UC, Berkeley vs. Students for Justice in Palestine

by Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #1150, May 12, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

A battle is raging at UC Berkeley over the administration's attempt to ban the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). This is an important front in the fight over the right to dissent in post-9/11 America, and it's an important focus of the emerging support in the U.S. for the struggle of the Palestinian people.

UC Berkeley suspended SJP, which is an official student group, after an action on April 9, where hundreds of students occupied a building and demanded a meeting with the school chancellor to force UC to stop investing in and supporting Israel. Police dragged protesters out of the building and arrested dozens. The suspension means that SJP has had its privileges as a student group suspended--and cannot have literature tables or hold rallies on campus.

UC Berkeley is the home of the famous "Free Speech Movement" that involved thousands of students and helped spark a decade of rebellion in the '60s. In the Bay Area, banning a student activist group arouses visions of the South African regime and die-hard racists who opposed the civil rights movement.

To try to justify the banning of SJP, the UC Berkeley administration sent out a letter claiming that because "classes were disrupted...this was no longer a matter of free speech but rather a violation of the mission of the university." The administration claimed that the suspension of SJP was just a "symbolic gesture."

SJP responded that "Suspending SJP, symbolic or not, is tantamount to a gag order and a suspension of our group's civil liberties, including the right to speak, to assemble freely, and to distribute literature, and that threatening its members with suspension is a veiled threat against all activists on Berkeley's campus."

Just what kind of "disruption" went on that day? One of the student activists described the scene on April 9:

"We had all this Palestinian children's art, so people could see what the kids there are drawing, what's on their minds. And we had a big white roll of butcher paper that went from the plaza all the way down the street, with the names of all the villages destroyed in 1948 by the Israelis in the founding of Israel; all the people who got kicked out of their land. And people would walk by and see this and go `whoa!' They'd say what are these names? It was powerful, a huge piece of paper. And these are people kicked out in just one year, just for the founding of Israel. Not counting all the shit that happened in the next half-century. And there were people holding signs saying "Celebrating 54 years of Ethnic Cleansing" since the Zionists were having a big party on the steps, with music and food and dancing, while over in Israel there's all these massacres going on like the Jenin massacre, students and others getting rounded up. And some of us put on kaffiyehs, bound our hands, and were blindfolded, and had a grocery bag with clothes. People walking by said `who are these people?' We were representing the people being detained, who were told by the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] to grab a few things before they destroy our homes and detain us."

When the action moved into a building that houses administration offices, UC police dragged students out of the building, arrested 79, threatened student disciplinary actions, and then banned SJP.

To the university's charge of "disruption of the educational process," Noura, a spokesperson for SJP, responded, "We might have made getting to classes inconvenient. But at the same time, we improved education on campus because we were pushing forward with information that is being censored in our mainstream media. So in fact, when they say we obstructed access to education, we were promoting it. And where else can you do that except on campuses? Isn't that why we're here on campus?"

She added, "We're also dealing with the cover-up of the Jenin massacre. We're dealing with the cover-up of what the Israeli army does, and exactly how the U.S. plays such an intrinsic role, and has played such an intrinsic role since 1954. So if we're so concerned with education, why are we censoring information? And then, to take it a step further and censor an organization --this is a systematic censorship project that absolutely has no value in education."

Another student pointed out that for the University to say they support free speech but not disruption is hypocritical: "How did they even get the right to free speech? They had to have civil disobedience."

A Cal student in the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade told an interesting story about what happened in one of the disrupted classes. "A person in my house is taking one of the big classes that supposedly got disrupted. She told me that the students heard people chanting outside of the classroom, and the professor asked `who wants class to continue?' and two people raised their hands out of 500 or so. And he told them, we're a science class, and often times scientists get all caught up in physics or whatever, disconnected from all the things going on around us. So I want you to go talk to these people and find out what they're about."

The RCYBer added, "They learned about how the Israeli army, at this very moment, is carrying out genocide on these people on the other side of the world. And it's being funded by this government, and by this university. Were we disrupting the academic process? No, we were fixing it. If the school system was doing its job and educating people about what is going on in the world, we wouldn't have to do this. But they don't, they hide the truth. If they won't tell people what's going on, then it's up to us to do that."

Fighting for the Right to Dissent in Post-9/11 America

SJP has refused to be silenced. In defiance of the ban, SJP has continued to set up tables and organize protests on campus. And they have called on other campus groups to put signs on their literature tables that say, "We are all students for justice in Palestine," as a form of mass resistance and civil disobedience against the ban.

