This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:
Students at the University of New Mexico introduce a divestment resolution targeting corporations that profit from human rights violations in Palestine and at the US-Mexico border; we’ll speak to a student activist in Albuquerque about the hearing scheduled for Wednesday night. Read transcript and listen to individual segment
Anti-boycott resolution fails in the Illinois state senate, but Florida and Maryland are considering similar bills; we’ll talk to attorney Dima Khalidi of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support about these attacks on academic freedom and free speech. Read transcript and listen to individual segment
The Electronic Intifada podcast is available on iTunes! Click here to view the podcast archive, or subscribe via the iTunes interface (search for The Electronic Intifada).
Listen to the entire Electronic Intifada podcast:
Danya Mustafa: Divestment has been [in] the thought process of all SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] students, or SJP activists, for a while, I’d say a couple of years. But we started getting more mobilized in terms of making sure that we have a coalition base when we present this divestment resolution. We really wanted to make sure that we had a lot of people coming to this meeting, and we worked with organizations such as MEChA and UNM Dream Team to make sure that it’s very inclusive of our other organizations.
This past semester, we worked diligently on making sure that this resolution was ready to go for our student senate, and we originally wanted to have this resolution go through during Israeli Apartheid Week, which was a couple of weeks ago, but because of format delays, we had to extend it to this week — which actually turned out to be a crazy week — but at the same time, we’ve been able to mobilize people like none other before.
Pretty much what we’re asking for in our divestment resolution are three demands, mainly. Our first demand is that we want our university to divest funds [if they are invested] from companies or corporations that profit off of human rights violations in Palestine-Israel, but also those same companies also profit off human rights violations here at the border. And New Mexico is a border state, so this really hits home to us.
And our second demand is — because our university, even though it is a public institution, it is very hard to find where our university is invested in. There’s really no transparency. So we’re asking our university to be more transparent and letting us know where they’re invested in.
Our third demand is that we’re asking our university to have a socially responsible investment committee in place with student representation. The reason being is that in 1985, after the UNM regents fully divested from South African apartheid, one of the regents called for a socially responsible investment committee. That was in 1985, and it’s 2014 and there’s still no such thing. So we’re making sure that we want to hold our school accountable and we want to be able to have a say in where our money is invested.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Danya, you mentioned that there’s not a lot of transparency between the board of regents and the companies that they invest your tuition into. Is there any way that you’ve identified any of the companies that work either to violate human rights in Palestine or here on the US-Mexico border?
DM: Right. One of our main corporations that we can see evidence that our university is invested in is Hewlett-Packard. And that’s apparent throughout the university. So that was our first ask: divest from Hewlett-Packard if our university is invested in it, and actually we found some portfolios that actually have evidence that we are heavily invested in Hewlett-Packard.
In New Mexico, we made the assumption that a lot of our investments might be into corporations that deal with the military industrial complex. Because New Mexico is one of the leading states in manufacturing weapons and surveillance technology, so we added in Elbit Systems to the resolution. We added in G4S, because of the heavy presence of ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. G4S is a company that helps transport undocumented people to deport them. And they also privatize prisons here along the border for undocumented immigrants.
Another company is Caterpillar — that’s another company that we have a few evidences just by the construction technology that is being used at our university. And then we also added SodaStream. The reason we added SodaStream is that when people think about BDS, and when they think about our movement, we’ve noticed that a lot of people who aren’t aware of what’s happening in Palestine-Israel understand what’s happening with SodaStream. So we really wanted to make that connection with senators so that could start off the conversation — what is divestment, what are we trying to do, and why it’s important that our university wipes the blood off its hands of human rights violations.
NBF: Can you talk about what’s been happening alongside the preparations for divestment this week in Albuquerque, and how Students for Justice in Palestine are mobilizing within the local community to fight repression right outside your front door?
DM: Yeah. So, a few weeks ago, the Albuquerque police department shot and killed a homeless man who was “illegally camping” — and there’s video of about ten police officers shooting and killing this man, who had his back turned to them. This sparked outrage in our community, because there is already a history of police violence. And Albuquerque has a higher rate of police shootings than New York City, which is insane.
So a lot of people in our communities are enraged. And they’re passionate, because this can happen to anybody. Several hours ago, another man was shot in the head by police. He’s currently in the hospital, but what’s sketchy is that the police department — there were claims that it was the US marshalls that shot this man in the head — actually confiscated the phones of eyewitnesses.
This has been happening in our community since 2010 — actually way before that. But the community started organizing in 2010 against police violence and against police brutality. So on Sunday, there was a protest organized just by people on the streets. Nobody was really affiliated with any organization, it was just people who face police violence daily and also young people who are enraged by what’s happening in our city.
There was this protest that was sparked and lasted 12 hours. And within that 12 hours, myself and the other SJPers and our community members — a lot of us weren’t going to this protest, because we had to come up with a different strategy. But what happened was I was at a meeting in a park, and all of a sudden, I see protesters come up the street. And then I see police in riot gear come up to the park where we’re having the meeting. And it was insane — because it looked exactly parallel to what I see in the West Bank during nonviolent protests.
They were geared up in batons, tear gas rifles with canisters, and they looked like they were ready to go to war. And this was before what happened during that evening. So Sunday evening was, for me, it was like I was in the West Bank at Qalandiya checkpoint.
The police department was militarized, they had gas masks, they looked like they were ready for war. And many of the protesters in the evening were college students and young high school students. We counted fifty police officers, one by one, going up near the university. And after the police officers, it was SWAT unit militarized vehicles, and after that, there were jeeps that looked like the Israeli [army] jeeps in the West Bank, and men and women suited up — I don’t know how to explain it. It looked like a video game, in a way. A video game like “Call of Duty.”
