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Berkeley’s Free Palestine Encampment Draws on Legacy of Palestinian Protests

Student organizer Malak Afaneh discusses the demands of the movement and calls for students everywhere to organize.

Students and faculty set up a tent encampment in front of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on April 22, 2024, in Berkeley, California.

Following the arrest of over 100 students at Columbia University on April 18, Palestine solidarity encampment protests have multiplied across the US. Police crackdowns have occurred at other schools as well, including Northeastern University in Boston, where about 102 protesters were arrested. Officials at Northeastern claimed that the protest had been “infiltrated” by organizers who had “no affiliation” with the university. Northeastern administrators also claimed that protesters had engaged in calls to “kill all Jews,” however evidence has emerged indicating that the hateful messaging leveraged by officials to justify the raid came from a pro-Israel counter-protester. Confronted with a video of the incident, an official told reporter Tori Bedford, “The fact that the phrase ‘Kill All Jews’ was shouted on our campus is not in dispute.”

More than 700 protesters have been arrested on US campuses since April 18, as students demand an end to Israeli attacks that have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians since October 7, and insist that their schools divest from companies that profit from Israel’s war-making and apartheid policies. 93 protesters were arrested at the University of Southern California (USC) on April 24 when police in riot gear violently dispersed protesters. USC has also canceled its upcoming commencement ceremony for graduating seniors. At Emory University in Atlanta, police used pepper balls and tasers to subdue protesters while making 28 arrests on April 25.

Members of the Stop Cop City movement have drawn connections between the attacks on students at Emory, who are taking action in defense of Palestinian lives, and the murder of Tortuguita, who was killed by police while occupying a forest amid waves of fascistic repression against protesters in the state of Georgia. Student protesters at California State Polytechnic University have also acknowledged the connection between their actions and the Stop Cop City struggle with a paragraph-long tribute to Tortuguita scrawled on a wall inside an administrative building that student protesters have seized and occupied. In a viral video, Cal Poly Humboldt students can be seen fending off police attempting to disperse the occupation of Siemens Hall, which students have renamed Intifada Hall.

On the evening of April 25, 36 people were arrested at Ohio State University when police violently attacked a line of protesters who had locked arms to form a protective wall around Muslim protesters who were gathered in prayer. Ohio Rep. Munira Yasin Abdullahi described the incident in a statement, saying, “They surrounded us at a moment when we were supporting students who were conducting prayer. I was grabbed by my headscarf. I was pushed toward the ground onto students. Ultimately, I sustained painful bruising around my ribs and midsection.”

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, one protester was arrested during a clash with police during an incident where protesters encircled advancing cops using reinforced signs and banners, leading some people to applaud the protesters for “kettling” police officers rather than being kettled by them.

At some schools, protesters have managed to evade arrest, at least for now. At Northwestern University, in Illinois, professors formed a protective line and squared off with police officers — a tactic that has ended in arrest for professors at some schools — in a standoff that was ultimately de-escalated. While administration officials announced that the protest had been disbanded, I visited the Northwestern encampment on Saturday and found the protest site bustling and well-attended.

At the University of California, Berkeley, rows of tents have appeared outside Sprout Hall, an administrative building that has been at the center of numerous moments of historic protest. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a controversial anti-war speech outside Sprout Hall in 1967. Mario Savio spoke on the building’s steps in 1964 when he declared, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop.”

Berkeley students also erected a mock shanty town outside Sprout Hall in 1986 as part of a campaign demanding that the university divest from apartheid South Africa. That campaign eventually won a historic divestment of over $3 billion. It is, however, worth mentioning that Occupy protesters at Berkeley were met with fierce repression in 2011 when dozens were arrested, and some protesters were beaten with billy clubs during a police raid.

