Listen: Student organizing pays off in divestment victories in Chicago and Florida

The student government at the University of Illinois at Chicago unanimously passed a divestment resolution on Monday evening.

It calls on the administration to pull its holdings in several US and multinational corporations that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.

Palestine activism-related victories were also seen in Tampa, Florida, where a student senate voted to bypass the veto of a divestment resolution, as well as in California, where UCLA’s graduate student association formally apologized to Palestine solidarity organizers following efforts at discrimination against pro-Palestine speech.

Along with the divestment win at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), student activists with the UIC Divest campaign also urged financial transparency from the university.

They demanded the establishment of “a role for students on the Board of Trustees investment committee,” according to the group’s press release.

UIC Divest includes 24 separate student organizations, highlighting the broad base of Palestine solidarity activism on US campuses.

UIC partially divested from South Africa in 1987 as student campaigns swept the US at the height of the anti-apartheid campaign.

Manar Daghash, an organizer with UIC Divest and an officer of Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada in an interview this week that activists felt “an urgent need” to be part of the “nationwide movement calling for BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] on campuses.”

As part of their months-long campaign leading up to the divestment vote, Daghash explained that SJP activists engaged in educational activities and open discussions with students on campus. “In just a few short weeks, we [gathered] 800 signatures in support of our movement and had 24 student organizations that were on board with us,” she said.

Activists drew similarities between the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the struggles of other communities, building strong relationships with student groups including the Black Lives Matter movement and undocumented students.

The opposition to the campaign by Israel-aligned campus groups was significant, Daghash noted, “but we had an even larger, louder voice [in support of] divestment on campus.”

Elsewhere across the US, major divestment campaigns were recently launched at Columbia University in New York City and at the University of Minnesota.

Bypassing veto in Florida

Meanwhile, a divestment resolution at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa is gaining momentum.

The measure passed last month in a landslide vote in the student senate. It calls on the board of trustees of the USF Foundation to divest from a list of corporations involved in maintaining Israel’s occupation.

Shortly after the resolution passed, the student body president and vice president vetoed it.

They said that it was not in the “best interest” of the student body, according to campus newspaper The Oracle.

However, just days later, the senate approved a new divestment resolution using a procedure that does not require the signature of executive branch leaders.

During a more than two-year campaign, organizers at USF have faced numerous attempts by the administration to shut down divestment efforts.

Liz Jackson, staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada that as the resolution moves forward, it is clear that “the democratic student voice for divestment at USF has overcome tremendous legal bullying.”

Over the past several years, Jackson added, “USF administrators have repeatedly interfered and attempted to intimidate students, to nullify and to silence their expressions of concern about human rights abuses. This strategy of suppression has failed to quiet campus support for Palestinian rights. And it’s also unconstitutional.”

Muhammad Imam, a student senator and a co-sponsor of the divestment resolution, told The Electronic Intifada that in his veto memorandum, the student body president claimed students should not be interjecting themselves into politics nor university investment policy.

“The idea that we as students … should not have a say in the investment policy is ridiculous. We as students have a right to express ourselves — and we have used that right,” Imam said.

The suppression of student voices, Imam added, “has taken place for far too long — not only at the University of South Florida, but at campuses around the country.”

Imam said that the resolution will now advance to the staff and faculty senates.

UCLA students win free speech victory

In California, students at UCLA are celebrating a significant victory for freedom of speech as the Graduate Student Association moved to ban viewpoint discrimination.

The association also issued an apology for engaging in practices that penalize groups for their opinions.

Last fall, graduate student groups were threatened with funding restrictions based on their affiliation with Palestine-related organizing.

The president of UCLA’s Graduate Students Association, Milan Chatterjee, had sent an email to a student group that was seeking funding for a diversity caucus event.

The association represents thousands of UCLA’s graduate students and provides resources, including funding, to graduate students and organizations.

Chatterjee informed the group that “GSA leadership has a zero engagement/endorsement policy towards Divest from Israel or any related movement/organization” and awarded the group $2,000 in funding based on their “zero connection” to a “Divest from Israel” group.

Students and civil rights experts demanded Chatterjee rescind the restrictions, which they said were clear instances of viewpoint discrimination — and thus violations of free speech.

Palestine Legal says that “students at UCLA were denied equal access to university resources, stigmatized and forced to take time away from their studies and their activism in order to defend their right to speak.”

On 10 February, after months of organizing efforts by students, SJP at UCLA announced that “the GSA passed a constitutional amendment officially banning viewpoint discrimination in its allocation of student funds.”

SJP at UCLA added that their demands were not only met by the association, which formally apologized, but also by administrators, “who have stated unequivocally that viewpoint discrimination is impermissible, engaged in first amendment training and committed to revising policies to be more clear going forward.”

It was also revealed that the GSA has begun an internal investigation of Chatterjee’s discriminatory actions.

The GSA’s moves, SJP adds, “serve as a clear rebuke to those who wish to silence the speech rights of students who support Palestinian freedom and equality.”

Listen to the podcast, featuring interviews with Manar Daghash and Muhammad Imam, via the media player above.

Music: “The Emperor’s Clothes” by Invincible.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).