as a building on campus, which would it be and why?
I don’t like any of them, but if I were to pick one it would be Kelly Writers House because that’s the only building I feel super comfortable in. Or if La Casa had a house, that house. We deserve a house.
There are two types of people at Penn…
There are people that hate Penn and people who are annoying.
And you are?
I hate Penn!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.