Having marketed its legacy of protest to students seeking a progressive university experience (there is now a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus), the school now seems hesitant to tarnish its protest-friendly image, as it did during the Occupy movement when attacks on students became the stuff of viral memes. Berkeley students, for their part, are focused on their message and demands. Like the anti-apartheid protesters of the 1980s, they want Berkeley to divest from Israeli institutions and entities that students say profit from Israel’s apartheid and genocidal actions toward Palestinians. Over the weekend, I discussed the current encampment at Berkeley and its place in the larger Palestine solidarity movement with Malak Afaneh, a Berkely law student and Palestine solidarity organizer who is no stranger to controversy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kelly Hayes: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your relationship to the Palestine Solidarity Movement?

Malak Afaneh: My name is Malak Afaneh. I’m a third-year Berkeley law student and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. I’m the co-president of Berkeley Law Students for Justice and Palestine, a Palestinian Youth Movement member, and one of the Free Palestine Solidarity Encampment organizers.

What have the recent protests at Berkeley looked like and how have administrators and police responded to protesters?

Ever since October 7th, we’ve had numerous protests. We had a 3,000-plus-person walkout, which was the biggest pro-Palestine student protest on campus in Berkeley’s history. We’ve had numerous sit-ins and disruptions, as well as this encampment. UC admin has not deployed law enforcement or things like that. They have put out campus security people, and instead, what I find is that compared to other schools that perhaps have a more militant direct response, I think that Berkeley has a fear of its progressive and radical name and the fact that it usually profits off of the fact that it’s had student movement organizing and chooses to go about things in a more subtle way of repression, so we’ve had threats of facial recognition cameras being put at the gate. We’ve had threats of disciplinary academic and criminal proceedings. We’ve had UC administration threaten to sanction students. That’s what we’ve observed.

What demands are you as students making?

We have four main demands. One is that the UC administration end their silence, that they categorize what’s occurring in Palestine as a genocide because they fail to do so. Two is to demand utter and complete UC financial divestment from any entity complicit in apartheid, including the fact that our tuition money goes to funding contracts with weapons arms manufacturer companies like Boeing and BlackRock, among many others. And then three, academic boycott is the severing of all ties with quote-unquote Israeli institutions that were built on Palestinian stolen land, primarily ending the Berkeley Global Internship Program in Israel. Four is hands-off repression as ending repression, so hands off our students and hands off Palestine. I myself was a student who was attacked by UC Berkeley Law Professor Catherine Fisk for speaking about Palestine at a school-funded university-sponsored dinner held for all third-year law students, so we’ve seen the way the administration has escalated to physical violence against pro-Palestinian protesters, but as I said before, they’ve also threatened with disciplinary and criminal proceedings. And we’re demanding that the administration implement protective safety measures for its visibly Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, and pro-Palestinian students.

Can you say more about the incident in which you were attacked?

Yes. The dean of our law school hosted a celebratory dinner for all third-year law students. This was held at his house, but it was paid for by the university and school-sponsored. Berkeley Law Events and staff monitored all the details regarding the address, catering, and other things like that. And then I, as LHAP co-president, had put out a call to boycott this dinner for three reasons. One that, like I said before, our tuition money is complicit in funding this genocide through contracts with weapons and arms manufacturers. Two, that the dean of our law school has identified as a Zionist and has threatened to sanction pro-Palestinian students and stood idly by while pro-Palestinian students have been doxxed and threatened and smeared. And three, this dinner was being held on the last day of Ramadan, and that is a time when there’s intensified violence against Palestinians.

However, we didn’t know that not a lot of people would maybe boycott the dinner, so we felt it was important that a group of us go and use this school event as a platform for speaking about Palestine and raising awareness of the fact that our tuition money is invested in this war. Nine other LHAP students and I went to the event. I had prepared a two-and-a-half minute speech, and then I got up and I said, “Assalmualikum wa rahma tallahi wa barakatu,” which translates to peace and blessings on you all. That’s when Professor Catherine Fisk came down from the table she was at, so she wasn’t even near me. She came down the steps and put her arms around my neck. She started tugging at my hijab. She was grabbing at my shirt inappropriately. She tried to take my phone and yank me up the steps. She tried to do the same thing with the microphone. She threatened to call the cops on us, and then only when I threatened legal action for touching me did she put her hands off of me.

Are you communicating with organizers on other campuses around the country? If so, what are they sharing about their organizing and their experiences of repression?