I have noticed that a lot of the tactics that they’ve used, like how they position themselves in contrast to the protesters, and how they were talking to the police liaisons — myself and a few community members and SJPers were actually trying to negotiate with the police and try and de-escalate the violence, because what we saw was that the police were inciting violence like none other. They were pointing their rifles — I don’t think they had live bullets in them, they had rubber bullets — but they were pointing them at young people who were just voicing their anger.
It was just — it took me back to Palestine. That night took me back to Palestine. And that’s when I made the connection that I’m pretty sure that our police force is trained by Israeli police forces and Israeli military, because now there’s research and proof that police departments in the [United] States are going to Israel and being trained first-hand.
So that’s what made divestment here that much more real. Because it’s here in Albuquerque. What’s happening in Palestine is happening here in Albuquerque. And that’s why it’s more of an obligation that our community comes together and supports this divestment resolution, because these companies are also supplying our militarized state here.
NBF: Danya, finally, if people want to learn more about the divestment campaign at UNM and want to actually follow the hearing live as it’s streamed on Wednesday evening, how can they do that?
DM: They can check out our website, UNMSJP.org. We’re actually going to have the link to the live stream of the resolution meeting, and it’s going to be at 6pm Mountain time, 5pm Pacific time and 8pm Eastern time.
We’re going to post our resolution, we’re going to post our demands and we’re also going to post the live stream. People can tune into that on our website — UNMSJP.org.
We’re also going to have a heavy presence on social media, so you can follow the hashtag #UNMDivest. We will be sending updates and letting everybody know how the meeting is going through that channel.
Dima Khalidi: In Illinois, it’s been going on for several weeks now — there is a bill pending in the state senate, and a resolution as well. The bill, which would have defunded public universities that subsidize faculty travel or membership in associations like the American Studies Association that have supported the academic boycott, the bill — we mobilized many groups in the Chicago area and Illinois in opposition against the bill. And this included graduate student groups, unions, the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, CAIR Chicago, a lot of smaller community groups that care about free speech and care about academic freedom and the right to boycott.
So the bill stalled in the higher education committee, then it was moved to the judiciary committee, and we weren’t sure if it was going to be called. It hasn’t been, and the deadline for the bill was March 28th, it was moved to April 11th. The bill is technically still alive, and has been assigned to the judiciary committee.
The resolution, however, when it was clear that the bill was stalled, the resolution moved to the judiciary committee as well and it was made known to us that Senator Silverstein, who is the sponsoring senator of the resolution and the bill, was going to call the resolution for a hearing.
So we’ve been preparing for a few weeks now to oppose the resolution as well. And the resolution is different in that it doesn’t have the financial penalty — it wouldn’t take away state funding from universities — but it condemns academic boycotts in general and also urges universities to condemn the academic boycott of Israel, insinuating that it has anti-Semitic motivations.
There was a hearing yesterday on the resolution and in the end, the senators voted two against it, three for it and five present — which is basically an abstention. So that means that the resolution will not move forward to the full Senate, it is now dead. So that’s where we’re at right now. As I said, the bill still could technically be called, but I think given the much more severe nature of the bill, it’s unlikely that the same senators would vote to move that forward when then voted against the resolution.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Dima, can you talk about the other states where bills and/or resolutions have been presented, notably in Florida and in Maryland?
DK: Yeah, and in New York as well. There are I think seven altogether, including a bill in the US House, in Congress. So the New York bill was the first one that popped up. That was also stalled in the higher education committee of the House, it actually passed the state Senate there and it’s still in House committee. And it’s likely that that will come up again in the next couple of weeks after their budgetary process is over. So we don’t know what will happen with the New York bill, which also defunds a portion of state financial aid to universities, similar to the Illinois bill.
The Maryland bill — it used to be a similar bill that would have defunded universities as well; it has been turned into resolution-type language in the budget bill. So it was sneaked into the budget bill even though it has nothing to do with the budget. We’re expecting a hearing on that very soon. We thought it might happen yesterday. So that’s the status of the Maryland bill.
In Florida, there is a resolution and a bill, and the hearing on that could be today or possibly next week on the resolution there. There’s a bill in Kansas that we know of, there’s a resolution that passed in South Carolina that we know of, so this is clearly a trend going on around the US — mostly in direct reaction to the American Studies Association endorsement of an academic boycott.
NBF: Finally, Dima, can you lay out the danger in passing bills like this when it comes to protecting free speech rights and academic freedom?
DK: Yeah. The power of the opposition to this bill is testament to how important this issue is not just for those interested in the Israel-Palestine issue but for all academics, for all people who think that we should be able to protest human rights violations or social injustices in the form that we want, that we choose.
Boycotts in particular have been held by the US Supreme Court to be protected First Amendment activities to affect not only speech rights but association rights, assembly rights, petition rights. So I think one thing that really stuck with the Illinois senators who heard the resolution yesterday was the fact that bills and resolutions such as this would have condemned or defunded universities where there was a movement to divest from or boycott apartheid South Africa.
And there are all kinds of other situations where boycotts are the chosen form of protest and action against injustices. So it’s important to realize that this isn’t just about Israel-Palestine. These boycotts are a response to the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, and that’s the kind of issue of the day, or cause of the day — but it would affect a whole range of other academic speech, and really we’re talking about the state making a judgment about what academics should and should not be doing, when the law is very clear that academics have the right to discuss and debate and act on issues of public concern, which is what we call academic freedom.
It’s really important and symbolic that Illinois rejected this resolution and this language for all academic speech and all struggles for social justice.