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Univ. of Toronto Protesters Vow to Continue Gaza Encampment as Admin Demands Police Clear It

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A judge in Canada this week ruled that a student protest encampment could remain standing at the University of Toronto until at least mid-June, when a top court will decide on an injunction filed by the school requesting the police to clear the pro-Palestinian protesters off campus. Students and faculty launched the encampment on May 2 to protest Israel’s war on Gaza. It quickly became one of the largest encampments in North America with 175 tents, hundreds of campers, and a sacred fire led by Indigenous elders. Administrators at the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest university, had wanted to clear the encampment before graduation ceremonies begin in early June. “We know what we’re doing is just. And all of us are willing to stand our ground no matter what happens,” says Mohammad Yassin, a graduating senior, spokesperson for Occupy University of Toronto and a member of the student negotiating team. Yassin is Palestinian with family members currently in Gaza. We also speak with geography professor Deb Cowen, part of the Jewish Faculty Network, who says the encampment is a “precious learning space” bringing students together. “We have maybe never seen our campus be so alive with the spirit of debate, of creative thought, of rigorous conversation and dialogue,” Cowen says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We go now to Canada, where a judge yesterday responded to an injunction filed by the University of Toronto for the police to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment on its downtown campus. The judge set the injunction hearing dates for June 19th and 20th. In the court filing, the judge acknowledged that those dates do not accommodate the university’s interest in clearing the encampment before graduation ceremonies begin in early June, but he said a fair opportunity must be given to the protesters to make their case.

Students launched the encampment, known as “The People’s Circle for Palestine,” on May 2nd. It quickly became one of the largest encampments in North America with 175 tents, hundreds of campers, and a sacred fire led by Indigenous elders. The camp is supported by faculty, university staff, alumni and others.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the university issued a trespass notice to protesters, threatening disciplinary measures for students and staff supporting the camp, threatening an unprecedented mass termination of faculty. On Tuesday, dozens of faculty members held a news conference to speak out against the university’s request for the police to clear the encampment.

DEBORAH COWEN: We say to our administration, if you decide to move against the students, you’ll have to go through us first.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Deb Cowen, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. She joins us now from Toronto. She’s also a steering committee member of the Jewish Faculty Network. And we’re joined by Mohammad Yassin, a graduating senior at the University of Toronto studying economics and statistics. He’s a media spokesperson for Occupy University of Toronto and a member of the student negotiating team. Yassin is a Palestinian with family members currently in Gaza.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re seeing a replay of what’s happening in the United States in Canada. You have these professors bringing police onto college campuses, as they’re being hauled before — in the United States, it’s Congress. In Canada, the president of University of Toronto — right? — just spoke, professor Deb Cowen, before the Canadian Parliament. You said that the police have to go through you, the faculty, before getting the students in the encampment. Mohammad Yassin, can you start off by talking about what are your demands?

MOHAMMAD YASSIN: Yeah. First off, thank you for having us.

You know, our demands are very clear, and they’re very simple. Our first demand is for the University of Toronto to disclose all investments held in endowments, short-term working capital assets and other financial holdings. The second demand that we have is for them to divest their endowment capital assets and other financial holdings from all direct and indirect investments that sustain Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlements of Palestine. Our third demand is for the University of Toronto to terminate all partnerships with Israeli academic institutions that operate in settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or support or sustain the apartheid policies of the state of Israel and its ongoing genocide in Gaza.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Deb, could you talk about the level of faculty support at the University of Toronto, how you became involved with this, and how you’ve been working with students?

DEBORAH COWEN: Oh, for sure. And thank you so much for having me. It’s a true honor to be here with one of the brilliant students, Mohammad here, and also as a very small part of what is a groundswell, a massive groundswell of support on our campus and well beyond. In addition to the hundreds of faculty that have been actively supporting the People’s Circle for Palestine, there are staff, there are alumni, there are — excuse me — honorary doctrines who have been stepping forward.

And the quote that you shared with me about standing with faculty in front of and to protect the students from any kind of police raid of the camp actually was an echo of something that was said the day before in an extraordinary labor rally by Laura Walton, who’s the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents a million workers and 45 unions. And she said, “If you move against the students, you’ll have to go through workers first.” So, on Tuesday at the faculty rally, we echoed that same commitment to defend and protect our students in their very righteous, courageous stand.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mohammad, could you describe — describe the encampment, how the tents were set up, how all of the students organized, and what prompted the organization of the students at this time. To what extent were you inspired by what began at Columbia University right here in New York?

MOHAMMAD YASSIN: Yeah. So, with regards to, you know, what inspired us to do this, obviously, we did take heavy inspiration from our fellows at Columbia. But organizing at the University of Toronto, at least from our student segment, has been going on for at least seven months, at least in our capacity. We’ve had our demands sent to the university and the president directly, who continued to ignore us for about six months, until we had similar actions, including the occupation of the president’s office for about 36 hours. This encampment is simply an escalation on that, as the university has refused to meet with Palestinian students and meet our demands, you know, even more simply than that.

With regards to the encampment itself, it was a night in which a lot of people came together. And at about 4:00 in the morning, we entered King’s College Circle, as it was called, now the People’s Circle for Palestine, which was fenced off by the university in anticipation of something like this. When things started happening at Columbia, the University of Toronto set up a fence around the circle, expecting us to take that area, knowing that it’s the heart of the university, right in front of the building in which the administration meets, in which President Meric Gertler has his office. And as such, they tried to prevent us from taking that space. As students, we, you know, have all the right to be there. It’s our university. It’s our space. And so, at early morning on May 2nd, at 4:00 in the morning, we entered that space anyways and set up all of our tents.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Deb Cowen, if you could explain: How is the Faculty Association at U of T responding to faculty, such as yourself, who have shown solidarity with the encampments? What is the level of faculty support? And how has the administration responded so far to faculty who have supported the encampments, the pro-Palestine encampments?

