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Meet Students at 4 Colleges Where Gaza Protests Win Concessions, Incl. Considering Israel Divestment

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Image Credit: Talia Levine / Brown Divest Coalition

As students around the country set up Gaza solidarity encampments on their campuses, many universities have called in police who have arrested students and dismantled the sites. But students at a number of colleges have managed to negotiate agreements where administrators have acceded to some of their demands, including considering divestment from Israel. We speak with four students who have been involved in pro-Palestine protests on campuses at Middlebury College in Vermont, Evergreen College in Washington state, Brown University in Rhode Island and Rutgers in New Jersey.

“Being an American complicit in this and being a student at an institution complicit in this genocide directly, I couldn’t imagine standing by and not acting,” says Duncan Kreps, who is graduating from Middlebury.

Aseel, a Palestinian student at Rutgers who is only using her first name out of safety concerns, tells Democracy Now! that nearly 100 of her relatives have been killed in Israel’s assault on Gaza. “The Gaza that I once knew is essentially gone, but I am more than confident, along with my family, that we will return and that we will rebuild it,” she says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: College campuses around the world have ignited in a global uprising of students protesting Israel’s assault on Gaza. From New York to Berlin, San Francisco to Sydney, students have set up Gaza solidarity encampments to call for a ceasefire and to demand that their schools disclose and divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Many universities have responded by calling the police onto their campuses to violently break up the encampments. In the U.S. alone, over 2,000 students, faculty and supporters have been arrested at dozens of universities over the past three weeks.

But as the campus crackdowns continue, students at a number of universities have managed to negotiate agreements where administrators have acceded to some of the protesters’ demands. One of the first was Pitzer College in California on April 1st.

Today we’re joined by students from four universities where school administrations have agreed to a number of key demands, such as publicly calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and exploring divestment from Israel.

At Brown University, which came to an agreement last week, we’re joined by Rafi Ash, a sophomore majoring in urban studies, part of Brown Jews for a Ceasefire Now and Brown Divest Coalition. He’s joining us from Providence, Rhode Island.

At Middlebury College, which struck a deal on Sunday, we’re joined by Duncan Kreps, a graduating senior at Middlebury, where he’s majoring in mathematics. He was part of the pro-Palestinian Middlebury solidarity encampment, and he joins us from Middlebury, Vermont.

At Evergreen State College in Washington, which came to an agreement last week, we’re joined by Alex Marshall, a third-year student, joining us from Olympia. Evergreen is the alma mater of Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza March 16th, 2003.

And at Rutgers University in New Jersey, we’re joined by Aseel, a Palestinian student at Rutgers who has family in Gaza. She’s part of Students for Justice in Palestine.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin at Brown. Rafi Ash, you are a sophomore in urban studies at Brown. Can you talk about the encampment that was set up and then what ensued?

RAFI ASH: Yeah. So, we set up an encampment last — two weeks ago at this point, and our encampment was on the Main Green, our central quad on campus. And we set up for seven days. And while the administration raised its disciplinary threats over the course of those days, that really did not, you know, sway students. And as the administration was trying to start setup for commencement, the pressure grew on them to actually begin to, you know, either force us out or come to the table. And we were able to force them to the table on Monday of last week, and that led to a multiday negotiations process.

And, you know, I think these negotiations didn’t really seem like a possibility before these encampments began, but through them, we were able to actually push to force a vote on divestment, and that’s a vote that’s never happened before at Brown, and that’s something that we’ve been pushing for for a long time, that our Board of Corporation will first have a more informational session on divestment without a vote, but then followed by, at the meeting after, a guaranteed vote. And, you know, that’s not the end of the story. We still have so much more work to do, and we need to make sure that that vote is a yes for divestment. But that was a huge step that came out of an escalatory encampment.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, a while ago, there were a number of arrests on campus. There were protests after Hisham Awartani, who is the Brown student who was shot in Burlington, Vermont, when he and two of his best friends from the Friends Academy in Ramallah, who had come to the United States to go to college, where their families thought it was safer, was shot by a white man off his porch when they were taking a walk on the way to his grandmother’s house. Hisham is now paralyzed. Can you talk about what happened after that and the number of arrests that took place and the administration’s response to that? And are there — the quashing of those charges also a part of this discussion with the administration?

