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Some Bay Area Universities Reach Deal to End Encampments, but Students Say Their Fight Continues

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Hundreds of Pro-Palestinian protesters and students gather at the UC Berkeley encampment area outside of Sproul Hall to demand end to Gaza war, divestment from Israel, in Berkeley, on May 7, 2024.  (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Updated 4:45 p.m. Saturday

As the spring semester comes to an end for most Bay Area universities, dynamics between campus administrators and students protesting in solidarity with Palestinians have undergone a seismic shift in recent days.

Since Monday, several universities have agreed to at least some demands made by student organizers, including UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University and Sonoma State University.

In all of those cases, administrators committed to publicly disclosing their investments and forming working groups to review those investments for possible areas of divestment. Disclosure of investments and divestment from Israeli companies or companies that stand to profit from Israel’s war in Gaza and occupation of the West Bank have been among the most prominent demands from student organizers across the country.

Organizers at those universities responded by packing up and disbanding their encampments. That is not to say that they feel satisfied with their current gains. Students at most of those campuses have said that they see the encampments as merely the first phase in a longer, possibly years-long fight for full divestment from Israel, among other demands.

“We’re just kind of raising the bar on the floor,” said Palestinian Youth Movement member Rami Abdelkarim.

The Palestinian Youth Movement has been behind several large pro-Palestinian protests in the Bay Area, and Abdelkarim said many of their members are also college students involved in the encampments.

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“These universities should not be invested in weapons manufacture at all. These agreements rarely acknowledge Palestinians. They rarely acknowledge they’re in direct investment in Israel,” Abdelkarim said. “So when I see these statements and policies that are coming out based off of these encampments … I see them really as a way to put pressure on the entire system as a whole.”

At other schools, including the University of San Francisco, Stanford and San José State University, students are still camping on campus, calling on their respective administrations to meet their demands.

The UC San Francisco camp met the stiffest resistance. University police removed tents at a student-run encampment on Monday evening, just hours after it formed, and cited one person, according to students involved. Police also returned Tuesday after organizers set up the encampment again. They convinced protesters to remove the tents, but the students stayed in the same place.

Saturday morning before 6 a.m., a university administrator approached the encampment warning protesters to clear out and police encircled the group 15 minutes later, according to Jess Ghannam, a professor of psychiatry and global health at UCSF who supports the student organizers.

“Over the past week, protesters engaged in property damage, theft, and other actions in the encampment, causing significant disruption to our university and health care operations, as well as distress for members of our faculty, staff, students and patients,” UCSF said in a statement.

Ghannam rejected the assertion that the encampment interfered with the university, saying protesters made changes to accommodate requests from city fire and police officials on multiple occasions.

“There was no disruption whatsoever to any functioning of the hospital. We were near the library, far away from anything having to do with clinical services, far away from anything having to do with the hospital functioning,” Ghannam said. “And in fact, we had hundreds of patients come up to us, and speak with us and applaud us.”

UCSF’s decision to deploy police is a departure from the approach of other university administrators in the bay, most of whom have chosen not to involve police or even committed to not doing so as long as protests remained peaceful.

Ghannam said student organizers ultimately decided to disband the encampment rather than risk their safety through continued interactions with police, but he added that student demands remain.

“Just to remind the university one of their employees is stuck in Gaza right now and is facing threats to her life while giving amazing care to the Palestinians in Gaza whose health care system has been decimated,” Ghannam said. “So we remain committed to all of our demands, and we’re not going to back down.”

Some protesters may also choose to disrupt graduation ceremonies planned over the next few weeks. Prior to reaching a deal with the university, UC Berkeley students rallied at their undergraduate commencement by the hundreds, at times drowning out the ceremony’s speakers.

Fears over similar disruptions may put more pressure on universities to negotiate with students and could have factored into the concessions some administrators have already made.

Recent gains

San Francisco State, Sonoma State and UC Berkeley all reached their deals on Tuesday, May 14.

San Francisco State and UC Berkeley both committed to divesting from weapons manufacturers. SF State President Lynn Mahoney also said the promised working group would draft policy for a human-rights-focused investment strategy, similar to the university’s existing policies for investments that align with climate action and racial and social justice goals.

Student activist members of SFSU Students For Gaza celebrate reaching a deal at San Francisco State University in San Francisco, on May 15, 2024. (Juan Carlos Lara/KQED)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ also promised the university’s task force could look into industry-based divestments, including those involved in mass incarceration and surveillance technology. Christ also agreed to a public statement supporting an immediate and permanent cease-fire.

The agreement between Sonoma State University President Mike Lee and student organizers appeared to go further than others, with Lee promising not to pursue formal collaborations with Israeli state-affiliated academic and research institutions. Like Christ, Lee also called for a permanent cease-fire.

“Both SSU Students for Justice in Palestine and I, President Mike Lee, oppose and condemn all acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and other activities that violate fundamental human rights,” Lee wrote.

Lee’s letter to the campus announcing the deal attracted international attention and a mix of support and condemnation.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told KQED he thought canceling academic exchanges with Israel was wholly inappropriate.

“It does concern me that in order for the university to be able to conduct its commencement exercises or clear an encampment, that they are agreeing to terms that would essentially result in some kind of a boycott of Israel,” Schiff said.

Lee’s letter clarified that the university had no active exchange programs with Israeli universities prior to the deal, but outrage persisted.

“It is unacceptable that certain campus administrators appear willing to capitulate to the demands of a fringe group of protesters who are violating campus policies,” wrote the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California in a letter to CSU and UC leaders.

