From Roxbury to Ramallah

March 17, 2014

The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at Northeastern University was suspended last week for handing out mock eviction notices to raise awareness about home demolitions and other injustices suffered by Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid. The SJP at Northeastern University has mounted a defense campaign, and support is pouring in from across the country and around the world.

Northeastern SJP member Ryan Branagan spoke to Madeline Burrows and Kristen Martin about the years-long campaign by pro-Israel groups to target the SJP chapter at Northeastern--and the importance of connections between Palestine and other social justice issues on Northeastern's campus.

THIS ISN'T the first time Northeastern's SJP has been under attack. Can you talk about the history of intimidation against SJP at Northeastern?

I WOULD mark 2010 as the beginning. That's when Charles Jacobs, who's connected to Zionist organizations like Americans for Peace and Tolerance and the David Project, started making videos about Northeastern SJP and posting them on his website www.shameonneu.com. He makes videos defaming SJP; the Islamic Society at Northeastern; Imam Faaruuq, who was actually fired in 2012; and a few professors who have given presentations at SJP events and are not afraid to criticize Israel.

Imam Faaruuq was a very justice-minded imam. He was involved with the Roxbury mosque, and he was also the spiritual adviser at Northeastern and attended many SJP events. He talked about the continued apartheid system in Palestine. He talked about the persecution of Tarek Mahenna and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani political prisoner who was tortured by the United States. So he earned the ire of Charles Jacobs by standing up against the Islamophobic legal proceedings that were going on in Boston.

A range of organizations came out in Amherst, Mass., on February 7 in solidarity with the people of Gaza

Between April 2013 and March 7, 2014, somebody at Northeastern was influenced by these videos from Americans for Peace and Tolerance, and that's how it led to our official sanctioning. Hillel is a campus-affiliated organization, but not a student group. There is a relationship, but the administration doesn't have any oversight over Hillel. It's absurd that outside community groups are influencing how a student organization gets punished by a campus administration.

CAN YOU describe the mock eviction action, which the administration cites as a reason for suspending SJP?

THE WHOLE point is to raise awareness about the 47,000 Palestinian homes that have been demolished since 1967, and I think it has been very effective.

Our mock eviction notice very clearly states that it is not a real eviction. Hillel and Huskies for Israel sent a letter to the administration saying we were "endangering" students, and then without any evaluation of the situation whatsoever, the Northeastern administration suspended SJP. The language of the charges is taken not only from Hillel and Huskies for Israel, but also Americans for Peace and Tolerance, the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America--national Zionist organizations which are incredibly powerful and notoriously hostile to even the slightest expression of sympathy for Palestine.

We also did an action where we walked out of an Israeli soldier's speech on campus, and for that, we were put on probation. The administration argued that we were disrupting another student organization's event, and it was not in keeping with the student code of conduct, which promotes civility between groups.

Basically, we were being punished for not being polite enough, but of course, that's not really why. It's not like they're worried about mean people on campus. They were worried about Israel specifically. That's what was being punished.

WHAT ARE the charges that SJP is facing?

THERE ARE six or seven charges. One is failure to not cancel an event after being ordered to do so by the university, which is false. Another is vandalism on campus, which, again, we didn't do. Another charge was not writing a civility statement, which we did--they just didn't like it.

WHAT IS a civility statement?

ONE OF our sanctions was that we had to write a civility statement before December 2013 describing in detail how we're going to "civilly" relate to other student groups on campus. Basically, what they wanted was something that we wrote ourselves that they could later use against us to further sanction or expel us.

We agreed to write one, and we said we will base our civility on the First Amendment, and we think it is uncivil to bring war criminals to the university. That's uncivil, not us. And the last charge was endangerment of students. How did we endanger students with fliers that clearly say, "This is not real"?

WHAT ABOUT the lawsuit filed by Zionist organizations against Northeastern?

THE LAWSUIT was a terrible perversion of the Civil Rights Act. What it said was that the "failure" of the Northeastern administration to crack down on SJP meant that for pro-Israel students and Jewish students in general, Northeastern was creating a culture that was not welcoming. So these groups were suing the university to defund them federally because of non-compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act. Absurd.

