By Ron Jacobs
On Friday, February 6, the University of Rochester-SDS (UR-SDS) organized an occupation of Goergen Hall at the University of Rochester for peace and solidarity with the Palestinians. The action was partially inspired by the wave of occupations across the UK in support of Palestine the past few weeks. UR-SDS made a list of demands of the administration (including divestment from weapons manufacturers, educational and humanitarian aid to Gaza, and scholarships for Palestinian students). In a related event, on Thursday, February 12, 2008 Hampshire College of Amherst, MA. became the first US school to divest from corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Back at the University of Rochester representatives of the occupying students and the university administration signed a Joint Statement of Understanding.
The approximate wording of the statement is:
1. University of Rochester will commit to provide any surplus goods or supplies that could assist the devastated University of Gaza.
2. University of Rochester will commit resources and information to assist fundraising for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
3. University of Rochester will commit to reach out to Palestinian students in order to provide them scholarships to the University of Rochester
4. University of Rochester will commit to organize open forum to discuss why the University invests in weapons manufactures and discuss the process of the University moving toward a more socially responsible, transparent, and democratically controlled investment policy.
I got in touch with three of the organizers/participants via email and recorded the following online exchange.
Ron: Please introduce yourself? Are you a student? Do you have a major?
Adriano: My name is Adriano Contreras. I’m a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where I study both Sociology and Video Production.
Kyle: My name’s Kyle Brown. I graduated in 2004 with a BA in Sociology. For the past four years I’ve been working as a residential mental health and drug addiction counselor.
Ryan: My name is Ryan Acuff, a member of University of Rochester Students for a Democratic Society (UR-SDS). I’m a graduate student in psychology and a part-time instructor at the university.
Can you tell us what happened at UR on February 6th?
Adriano: Well, Students for a Democratic Society at UR (SDS-UR) handed their administration four demands the day before they planned to occupy the Goergen Building. The sit-in, inspired by 20 other universities in the UK, took a stand against the Israeli siege on Gaza. SDS invited other activists groups, community members and allies to participate in the sit-in.
I don’t think anyone would have thought that 9 hours later everything would be over. There was a whole schedule planned for the first evening of the occupation. There was a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, SDS’s demands, and we were to have guest speakers. The administration however, realized the seriousness of the occupiers and sent the Dean of Student Affairs to be their negotiator multiple times that day.
Ryan and Kyle can better explain more of what happened that day, I spent most of that time blogging from inside the occupation.
Ryan: On February 6th, we took direct action for peace and in solidarity with the Palestinians by peacefully occupying a building at the University of Rochester. Beginning at 3:00pm, UR-SDS claimed and occupied the adjacent atrium and auditorium of Goergen Hall (the Biomedical Engineering Building) and declared them a liberated community space—an autonomous zone democratically run by the occupiers until our demands were met. The action was organized by University Rochester Students for a Democratic Society (UR-SDS) but U of R post-docs, faculty members, and staff also occupied along with numerous community members. We came to raise awareness about the dire situation in Palestine and the United States role in the conflict. In addition, we were there to occupy this space until our demands of the administration for divestment, humanitarian aid, educational aid, and scholarships for Palestinian students were met. Also, (let me clarify) despite what the administration said, we did not "reserve" the auditorium and the online calendar still says that it remains unreserved at that time.
Kyle: (LIke Ryan and Adriano said) SDS at UR organized an occupation of Goergen Atrium and Auditorium on campus in solidarity with Gaza. Beforehand, they had presented the administration with an official letter demanding that UR divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and to provide direct aid to the people of Gaza. This wasn’t an occupation like the illegal sit-down strikes of 1930’s because the campus administration allowed SDS to reserve the building in the interest of "peaceful dialogue". They also provided the Dean of Student Affairs for negotiation of the demands.
As the day went on, the Dean informed the organizers that UR students would be punished if not out of the building by midnight. So we decided to call for as many campus and community members to mobilize around that time as possible to put as much pressure on the Dean as possible to deliver on our demands.
The Dean agreed to negotiate at 10pm and we had maybe 75 people in the building for support. Through the negotiations, the Dean agreed to the following plan of action: that the administration organize a public forum with UR investors, SDS and the community on the university’s investment policy and its investment in Israel; that UR commit resources and provide any needed information for a campus-wide fund drive for Palestine; that UR work to assess needs in Gaza and donate surplus supplies to universities, such as computers and books; and that UR commit to reaching out to Palestinians with international student scholarships.
Feb 6th was a day of education, debate and mobilization. It was a concrete show of solidarity with the people of Gaza and protest against Israel’s occupation. It was a concrete demonstration of real democratic decision-making and flexibility.
What particular event spurred you to get personally involved in this issue and the occupation?