We are in communication with organizers across the nation and have been coordinating with them, whether it be offering advice or legal observing or just strategy. Quite frankly, we’re seeing a militant response to student organizers across the nation. We have had our comrades at IU in Ohio State have snipers brought in. Our comrades in New York are experiencing threats of the National Guard being deployed as well as faculty, and they’re being arrested. Our comrades over at Emory, a student got tased, as well as when he was put on the ground by the police. We’re seeing, I have to say, just ridiculously violent responses from administrations.

You had alluded to this a bit earlier, but Berkeley students have a long lineage of campus protests to draw on, from the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War to Black Liberation and a campaign to force the university to divest over three billion from companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government, a campaign that succeeded in 1986. How do you view the current protests in relation to this legacy of organizing?

Our Free Palestine Encampment is being held on the Mario Savio steps, who is the founder of the Free Speech Movement. We’re honored to continue in that legacy of fighting against injustice and having an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist framework when it comes to our organizing. However, it’s also important to note that we are not only continuing in the legacy of American university protests but also of Palestinian forms of protests. Palestinians have taught people life. They’ve taught people the tactics of organizing, the struggle, and the commitment to it. And that’s why, at our encampments, we do programming with teach-ins. For that, we give credit to Palestinian political prisoners who viewed the prison as a time for education and as an opportunity to enhance their minds because even if they were imprisoned physically, they were emancipated in the mind by continuing to learn through continuing to sharpen their skills and have these conversations.

We also honor and learn from student movement organizers in Palestine who are oftentimes detained, forcibly taken from their homes in the middle of the night, and continue to resist on their college campuses. So we’re following in that legacy as well. I think it’s important to note that Mario Savio, for example, was criminalized while he was a student here. He was arrested. There were threats of his expulsion. And yet now, generations later, he is celebrated and put on the Berkeley website as someone of honorable mention. It’s important to note that when you’re a student here at these universities, when you’re going up against administration, you’re criminalized, but when you graduate, you’re immortalized and legacized. I think that this process has been repeated time and time again. We’ve seen the way that the administration has demonized organizers. Then finally, when movements are deemed acceptable and the US government is finally willing to let go of their economic and political partnerships with colonial and apartheid states, that’s when these movements are finally given the recognition and applause that they were always worthy of.

Speaking of Palestinian organizing, I was reading a statement from student organizations in Gaza this morning that addressed the current protests at US universities. The statement included the words, “From here in Gaza, we see you and salute you. Your actions and activism matter, especially at the heart of the empire in the United States.” Can you talk about that statement and what it means to you and your co-strugglers on the ground at Berkeley?

I think that’s something that we and every other organizer probably agree with is that while, of course, having media coverage regarding student organizers in this moment is important, our primary purpose for this encampment is always to connect it and bring it back to Palestine. We have a double responsibility as American university students in protesting this genocide because not only do our tax dollars go to funding it but also our tuition money, so it’s a double-pronged complicity in this genocide.

And it’s also important to note that while we’ve been protesting, the reason we’re doing this is because of recent reports that there’s been mass graves of 200, 300 people uncovered. People that were buried alive, people that were still in their medical scrubs, that were just shot and killed, we’re seeing children that had zip ties that were thrown into a grave. These are the reasons that we’re doing this. And we’re always going to continue bringing it back to Palestine because today is day 202 of the genocide where our tuition money and our tax dollars have gone to hospital invasions, flour massacres, and on-the-ground sieges.

Is there anything else you would like to share with or ask of our readers?

I think the only thing I will say is that we all have a collective responsibility to insert the word Palestine everywhere, whether in our school spaces or work conversations, in every platform possible. And also the reason we’re doing this is that today there is not a single university that is standing in Gaza that those people, the students, the faculty, the administration, they’ve been shot, they’ve been killed, they’ve been detained, they’ve been arrested, and not a single university is standing. And we are the ones that have been complicit in allowing this to happen. While we focus on university students, and I encourage everyone to join their local encampment and align themselves with the student movement, we are primarily doing this for our people in Palestine, who have no universities even to be a part of.

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