Saturday, May 18, 2024

MSU Gaza solidarity encampment protestors say morale is high after first night in camp

April 26, 2024
<p>Students at the Gaza solidarity encampment help themselves to an assortment of donated snacks and coffee Friday morning. The demonstrators plan on remaining in the field behind Wells Hall through Sunday.</p>

Students at the Gaza solidarity encampment help themselves to an assortment of donated snacks and coffee Friday morning. The demonstrators plan on remaining in the field behind Wells Hall through Sunday.

Student protestors in the Gaza solidarity encampment have been set up on MSU campus for over 24 hours now, waking up this morning to a breakfast of donated coffee and snacks following their first night in the tents.

The students, who are demanding that the university divest funds from Israel, said morale is high among demonstrators and that they plan to remain in the field through Sunday, when the permit for the encampment is set to expire.

Last night, following a speaker’s lecture on the history of Israel-Palestine relations, organizers held a meeting in the encampment to reestablish group norms and emphasize the purpose of the demonstration. At midnight, several students stepped outside of the encampment to recite a Tahajjud prayer.

Journalism and international relations junior Cara Mack said that despite cold temperatures throughout the night, she and other students are in good spirits. Mack added that the encampment has received a generous amount of donated blankets as well as foam mattress toppers from students moving out of the dorms.

“That was very helpful,” Mack said, referring to the donations. “I actually slept on a, like, four-inch mattress pad. So honestly, I can’t complain. It was a little cold, but I was with my friends.”

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While today’s agenda is still being formulated, tentative plans include a press conference around 10:30 a.m. as well as continued education and training for students at the encampment

While the students remain set up behind Wells Hall this weekend, MSU will be holding its commencement ceremonies for graduating seniors. Protestor Jesse Estrada White, who is a comparative cultures and politics junior and student organizer with Sunrise MSU, said there are several reasons graduating seniors may choose to remain at the encampment rather than participate in any ceremony. 

“(One reason is) if you don’t really feel like celebrating a university that has been complicit in funding genocide, occupation and apartheid,” Estrada White said. “I don’t want to overshadow (peoples’ achievements) but there is also a higher purpose in staying in this camp and being a part of this demonstration.”

As of June 30, 2023, MSU has $218.1 million invested in three BlackRock funds: BlackRock Emerging Companies, BlackRock Strategic and BlackRock Systematic China Absolute Return, according to the MSU list of investments.

Advocates for divestment argue that those investments and an additional $363.8 million invested in BNY Mellon are funding weapons manufacturers involved in the Israel-Hamas war.

Additionally, MSU has $236,114 invested in Israeli bonds and $479,006 invested in weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

MSU spokesperson Mark Bullion said that while MSU does own U.S. treasury bonds that were issued to fund Israeli aid, "the university purchased these bonds in March 2023, well before the current conflict."

MSU’s Board of Trustees announced earlier this month that its finance committee will review the university's financial holdings but won’t consider "divestment of any kind."

President Kevin Guskiewicz said the university is "doing everything to protect the endowment and our financial investments from any political influence."

But even if MSU did decide to pull out of the Israeli bond, doing so would be "chaotic," Assistant Vice President of Financial Management Jeff Rayis told The State News in February.

Financial experts say the complex web of outside asset managers and contractually-bound investments put the university in a bind — without much control over its own endowment.

Both MSU’s undergraduate student government and the council of Graduate Students passed resolutions calling for divestment earlier this year. MSU’s Faculty Senate voted no on a similar resolution, a decision that 90 faculty members signed an open letter disagreeing with.

Protestors at the ongoing encampment are echoing the same demands

The MSU Board of Trustees gave the Gaza solidarity encampment until Sunday to camp. But the decision was preceded by hours of back and forth between students, administrators and the police yesterday

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Estrada White said the group has yet to make a decision on whether the encampment will remain up after the permit expires on Sunday.

Yesterday’s set up 

The students arrived early yesterday morning to set up the camp, following suit with students at dozens of other universities across the country.

“We're here to stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza and the mass mobilization across all campuses calling for divestment from the state of Israel and an end to the genocide,” Palestinian student organizer with the Arab Cultural Society Saba Saed said.