RAFI ASH: Yeah. So, we had, last semester, 61 arrests on campus, 20 of them in early November, before the shooting, and then another 41 in the weeks after Hisham’s shooting. And I think there’s a — it brings it very personal and directly to home that the violence against Palestinians is — that our university is currently complicit in through its endowment. Yes, that affects — that is not only affecting Palestinians in Palestine, but it also incites violence against Palestinians here and against Brown’s own Palestinian students.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at this — 


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

RAFI ASH: Well, that this makes it very, very personal and very essential to so many Brown students to stand up against the administration’s violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Duncan Kreps into the conversation, a senior at Middlebury College at Middlebury, Vermont. Duncan, talk about setting up the encampment and what happened next.

DUNCAN KREPS: Yeah. We set up our encampment, I guess, early morning two Sundays ago and then started engaging with the administration on Tuesday of that following week and had negotiations from there. I think a notable part of our experience is the atmosphere of relative calm that we existed in. We didn’t experience the counterprotests of many other college campuses, and also our administration decided to not send the police in on students, which we want to clarify we believe is the bare minimum for any administrative response to student activism and free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the demands in the negotiations and who is on the team, on both sides, administration and students.

DUNCAN KREPS: Yeah. We met with the four administrators, consistently, representing kind of different aspects of the institution, and then we sent a rotating team of students to kind of spread the burden of those negotiations and also to ensure that various voices are being heard in that room. But all decisions were brought back to the camp and made as a collective.

AMY GOODMAN: And the students took down the encampment?

DUNCAN KREPS: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: The students took down the encampment?

DUNCAN KREPS: Yes. So, we voted to accept an agreement, after six rounds of negotiations, that came down on Monday, in exchange for significant progress on all five demands. Our administration agreed to call for a ceasefire. And we also made progress on divestment.

The decision to bring down the encampment was a strategic one. We believed that we could assign resources in other ways to continue to put pressure, especially on divestment, and hold the administration accountable to their comments. And we now look towards an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting where divestment will be discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you care about this issue, Duncan? You’re a graduating math senior at Middlebury College in Vermont.

DUNCAN KREPS: Yeah, I don’t know how I couldn’t. I mean, we see what’s happening. We see the invasion of Rafah happening before our eyes. This feels like the — in many ways, the most horrific thing I’ve seen happen in my lifetime. And being an American complicit in this and being a student at an institution complicit in this genocide directly, I couldn’t imagine standing by and not acting.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Alex Marshall, who’s across the country, a third-year student at Evergreen State College. Now, Evergreen State College is in Olympia, Washington. It’s the home city of the parents of Rachel Corrie. In fact, it’s the alma mater of Rachel Corrie. She was set to graduate from Evergreen in 2003 and went to Gaza and stood in front of a pharmacist’s home as an Israeli bulldozer was moving in to demolish it, and she was crushed to death by that bulldozer. Alex, can you talk about the protest encampment, when it was set up, and then what you negotiated with Evergreen authorities, the administration?

ALEX MARSHALL: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

So, our encampment was established on Tuesday the 23rd. And negotiations began with administration on the following day, Wednesday the 24th. There was initially a rotating team of negotiators, but then a second team was established to step in on Sunday the 28th. And I was a part of that new team.

Our demands were formulated through a process of consensus within the encampment. And we focused on divesting from companies that are profiting off of the Israel — off of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, changing Evergreen’s grant acceptance policy to no longer accept funding from Zionist organizations that support stifling students’ free speech, as well as a Police Services Community Review Board structure to be created and the creation of an alternative model of crisis response. Evergreen also agreed to prohibit study abroad programs to Israel, Gaza or the West Bank, until the day comes when Palestinian students would be allowed entry. And they also agreed to release a statement calling for a ceasefire and acknowledging the International Court of Justice’s genocide investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were the people who negotiated on both sides, Alex?

ALEX MARSHALL: Well, I was on a team of four. And on the administrative side, it was the vice president of the college and the dean of students.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think was different about your school than places like Columbia, where they called in the police twice?

ALEX MARSHALL: Well, it being Rachel Corrie’s alma mater, I think, is significant. She’s been gone for 20 years, but her memory lives on amongst the student body and the Olympia community at large. Craig and Cindy Corrie came to one of our rallies to speak. And I think her memory — you know, I have learned about her. I’ve read her emails to her parents in multiple classes that I’ve taken at Evergreen, and her memory being so inspiring in that way.

I believe also that Evergreen has an interest in maintaining its image as a college that highly values diversity and equity, working across significant differences and advocating for students’ voices and students’ abilities to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of protest. And Evergreen is a small college. We’ve had — the college has had a rough few years after the media storm that occurred in 2017. And administration knew that there would be serious repercussions to Evergreen’s image if police were called in.