Ryan: (For me) the unspeakable events of the recent US-Israeli war on Gaza were very difficult for me witness. Especially knowing how complicit the United States was in the massacres. On January 23rd a message about a series of student occupations of English universities in solidarity with Palestine was floated on the northeast SDS listerv. On Saturday January 24th UR-SDS called an emergency meeting to discuss bringing the occupation movement across the Atlantic. Our discussions bore out a resolve to do the same in the United States.
Kyle: After September 11th, I was already organizing against the US invasion of Afghanistan and Israel began using Bush’s "war on terror" rhetoric to extend its occupation of Palestine. I became dedicated to ending the occupation of Palestine when I attended a national demonstration in DC in solidarity with the Al Aqsa Intifada. It was amazing to be marching in the streets with Arabs and Muslims chanting "Free Free Palestine!" Through and after that demonstration, I started exploring US funding for Israel and came to the understanding that Israel plays a crucial role as watch dog in the Middle East for US imperialism. I’ve been an anti-imperialist ever since, so when I heard that UR was organizing an occupation on campus I dove into organizing head first.
Adriano: I’ve been involved with the Campus Antiwar Network, a national democratic student anti-war organization, for over 2 years now. When I began my activism it was really all about figuring out the political reasons for why being in Iraq and Afghanistan was wrong, aside from the moral gut feelings I had. The answers I found were imperialism, geopolitics, and profit. With that understanding I became firmly anti-war.
The chapter of CAN at my school had done an educational meeting around the issue of Palestine a week or so prior to Israel’s assault. While home in New York City, I participated in two demonstrations that were overwhelmingly Arab. Unlike anti-war demonstrations which have remained largely free of an Arab presence, the demonstrations around Gaza filled the streets with people whom after 9/11 feared to speak out against the wave of anti-Arab sentiment.
When we returned from Christmas break the political landscape of the anti-war movement had begun to shift. Israel’s true colors were shown clearly to the entire world. Despite its claims to the right of self-defense, the slaughter of over 1300 Palestinians was unjustifiable and people took notice. I took part in the national demonstration on January 10 and it was an amazing experience. CAN and the Muslim Students Association marched together for the first time ever. The people most directly affected by the so-called "War on Terror" were out in big numbers.
Organizing at school had taken on a different character. People wanted to talk and organize around Palestine, even though we had things organized already around the occupation of Afghanistan. When I spoke with Ryan Acuff about SDS’s plans at UR, he mentioned the sit-in. The CAN chapter at RIT got on board with it.
Is this part of a larger movement? Would you call it a coordinated movement or spontaneous?
Ryan: Our occupation is part of the larger occupation that began on January 13th in London when students from the School of Oriental and Asians Studies occupied a building on campus. This exploded into an occupation movement that has swept over 20 schools in England and Scotland and has now begun in the United States. Oh yeah, and all the occupations have been spontaneous in that each one ha has inspired the others, but none coordinated by a higher body.
Adriano:What is happening in the UK is spreading like wildfire. There have been 23 university occupations so far and some of them are still occupied. Certain demands have been won and its really a testament to the power of organized struggle and protest. The UR occupation was inspired by the UK. Globally, I think it’s something that’ll catch on. Like I said, the world has now seen Israel’s true colors. The siege, the blockade, and the history of oppression have exposed the ideology of the Israeli state.
In the United States, we’re going to begin to see more occupations of this nature. We’ll see similar campaigns to the ones that ended South African apartheid. Presently, South African dockworkers are refusing to import Israeli goods. Already a national call has been put out by the Campus Antiwar Network to figure out and propose a plan of action that includes the help of SDS UR members and students from the UK.
Kyle: There are a number of events that set the stage for the UR action. First, the election of Obama has given ordinary people across the country hope that things can change after eight long years living under the Bush regime. The urgency for change has never been felt more strongly as we are spiraling into the worst recession/depression since the 1930’s. After Obama was elected, the Republic Windows and Doors workers in Chicago won severance pay and health insurance owed to them by occupying their factory when their bosses announced the plant was closing. Not too long after, students at the New School of Social Research in NYC occupied a building to prevent it from closing and directly noted inspiration from the Republic workers. Israel invaded Gaza over the holiday and sparked a series of campus occupations in Britain. The demands of the UR students almost exactly mirror the demands of the Britain students. So I think there is a real context to what we did. I see the UR action as the next stage in the anti-war movement–a new movement of occupations in this country and internationally.
I think this also needs to be viewed in the context of the broader antiwar movement. This has the potential to breath new life into the antiwar movement and set the stage for the national antiwar demonstration called in DC for March 21st which is the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
What is the intention of the movement?