These groups have used this same tactic from Berkeley to Barnard, and every single time they have tried, it's been thrown out of court. But Zionists keep bringing these up. Why do they do this? Their tactic is to pressure the administration to get rid of the problem, which is us. So the administration sees us as a legal liability and then makes something up about us and censors us.

And the Northeastern administration were wet noodles. They clamped down on their own students because of pressure from these outside organizations. That's why you see such an outpouring of support for Northeastern SJP--because what the administration did was very explicit, in-your-face and heavy handed.

CAN YOU tell us about the two students who are facing disciplinary proceedings?

THE EVICTION action took place during Israeli Apartheid Week a few weeks ago. There were many students involved, including students who were not members of SJP, who let us into dorms or otherwise helped us out, because they were in support of what we were doing. This was a very diverse group.

Two days after the action, one of our youngest student members, an 18-year-old woman of color, was visited by the campus cops in her dorm room, and they also visited another woman of color. These were the only two who were visited. And though a few others got calls from the administration, none of the white and male members even got calls.

They went after the people that they thought were most vulnerable. The students who got calls were the ones with the most Muslim-sounding names. Some of our other members of color, men and women, were called on the basis of their names. Ryan Branagan was not called. Max Geller was not called.

WOULD YOU say Northeastern has a history of racism and other diversity problems?

ABSOLUTELY. WE'RE seeing the tip of the iceberg. If you walk through campus, you can visit the Raytheon Amphitheater. Raytheon is a U.S.-based war profiteer, responsible for the production of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which we know are for murdering Iraqi and Libyan civilians. Raytheon is part and parcel of U.S. imperialism.

Look at the spatial reality of Northeastern University. It's right on the border of Roxbury and has begun to gentrify the community. If you go across the Orange Line, you're in a completely different world. Northeastern has never talked about the gentrification of its own campus community, yet it wants to talk about human rights and being a global leader. It's has been featured in the news media for being the third greenest university, but it's a total greenwashing of the actual oppression at Northeastern.

Even when it comes to its own employees, adjuncts, who teach the vast majority of classes at Northeastern University, are making poverty wages, while President Aoun is the second most highly paid university president in the country at $3.1 million every year.

YOU'VE BEEN trying to get solidarity from faculty at Northeastern university, but it's been challenging because so many are adjunct professors. Can you talk about some of that organizing?

EVEN TENURED faculty are afraid because there's a culture of union busting at Northeastern. They've hired the notorious law firm Jackson Lewis, which literally wrote the book on union busting. So at this liberal university, they're spending big money on lawyers to crush adjunct organizing efforts, so they don't have to pay their own employees.

All that being said, you have vast support for unionization among the adjuncts. They are working with other students groups like the Progressive Student Alliance to make this a possibility. It's something that SJP and every student group should get behind.

AFTER THE American Studies Association (ASA) voted to honor the Palestinian call for academic boycott of Israeli institutions, university presidents across the country came out strongly in opposition. What was the reaction on Northeastern's campus? Have there been any boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaigns at Northeastern?

PRESIDENT AOUN came out very strongly against the ASA boycott, saying it was an attack on academic freedom, and that this was against the spirit of Northeastern University and we needed to be encouraging dialogue. Then, a few months later, he cracks down on students organizing for justice in Palestine.

BDS has been difficult because of the lack of transparency about Northeastern's investments. They don't have to tell us what they're invested in. I think students should have more of a say. We have no voting power on the board of trustees. The student government is symbolic.

CAN YOU talk about the response from other student groups and the way you've been able to build alliances? What groups have explicitly endorsed your campaign?

THE PROGRESSIVE Student Alliance, which is working on the adjunct faculty organizing campaign, explicitly came out in our favor. The Latino Student Organization (LASO) also came out explicitly in our favor. We also have a lot of informal support. What's even more amazing is that there probably isn't one single SJP in the country that hasn't said something in support of us.

