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Pro-Palestinian Protests Sweep Bay Area College Campuses Amid Surging National Movement

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A pro-Israel counterprotester waves an Israel flag during a pro-Palestinian march through the Stanford University campus on April 25, 2024, calling for the university to divest from Israel. The rally took place during Stanford's Admit Weekend, a time for incoming students to tour the university. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Capping a week where student protesters at colleges across California staged actions decrying their universities’ business dealings with Israeli-linked companies, students at Stanford University became the latest to join the fray on Thursday evening.

This week, students at Cal Poly Humboldt began occupying a building on that campus, police clashed with student protesters at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley attendees started an encampment in front of Sproul Hall.

On Thursday, around 200 students peacefully marched around the Stanford campus for over an hour. The protest coincided with the university’s “Admit Weekend,” when prospective students are on campus for orientation activities.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through the Stanford University campus on April 25, 2024, calling for the university to divest from Israel. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Once the protest passed White Plaza, what the university calls its “designated free speech zone,” students rushed to quickly form a perimeter around the plaza and throw down tents and tarps. Yungsu Kim, a student at Stanford and one of the organizers of the protest there, said they were setting up a “People’s University” and planned to stay at least through Friday and hold free classes on the subjects of Palestine and the effect of United States imperialism.

Students like Kim are not only calling on the University to divest but to first disclose their investments, saying there is a lack of transparency by Stanford in its investments.

“They play this shadowy game where they refuse to shed any light on which companies the university is actually invested in,” Kim said.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through the Stanford University campus on April 25, 2024.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In a statement to KQED, director of university public relations Charlene Gage wrote:

“The university’s endowment has no direct holdings in Israeli companies, or direct holdings in defense contractors, beyond small exposures resulting from passive funds that track broad indexes such as the S&P 500,” Gage wrote.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the university doesn’t invest in companies that do business in Israel.

“Divestment decisions are made by Stanford’s Board of Trustees. In 2015, the Board declined a proposal to divest of certain companies doing business in Israel. The Board has not received another formal divestment petition on this subject, and its 2015 decision remains in place,” wrote Gage.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators listen to speakers before marching through the Stanford University campus in Stanford on April 25, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Beheshta Kohistani was among the new students on campus on Thursday for Admit Weekend. The prospective student plans to study biology at Stanford and said that watching how universities respond to peaceful protests like these is “very telling,” especially after seeing how police violently arrested at least 100 people at a student encampment at Columbia University in New York City last week.

“I think the violent response from Columbia is very telling of the environment, and I wouldn’t want to be in that type of environment learning. So I’m really interested to see how Stanford responds to these student protests because they are largely peaceful, and I think they’re for the good,” Kohistani said.

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Stanford has maintained that the university “respects the interest of students in advocating for their views” but has maintained that overnight camping on the campus is prohibited and poses a safety risk.

On Friday, Stanford President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez released a statement that said, “Last night after 8 p.m., university staff handed out letters signed by the two of us to approximately 60 students who remained on White Plaza, notifying them of the university policies they were violating.”

The letter said: “The submission of students’ names to the Office of Community Standards (OCS) has begun.” As graduation approaches, a previous letter from the University noted that “the initiation of an OCS proceeding at this time of year may inhibit the timely conferral of a diploma.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through the Stanford University campus on April 25, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Organizer Yungsu Kim said he is aware of the risks of protesting.

“I am also continuing a legacy of sorts of student involvement in mass movements, where all sectors of society are involved because they know that things like this just cannot continue. Injustice like this can’t continue,” Kim said.

An encampment that began Monday is ongoing and growing at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

The UC Berkeley Gaza Solidarity Encampment in front of Sproul Hall on April 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

On Monday, students like Lev Collins unfurled their tents across the iconic Sproul steps, home to the 1960s Free Speech movement, which made an indelible mark on campus activism and the country at large.

“I am here because of the genocide that’s going on in Gaza. It is completely unacceptable and tragic, and it’s upsetting that our tuition money and our tax dollars are funding this genocide,” Collins said.

Students have vowed to stay there until UC stops investing in companies that benefit Israel.

UC Berkeley students at the UC Berkeley Gaza Solidarity Encampment in front of Sproul Hall on April 23, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Yousuf Abubakr studies mechanical engineering at Cal. He has just three weeks left to graduate and said he’s doing his best to juggle his studies while running security for the new overnight encampment.

“A lot of us are falling behind in school, whatever. But, you know, you look at the struggles that we’re seeing on the other side of the world, and we can’t let that go,” Abubakr said.

Signs set beside tents at UC Berkeley Gaza Solidarity Encampment in front of Sproul Hall on April 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In a statement, UC Berkeley said it has no plans to change its investment policies and practices, and UC’s Office of the Chief Investment Officer declined to comment.

KQED’s Sara Hossaini contributed reporting to this story.

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