Home News Explainer: US Campus Protests, Demands and Deals

Explainer: US Campus Protests, Demands and Deals

Over the past month, demonstrators have gathered in at least 72 US universities to protest Israel's war against the Gaza Strip. What do they want and what have they reached so far?

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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A wave of protests from the East to the West coast, expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people, spread across US university campuses last month. 

Students have set up tent encampments on campuses around the US to press colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. 

The protests focused intensely on university endowments--the vast financial holdings that fund anything from financial aid to new buildings. 

Students Demands

The protesters want their universities to be transparent in their funding resources and disclose and sell off their investments in companies that fund Israel's war on Gaza. 

Columbia University protesters, for example, have a broad list of divestment targets, including Google, Amazon, and Airbnb.

Other protesters at universities are targeting defense-related companies and weapon manufacturers. Cornell University protesters are calling for divestments from companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Violent Dispersal of Encampments 

Over 3,000 people have been arrested at the pro-Palestinian protests in at least 61 colleges and universities over the past month. 

The protest movement was sparked at New York’s Columbia University on 17 April when students pitched tents in the middle of campus and began rallying in support of Palestinians in Gaza.

Police dismantled the weeks-long encampment and forcibly removed people occupying an academic building, sparking a wider wave of protests among students and academics. 

In Los Angeles, fireworks were hurled as counter-protesters sprayed chemical substances onto a pro-Palestinian encampment and attempted to tear down wooden boards and metal barricades. Several protesters were also beaten on the ground. The school’s student newspaper said “hundreds” had been arrested, including students and members of faculty.

The raid came after UCLA was the site of some of the worst violence seen in the protests. 

“I no longer feel safe on campus, I feel shocked, disappointed, and angry. Police and university administrators are not considerate. They allowed it to happen. It is disgusting. How can you be a university chancellor and allow hours of attacks on students on your watch?  I think they let things get out of hand on purpose as a tactic to call the police to get rid of us,” a student and member of the UC Divest Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine encampment at UCLA who was in the encampment and an eyewitness to the clashes and violence, told Inc. Arabia on condition of anonymity.

Professors also targeted 

A union for academic workers in the University of California system announced an ongoing strike challenging the system’s handling of pro-Palestinian demonstrations until the end of June.

The announcement came on the same day that U.C.L.A.’s chancellor, Gene D. Block, testified before Congress about his handling of a violent attack on an encampment there last month by counterprotesters.

The walkout involves about 2,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and researchers. 

The calls for Boycott and Divest are not new 

In 2005, 170 Palestinian civil society groups came together to initiate a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Many student organizations, academic associations, and other kinds of groups later embraced the initiative. They also stem from broader concerns around Israel’s long-running blockade of Gaza and half-century of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza

Did Divest Work Before?

During the 1970s and 1980s, students at Columbia and other universities successfully pressed administrators to sell off investments in companies doing business with South Africa over the country's apartheid policies.

Since the 2010s, students have successfully called for some universities to divest themselves from companies tied to fossil fuels or to freeze their investments in that sector, including at Syracuse University.

What have the Students Achieved so far?

Columbia undergraduates voted on whether the school should divest from Israel, close the planned academic center in Tel Aviv, and end a dual-degree program with Tel Aviv University. 76.5 percent support divestment and only 9.8 percent oppose it. 

In New York, the board of trustees of the Union Theological Seminary, endorsed a plan to divest from “companies profiting from the war in Palestine/Israel."

Portland State University administrators agreed to pause its relationship with Boeing, which is a military contractor as well as a civilian aircraft manufacturer.

Northwestern University said in the text of its deal with protesters, that it will "answer questions from any internal stakeholder about specific holdings to the best of its knowledge and to the extent legally possible."

Back in UCLA, the protester who spoke to us said the university administration didn’t negotiate their demands or give any concessions. “There is a feeling of uneasiness on campus now, especially for anyone who wears any symbol of solidarity like the Palestinian scarf, the kiffeya. It is not only us supporting Palestine, also people of color, it is scary how everyone who is different feels like a target.”

But that is not the scariest thing that happened. “A lot of my colleagues in the encampment got in trouble, some got arrested, others got their offer letters withdrawn; they were graduating and had offers with law firms to work with, and others lost their jobs. The injustice is so clear.”

The protester doesn’t regret her stance though and says she will continue to peacefully protest until the university hears her and votes to divest. “I am the daughter of an immigrant family, and they feel that I am putting myself at risk, and I am, but if I don’t do it, who will?”

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