Divestment stymied at OSU

March 11, 2015

Haley Swenson reports on the dirty tricks used on behalf of Israeli apartheid.

THE STUDENT government at Ohio State University (OSU) issued a last-minute ruling--using a flimsy bureaucratic pretext--to disqualify a campus-wide referendum on university divestment from six companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestine.

On March 8 at 11:30 p.m., the night before voting was to begin, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Judicial Panel informed the OSU Divest campaign that of the 3,100 signatures gathered to place the divestment measure on the ballot, some 500 would be disqualified because the name of the person who collected the signatures wasn't listed on the petition.

When it was pointed out that some USG candidates also hadn't listed circulators on their petitions, yet had nevertheless been allowed on the ballot, the USG Judicial Panel doubled down, disqualifying three candidates--all of whom happened to be Palestinian--as well.

USG's decision caused an immediate outpouring of anger, both from supporters of divestment and from other students appalled by the lack of democracy in student governance--making Ohio State the latest campus where political debates about Israeli occupation have revealed deeper problems with free speech on college campuses.

Thousands of signatures gathered on petitions supporting divestment at OSU
Thousands of signatures gathered on petitions supporting divestment at OSU

Early on, the USG made it clear that it would use any and every bureaucratic obstacle it could to thwart the pro-Palestine divestment resolution. For example, when the campaign initially filed its intentions in January to be on the ballot, the student government required the organization to collect 5,000 signatures in three weeks--one-tenth of the students on the Columbus campus. By comparison, only 1,000 signatures are needed to qualify as a City Council candidate in the city of Columbus, which has a population of more than 800,000.

OSU Divest immediately appealed, arguing that this was an impossible task and drowned out student voices unless they had major institutional backing. OSU Divest won its appeal, and the number of signatures required was reduced to 2,600.

OSU Divest volunteers worked day and night to gather signatures, though they were not allowed to do so in classes, in dormitories (without express permission from each dorm's manager) or in the student union without paying for a space to canvass. The campaign turned in approximately 3,100 signatures by the deadline, but days passed without USG giving its approval for the ballot initiative.

What you can do

Sign this petition to show your solidarity with the efforts of OSU Divest. If you're in Columbus, come to a solidarity rally outside the Ohio Union on OSU's campus on Wednesday, March 11 at 12:30 p.m.

TAKEN TOGETHER, these maneuvers systematically silenced the voices of pro-Palestine students, singling them out when it is precisely the repression and disenfranchisement of Palestinians that the divestment movement seeks to combat. The shenanigans began less than 48 hours before the election when organizers of the OSU Divest campaign received notice on March 7 that a brief had been filed against them by USG's Judicial Panel, the body that oversees elections and ensures that all parties follow bylaws for campaigning and petitioning.

The hearing for the complaint was set by the Judicial Panel (JP), without any input from the OSU Divest campaign, for noon the following day. In the one day leading up to the hearing, the meeting location was changed three times by the Judicial Panel, and the meeting time changed once, making it difficult to inform supporters where to go to support the divestment campaign.

Once the hearing got started (late), it quickly emerged that the JP's own clerk Eric Hoffman would also be the plaintiff in the hearing. Then, JP Chief Brandon Cruz entered the room and asked all members of the panel, including the person acting as plaintiff, to meet with him privately outside the room. Needless to say, members of the divestment campaign were not invited to attend. It was the first of several moments that revealed the collaborative relationship between plaintiff and jury in the hearing.

The one member of OSU Divest--Cruz Bonlarron Martínez--who was allowed to speak on the group's behalf pointed out that the section in the election bylaws delineating rules for initiatives, which the campaign had abided by closely, didn't state the requirement that petitions include a circulator's signature, even though that is delineated in the section applying to candidates. Plus, USG had approved the petition sheet to be used weeks before it was circulated by the campaign, without noting that the petition contained no line for the circulator's name or signature.

The hearing showed the all-too-common experience of divestment activists around the country, as they bring a wide knowledge of history, politics and rigorously prepared arguments to student governments, only to be met with walls of bureaucracy and a refusal to engage the issues at their core.

Just last month, the student government at University of Toledo ruled that it would not even debate a submitted divestment resolution because it was deemed "discriminatory" and thus unconstitutional. An outpouring of protest seemed to have an impact, and the resolution was eventually heard and passed in a 21-to-4 vote last week.

NEARLY 12 hours after the hearing and just 12 hours before the election began, the OSU Divest campaign received an e-mail disqualifying its resolution from the ballot--and minutes later, the three Palestinian students who candidates for office also learned they would be removed from the ballot for the same "offense."

That night, several Palestinian students were blocked from USG's Twitter account as they raised critiques of the decisions publicly. USG later apologized and invited those who were blocked to e-mail their PR representative to be unblocked.

USG's Diversity Committee, which observed the hearings, was appalled by the decision and clear bias of the Judicial Panel during the proceedings. They filed a brief against the Judicial Panel, urging them to vacate their decision, since they had set a precedent of both bringing a complaint against students and adjudicating it, in a case when there has been no demonstrable harm done to the university community. "In doing so," the diversity committee wrote, "[the Judicial Panel] has, at worst, contributed to the disenfranchisement of a minority organization, and at best, it has contributed to the censorship of student speech."

Of course, the decision has done both. There are few other examples of censorship of student speech as systematic and widespread on campuses around the country as that directed at Palestine solidarity groups.

At OSU two years ago, for instance, the Committee for Justice in Palestine, which is affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, was rejected for university funds for an event called, "A People with a Culture," because the USG found their use of the word "occupation" to describe Israel's colonial project to be "too controversial." As universities like Ohio State insist they are diverse and welcoming multicultural spaces, their hypocrisy on the question of Palestine and their silencing of Palestinian students is nothing less than shameful.

On the heels of the March 8 ruling, administrators stayed out of the fray--except to admonish USG for having backed down from initially requiring OSU Divest to collect 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot! After the statement, which was issued by Vice President of Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston, went up on OSU's website, it was taken down without explanation on March 10.

Adams-Gaston's failure to note the marginalization of students of color is atrocious for a student life official, but in keeping with the deafening silence of administrators on U.S. campuses regarding the discriminatory treatment of Palestinian students.

That this silence on the issue of divestment occurs even while the Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman calls for the beheading of Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrates the global complicity in allowing Israeli aggression. It is, in part, U.S. universities' complicity in this repression that makes them one of the most important fronts in the struggle for BDS.

The OSU Divest campaign is currently deliberating what its next steps should be, including how to appeal the decision of the Judicial Panel. On its Facebook page late on March 8, the campaign wrote:

Our campaign refuses to let this decision be the final word on our initiative. We will update you about our next steps in the coming days, but want to thank all our supporters for the time and energy they have given to this campaign. The campaign to divest our endowment from companies that cause such immense harm to human life is too serious and too urgent to be dropped, simply because of one bad ruling. We hope you'll join us as we continue to fight for this initiative.

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