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Pro-Palestinian Protests on California College Campuses: What Are Students Demanding?

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A group of young protesters holding a sign that says 'Divest.'
San Francisco State University students rally outside the Cesar Chavez Student Center on April 30, 2024, calling on the university to disclose its financial ties to Israel. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Just weeks before summer break, as most students are wrapping up their semesters or preparing for graduation, pro-Palestinian protests and encampments have sprung up on scores of college campuses across California — as they have throughout the country. While most protests have remained peaceful, a handful of campuses around the state have been rocked in recent days by sweeping law enforcement crackdowns.

The encampments have been part of a movement that has spread quickly across the country following the New York Police Department’s first attempted crackdown, in mid-April, of a student demonstration at Columbia University in New York.

“I think that we really are at a moment that feels historic in a way that student organizing hasn’t in quite a few years,” Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student movements, said earlier this week on KQED’s Forum. “It really was not until Columbia’s crackdown that we saw this explosion of defiance on campuses, whose number is increasing every single day at this point. That is a pace of acceleration that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time.”

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Why are students protesting?

While specific goals vary by campus, Johnston said there have been four general demands that student protesters across the country have made of their academic institutions:

  • Divest from all financial holdings — often through their endowments — in companies that have ties to Israel or contribute to Israel’s military.
  • Institute an academic boycott of Israel, including ending all research with Israeli universities that have military ties and canceling studying abroad programs in the country.
  • Increase transparency about its involvement and connection — financial or academic — to the Israeli military and other institutions.
  • Offer amnesty to student protesters who have been arrested or received academic discipline.

Malak Afaneh, a third-year UC Berkeley law student and co-president of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, told Forum that protesters also want the university to officially acknowledge the situation “in Palestine as a genocide because they’ve failed to do so.”

Israel’s siege of Gaza has been raging for nearly seven months. Israeli forces have killed over 34,000 Palestinians in retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which militants killed some 1,200 people and took 240 hostages, according to Gazan and Israeli authorities, respectively.

Israel’s attacks have displaced some 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, and the United Nations has rung the alarm about a possible famine in the northern part of the enclave. The Biden administration has mostly been unwavering in its support of Israel. Although Biden has more recently demanded that Israel implement new steps to protect civilians and aid workers — and urged its leaders to seek a cease-fire agreement — he has also consistently supported efforts to continue sending huge amounts of military aid to the country.

Follow KQED’s coverage of the war, and read about the history of the decades-long conflict in NPR’s ‘Middle East crisis — explained’ series.

Where are the protests happening?

As of May 2, there are at least 14 pro-Palestinian encampments on college campuses throughout California. They include multiple campuses in the Bay Area, such as San Francisco State University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Sonoma State University and the University of San Francisco.

Most encampments have been established in central campus locations. At UC Berkeley’s encampment, which began last week, there are now nearly 100 tents — occupied by students, alums and faculty — sprawled in front of Sproul Hall, a center of student life on campus. (Some campuses have also seen counterprotests by supporters of Israel, such as a recent demonstration at UCLA that received thousands of dollars of support on GoFundMe.)

The pro-Palestinian student protests have largely been peaceful, noted Johnston, the historian, adding that some people inaccurately view the student protesters of the 1960s as more “disciplined” than their counterparts today.

“I would say that in terms of tactics, the students of 2024 are much more restrained than the students of 1968, ’69, ’70,” Johnston said. “They haven’t been engaging in battles with police. We’ve seen only a few building takeovers. We’ve seen very little property destruction.”

What do protesters want universities to divest from?

Afaneh explained that divestment should include “any of the university’s endowments, any of their partnerships, that are in partnership with institutions complicit in this genocide — whether it be weapons, arms manufacturers, and things like that.”

Calls for divestment from companies linked to Israel — a key strategy in the global Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement — is nothing new among student activists fighting for the rights of Palestinians.