We are extremely grateful that all of our students were safe and we had no arrests and no students have been written up for policy violations. And I think that that really speaks to Evergreen’s — the culture of Evergreen’s student body as one that really emphasizes taking care of each other and fighting for the struggle for justice.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with Aseel, who is a Palestinian student at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has family in Gaza. We’re only using Aseel’s first name because she is concerned about doxxing. Aseel, can you talk about what happened at Rutgers after students set up the Rutgers encampment?

ASEEL: Yeah. Hi. So, last Thursday, we ended our encampment. It was a four-day encampment. And as a result of our collective efforts, we were able to have Rutgers, the Rutgers administration, agree to commit to eight out of 10 demands, which we are like really, really happy about. And I just also want to note that this encampment came in like the span of three weeks, where we did a — like, it was our second encampment, because we revived Tent State University. That’s one.

And another thing, as well, is we are very excited that part of our demands is, number one, that we are going to welcome 10 Gazan students, some of whom we anticipate to be our family members. Another thing is that we are going to finally have Palestinian flags hung, and Holloway is finally going to acknowledge his Palestinian students, finally, and name Palestine and Palestinians in his statements, instead of like the “Middle East region” and “the Gaza region.” And then, not only that, but we are also going to hire additional professors of Palestinian studies, because apparently everyone thinks that this started on October 7th. So, I think that’s pretty important. Another thing is that we are finally going to have an Arab cultural center. “Why didn’t we have one before?” is the real question. We are also going to finally get a Middle Eastern Studies Department. Again, why did we not have one before? Another thing is that we are going to be granted, hopefully — hopefully Rutgers commits to this — amnesty and no suspensions for our encampment. And yeah, I hope I’m not missing anything, but it’s eight demands.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the standard calls for — at these campus encampments has been to disclose and divest. Was that an issue for Rutgers students?

ASEEL: Yes, that was our main reason why we came. We demanded to divest from Israel, from Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism. And also, our second most important demand was to end our relationship with Tel Aviv University and close down the construction of the HELIX Hub, which is right next to the New Brunswick train station. It should also be noted that Tel Aviv University is not just any university. It is a like very prime component of Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism. They manufacture weapons that basically kill my family in Gaza. Not only that, but they also hold the corpses of like 60 to 70 corpses of Palestinians. Just to like also illustrate how close this hits to home is that one of these corpses is the cousin of our beloved professor Noura Erakat. And they basically refuse to give back these corpses, these bodies, to Palestinian families.

We, unfortunately, were not able to get these agreements. However, we did get an agreement to have a meeting with the Joint Committee on Investments, with the Board of Governors, with President Holloway, for divestment, which is a process to divestment. So, this is incredible progress, in our eyes, and to everyone’s eyes, I think, because we had been asking for a meeting for five years, and we finally got one. And that’s why we decided to not get arrested, to not — to leave, basically, the encampment and shut it down, because we got the meeting, we got the eight demands, and we believe that these are just like increment steps towards divestment. But it should be noted that we were more than willing to get arrested. We were actually prepared for it. But we decided not to. And —


ASEEL: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — you mentioned your family. I wanted to end by asking about your family in Gaza. How are they?

ASEEL: Yeah. So, they are not OK. A hundred members of my — nearly like a hundred members, I think — we don’t know exactly, because of Netanyahu’s psychological warfare of cutting down the electricity and cellular devices to be able to, honestly, reach them. But nearly a hundred of my members were martyred.

And obviously, I still have family left. I am still in contact with them. But they are all displaced. Our family home’s basically destroyed. Even photos, like, just show that, like, on the walls say “Blame Hamas.” And it should be noted that none of my family members are in Hamas, have nothing to do with them. And yeah, like, even the photos of Gaza are just unrecognizable. I can’t even tell, like, where anything is anymore. Photos on my phone of, like, so many memories I had don’t even exist anymore. The Gaza that I once knew is essentially gone. But I am more than confident, along with my family, that we will return and that we will rebuild it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Aseel, deepest condolences on the death of so many family members in Gaza. Aseel is a Palestinian student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I want to thank you for being with us; Rafi Ash, a sophomore in urban studies at Brown University; Duncan Kreps, a graduating senior at Middlebury College; and Alex Marshall, a junior at Evergreen State College in Washington.

Coming up, we’ll stay with Rutgers and speak to a professor there, one of 60 journalism professors around the country who have signed a letter to The New York Times calling for it to commission an independent review of a controversial December article alleging Hamas systematically weaponized sexual violence on October 7th. Back in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, students singing at a vigil last night while they barricaded themselves inside a campus building which they renamed Fathi Ghaben Hall after the acclaimed Palestinian artist who died after being unable to get care in Gaza. Special thanks to Democracy Now! fellow Eric Halvarson.

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