US campus activists facing increased repression

US universities must not contribute to the maintenance of oppressive systems elsewhere. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)


Last November, four friends and I — all of us activists with Students for Justice in Palestine — were protesting near a Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California (USC) when campus authorities tried to break up our peaceful demonstration. Unfortunately, it is only one of many examples of the discrimination faced by Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students at my campus and at campuses around the United States.

We were protesting the outdoor event “SCSI Fights on for Darfur” as we viewed it to be complicit in whitewashing Israel’s criminal occupation. USC Students for Israel and the USC College Democrats were partnering in an effort to raise awareness and money for victims of the genocide in Darfur; USC Students for Israel is a political organization that defines itself solely on the basis of unconditional support for the State of Israel. Its members routinely defend Israel’s oppressive policies, which are in clear violation of international law. During this event, USC Students for Israel boasted that Israel is the only country in the Middle East to provide sanctuary to refugees from Darfur, never once mentioning that Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees their right to return.

I was told earlier in the day by a university official that it was within our right to protest near Tommy Trojan, and next to USC Students for Israel’s table, so long as we were peaceful and silent. The five of us stood next to each another, in a row, holding up signs. According to university policy, “dissent (defined as disagreement, a difference of opinion, or thinking differently from others) is an integral aspect of expression in higher education,” and is a protected form of “free speech” (University of Southern California Policy on Free Expression and Dissent).

But about 15 minutes into our protest, approximately six Department of Public Safety officers clustered around our group and immediately began yelling “Move! Move! You have to move! We’re only gonna tell you this three times, you have to leave!” Threatening to arrest us, the officers harassed and yelled at us for approximately ten minutes while my friends and I tried to remain in place, reiterating that we were standing in a free speech zone, were not going to move, and that they were violating our rights by insisting that we do so. No matter what we said in our own defense, the officers still told us to move. I could hardly speak up without getting cut off by their shouting and it was clear from the beginning that they were going to try their hardest to make us leave.

When that effort alone wasn’t enough, a man in a suit approached me and my friends to tell us, once again, that we either had to leave or move over to the other side of the street. I didn’t recognize the man, Michael L. Jackson, Vice-President of Student Affairs, at first. He asked my friend Alix Robinson and I for our first and last names and our student IDs. All the while, members of USC Students for Israel were holding up their phone cameras, trying to get footage of the confrontation, or sitting silently on the sidelines next to members of the USC College Democrats. Dr. Jackson then identified himself and said “When somebody like me tells you to move, you move.” Hurt and angry by his decision to suppress my free speech rights, I replied: “Your position doesn’t matter to me.” The two officers standing directly behind him began to laugh while Dr. Jackson looked back at me, stunned, as though he didn’t expect me to stand up for myself.

Shortly after that, Dr. Jackson and the officers left the scene and we continued on with our protest. I’m not sure why they left, but I’m assuming that they realized we weren’t going to move, and knew that resorting to physical force would result in serious legal consequences. As the last officer was walking away he awkwardly looked over at me, said goodbye, good luck and have a nice rest of the day.

I recently sent an email out to USC students, student organizations and faculty regarding this incident which is exemplary of the discrimination that Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students face at our university. The USC administration has come up with no response, possibly in hopes that a few students, faculty and members of our community will feel upset about the issue for a short period of time, but that the matter will eventually fade from memory. Our campus newspaper refuses to report on the story, claiming that it’s old news that was made public months after it happened. Recently, I was contacted by president of the USC College Democrats who insisted “that they support the irrevocable right to freedom of speech and condemn any form of harassment against those exercising their legal right.” While his clarification is appreciated, an intervention by their members while the incident was occurring would have been of much greater value.

USC is not the only campus where solidarity activists have experienced disturbing attempts deny their First Amendment rights. Eleven Muslim students at the University of California Irvine are currently facing criminal charges for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. The FBI has issued subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury to several Palestine solidarity activists in the Midwest, some of them students, threatening their right to free speech and engaging in what some are calling a witch hunt.

The context of this repression is the growing success of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is challenging Israeli apartheid and its supporters in the US.

On 15 December 2010, C. L. Max Nikias, president of USC, issued a statement dismissing proposed boycott, divestment and sanctions measures against the State of Israel, characterizing this initiative as a “betrayal of our values as a pluralistic university whose students, faculty, and alumni … represent a diversity of political, cultural and religious beliefs” (“Statement by C. L. Max Nikias”). Our SJP understands this to mean that the University of Southern California respects the diversity of all moral, political and religious beliefs, except for ours.

While Nikias claims to promote open discourse and even-handedness, his statement accomplishes the opposite. It marginalizes the views of students supportive of Palestinian rights by minimizing the nature and scope of domination which characterizes Israeli state aggression against a vulnerable, stateless Palestinian population. Despite repeated UN resolutions condemning Israel’s discriminatory policies as illegal, the painful reality is that all forms of negotiation over a twenty-year-long disintegrating peace process have failed, and the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest and sanction the institutions and individuals involved in maintaining their oppression has proven necessary.

Boycotts, among other tools of ethical resistance, have historically challenged racist systems throughout the world. Renowned leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela have advocated these measures. The international community successfully used similar tactics to end the racist policies of apartheid South Africa in the ’80s. And a sincere devotion to pluralistic values will often require us to assemble enough courage to participate in nonviolent methods of civil disobedience so long as they are in accordance with international law. In the words of Dr. King, our purpose is to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

The Israeli government will not end its entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian people without concerted pressure from the international community. BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — is a reflection of the urgency of the matter and a reassurance that Palestinian lives are valuable. A blanket condemnation of boycotts mistakenly judges the oppression they face as unworthy of greater action. As USC students, we expect our campus to remain open to all morally responsible civic and political views. Given the influence of Nikias’ word, we believe his statement is inappropriate and, therefore, encourage him to repeal it in an effort to ensure that the University of Southern California, among other US academic institutions, does not contribute to the maintenance of oppressive systems elsewhere and acts in line with its own central mission: “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit” by nurturing a “pluralistic,” “supportive community” that welcomes “men and women of every race, creed, and background.”

Marwa Katbi is a Syrian American student at the University of Southern California majoring in creative writing.