Kyle: Simply put, we want justice for the people of Palestine. The US funds Israel’s occupation of Palestine with billions of dollars in addition to direct military aid. This means that the US government is directly responsible for bombs dropped on schools, bulldozers razing communities, and F16s terrorizing Gaza. It’s amazing to learn that so many institutions of higher learning–both UR and RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) invest and research for corporations that directly profit from the occupation of Palestine. Our intention is to end the occupation of Palestine by standing in solidarity with the people of Gaza and building a movement capable of forcing the US government from divesting from Israel.
Ryan: Although many of the schools have slightly different demands, the movement seeks to take direct action to express our solidarity with the people of Gaza, highlight our countries’ and universities’ complicity in the atrocities in the Gaza strip, and make our universities’ relationship to Gaza one of supporting people and peace, not war. Members of UR-SDS also hope our action will help inspire other occupations or sit-ins in the United States, given that our culpability as Americans is dramatically larger than even the British in blocking peace and supporting oppression of the Palestinians.
Adriano: The movement has taken on boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The demands of the UK and UR occupations represent that. The effectiveness however of the movement will largely depend on how well coordinated it is on a national level. Locally we can act, make demands, and win but if we remain isolated it’ll be harder for these actions to catch on. The movement needs to be a player on the national scene in order to tackle organizations like AIPAC but also get to the root of the problem, which is United State tax dollars invested in imperialism in the Middle East. The movement has to bring to light the fact that Israel is the US’s proxy in that region. Why else would it have the second largest fleet of F16s, the highest amount of our foreign aid, and nuclear weaponry?
What has been the response of other members of the campus community? What about alumni?
Kyle: Adriano and Ryan are on the campuses (I’ll take the next question though!)
Adriano:At RIT, we’ve had a significantly larger attendance at our meetings around Palestine. It hasn’t completely translated into activism, but people are searching for answers and perspectives from the Palestinian side. So there is a potential to mobilize people around this.
Ryan: The response from other members of the campus community has been mostly positive. People seem excited to have these kinds of actions at the University of Rochester. Although the U of R has a history of activism its been a few years since students have taken direct action for a cause. Given that we have a large Jewish population on campus, there are some members of the community that see any support of the Palestinians or condemnation of Israeli state policy as a direct threat to their identity as a Jew. The best we can do in these cases is continue the dialogue to clear up misunderstandings. All alumni I’ve communicated with have been extremely excited about our actions. We’ve even had graduates from 1970s send us e-mails of support.
In the broader sense, what kind of impact do you see (or hope to see) the movement against the Israeli occupation of the Territories on university and college campuses having on the US and British public?
Ryan: We hope these actions on college campuses help open the discussions on the US-Palestinian-Israeli conflict and help the voices of the Palestinians be heard. One of the only ways the horrific polices of the U.S. in Israel-Palestine can continue is if people don’t know the extent the U.S. suppressing peace and democracy. We hope if the student create enough of stir, then we can create a climate where Obama will have to fulfill his promises of change and actually bring an expedient end to the occupation and facilitate peace and justice in Palestine.
Kyle: Consciousness is shifting around the question of Palestine. I was amazed to learn that over 40% of people in the US were against Israel’s latest attack on Gaza. This is amazing given how pro-Israel the US mainstream media has been. There is never a voice for Palestinians. The only question US reporters would ask Palestinians during Israel’s latest invasion was, "Do you blame Hamas for this?"
That being said, it seems like people are aching to take up this issue but up until this point have been under-confident that anything can be done. The amazing thing about our action is that we won in just 9 hours an agreement for a plan of action from the Dean that provides concrete organizing for the movement in weeks ahead. This is giving confidence to community members and fellow activists across the country that we can fight and win.
I think people are also nervous about being labeled an anti-Semite when organizing and taking a stand against Zionism. We have to education people on the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is helpful just to point out that there are anti-Zionist Jews organizing in Israel today. We can and should fight against racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism all at the same time.
Adriano: If the movement grows, if it is coordinated, we could expose university investments and fight for socially responsible endowments. The struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine could potentially expose the "war on terror" on a big scale. The possibilities are numerous especially in this period of economic crises and endless war. On the flip-side Obama has brought hope to many and promises of change. If we educate ourselves, take action, and push Obama for more than what he’s promised than we can expect some serious victories.
Similar actions at campuses around other issues like sweatshops have received a certain amount of positive press when they were undertaken, only to have the administration and trustees negate the agreements that were made. How does a group prevent this, while simultaneously keeping interest in the issue alive on campus and in the surrounding community?
Adriano: This was brought up during the occupation by some people and the answer was unanimous… we’d occupy again. For UR, the biggest employer in Rochester, NY, it’s crucial for them to maintain a favorable reputation. They won’t completely brush off our demands because they know what we’re willing to do now to have our voices heard. During the occupation there was a huge effort made to contact local press and media outlets.