Northeastern got a message the other day from Italy. On our petition, we're getting signatures from Tel Aviv, from Palestinians in Gaza. People in Sweden are actively following the events at Northeastern. We've gotten messages from student organizers in Mexico.

IT SEEMS that there is now more of a sense of international solidarity. Do you think that things have changed in the past few years?

I THINK the past four years have been really critical when it comes to Palestine organizing. If we were trying to do this four years ago, we wouldn't have won. But we've been really working through BDS to make this global. The BDS movement and other anti-imperial, anti-colonial struggles have been forming alliances. We have groups coming together to talk about the connections between U.S. imperialism and how the wider neoliberal university fits into this.

I think the outpouring of support, which is amazing and which we've been humbled by, speaks to a wider latent strength of the left. If we can, we should use this to build a radical critique of all of these different things. Why is our university engaged with all of these imperialist donors? Why are we gentrifying Roxbury? Why are we going against unions?

I think students are forming a little bit of a vanguard for really serious struggle. Of course, we can't do it alone. It has to be alongside low-wage workers and others. For example, in Boston, Veolia got kicked out of the city and lost its contract because bus drivers formed a union, and that union was working with SJP and other groups, which were talking about connecting oppression from Ramallah to Roxbury.

It's so important to be building these transnational connections because things that we're facing are transnational--transnational capitalism and transnational imperialism. The things that are affecting our community are not just affecting us.

WHAT DO you think will be the next steps will be for this organizing?

WE THINK that it's critical--especially now, when we're really under a spotlight--to articulate other critiques of why there are these structural inequalities. The rally on March 18 is going to be in conjunction with the disciplinary hearing of the two students. We're going to deliver our petition, which has gathered more than 5,000 signatures in just a few days, to President Aoun's office. It's mostly symbolic, but we want to put the pressure on the people who will be judging the two students and the administration.

We've already won a small victory in getting the administration to back away from its threat to expel the two students. We want to pressure them to treat all student groups equally, to not allow the cops to police free speech on campus, to compel them to allow us to organize freely on campus, to reinstate and drop all charges against SJP, and to drop all of the charges against the two students in question.

We're going for total unconditional victory, and we're trying to push that even further. I think we should use this as a chance to look at rape culture and homophobia and transphobia on campus, to talk about adjunct unionization and all of these other things that we've been struggling for. That is how we move on from here. We've been incredibly encouraged by the support we've gotten so far, but it doesn't end with a petition or a protest or delivering signatures to the president.

DURING THE Occupy movement, Boston student activists came together to talk about the neoliberal structure of universities and colleges. Do you think that Northeastern's attack--and the response of SJP and its allies--is opening up a similar kind of possibility?

I'M SURE everybody has critiques of Occupy, but it did speak to a wider sort of revolutionary feeling in the country and a wider sense of discontent.

I do think we have another opening, another chance. We've been doing very patient work over the past four years, and we're building off of decades. We have a chance. The goal is to use this discontent, which we saw during Occupy, to build a wider and more serious movement for emancipatory change. And if we don't do that, that's on us. We've been given a golden opportunity by the people who run this system, so let's use it.

WHAT ABOUT what's happening right now in Gaza? How can SJP and other activists take this opportunity to also talk about what's happening there?

ONE OF the main injustices is that Northeastern denied us the opportunity to advocate on campus for people in Gaza as the bombs continue to fall. They are talking about endangerment and feelings instead of actual material consequences and death. In the last few months of the Kerry peace talks, 44 Palestinians have been slaughtered by Israeli forces. The racial segregation that they're actively funding persists, and our complicity in that as the university remains.

We should be careful to not be too inward looking even as we come under pressure from the administration. Suspension is not nearly as bad as bombs being dropped on your home. We're a solidarity organization. We organize primarily to raise awareness and to create material changes. We think in this broad outpouring of support for SJPs, it's also necessary to take time to talk about BDS, about actually cutting off funds to the apartheid system, actually materially impacting them.

I think that's why we're in this. Its not just to have a great event or do a petition that gets a lot of signatures. That's awesome. We need that. But we need it to do something. We need to use that momentum to do something concrete and real that actually changes things for the better.

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