Student Encampments at U of Michigan and MSU Peacefully protest Israeli War on Gaza, seek Disinvestment (2024)

By: Jon King and Susan J. Demas

( Michigan Advance ) – While student encampments at New York and Texas colleges protesting Israeli military action in Gaza have generated confrontations with police, similar protests at Michigan universities have so far remained peaceful.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, more than 120 students are camped out on the Diag, the open space at the heart of the main campus. That has grown from about 50 students who turned out on early Monday morning to set up the encampment directly in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library.

Amid Palestinian flags and banners that call on the university to “Divest Now!,” sit more than 40 tents, most facing toward the center of the encampment where food tables and information boards sit, as well as a small staging area for organizers to address fellow students.

The Friday morning announcements began with an update on similar protest encampments across the country, reminders to not engage with any counter-protestors and Shabbat services and dinner planned for the encampment later Friday night.

Alifa Chowdhury, a junior studying political science and one of the student organizers, told the Michigan Advance that they have one demand for the university’s board of regents.

“Our only demand is divestment, and we’re here to stay until divestment demands are met,” said Chowdhury, who is also a member of the TAHRIR Coalition, a student-led alliance of more than 80 organizations “fighting for divestment from Israel and the military-industrial complex and reinvestment in our education and our community.”

Specifically, Chowdhury said “weapons manufacturing and war profiteering companies” are connected to about a third of the University of Michigan’s $18 billion endowment.

Student Encampments at U of Michigan and MSU Peacefully protest Israeli War on Gaza, seek Disinvestment (1)
The student encampment on the University of Michigan campus. April 26, 2024. Photo by Jon King.

“During times of war, like right now, they make more money because obviously people are buying more weapons,” she said. “And that just doesn’t make sense to us as students because that’s just not ethical because we’re making more money off the blood of people overseas. So the ask really is to take that $6 billion out and reinvest it into communities and really ethical things.”

The conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out on Oct. 7, after a surprise Hamas terrorist attack on southern Israel killed about 1,200 people and resulted in the taking of more than 250 hostages. The resulting Israeli retaliation has killed more than than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry.

In a news release issued Monday by the TAHRIR Coalition announcing the encampment, the group said, “We are not leaving the Diag until we achieve full divestment. Power to our freedom fighters, glory to our martyrs. All eyes on Gaza, the Thawabit is our compass.”

Colleen Mastony, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs, told the Advance that their investment policy has been in place for nearly 20 years and shields the university’s investments from political pressures.

“Much of the money invested through the university’s endowment, for example, is donor funding given to provide long-term financial support for designated purposes,” she said. “The Board of Regents reaffirmed its position on this issue earlier this year.”

A March 28 statement by Regent Michael Behm said the university’s endowment had no direct investment in any Israeli company.

“What we do have are funds that one of those companies may be part of a fund,” Behm said. “Another statement that was made was that $6 billion dollars or roughly one third of our endowment is invested in these Israeli companies. I asked the endowment team about that and, in actuality, less than one-tenth of 1% of the endowment is invested indirectly in such companies.”

Chowdhury, however, says the regents and university are hiding behind a policy that has been flexible in the past.

“The university has made it known that they will not divest because they don’t make investment decisions and financial decisions based on political pressure, but we know that’s not true,” she said. “They divested from Russia in a week, they divested from South African apartheid, they divested from fossil fuels, and those are inherently political decisions they had to make. So we’re here when we’re going to push for it and we know it’s going to happen.”

The protestors have also demanded that University President Santa Ono meet with them by at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Student Encampments at U of Michigan and MSU Peacefully protest Israeli War on Gaza, seek Disinvestment (2)

“Many of you have expressed interest in meeting with the TAHRIR coalition; here is your opportunity to do so,” stated an email sent by the group to the university and its board of regents.

“We stand in solidarity with our brave students occupying campus until our demand for divestment is met in full,” the email continued. “We reject any attempt to surveil, criminalize, or otherwise punish them for their activism. As members of the University of Michigan community, we firmly and proudly demand divestment now.”

Earlier in the week, the Anti Defamation League (ADL) of Michigan, posted a picture from the encampment of a banner that read “Long Live The Intifada,” a reference to the Arabic word for uprising and a term often used to describe Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

“We are dismayed to see anti-Israel protests at colleges and Universities like this one at the University of Michigan, using terms like Intifada, which refers to two periods of indiscriminate violence directed at Jews in Israel, resulting in the loss of thousands of innocent lives – Palestinian & Israeli. Simply put, Intifada is a call for violence that only stokes fear, anger and division,” stated the ADL. “Protests that use these terms don’t alleviate suffering nor bring about lasting peace in a global or local setting.”

The banner was not visible on Friday. As to claims that their protest is antisemitic, Chowdhury insists that is a false accusation that seeks to undermine legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies, and has nothing to do with the Jewish religion.

“I think if people spent more than ten minutes at this encampment, there’s so much community and love and joy, music and art builds and open poetry and open mics,” she said. “This is also co-led by the Jewish Voices for Peace students, and so no, we don’t foster antisemitism here. It really is a place of love. Anti-Zionism and anti-Zionist rhetoric should not be conflated with antisemitism. They’re not the same thing. They’re not interchangeable.”