San Francisco State University student Zinaib I. speaks at a rally outside the student center on April 30. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In fact, UC Berkeley’s student government passed a resolution calling for similar divestment actions in 2015. The prevalence of such activism has even led to anti-boycott laws in California and other states — legislation condemned by Human Rights Watch — that has landed some students on blacklists, potentially affecting their future employment.

Some of the main companies activists have targeted include General Electric, Boeing, Caterpillar, Google and Hewlett-Packard, all of which, they say, profiteer from Israel’s war crimes.

According to Johnston, the Vietnam War student protests revealed “a web of relationships between universities, the government, the national security state, the military-industrial complex. [And] when those relationships were revealed, the pressure to draw them back became intense.”

Yousuf Abubakr, a UC Berkeley student studying mechanical engineering, said big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing often attend engineering career fairs on campus.

“I think it’d be great to get engineering students more aware of the companies and their position in this genocide and ethnic cleansing,” he told KQED.

How are colleges responding to the protests?

Reactions from colleges have varied significantly across the state.

UCLA declared its pro-Palestinian encampments “unlawful” Tuesday evening, saying students face possible suspension or expulsion, with videos showing police in riot gear on campus. On April 30, UCLA’s independent student newspaper reported that pro-Israel supporters were tearing down pro-Palestinian encampment barricades, clashing with protesters and allegedly setting off fireworks. The LA Times reported that security guards watching the scene did not intervene. Classes were canceled the next day and UC President Michael V. Drake ordered an independent review of the incident.

Early on Thursday morning, more than 200 protesters were arrested as police in riot gear clashed with them and dismantled the encampment.

Police advance on pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (Ethan Swope/AP Photo)

At UC Riverside on Friday, pro-Palestinian student protesters said they had reached an agreement with university leaders and announced their encampment would be coming down. As part of the agreement, signed by its chancellor, UC Riverside pledged to form a task force of students and faculty to explore the potential removal of the university’s endowment from the UC Investment Office’s management.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, students last week took over an administrative building. On Thursday, some 300 officers in riot gear arrested 35 protesters, including an assistant professor, ending the building takeover.

At Stanford University, officials have repeatedly warned student protesters in encampments that they are violating campus policies and may face suspension. The school also recently sent a photo to the FBI of an unidentified person at the encampment with a green headband resembling those worn by Hamas, according to The Stanford Daily, the school’s independent student newspaper.

The University of Southern California made headlines in mid-April when the administration announced it was canceling the commencement speech of its Muslim valediction — who has previously expressed pro-Palestinian views — citing safety concerns. Following the Columbia protests, a large group of students set up a campus encampment last week. On April 24, social media videos and news coverage showing the Los Angeles Police Department marching toward campus and arresting nearly a hundred students drew national attention. On April 25, the school announced it was canceling its main graduation ceremony. Earlier this week, the university’s president met with pro-Palestine students.

Most schools in California where protests are happening, however, have so far allowed them to proceed without disruption as long as they are conducted peacefully. SFSU spokesperson Kent Bravo said the school has long honored the right of community members to peacefully protest “while preserving a safe campus environment.”

Sacramento State President Luke Woods extended approval for the pro-Palestinian encampment on that school’s campus. “Our job is not to squash free speech,” Wood said, the student newspaper, The State Hornet, reported on X. “Our job is to protect safety.”

Irvine Mayor Farrah N. Khan took preemptive action and released a statement asking the city’s police to “stand down.”

“I will not tolerate any violence to students’ rights to peacefully assemble and protest,” Khan said.

At UC Berkeley’s growing encampment, there has so far been virtually no police intervention, which is in sharp contrast to what’s transpired at UCLA. Dan Mogulof, an administration spokesperson, told KQED’s Forum that the University of California changed its policy on responding to “non-violent political protests” after the 2012 Occupy Wall Street movement, during which an officer pepper-sprayed a group of UC Davis protesters. The new policy, he said, stipulates that school officials should no longer call in law enforcement preemptively but only “when there’s a clear, imminent threat to the campus, to life safety and to the safety of the campus community.”

