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Editorial: Campus protests put pressure on UMN to act with a conscience

The University has shown it cares more about its assets and reputation than the beliefs of its students.
Image by Sarah Mai

While the ongoing genocide in Gaza has been a topic of international news coverage since the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas-led attack against Israeli forces, it is only recently we have seen a number of peaceful protests in support of a Free Palestine and the divestment of funds from U.S.-based educational institutions and businesses that are being spent on weapons of mass destruction used against those living in Gaza and the surrounding Occupied West Bank.

According to Al Jazeera, an estimated 35,000 people –– most of whom are women and children –– have been killed in the Gaza and occupied West Bank regions, in addition to an estimated 82,000 being injured and 8,000 reported missing.

Meanwhile, Israeli casualties are estimated to be significantly fewer: the Israeli government reported 1,139 deaths and an estimated 8,700 injuries as a result of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas-led attack.

The excessive and overwhelming response from the Israeli government should be labeled as what it truly is: genocide. The extreme loss for Gaza is not just its citizens — Israeli attacks have also damaged residential dwellings, places of worship, hospitals, school buildings and groundwater wells. The actions of the Israeli government are so far beyond the reciprocal justice principle of “an eye for an eye”. 

It is my opinion this ongoing genocide is not a matter of religion or reciprocity, but one of human rights violations and the human lives that remain at stake in this region — and a number of protestors’ demands align with that opinion.

In recent weeks, a number of college campuses across the United States partook in peaceful protests against the ongoing genocide in Gaza and in support of a Free Palestine. Many news outlets were quick to call these “anti-war” protests but failed to comprehend the true motivations behind them.

From Columbia and Yale Universities to the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and the University of Texas at Austin, undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty, and activists banded together in numbers to resist not only the genocide itself, but also the ways in which a number of universities within the U.S. have financial ties to the Israeli government and defense contractors that manufacture the weapons used during this ongoing genocide.

At the University of Minnesota, specifically, demands were made for the University’s Learning Abroad Center to cut ties with Global E3’s operations in Israel and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and for the College of Science and Engineering to sever its ongoing relationships with corporations, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of whom are seeing skyrocketing stock prices as a result of weapons being sold to Israel.

As expected, these protests were met with resistance from University administration and police departments. Students were forced to disperse and nine were arrested on trespassing charges. Police departments dispatched officers in mass quantities: at the University, video shows that officers often outnumbered protestors greatly.

In line with a chant I overheard during one of these protests, it is my argument that the University must––

  1. Disclose any and all university expenditures to ensure that student’s tuition dollars are not being spent on a genocide,
  2. Divest from any and all companies that are working to manufacture weapons used in this genocide in addition to any educational institutions abroad that have interests with the Israeli government, and
  3. Allow students to peacefully protest on public land as is their right defined in Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I realize the two primary objections to this opinion are (1) Hamas was the group to instigate the war being that they attacked Israel first and (2) some acts of protest go against and violate certain University policy.

In terms of the University, the policy requires that demonstrators must secure a permit in order to use tents and other structures in addition to allow for overnight outdoor stays, such as camping. Given the response from the University of Minnesota Police Department (UMPD) in recent days, it becomes clear to me that no such permits were secured.

There is such a fine line when it comes to protesting on university-owned (or in Minnesota’s case, stolen) land and not abiding by the rules and regulations set forth by the University or its regulatory bodies does have its fair share of consequences.

Concurrently, the University must also tread very carefully in how they respond to these demonstrations or protests.

How does a public research university in one of the liberal parts of the country expect its students to respond to the arrest, charging, and now-retracted one-year campus ban of nine protestors in the current state of our world? How can they have issue with its students being upset that their tuition dollars are, at least in part, being spent on weapons of mass destruction that not only destroy the places that Gazan Palestinians live, work, and worship but also kill innocent men, women, and children?

While answers to those questions are obviously open to interpretation, it is my opinion that the answer is pretty clear: the University simply cares more about protecting its assets and reputation as an elite public university rather than the students currently enrolled in its classes.

Andrew Sonnenburg is a current student of the Master of Human Rights Program through the University’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs studying a concentration in Crime, Law and Justice. 

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