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For Campus Encampments Supporting Gaza, What’s Next?

As police move in, questions arise about the role of post-secondaries in times of global crisis. A snapshot from UBC.

Jeevan Sangha 7 Jun 2024The Tyee

Jeevan Sangha is the 2024 Hummingbird journalism fellow with The Tyee. She has written for CBC Music, Billboard Canada and Shado Magazine.

It’s been over a month since the People’s University for Gaza established their pro-Palestinian encampment on MacInnes Field at the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus to, in their words, “stand in solidarity with Palestine amidst the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

When I visited the encampment over several sunny days in May, I saw a sea of colourful pro-Palestinian signage. There were designated tents for food distribution, first aid and prayer. People had set up a small library dedicated to Refaat Alareer, the Palestinian writer, scholar and activist who was killed by an airstrike in December.

In the central open space of the field, students sat on the artificial turf in small groups to read books, paint signs and socialize with one another. A few people stopped at the entrance to ask volunteers what supplies they needed over the next few days. Chief among them were hot food, blankets, tarps and space heaters.

At the entrance on the north side of the field, there were two volunteers wearing masks and keffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarves that have become a political symbol for Palestinians. The entrance itself was a gap in the temporary construction fence draped in signage and tarp that made up part of the perimeter.

Volunteers asked new visitors to read and agree to a set of camp guidelines before stepping into the encampment. Those guidelines included zero tolerance for discrimination, including antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism. The guidelines also asked people in the encampment to refrain from engaging with agitators or counter-protesters.

While I stood outside the encampment reading the guidelines before stepping in, a man in his late 20s approached the entrance and asked volunteers about the need for the encampment. They should be peaceful, he told them.

The student camp organizers, who use “camp names” and refer to one another by their pseudonyms, listened to the man’s concerns. One of the organizers, presumably a student in her 20s, gestured to the mellow encampment behind her and asked if he thought this was peaceful. The man agreed, and countered by explaining that they were wrong for supporting terrorism.

The same organizer responded by clarifying that the encampment was a peaceful space for those who wish to support Palestine. The man repeated his initial comments and told the organizers this display should not be in the middle of campus.

The organizer said that she understood his perspective and reiterated the encampment’s goals and intentions. After a few minutes the man opted to leave.

It was an interesting moment that stayed with me because it seemed like a rare display of open conversation and de-escalation. Instances of supportive dialogue among those with differing views on the war on Gaza can, at times, feel few and far between.

Increasingly, encounters with police

The scene inside the UBC encampment has been relatively peaceful; there is a core group of people organizing the camp, and during my time there last month, life on the wider UBC campus seemed to be proceeding as usual. But there have been other moments of tension, including a counter-protest in early May and, in more recent weeks, encounters with police as protesters have started occupying other parts of campus beyond the encampment.

As students clad in graduation caps and gowns gathered at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the UBC Vancouver campus last week, People’s University for Gaza protesters faced a line of police officers who moved in on a protest that blocked the intersection between University Boulevard and Wesbrook Mall. The demonstration was obstructing one of the main entrances to campus, and one person was arrested.

UBC hasn’t seen the same escalations that have occurred at other campuses in Canada, such as the high-profile police decampment at the University of Alberta.

But the People’s University for Gaza have expressed concerns on social media about the presence on campus of vehicles of the RCMP’s controversial policing unit, the Community-Industry Response Group, or C-IRG.

The unit was created in 2017 to respond to opposition to energy industry-related incidents, such as opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the province.

In March 2023, the RCMP’s federal review agency announced an ongoing investigation of the unit after allegations of misconduct, including racism and violence against Indigenous people and climate activists.

Many of the 100-plus complaints accepted for investigation were linked to incidents at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island in 2021, and raids on Wet’suwet’en blockades between 2019 and 2021.

Tyee reporter Amanda Follet Hosgood reported in February that the RCMP sent C-IRG to pro-Palestinian protests across southern B.C., but did not identify specific locations.

Follett Hosgood interviewed senior media relations officer Staff Sgt. Kris Clark, who told her C-IRG was deployed to “pro-Hamas demonstrations to support the police of jurisdiction with public safety and enforcement at these politically and emotionally charged events.”

As tensions between protesters and police have been escalating in recent weeks, some students and faculty members are raising questions about the role of universities in times of global crisis.

A small, lush container garden is arranged on an astroturf surface in front of a handmade white banner that says 'Free Palestine.'
A small ‘People’s Garden’ grows at the UBC encampment for Palestinian solidarity. Photo for The Tyee by Jeevan Sangha.

Inside the discussion at UBC

“We are here to demand divestment, to stop the flow of money going towards the occupation, which includes companies like Lockheed Martin, Airbus and BAE Systems that are developing fighter jets, missiles, bombs, weapons that are being used in a genocide,” said Juno, a media representative for the UBC encampment who spoke to The Tyee using a pseudonym.

“[UBC] would be nothing without us. They wouldn’t have this endowment, they wouldn’t have all of these donations without all of the students that go to the school that makes UBC what it is,” Juno explained.

“So UBC should be listening to its students.”

UBC president Benoit-Antoine Bacon responded to the encampment’s demands in a May 16 statement. When it comes to divestment, he said, UBC does not directly own stocks in the companies that the encampment has identified.