“What we’re seeing around the country, bringing in law enforcement can have unintended consequences and can make the matter worse,” Mogulof said. “But there’s another level. We must, at the same time, be prepared to respond to individual or isolated incidents of alleged criminal behavior, harassment, or discrimination.” (He added that police are investigating an alleged incident in which a Jewish law student, who was also interviewed on the Forum show, said he was punched while filming at a pro-Palestinian rally.)

On Thursday, according to the Daily Cal, Berkeley’s independent student newspaper, the university’s administration had “begun negotiations” with the encampment protesters.

Meanwhile, UC President Michael V. Drake said in a statement on Tuesday, “The University of California campuses will work with students, faculty and staff to make space available and do all we can to protect these protests and demonstrations.” But he added that “Disruptive unlawful protests that violate the rights of our fellow citizens are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”

According to the LA Times, Drake did not specify what behavior he found disruptive.

“I think that one of the things that’s really distinctive about this moment is that — [and] it has been true for quite a while — that student dissent and student protest around the issue of Israel and Palestine has been more likely to be met with suppressive tactics from administrators and police, than a lot of other kinds of protest,” added Johnston, the historian.

Few schools have met with student protesters to discuss divestment options so far. Some have said their investments mainly consist of large mutual funds rather than holdings in individual companies, which they say makes divestment decisions far more complicated.

Stanford University wrote in an email to KQED that the school’s board makes divestment decisions of trustees. “In 2015, the Board declined a proposal to divest of certain companies doing business in Israel,” it said. “The Board has not received another formal divestment petition on this subject, and its 2015 decision remains in place.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto on April 25, calling for the university to divest from Israel. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Have there been previous divestment campaigns?

Divestment campaigns have been pursued for decades by activists fighting for various human rights and environmental causes.

It’s “not unusual at all for that to be a strategy that goes on for decades before winning full fruition,” Johnston said. For example, climate activists have long pushed for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies.

In 2006, the University of California Board of Regents voted to divest “from several companies involved in significant business activities that provide revenue to the Sudanese government to continue acts of genocide in Darfur” — an outcome largely credited to student protesters.

“The University of California has taken a principled stand against the tragedy in Sudan by severing its financial connections from those nine companies who aid the genocide and by lending its voice to those calling for peace in the region,” Gerald L. Parsky, chairman of the board, said at the time.

And perhaps most famously — and drawing the clearest parallels to today’s protests — are the anti-apartheid protests of the mid-1980s, when activists demanded universities and other institutions divest from companies that did business with South Africa.

South Africa’s apartheid was an institutional system under an all-white government that enforced racial segregation in almost all aspects of life, a racist system that some human rights groups say mirrors Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

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In 1985, after the University of California initially refused to divest from companies that did business with South Africa, students at UC Berkeley and other campuses protested for six weeks, staging sit-ins, camp-outs, and teach-ins about the apartheid regime. During this time, hundreds of students were detained by police.

The pressure campaign prompted the University of California the following year to reverse course and dump some $3 billion of its investments in companies linked to South Africa.

Johnston, the historian, noted that, contrary to popular belief, the anti-apartheid movement didn’t suddenly emerge in the 1980s. Although that’s when it came to a head, he said, the movement actually began in the 1950s and had been building momentum for decades.

“The other thing that I think is really important to remember is — as somebody who was on campus in the late 1980s — very few of us expected the kinds of changes that we saw in South Africa to happen as quickly as they did,” Johnston added.

“The transition of the South African country from apartheid to a multiracial democracy,” he said, “is one that happened in no small part as a result of economic, political and cultural pressure from outside.”

KQED’s Sarah Hossaini, Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman, Matthew Green, and Alexis Madrigal contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.


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