I talked to many students and activists about how they saw the fight to defend SJP in a climate where the president is saying, "You're with us or against us"; when the attorney general says dissent aids terrorism; when the president's press spokesman says "watch what you say"; and when thousands of Arab, Muslim and South Asian people are being interrogated, deported, or detained without charges.

I met a fourth-year student at Cal who rushed into Revolution Books in Berkeley to buy a kaffiyeh. As we walked to a campus rally in support of SJP, we talked about the risks involved in dissenting these days. She said, "I'm not trying to sound philosophical, but what's the danger in not speaking out? I remember, once in my life, I heard `silence is consent.' At least when you speak, you have people who argue or are in discussion with you. But if you're silent, how is anyone else gonna know what you feel?"

A speaker at a rally supporting SJP said, "We believe that the attacks on Students for Justice in Palestine are part of a growing trend on this campus to criminalize all activism, and that is why today we must all proudly and defiantly say, `We are all Students for Justice in Palestine!"

Among those supporting the students have been many veterans of the original Free Speech Movement who have joined the students for rallies to protest the banning.

Richard Becker from the International Action Committee told the students, "If this [banning] can be done at UC Berkeley --a symbol of the struggle for free speech, the struggle for a progressive future- -then it endangers students on every campus in this country. We have to draw the line here, we have to support Students for Justice in Palestine."

Among hundreds of statements students received from all around the world, one from veteran activist Yuri Kochiyama said: "The students have spirit and tenacity to fight for their own freedom of speech and the freedom and sovereignty of nations fighting against tyranny, oppression, and conquest. Long live the resistant and courageous students! Long live the intifada and an independent Palestine! Long live the struggle for justice!"

Growing Support for the Palestinian People's Struggle

Students for Justice in Palestine includes youth who have family in the Middle East or come from there. One told me, "I've been to Israel, I've assessed the entire situation from a student's perspective. The way I was treated over there was worse than it was here for Blacks in the '60s. Their approach to the Palestinian people is very inhumane. Israel and the U.S. are trying to kill everyone off, in a really secretive way."

I asked a couple of students whose families are under the gun back in the Middle East what they would say to people who are facing repression for speaking out. One told me, "Educate yourself and don't stop fighting."

SJP supporters also include Jewish students and activists who have participated in solidarity actions with Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Speaking directly to a group of Zionists carrying a sign claiming Israel is "the only country in the Middle East that tolerates gay people," a Jewish woman active in a gay activist organization said, "I'm here as someone who just returned from Palestine and witnessed first hand the terror that the U.S.-supplied F16s and M16s and tanks wreak daily against a civilian refugee population. I saw the giant holes ripped in the walls of people's homes, where they [Palestinians] none-the-less used their last grounds to make coffee for me, a Jewish woman from the U.S."

I spoke with a graduate student from another UC campus who told me that on the day of the April 9 protest, he was in the UC Berkeley library researching his graduate thesis on the genocide of native peoples in northern California. He decided to set aside his research and join the protesters and was one of those arrested. He said he was "thinking about the connection between this place and what was happening in Jenin on that day." He said it made him think, "What is the worst form of terrorism in the world today? Is it a Palestinian suicide bomber? Or is it an Apache helicopter dropping bombs and rockets on densely populated refugee camps? Is it a U.S. Air Force plane dropping cluster bombs on Afghani villages? These are all forms of terrorism, but the worst is nuclear weapons--and where are these nuclear weapons developed? In laboratories owned by the University of California. And they say we're being violent!"

Joining a speak-out in front of the chancellor's office, this grad student said, "They are saying to Palestinian students on this campus, to Palestinian-Americans who have loved ones on the West Bank, who are suffering through this offensive, `We don't want to hear about your pain, we don't want to hear about your grief, get the hell off campus.' We're not gonna put up with that. We want to hear from our brothers and sisters. And we think everyone on this campus should hear them."

I told Noura, the spokesperson from SJP, that I thought it was important to make a statement from people in this country that the crimes being carried out by the U.S. and by the Israeli government do not represent us. And I asked her what she would say to people around the world who wonder if Bush speaks for everyone in this country?

She told me, "To the people in the rest of the world, no, we are America, and this is our voice. It just depends on what America you have access to." Referring to the April 20 demonstrations in DC and SF where over 100,000 protested, she said, "Did the media cover it to the extent that it should have been covered? It wasn't on the front pages of all the news. They didn't report, `This is what Americans stand for--they're against the war and against Israeli terror.' Absolutely not.

"No uprising, no movement has happened from the top down. We're grassroots like everywhere else. The only thing that can stop us is them shutting us down and kicking us out like they're trying to do now. And even that we're resisting."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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