Student Encampments at U of Michigan and MSU Peacefully protest Israeli War on Gaza, seek Disinvestment (3)

Meanwhile, Michigan State University students set up their “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” early on Thursday morning in “The People’s Park” — the site of a similar protest against the Vietnam War decades ago.

By 1:30 p.m. Thursday, about 50 students were gathered at the site in back of Wells Hall along the Red Cedar River, where roughly two dozen tents were set up amid Palestinian flags, a “Free Palestine” chalk drawing on the sidewalk and banners that read, “Stop Funding Genocide” and “Trustees: Divest Now.”

The protest also featured a well-stocked snack table with cookies, fruit snacks, drinks and more, with students periodically trekking in more supplies, like green foam sleeping pads.

The protest was still going strong on Friday after protesters spent their first night camping out. MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant told the Advance that the protesters applied for a permit Thursday afternoon, requesting to camp/tent on campus through Sunday. The Board of Trustees Office approved the permit around 5 p.m. Thursday.

Fliers posted at the camp for “Encampment Norms/Expectations” included the following:

  • Practice kindness and treat others with respect.
  • Keep alert for marshalls’ instructions. Marshalls are wearing high-vis orange vests and are here to keep us safe.
  • Avoid interacting with police. If you see police, inform a marshall.

There was no sign of a police presence at that time, although students said MSU police had made several stops earlier in the day telling them to disperse.

Just a couple blocks away, dozens of MSU students donning green caps and gowns were busy taking photos outside Spartan Stadium and the Sparty Statue, the day before the start of spring graduation ceremonies.

Guerrant told the Advance on Friday that “graduation has gone extremely smooth today.”

Most students, many who wore masks, deferred to student leaders to talk to reporters on Thursday.

One of those who did speak was Camille Duvernois, a third-year student in world politics and journalism, who told the Advance the MSU students also seek divestment. The encampment was a joint effort by about 20 campus groups, she said.

“We are here to get the university to divest from weapons manufacturers, to divest from Israeli aid. They have millions of dollars vested in weapons manufacturers,” she said. “Students and community members are uncomfortable with our tuition money going to not only profiting off of genocide, but also funding it. We are paying our tuition and then that tuition money is going back into investments that kill children, that are bombing children senselessly, that are bombing innocent civilians in a land that has been occupied for decades illegally by settler-colonialist forces.”

Duvernois said the protestors would also like to see a ceasefire in Gaza that allows Palestinians “displaced recklessly” by Israel to return to their homes.

“But the attempts for a ceasefire have been continuously rejected by the Israeli Knesset [Parliament]. They’ve been repeatedly rejected by [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. He has repeatedly refused any sort of peace attempts from Palestinians,” Duvernois said. “Israel has refused for decades to allow Palestinians to exist in peace. And whenever there’s retaliation of any sort, people resisting their occupiers, it turns into genocide and it turns into senseless murder, and we don’t want our tuition money going to that.”

When asked whether the remaining hostages taken by Hamas should be returned as part of a ceasefire, Duvernois said it was absolutely a concern, although she continued to place blame on Israel.

“Of course. We don’t think that there should be any sort of violence or loss of life,” she said “But ultimately this violence is caused by the settler colonial ethnostate that is Israel. I mean, they are the reason that there are hostages. There’s the reason that there is violence.”

Duvernois said their protest would last as long as it took to achieve success.

“We will not end this stuff until the university decides to stop using our money for this sort of violence. They said in their last board trustees meetings that they would not be reconsidering their investments, that they would not be considering divestment. And when [new University President Kevin] Guskiewicz just talked to us, he said they were considering it. So that’s progress in some manner. I mean, they said it would be too chaotic to divest, but this is chaotic.”

However, Guerrant relayed a different version of the meeting with Guskiewicz on Thursday.

“The president did stop by the encampment yesterday around noon, but he did not say the university would divest,” Guerrant said in an email on Friday afternoon. “Rather, he reiterated what was said at the April board meeting — that MSU will not be divesting. The university is committed to safeguarding its investment portfolio from political influence. We currently have no direct or indirect investments in gun manufacturers nor in the three publicly traded civilian firearm manufacturers. MSU does not own an Israeli-issued security bond.”

Eli Folts, who just finished his junior year at MSU, is a member of the Young Communist League on campus part of the encampment. He said on Thursday that divestment was not an impossible goal.

“We need divestment. We’ve done it in the past and we were a leader then,” he said referencing divestment in the 1980s from the then apartheid-nation of South Africa.

“I mean, if you think about it, look at the timeline,” he said. “It took eight to 10 years. It took a long time, but once it kind of hit that critical mass where we had that cooperation between faculty and students, it was very powerful. And I think that’s far from impossible. We can do it. We have the people; we have faculty support. We just really need to push this and we need to engage community members. We need to engage alum.”

Student Encampments at U of Michigan and MSU Peacefully protest Israeli War on Gaza, seek Disinvestment (2024)
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