Instead, Bacon said, the capital is held in pooled funds managed by external investment managers accounting for approximately 0.28 per cent of the university endowment fund, which had a market value of about $2.19 billion as of March 31, 2023.

But Juno of the UBC encampment noted that even if endowment funds are externally managed, the administration is still answerable to its students regarding where those funds go. And some student groups disagree with the president’s valuations.

According to a report compiled in collaboration between the UBC Social Justice Centre and Graduate Students for Palestine, UBC has invested an estimated $113 million of its endowment in companies that operate in and support the Israeli occupation.

The companies highlighted in the report include those that directly support war operations through surveillance technology and arms manufacturing. Other companies related to resource extraction, finance, tourism and retail are also listed in the report because they have operations in Israel, which protesters argue make them complicit in the occupation of Palestine.

Bacon joined three other Canadian university presidents at a House of Commons standing committee meeting on May 27 to discuss antisemitism on university campuses.

Bacon said UBC has “long rejectedBoycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a Palestinian-led global movement inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.

According to its website, the goal of the BDS movement is to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

At the House of Commons standing committee meeting on May 27, Bacon also said student encampment protest chants including “From the river to the sea” and “Intifada revolution” are “unfortunate, awful and can be considered antisemitic.”

On May 30, the People’s University for Gaza released letters to the UBC senate, its board of governors and Bacon in response to the UBC president’s position outlined in his previous statement.

The letters include details of student efforts to meet with the UBC administration since Nov. 23, 2023, and highlighted previous examples of UBC pursuing divestment or boycotts based on moral grounds — including voting on partial divestment in response to apartheid in South Africa and UBC’s commitment to fully divest its endowment from fossil fuels by 2030.

The UBC Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, the university’s Asian Canadian and Asian migration studies program and the UBC chapter of the Jewish Faculty Network have expressed solidarity with the UBC encampment and associated disruptions across campus. And 2,650 alumni and workers have signed an open letter in support of the People’s University of Gaza and their demands.

UBC Independent Jewish Voices, a group of Jewish students, staff and faculty, said they support the UBC encampment’s demands, in addition to calling for an end to equating Zionism with Judaism. “Our rejection of the violence and racism of the Israeli state is not antisemitic,” the organization wrote in a written statement.

“It is a principled stance, an enactment of our Jewish values, and a part of a long history of Jewish opposition to Zionism.”

A photo of a handwritten sign that says 'Sikhs for Palestine' is taped to a blue tarp.
A large green handmade sign on the side of a beige tent reads 'Healthcare workers for a free Palestine.'
A wide range of community groups have set up tents at the UBC encampment. Photos for The Tyee by Jeevan Sangha.

An obligation to the community

Richard Moon is a law professor at the University of Windsor who has researched freedom of expression in Canada. From a legal perspective, he says, there are two core foundations to consider the students’ protesting rights on campus: the university’s policy on freedom of expression, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“It’s an open question still, whether or not the Charter applies to the university when it engages in the regulation of speech on campus,” he said. This has to do with ambiguity regarding universities as government actors, to which Moon explained some courts across Canada argue the Charter of Rights and Freedoms only apply.

Freedom of expression in the Charter, Moon explained, is defined broadly as any act that is intended to convey a message to an audience as a form of expression.

“The real difficulty and challenge is in deciding the limits of the right to protest,” Moon said.

“Now, protests, of course, are always to some extent disruptive,” he explained. “They always involve some displacement of what might be the alternative, ordinary uses of a particular space.”

The extent of the length and broader impacts of extended protests are up for debate, and if academic institutions violate their own freedom of expression policies, students could argue a breach of Charter rights.

Alternatively, he explained, when shutting down encampments in this scenario, administration would likely have to argue that the protest has extended beyond what is justified for expression, including substantially disrupting campus life, disturbing classes and taking up vital physical space.

“The whole mission of the university is to create and disseminate knowledge, and free speech protest is an important dimension of that. So the university as an institution has a duty and obligation to the members of the community to ensure they have space to engage in expression,” Moon said.

Rows of small tents covered with colourful tarps are arranged on an artificial green turf field.
‘A number of people imagined that with the rise of social media, physical protest in public spaces might become less significant,’ University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon tells The Tyee. ‘And of course, what we’ve seen is exactly the opposite.’ Photo for The Tyee by Jeevan Sangha.

Tensions may continue to escalate on university campuses as military operations in Gaza continue. According to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a reported 36,284 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its military assault on Gaza after the militant group Hamas killed approximately 1,200 in Israel on Oct. 7, 2023.

Going against a recent ruling from the International Court of Justice to immediately halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Israel has continued to expand military operations in the region.

“It may be that we’re going to see more [encampments] as a form of protest,” Moon added. “A number of people imagined that with the rise of social media, physical protest in public spaces might become less significant. And of course, what we’ve seen is exactly the opposite.”

The People’s University of Gaza is likely to continue with their demands in solidarity with Palestinians for the foreseeable future. And they have expanded their demonstrations beyond MacInnes Field.

According to Spencer Izen and Iman Janmohamed of the Ubyssey, protesters occupied campus buildings such as the UBC Bookstore, AMS Nest and Hennings building on June 1.

Given the recent statements from the encampment organizers, it’s likely these occupations will continue into more shared areas on campus.

Organizers like Juno hope that the encampment and its related activities will bring more public awareness to the intensifying situation in Gaza.

“People really need to be watching, and that’s why all of us are here.”  [Tyee]

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