On Wednesday, a day after Lee sent out his letter, CSU Chancellor Mildred García​ announced that Lee was placed on administrative leave for insubordination, saying his message was sent without appropriate approvals.

On Thursday, Sonoma State’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution supporting Lee’s reinstatement and calling the chancellor’s discipline an overstep, but later that day García​ announced that Lee had resigned.

“We’re really sad at the precedent that this sets,” said Jordan Byrd, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace Sonoma County. “That the president that meets and negotiates peacefully with students is the one that gets sacked, not the presidents that are unleashing violence on students and suspending them for the very simple demands that they’re making, which is to try to end a genocide.”

In a statement posted on Instagram, Sonoma State University Students for Justice in Palestine condemned the disciplining of Lee and demanded that the university’s acting president honor the agreement Lee made.

“The commitments that were made by Sonoma State University will be reviewed by the current administration in the near future,” said a CSU spokesperson in a statement.

St. Mary’s College announced a deal to end the encampment and hunger strike there with terms similar to those reached at other universities, but student organizers who spoke to KQED said things aren’t as settled as the university made it seem.

Instead, the students said they are temporarily suspending their hunger strike pending an upcoming meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees where terms are set to be discussed, including disclosure and possible divestment.

“We still are very impassioned about what’s happening. We’re not settled in any type of security that they’ll do what they say until they do it,” said Emma Stevenson, a student at St. Mary’s.

Moving on to bigger goals

Many of the students who packed up their tents have moved on to what they considered to be the next arena — the state bodies that govern the UC and CSU systems.

Campus administrators in both systems had told students they lacked the authority to grant all of their demands, so the students are now moving to address the people that do have that authority.

UC Berkeley Divest Coalition announced their plans to attend the meeting of the UC’s Board of Regents at UC Merced in coordination with organizers from other universities. On Wednesday, a group of people wearing keffiyehs erupted in shouts during a regents meeting, until UC officials left the room.

“UC, UC, you cant hide, we charge you with genocide,” the group chanted.

That same day, a group of some 60 people barricaded themselves inside of UC Berkeley’s abandoned Anna Head Alumnae Hall.

“This action represents a significant escalation in the current wave of Bay Area demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine,” a group by the name of People’s Park Berkeley wrote on Instagram.

The next day, law enforcement from various agencies across the Bay Area cleared the building and arrested 12 people on various charges including burglary and vandalism.

Similarly San Francisco State students said they plan to convene at CSU Long Beach next week, where the CSU’s Board of Trustees are set to meet.

Blanca Missé, an associate professor at SF State who has been supporting the student organizers, said the meetings could be a means for students across the state to meet, compare notes and build toward something larger.

“The next step of the students for Gaza is to organize a statewide conference with the rest of the CSU encampments to plan for a CSU-wide strategy. And they’re also in conversation with the UC system,” Missé said.

And rather than being placated by their respective agreements, Missé said students will be looking to learn from what other campuses have gained and using that to leverage more gains from their own campus administrators and statewide systems as a whole.

At a rally at San Francisco State celebrating the president’s concessions, speakers said they plan to continue pushing until CSU leaders call Israel’s attacks on Gaza a “genocide” and meet all of their demands, including a full divestment from Israel.

Israel was accused of committing genocide by South African officials, and the International Court for Justice ruled that some of those claims are plausible, but Israel has not been found guilty and has denied the accusations.

Abdelkarim, the Palestinian Youth Movement member, echoed Missé’s sentiments.

“When CSU Sacramento, CSU Sonoma, are reaching these agreements, the real impact of these agreements are actually putting pressure on the CSU system, who largely holds the endowments and the investments in weapons manufacturers and Israel in general. And the same thing kind of goes for the UC system,” Abdelkarim said.

Organizers have drawn parallels between their current struggle with that of students in the 1980’s calling for universities to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“The fight for divestment from South African apartheid in 1985 was a years-long fight,” Abdelkarim continued. “And we know that students actually are using these negotiations, and even the opposite of the negotiations, which are the direct police violence that they’ve faced at now, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UCLA as fuel to the fire, to come back even stronger in the fall, to fight for full and complete divestment from Israel and from weapons manufacturers.”

Remaining encampments

Stanford was arguably the site of the first student encampment, with a group of students holding a “Sit-In to Stop Genocide” beginning in late October and ending in February.

Following the wave of student encampments this spring, Stanford set up an encampment in late April. Since then they’ve had occasional confrontations with counterprotesters.

Administrators at University of San Francisco and San José State University both told their respective student encampments to clear out by Tuesday this week, but those deadlines came and went without movement from students.

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Susu Steyteyieh, a student organizer at USF, said the university has threatened to enforce punishments if students choose to disrupt commencement ceremonies.

The ceremonies began Thursday and end Saturday at St. Ignatius Church, right next to the lawn where the camp is located.

“The hope is that just us being here and showing up and showing out every single day is a disruption,” said Steyteyieh.

During Friday’s law school commencement, organizers handed out flyers, and a small group stood up near the end of the ceremony to read out their demands and voice their complaints against the college, according to Steyteyieh.

At San José State, commencement ceremonies are set to begin Monday.

“My understanding is that their decision is to keep on camping until their demands are met,” said Sang Hea Kil, a San José State professor who was chosen by students as their official liaison with administration.

Kil sent a letter to administrators Friday on behalf of student organizers listing their demands and requesting open negotiations like those at San Francisco State.

KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, Nisa Khan and Marisa Lagos contributed to this story, which was updated to reflect the disbanding of the UCSF encampment Saturday morning.

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