On March 29, 2011 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community allies made a significant stride toward divestment at Carleton University in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) first launched our campus-based pension fund divestment campaign in January 2010. The student-led campaign was motivated by the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel [. . . ] until it fully complies with the precepts of international law.”
After over a year of failed attempts to meet with Carleton’s Pension Fund Committee, SAIA submitted a formal request to present our motion to the Board of Governors (BOG) — the highest decision-making body of the university — to divest from four companies complicit in violations of international law in Palestine: BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Motorola and Tesco Supermarkets. These companies manufacture weapons and weapon components used by the Israeli military against Palestinians, and also facilitate the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. SAIA’s motion also called upon Carleton to implement a binding socially responsible investment policy, in full consultation with the Carleton community.
In an attempt to silence the students who put forward the motion, the BOG rejected SAIA’s request to make a presentation at their meeting. They informed students that the ostensibly public meeting would be closed to all observers, save for a small BOG-sanctioned list of five representatives “from both sides,” while the floor of the building where the meeting was to be held would be locked down and security stationed at all entrances.
However, the university administration’s attempts to muzzle the long list of divestment campaign endorsers — including over 2,000 letter and petition signatories, both the undergraduate and graduate students associations, and more than 25 student clubs, academic workers’ unions and university service centres — deeply backfired. During one of the busiest academic weeks of the year, more than 400 divestment supporters rallied at every entrance of the building to challenge the illegitimate decision-making process, and to voice a united message: “Board of Governors, we won’t rest, we won’t rest til you divest!”
In an inspiring show of solidarity, students and their allies engaged in diverse creative protest tactics, ranging from sit-ins to salsa and dabke dance-offs for divestment, successfully blocking several BOG members from entering the meeting. Eventually, the highly mobilized and energetic crowd became too much for the BOG to ignore, and they announced to the crowd that they had cancelled the meeting. The BOG members who had literally walked over students to go upstairs to the meeting then exited the building through a ‘walk of shame’ created by the crowd of cheerful protesters.
Divestment supporters proceeded to hold an ad-hoc, student-run general assembly in the lobby of the building, voting to: divest from Israeli military occupation; open a sexual assault centre on campus; abolish tuition fees; and create a new, democratically elected and representative membership for the BOG. While the general assembly was only a symbolic exercise and real institutional divestment still lies ahead at Carleton, we are confident that the university administration will eventually bow to student pressure, as we plan to increase the campaign’s momentum next year.
The unprecedented support and dedication from our allies in the lead up to the rally not only illustrated the community’s unanimous rejection of the practice of investing students’ tuition money in funding war and illegal occupation, but also showed that the SAIA-led divestment campaign is now a campus-wide movement. Our allies have made the campaign theirs, for example, Inés Barreda-Castañón, a member of the Humanitarian Organization of Latin American Students (HOLAS), stated at the rally: “Our tuition money is going to fund war, to fund money and to fund murder. It’s gone past SAIA and Palestine. HOLAS will always be here [ . . . ] if it’s a humanitarian issue, we’ll be there.”
Ending Carleton’s unethical investments is also part of a broader struggle against the university’s repeated attempts to silence the student body and implement undemocratic decision-making processes. It’s no coincidence that the same meeting the public was barred from was also the meeting where the BOG intended to announce an increase in student tuition fees. As media spokesperson Reem Buhaisi said of the rally: “This is about reclaiming our space, this is about tuition fees, this is about being respected and heard by people who say they advocate the things we ask for.”
SAIA’s actions to expose Carleton’s appalling lack of ethical principles and accountability have publicly shamed the university administration, who would like nothing better than for the issue of divestment to go away. However, as the crowd dispersed from the rally, SAIA and our allies were quite clear that the movement to divest from companies violating international law in occupied Palestine will only grow until our demands are met, vowing: “We will be back!”
Reprinted with permission from Students Against Israeli Apartheid — Carleton.