Rochester’s show of solidarity with Gaza

February 9, 2009

Kyle Brown reports from a campus occupation at the University of Rochester.

STUDENTS AT the University of Rochester (UR) and their supporters from the community occupied a campus building February 6 in solidarity with the victims of Israel's siege of Gaza--and in a matter of half a day declared victory after winning important concessions from the administration.

The university agreed to a public forum to discuss UR's financial policies, and its investments in Israel and companies that do business in Israel. It also promised support for a campus-wide fund drive for Palestine, donations to Gaza of surplus supplies, and international student scholarships for Palestinians.

The occupation came in the wake of a similar actions in British universities that also won their demands--as well as the revived U.S. movement in solidarity with Palestinians, which organized rallies of hundreds and thousands in cities across the country during Israel's onslaught on Gaza.

The administration's agreement at UR was a tangible step forward for activists and opened the way for new efforts to show our solidarity with the victims of Israel's war on the Palestinians.

Students occupy the University of Rochester
Students occupy the University of Rochester (TheSitch)

Members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) took the lead in raising the issue. Leading up to the occupation, the group submitted an op-ed article in the campus newspaper and issued a letter to the administration, which called for UR to divest from corporations that manufacture weapons and profit from the siege of Gaza, and to provide direct support for the people of Gaza.

SDS chose the Goergen Atrium and Auditorium on campus for a sit-in set for February 6. Since the atrium is considered public space, the UR administration agreed to allow SDS to reserve the Goergen building for a peaceful occupation between 1 p.m. and 12 midnight. It also agreed that Dean of Students Matthew Burns would meet with students for negotiations.

AS STUDENTS and community members began assembling in the atrium that day, SDS, the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) and other organizations set up informational tables with pamphlets, literature and leaflets to educate people and facilitate discussions.

One participant made Palestinian flags out of construction paper with his two children, and distributed them to the crowd. Musicians preformed impromptu songs that turned into collective chanting, "Free Free Palestine" along to the music. Food was provided during the day by the local Food Not Bombs organization.

Throughout the day, meetings of 30 to 50 people convened in the auditorium for education about Israel's siege of Gaza, U.S. support for Israel and possible solutions to conflict--and to collectively discuss how to win our demands from the university.

The strategy discussions took on a new importance when the administration changed its policy and tone--for example, demanding that the students pay $600 for a security guard to protect "both the building from the occupying students and the students from potential dangers." Administrators declared that students would be doubly punished, both for staying in the building after midnight and for any non-students who were in the building as well.

Occupiers recognized that the administration was trying to divide students from community supporters. As Hannah Taleb of SDS said, "If we are going to win our demands, we need solidarity." She proposed that no one show their identification cards "so they can't divide us." Others said UR students should remain inside and occupy, while community supporters rallied outside to guard the building.

Everyone unanimously agreed to add the demand that no disciplinary action be taken against students, workers or community supporters for the occupation.

Activists also set about getting as many people as possible to participate in the occupation between 11 p.m. and midnight to try to gain the most leverage in winning their demands and defending themselves against disciplinary action. A publicity team circulated a press release, and occupiers distributed quarter-sheet handouts calling for the 11 p.m. mobilization, with marches through campus and trips to local coffee shops.

As the evening progressed, organizers received word that Dean Burns would come to negotiate with the occupation at 10 p.m. to create a joint statement and plan of action to address the demands. The occupiers voted for two delegates from UR and one community delegate to negotiate with Burns, and that the meeting with the dean should take place in the auditorium in front of everyone.

The first round of negotiations took place in front of a crowd of occupiers--their numbers now swelled to 75 people--shortly after 10 p.m. After delegates presented the occupation's demands and Burns stated the university's position, the dean left the auditorium, and the occupiers met to discuss and draft a joint statement and plan of action to present in a second round of bargaining.

After much debate, a majority voted in favor of presenting Burns with the following demands: 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.

Burns met again with the occupiers' representatives shortly before midnight, and agreed to each of the demands. When he left, the group voted overwhelmingly to accept the plan of action he signed, and declared a victory for the occupation.

The occupiers marched through campus chanting, "Occupation is a crime, from Iraq to Palestine!" The march ended at the library, where a final meeting was held to assess the victory and discuss next steps.

Occupiers agreed that this was only the beginning of a Rochester-wide campus solidarity campaign for Palestine and to win divestment from Israel.

Ryan Acuff of SDS reminded the group that UR activists were following in the wake of similar occupations in Britain. Kristin Wierman of CAN said she hoped the UR occupation would "inspire and spread this movement across the U.S." And Mike Iannacone, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, pointed out the potential for linking up student activism with the labor movement, pointing to the South African dockworkers who refused to unload Israeli cargo in solidarity with Palestine.

The victory at UR is a confirmation of what activists can achieve, even with the mainstream media and the U.S. government firmly in Israel's corner. Hopefully, people will see this as part of a call to action in support of justice in Palestine.

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