DEBORAH COWEN: Yeah, like Mohammad here, I would want to say that the faculty support has been long-standing. And certainly, faculty organizing around Palestinian liberation has taken place for many, many years on the University of Toronto campus. In fact, I think one of the reasons why we’ve seen such strong and such united faculty support for the student-led movement is because of many years of relationship building, of collaboration between a series of networks, including the Jewish Faculty Network, a Healthcare Alliance for Palestine and the Faculty for Palestine group itself, and even before that. So, those groups have been working together for many years. We had a major censure of our campus just a few years ago for the unhiring of Valentina Azarova at the Law Faculty because of her work on the Occupied Territories. And even well before that, the University of Toronto campus is known for having been the place where Israeli Apartheid Week was first founded and where BDS campaigns were led by graduate students, you know, decades ago. So, I think there’s a long tradition of relationship building, of trust building and of, I think, very powerful solidarity between students, staff, librarians, faculty and wider community members.

And I can say the Faculty Association responded to preemptive threats from the administration accusing any potential student encampment of being unauthorized, of being an act of trespass. And also the Faculty Association wrote a letter also suggesting that the kinds of — the language of the kind of threat and unsafety was also deeply racialized language, which is not insignificant, given that the student movement is led primarily by students of color, and, in particular, Palestinian, Arab, Black, Muslim and Indigenous students, and, of course, many, many Jewish students — all groups that have either been — that have been historically or ongoing in terms of the racialized stigmatization. So, the Faculty Association challenged the whole university framing of the illegality and unauthorized nature of the protest. And that legal letter that was sent to the administration over a month ago now has never actually received response.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammad, before we end, I want to ask how your family is in Gaza right now and what your plans are to the end? I mean, it looks like the injunction is — there’s going to be a court hearing right around graduation in a few weeks.

MOHAMMAD YASSIN: Yeah. With regards to my family in Gaza, I’m in communication with them whenever, you know, they get the chance to talk. Obviously, they’re not in a situation where they can constantly respond to us. We do get mail from them. They’re watching our encampment very closely, actually. They send us letters that are heartbreaking. You know, anytime I read them, I quite literally can’t stop crying. The sentiment is shared by everybody in the camp who I read these letters to.

But, you know, it’s because of that that we have faith in what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing is just. And all of us are willing to stand our ground, no matter what happens. Everybody went into this expecting that a police response is a possibility. Our fellows in other universities up in Alberta were brutalized by the police when they had their stands at their encampments. We’re ready to face the same, because what we understand is that anything that we go through is not even a fraction of what our brothers and sisters in Gaza are going through.

My family in particular, you know, they’ve had to eat leaves and grass because they have no food to eat. You know, they’ve had to wake up every single day under bombardment. Their children are terrified constantly. They’ve lost all of their innocence. They can’t even live normally day to day.

Yet we’re expected to sit here and just watch. You know, we can’t do that. And as students and as faculty, I’m sure, and as labor workers who have come together for this, we all understand that we have a duty to these people. We have power in our hands. We are put here in a specific position, in this specific time and place, where we can exercise some sort of ability to make a change. And we are all more than committed to do that, no matter the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Professor Cowen, when the Canadian Parliament holds hearings on antisemitism, if you can respond, as a member of the Jewish Faculty Network?

DEBORAH COWEN: I mean, I think those hearings have been widely dismissed as quite the sham, compared to having fossil fuel hearings entirely staffed or entirely constituted by pro-fossil fuel or pro-oil companies. I mean, there is not a single member or group represented that diverges from a pro-Israel, a strong pro-Israel lobby. And many groups are even boycotting those hearings.

And I’d like to just bring it back to what the camp has been doing, which is — in some senses, it’s even baffling that we have to have this conversation, that we’re facing these threats of discipline, and even termination for tenured faculty, and certainly various kinds of discipline for students, because, from my perspective and, I think, from the perspective of many faculty who have been teaching at the university for years and years, we have maybe never seen our campus be so alive with the spirit of debate, of creative thought, of rigorous conversation and dialogue and debate. It is, for me, one of the most precious learning spaces I’ve ever experienced.

And that’s in the context — our president likes to keep saying that, you know, convocation must happen, our graduation ceremonies must happen, because this is the COVID generation, and they need those kinds of spaces. Well, it’s the COVID generation that has built this camp. And they have built a space of multifaith collaboration. We’ve had Shabbat. We’re planning our fifth Shabbat for Friday night, where we have prayers in both Arabic and Hebrew. We have these incredible spaces of conversation, of learning. And the learning goes all directions. It’s not one direction.

So, the very promises of our university, which were, of course, compromised deeply during lockdowns — and I think the university almost seems to prefer the disconnected, heavily managed student body, as opposed to what is really a manifestation, a kind of emboldening of our institution’s Statement of Institutional Purpose that is happening at the Circle for Palestine, the People’s Circle for Palestine. So, many of us not only defend the basic rights of our students in their stand, in their protest and in their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, but we feel incredibly protective of the beautiful, beautiful experiment in relationships, in learning, and in a future that is very, very different from what the world is giving us. And we feel a personal stake in defending that space.

AMY GOODMAN: Deb Cowen, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of geography and planning at University of Toronto and steering committee member of the Jewish Faculty Network, and Mohammad Yassin, graduating senior at the University of Toronto studying economics and statistics, media spokesperson for Occupy University of Toronto, a member of the student negotiating team. Yassin is Palestinian with family members currently in Gaza.

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