A double victory at Evergreen

June 16, 2016

Evergreen State College is known for its socially conscious student body--but it may require further efforts to get the Evergreen administration to honor the mandates for BDS and farmworkers' justice from student voting. In this article, Evergreen Students for Justice in Palestine and Olympia-TESC BDS tell the story of what took place late in the spring.

ON MAY 31, 2016, students at the Evergreen State College (TESC) in Olympia, Washington, voted overwhelmingly to approve resolutions in support of freedom and equality for Palestinians as well as labor justice for migrant workers at Sakuma Bros. farm in northern Washington.

The three resolutions asked students to: 1) Condemn the presence of Caterpillar equipment on campus; 2) De-shelve Sabra hummus; and 3) prohibit the use of Sakuma Bros. berries at campus dining facilities.

Support for the resolutions was widespread: 67.4 percent of participating students voted for the Caterpillar resolution, 73.9 percent voted for de-shelving Sabra, and an impressive 84.7 percent supported the Sakuma ban.

The resolutions also garnered support beyond campus. The campaign was endorsed by Olympia-based organization Economics for Everyone, the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and political scientist Norman Finkelstein.

Both Caterpillar and Sabra are complicit in Israeli apartheid and occupation. Caterpillar sells armored bulldozers to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) to conduct illegal house demolitions in the Palestinian territories. Caterpillar equipment has helped to displace some 100,000 civilians since 1967. One of Sabra's parent corporations, Strauss Group, provides material support to elite units of the IDF, such as the Golani and Givati Brigades, which are infamous for human rights abuses, including during Israel's latest assault on Gaza.

A BDS banner flies on campus at Evergreen State College
A BDS banner flies on campus at Evergreen State College (TESC Divest)

Sakuma Bros. farm is notorious for its exploitative labor practices against a largely immigrant workforce, paying poverty wages in deplorable conditions.

"As a Palestinian student, this vote reaffirms my school's commitment to not support the oppressors of my family and my lineage and to use its tools to collaborate with other schools across the U.S. through the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement," said Zayd Zaytoon, an Evergreen student and Olympia activist.

THE VOTES to bar Caterpillar and Sabra from campus continue a long tradition of Palestine solidarity organizing by the Evergreen and Olympia communities.

In 2003, Evergreen student Rachel Corrie was killed by an IDF-operated Caterpillar bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home from demolition. In 2010, students voted overwhelmingly to divest from companies profiting from Israeli occupation and prohibit the use of Caterpillar equipment on campus.

For years, Evergreen's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter (formerly Mid-East Solidarity Project) has been instrumental in educating students by hosting speakers, workshops and displays commemorating Nakba Day, for example. Also in 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op made the historic decision to become the first U.S. grocery store to boycott Israeli goods.

Finally, downtown Olympia is home to the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural, a multimedia art project and collective effort of some 150 groups and individuals, that "builds relationships across movements, issues, cultures and great distances," according to the project's website.

The recent student resolutions were crafted in response to the 2005 global call to action by Palestinian civil society for a BDS movement against companies and institutions complicit in Israeli apartheid and occupation. BDS campaigns have proliferated across campuses in the last few years. Sabra, in particular, was targeted at colleges such as Earlham, Wesleyan and DePaul.

A similar call to action was issued from the Sakuma-based farmworker's union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), to boycott berries from Sakuma and related company Driscoll. FUJ was formed as an independent union in 2013 with an initial membership of almost 500 mostly indigenous migrant workers from Oaxaca. The union is demanding an end to poverty wages, wage theft and poor living and working conditions. Support for workers at Sakuma has spread rapidly, with solidarity committees sprouting up across the U.S. and beyond to advocate for a boycott of Driscoll's berries.

While the impressive results of the resolutions are clearly indicative of general student sympathy with Palestinians and the Sakuma farmworkers, implementing the boycott measures may require further action. The Evergreen administration routinely disregards democratic student initiatives it deems antithetical to its interests. For example, Evergreen refused to respect the 2010 BDS measures, and the school's endowment maintains investments in Israeli companies and Caterpillar equipment retains a presence on campus.

Earlier this year, activists staged a sit-in at a Board of Trustees meeting to protest Caterpillar, and students have consistently plastered Caterpillar machinery with educational flyers and removed black duct tape placed over the company's logo--a pathetic attempt to disguise Caterpillar's presence and quell student dissent.

If this round of student democracy is also disrespected, students will have to adopt a direct action campaign accompanied by a consciousness-raising effort as the next school year begins. These strategies are necessary both to effect material victories and maintain an institutional memory of political activism, given the rapid turnover of student activists attending a four-year institution.

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