Maintaining interest in the issue has much to do with winning something along the way. The victory at UR was just a first step to get the administration to comply with our demands. If people invest time and energy into organizing and never win anything it becomes demoralizing. If we win, people build confidence and it give activism a whole new meaning.
Kyle: We won the agreement/plan of action through mobilization of students and community members. The agreement was signed in person and in front of all the participants of the occupation because we demanded that the negotiations happen in the auditorium in front of everyone. The agreement should continue to be publicized as far and wide as possible, not only on UR campus but throughout the community and onto every campus across the country. This will play a key role in holding the administration accountable.
We need to continue galvanizing new students and community members with educational panel discussions and teach-ins where we can learn the history of Zionism, the history of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, campus complicity, the politics of the Palestinian resistance and the role of US imperialism in it all. And we need groups like SDS, CAN, and all activists organizing to hold the Dean accountable to what he agreed but also to push it further. If the administration negates the agreement in anyway, we occupy with more numbers and we stay until they meet our demands.
Ryan: We hope these actions on college campuses help open the discussions on the US-Palestinian-Israeli conflict and help the voices of the Palestinians be heard. One of the only ways the horrific polices of the U.S. in Israel-Palestine can continue is if people don’t know the extend the U.S. suppressing peace and democracy. (Specifically) our big follow up event we have planned is an open forum on the universities investment policies and a discussion of the process of moving towards more socially responsible, transparent, and Democratic investment policy. The more people we can bring into the process the more authoritarian institutions will begin to break down. The more we work to empower and inform people on these issues and the more they will start demanding more power and reform of the institution. We are also planning an editorial in investment for the next issue of the Campus Times along with an open forum to discuss the US-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In addition, if the university breaks the agreements or simply refuses to move forward we are prepared to take direct action again, this time will more people and in a more dramatic fashion. Justice will be served.
Since it appears that one of the goals of these actions is to make connections between college investments and the occupation of Palestine (and to make people consider their own complicity, let’s take that a step further: do you think people make the connection between US tax dollars and Israel’s occupation?
Adriano: Right now especially, people are making these connections! Bailout for the banks, none for the working class. $3 billion per year for Israel and no money for universal healthcare coverage. Unemployment is rising and wages have less buying power. If people haven’t made the connection between tax dollars and Israel, they will. It is only a matter of time before people realize the hypocrisy of the system. However not everyone will come to these conclusions alone. We need to be there alongside those people to get them organized to fight back and win the divestment campaigns and reforms we need.
Kyle: I don’t think people make the connection yet. This is a connection the movement will have to make clear. Over three billion dollars in government money goes to fund Israel every year. What could $3 billion a year do for the 47 million people without health insurance in this country? What could $3 billion a year do for our schools that are crumbling under the weight of budget deficits from state to state across this country? What about the workers at Kodak that have lost their jobs as Kodak has laid off more than 50% of their Rochester workforce in the past 30 years (UR has now become the largest employer in Rochester)? It should be our job to make the connections and reach beyond our campuses to win solidarity in the community and labor movement.
Ryan: I think people are beginning to see this connection. UR-SDS pointed this out in our editorial in the campus paper last week. The more people can see we individually our complicit in these atrocities, the more willing people are going to be to take action.
I know there is a national conference going on around this issue. What do you see as the goals of that conference?
Ryan: Currently there is national conference call organized by the Campus Anti-war Network planned for next Monday to discuss spreading the occupation movement across the U.S. I believe the goals are for other schools to learn about our actions and possibly enact something similar at their school. People are feeling that the time has come to escalate our actions.
Kyle: (Like Ryan said) There is a national conference call this Monday. We will be giving a report on the UR action. Also, someone will be giving a report from the New School occupation. Hopefully, we can get someone on from the occupations in Britain. We want students to organize on every campus across the US. But there must also be coordination between these campuses because it’s going to take a coordinated, democratic, nationwide movement to win divestment from Israel. Hopefully the call will inspire students. Students should "think big" and organize to win concrete gains. (If you are talking about another conference, let me know! I should be there!) (I was referring to the conference call-Ron)
Adriano: I run a website called The Sitch. It’s a site for activist news, political commentary and analysis. On there you’ll find coverage of the UR occupation, as it happened, including videos and images. Visit: http://www.thesitch.com/occupation
Kyle: Yes. The immigrant rights movement in 2006 took up the slogan "Yes we can!". Obama adopted this for his presidential campaign in 2008. Coming out of the UR action, I was thinking to myself "Yes we did". It feels great to finally win something. I want people across the country to feel the same way so we can raise our hopes even higher and fight for more!
Ryan: Thanks for your interest in our action. We hope to spread the word far and wide to help inspire similar actions for peace and Palestine and fight oppression in all forms.
– Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com. (Originally published in CounterPunch.org; republished with permission from the author.)