More than 100 protestors chanted for hours in the cold outside the Alexander G. Ruthven Building on Friday, standing in solidarity with the 40 students charged with trespassing citations during a peaceful sit-in on the premises. Above them, banners reading “Free Palestine,” “UMICH Jews say Boycott, Divest, Sanction” and “Never Again For Anyone” leaned against windows on the third floor.
The protest was organized by a coalition of 54 student organizations, including Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and the University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Students rallied in response to University President Santa Ono’s refusal to discuss or acknowledge his students’ demand for the University’s divestment from companies financially supporting the Israeli occupation and genocide of Palestinian people.
The call to action began Friday afternoon in the Diag as part of a national shutdown for Palestine, organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement. Organizers presented speeches to hundreds of students before mobilizing to march to the Ruthven Building. SAFE President Salma Hamamy led protestors as they chanted for divestment from Israel.
“President Ono and the Board of Regents, you all have blood on your hands,” Hamamy said in the protest’s opening speech. “Students, faculty, staff and community members are demanding for you to stop funding a genocide.”
Over 50 police vehicles lined North University Avenue, cutting off the Central Campus Transit Center, and the flash of reds and blues stretched to the Burton Memorial Tower. The University called in police from more than 10 different departments, including the Department of Public Safety and Security, Ann Arbor, Eastern Michigan University, Pittsfield Township, Van Buren Township, Washtenaw County, Ypsilanti, Michigan State Police and more. DPSS officers tried to prevent protestors from entering the Ruthven Building, a public U-M building, during its normal hours of operation, before they called in more police.
Police responded aggressively by shoving through the crowd of protestors and blocking off both main and back entrances. One student was body-slammed and handcuffed to the ground by police while they ripped off her hijab, and their actions have been documented on video and posted to SAFE’s Instagram account.
Hundreds of protestors continued to support the sit-in from the outside as the sky darkened, chanting, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” to police officers who continued to block the building entrances. Inside, dozens more police officers denied protestors food, water and bathroom access. Medics had to be brought in after a student fainted from dehydration.
“It’s tragic they would rather call the police than meet with the student organizations to hear their reasons for divestment,” said Rackham student Azucena Cuevas in an interview with The Daily.
As protestors inside and outside the Ruthven Building chanted, a group of more than 20 students sat in Ono’s office on the third floor for over six hours to request a meeting on divestment. The coalition demands that the University divest from companies profiting off of the human rights violations committed by Israel, including, but not limited to, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and Lockheed Martin. This meeting was never actualized, and instead, police issued a dispersal warning at 7:50 p.m., stating that any students remaining in the building after 10 minutes would be arrested.
Friday’s sit-in protest follows several actions students have taken to pressure the University to divest from Israel, from participation in a national walkout for Gaza, a vigil, a reading of student demands at Ruthven, a die-in demonstration on the Diag and, most recently, a posting of a list of more than 10,000 martyrs in Gaza trailing from President Ono’s front door to the sidewalk.
Despite President Ono’s statements claiming that he is concerned about Jewish safety, at least eight of the 40 students arrested Friday night were Jewish, according to a JVP release following the protest’s events.
In one of the protest’s opening speeches, Annabel Bean, co-founder of the University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that true Jewish safety comes from fighting all forms of oppression, including, and especially, the ongoing violence against Palestinians.
“I refuse to let my Jewish identity be defined by Israel,” Bean said in her speech. “I refuse to support a state that, again, has killed over 11,000 people in just over a month.”
In addition to divestment, the coalition is calling upon the University to conduct a formal inquiry into anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic racism and harassment, to reaffirm the faculty members being vilified for their support of Palestine and to release a formal statement explicitly defining the massacre in Gaza as an ethnic cleansing lead by Israel and funded by the United States.
President Ono released a monthly video message on Nov. 17, the morning before the University called in multiple police departments to a peaceful sit-in. In the video, President Ono states the University must be committed to its values of respect, inclusion, equity and diversity. He did not respond to any of SAFE’s collective demands.
According to SAFE, the Faculty Senate at the University recently approved a resolution to request that the University investigate all financial investments in Israel for transparency, after SAFE members staged a sit-in at their meeting. The resolution passed 26-10.
As of Nov. 19, more than 50 organizations have signed on to SAFE’s collective demands, though there are more than 1,000 student organizations at the University. LSA senior Aarushi Ganguly, co-director of the United Asian American Organizations, told The Daily she wished more students would take action in whatever way they can.
“The 40 plus organizations that have signed on represent some of the most marginalized groups on campus, and they are putting their names behind this, so it’s not too late to get involved,” Ganguly said in an interview with The Daily. “People will welcome you with open arms.”
SAFE board member Zainab Hakim told The Daily in an interview that the coalition will continue to apply pressure until the University’s administration agrees to meet with them and urged non-identity centered groups to sign on to the coalition’s demands, as well. She hoped that fellow students could take away an understanding of solidarity from Friday’s demonstration.
“The University has to listen to us, and if they don’t, we are going to continue escalating until some change is made,” Hakim said “We are many, and we are powerful. No one is alone on this campus.”
MiC Columnist Sara Wong can be reached at email@example.com.