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UM Divest movement escalates as sit-in continues

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
and Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published March 20, 2014

With less than a week before the Central Student Government elections start, the UM Divest movement has changed the game.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students attended the CSG meeting to support a proposed resolution that would call for the University to divest its interests in United Technologies, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement and Caterpillar, Inc. Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the organization leading the movement, alleges that these companies hold contracts with the Israeli military and thereby support human rights violations against Palestinians.

The Student Assembly, CSG’s legislative branch, voted 21-15, with one abstention, to permanently table the resolution. Upset with the decision, members of SAFE and other supporters of the resolution have occupied CSG’s chambers in the Michigan Union since Wednesday night in protest — demanding that the decision be reconsidered and additional time for debate and public comment be allowed in any future meeting.

In the wake of the contentious vote, some CSG representatives who voted for postponement have claimed to have received threats as a result of their decision.

In previous elections, issues such as entrepreneurship and tuition equality were the defining issues. But the #UMDivest movement has inserted itself into campaign season in force, creating an unexpected variable in the race.

LSA senior Yazan Kherallah, the divestment chair of SAFE, promised that the #UMDivest movement would take to the polls next week in response to Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re going to hold every person who voted against listening to student voices accountable,” Kherallah said Tuesday night. “These investments impact the friends and family of students.”

However, the two largest parties fielding candidates in the upcoming election, Make Michigan and FORUM — both of which have numerous incumbents in CSG — have not taken a stance on the resolution or the issue of divestment.

Public Policy senior Greg Terryn, a CSG representative and spokesman for FORUM, said FORUM did not tell its members on the assembly how to vote on the divestment resolution.

“We’re glad to see students voicing their concerns,” Terryn said, adding that FORUM asked its members to “vote your conscience, vote your heart.”

LSA senior Andrew Craft, chair of Make Michigan, wrote in a statement that Make Michigan wants to remain open in dialogue.

“We are not ignoring the point,” he wrote. “We agree that every student's voice must be heard on campus, and every member of Make Michigan is ready and willing to discuss the issue with any student.”

FORUM’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, Public Policy junior Carly Manes and LSA junior Pavitra Abraham, are both current representatives and voted against indefinite postponement of the resolution. Make Michigan’s candidates, Public Policy junior Bobby Dishell, the party’s presidential nominee and current CSG vice president, and LSA sophomore Meagan Shokar, the vice presidential nominee and current assembly speaker, were not eligible to vote on postponement.

Terryn did, however, add that the high student turnout at Tuesday’s meeting — the highest in recent memory — was positive.

“Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s great to see such student mobilization,” he said.

Business senior Michael Proppe, CSG president, said threatening and inflammatory messages have been directed at CSG representatives, particularly those who voted to table the resolution Tuesday, through social media and other online outlets as well as in person. Proppe said some of the messages being sent were “angry rhetoric,” but added there were also more serious threats, to the point that some representatives are afraid to attend their classes because they feel unsafe.

LSA senior Bayan Founas, a member of SAFE, said SAFE in no way condones such threats and none of its members are participating or being encouraged to do so. While Dishell said many of those sending threats identified themselves in association with SAFE, both he and Proppe said they do not believe these aggressors are part of SAFE, and communication between the two groups has gone smoothly so far.

Founas added that members of SAFE and students on campus who are perceived to be Arab have faced threats as well, similar in nature to the ones received by CSG representatives. She said one SAFE member was allegedly physically assaulted earlier this week, though University Police were unable to confirm whether or not the incident occurred.

Proppe reported the situation at Tuesday’s meeting to the University’s Board of Regents on Thursday.

“The student government has an obligation to hear our constituents out,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Proppe said while he does not support this or any divestment movements, he thought the assembly should have voted either for or against the proposal. He added that this is the first time in his presidency that the assembly has postponed a vote indefinitely.

He added that it is important for all students to be given an opportunity for their voices to be heard, but supporting the movement outright is more complicated.

“There is specific action that’s been put in there and there are other communities who do feel targeted by the resolution,” he said. “There’s so much stuff that we in the student government can do when the student body agrees on things but that’s really our opportunity to be effective here, this was such a divisive topic that I hesitate to waive the vote.”

Founas said the group will remain in the CSG chambers until it meets five demands: to repeal Tuesday’s decision, keep CSG meetings completely open to the public with no closed sessions, allow unlimited public commentary, require CSG representatives to attend a “teach-in” session to better learn about the issue at hand and make a public apology.

Proppe explained his plans to the group Wednesday night. He said he will motion to reconsider the vote on the proposal at next week’s meeting and will send it to a second reading if it fails.

He added that he will propose to add an extra half-hour to both public commentary sessions of the meeting, but such action will require approval from the assembly. Additionally, he will allow a presentation about the Israeli occupation before the meeting for the representatives to watch in place of the teach-in session, which representatives cannot be forced to attend. Proppe added that he will allow presentations from other student groups such as Hillel if they request it.

He said these accommodations are only being made because of the rare decision to table the vote, but a failure to vote on a resolution cannot be overturned by a sit-in.

Members of SAFE and their supporters left the chambers last night when the building closed at 2 a.m. Founas said this was only because Proppe came to meet with the group. However, some members of the group returned as early as 7 a.m. to continue the sit-in. She added that people chose on their own to stay the night on Thursday.