There were around 35 students then. That number has grown to over 60.

The encampment is set up between Wells Hall and the International Center in an area called “The Peoples’ Park.” The field held an anti-Vietnam war encampment in 1970

Estrada White said this is “in the spirit of the encampment.”

“Part of that is the symbolism, the connection,” Estrada White said. “We may be … 50-60 years beyond that, but the university is still complicit in war, it's still complicit in genocide. Also, it's a good place for a camp.”

Tensions rise and students file permit request

The students prepared early for the possibility of police force, which has been seen at the various protests across the country

Yesterday, Saed told The State News that the university’s police response would indicate “how willing they are to actually listen to these student voices.”

Dana Whyte, spokesperson for MSU’s Department of Police and Public Safety, said dissent is encouraged on campus. But she said protests “cannot interfere with the rights of others, or stop the function of a speech or event, or interfere with the normal business operation of the university in causing disruption.”

Before any arrest for disruption takes place, multiple public notifications are made in an attempt to disperse it, Whyte said

Campus police arrived at the encampment a few hours after it was set up. Officer Steve Beard told student organizers that MSU ordinance 13.01 prohibits unauthorized camping on university grounds.

“You can still stay, you can still gather, you can do what you want to do, but the tents — because of the ordinance — have to come down,” he told students.

Students would have to get permission from the Board of Trustees to have the encampment, which would require filing a permit request for approval.

The police then gave students 45 minutes to either remove tents or get permission from the board. They said they would extend the time if needed

The 45-minute mark came and went as more students arrived with food and water. They began locking hands, waving Palestinian flags and chanting

But it wasn’t just students coming to the encampment, as more MSU administrators arrived throughout the afternoon: Vice President of Public Safety & Chief Safety Officer Doug Monette, Vice President for Student Life and Engagement Vennie Gore and Vice President for Civil Rights and Title IX compliance Laura Rugless. 

MSU President Kevin Guskiewicz also visited the Gaza solidarity encampment and spoke to protestors. He told students their permit request would be reviewed

“It’s gonna go through our process,” he told The State News after his discussion with students. “I support them petitioning to be able to have the encampment.”

He deferred the students’ concerns about MSU investments to the Board of Trustees, which he said is “reviewing our investment and endowment policies.”

The board, however, said earlier this month that it will not consider “divestment of any kind.”

Student organizers filed a permit request in hopes of protecting the camp, which MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant said would be reviewed by the Office of the Board Of Trustees

Many of the police officers at the encampment also left, though Guerrant said they would “continue to monitor” it

Encampment receives approval and gets on solid ground

The MSU Board of Trustees approved the Gaza solidarity encampment’s permit request in the early evening, according to Guerrant.

The approval allowed for encampment to remain standing in the space between Wells Hall and the International Center through Sunday, April 28, which was the time period requested by organizers.

Student protestors said they were grateful for the board's cooperation.

“I am thrilled that the Board of Trustees has recognized our right to protest and decided to not forcefully remove us,” comparative cultures and politics senior and one of the encampment marshals Natalie Harmon said. “I really hope that this is a step in the right direction and that they'll actually listen to our demands and take a step towards divestment.”

Estrada White said he didn’t know if the group would stay past the permit’s expiration.

“I don’t know yet,” Estrada White said. “It’s a collective decision.”

As the students waited for the board’s approval, they also established encampment rules

The rules asked that students “practice kindness” and treat the encampment like a commune.

“Give what you can and take what you need,” the rules said.

The rules also discouraged drug and alcohol use.

Students designated “marshals,” who wore bright orange vests and were charged with leading the protest and communicating with police and the media.

Protests continue as dusk nears

The students held a protest in the afternoon using signs they had created while at the encampment

They chanted, “from Columbia to MSU, the student revolution is stronger than you.”

Later, they settled in for the night as they listened to speakers discuss the history of Israel-Palestine relations

They added to the encampment with a make-shift kitchen, hand-washing stations and lights

Protestors also displayed a large photo of Tariq Thabet, a former MSU exchange scholar who was killed in an Israeli bombing late last year

Reporters Alex Walters, Theo Scheer and Owen McCarthy contributed to the contents of this article

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