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April 23, 2024

Yale clash over divestment continues after Gaza protests, arrests

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Students sit at the encampment at Beinecke Plaza following its erection on April 19, 2024.

Following a weeklong student hunger strike and dozens of arrests Monday morning that capped a tense weekend between Yale administrators and hundreds of protesters, organizers continued to rally Monday in support of the Palestinian people, a ceasefire in Gaza and the university’s divestment from military weapon manufacturers.

The protests at Yale followed similar demonstrations and more than 100 arrests days earlier at Columbia University, which held classes virtually instead of in-person Monday. After setting up camp, Yale students expressed their solidarity with students at Columbia and greeted each other on a video call from their encampments.

Since October, university protests across the country have broken out after Hamas launched an attack that killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis, and another 240 were taken hostage. Since the attack, Israel has killed nearly 34,100 Palestinians while another 1.93 million Palestinians living in Gaza have been displaced in the ongoing war, according to the Ministry of Health in Palestine. 

“An action like this has been brewing for months. Students have written countless letters — thousands of letters — to the Yale Board of Trustees demanding divestment. Students have put out calls on social media, asking for meetings to discuss divestment and disclosure,” said Lumisa Bista, a Yale junior who described herself as the spokesperson for an “ad hoc group of students” who organized ongoing protest efforts. “Yale is one of the higher-ed institutions that began these models of profiting from global atrocities and investments that are exploitative and extractive.”

By later in the day Monday, protests were underway on campuses as close as Massachusetts and as far as Michigan. Protesters at New York University were also arrested later on Monday.

Actions at Yale escalated on April 12, when over a dozen graduate students began an eight-day hunger strike to oppose Yale’s investment in military weapon manufacturers and to demand transparency on Yale’s endowments.

“Yale’s motto is ‘light and truth’ but they refuse to shine the light [on endowments],” said a Palestinian student, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Just a few days later, on April 15, students initiated a “Books not Bombs” protest in Beinecke Plaza, setting up bookshelves, organizing activities and creating artwork, some of it commemorating notable Palestinian authors and academics killed by the Israeli military in Gaza. These actions coincided with Bulldog Days, when prospective students visit campus, and with the Yale Corporation’s dinner and meeting on April 19 and 20. 

The Yale Corporation, or the university’s Board of Trustees, discusses major financial decisions like endowment spending.

On April 19, students were still protesting in Beinecke Plaza as trustees were having dinner with Yale President Peter Salovey in the Schwarzman Center, an arts and culture building on Yale’s campus. After hours of chants and hymns, the crowd of approximately 200 students formed a circle, shielding a group of peers in the center who pitched a number of tents in under 10 minutes.

All but two of the dinner attendees walked out of a heavily guarded exit on the opposite side of the building. The duo who joined the protest was met with cheers as students handed them keffiyehs and posed with them for a photo.

Students remained throughout the weekend despite threats of arrest, entertaining each other with musical performances during the day and chanting in protest in the evenings. In 1986, Beinecke Plaza housed a student encampment to protest against apartheid in South Africa.

In a written statement Sunday, Salovey said administrators “spent many hours in discussions with students, offering them opportunities to end the protest and to meet with trustees, including the chair of the Board of Trustees’ Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR),” and that students “rejected this offer.” 

“At that point, we determined that the situation was no longer safe,” Salovey said. 

Several students told The Connecticut Mirror that they rejected the conversation because there weren’t “any guarantees of disclosure and divestment” and had only 30 minutes to consider the offer.

“This was a shameful act on Yale’s part to offer something so intangible without any regard to the student voices that have consistently shown up for one another and shown up to protect one another from the very university that we’re receiving our education from,” Bista said.

Early Monday morning, 47 students were “issued summonses” after being asked to “leave and remove their belongings” following the three-day encampment outside the plaza, according to a university spokesperson. 

“Before taking this step, the university had notified protesters numerous times that if they continued to violate Yale’s policies and instructions regarding occupying outdoor spaces, they could face law enforcement and disciplinary action, including reprimand, probation or suspension,” the spokesperson said. “Members of Yale’s police department isolated the area and asked protesters to show identification; some left voluntarily. … Students who were arrested also will be referred for Yale disciplinary action, which includes a range of sanctions, such as reprimand, probation, or suspension.”

Craig Birckhead-Morton, a senior history major at Yale and a member of Yalies for Palestine, said he was woken up at 6:30 a.m. and “surrounded by police” prior to his arrest.

“We huddled around the flagpole and locked arms and began singing, and one-by-one they started to arrest us,” Birckhead-Morton said. “I was taken to the processing site about 8 o’clock, and I was able to make it to a 9:30 class.”

Several members of the Faculty for Justice in Palestine, which is made up of more than 100 university staffers who in an open letter have expressed support for “the cause of Palestinian liberation,” were present at the protest. One faculty member, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, said she was appalled at the arrests.

“To put them in shuttle buses, to carry them away in zip ties and to treat them like criminals — I was really ashamed of that moment and of our university administrators,” she said.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who recalled his own days protesting the war in Vietnam when he was younger, said public safety commissioner Ronnell Higgins thought the response to the protest was “well managed.”

“People have a right to protest, as long as they protest within the law,” Lamont said.

In a statement, Ben Proto, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said the party stands with Israel in condemning the protesters’ actions, including an allegation of a student being stabbed in the eye with a flag pole.

“We will not be silent about what is taking place at Yale. To see college students at one of Connecticut and the word’s top universities openly sympathizing with a terrorist group and committing acts of violence against Jewish students is disgraceful,” Proto said. “Anyone who commits these violent acts must be criminally prosecuted. Free speech does not mean freedom to engage in violence against a particular group. These acts are hate crimes and should be treated as such by our justice system.”

All arrests were made by campus police, said Officer Christian Bruckhart, a spokesperson for the New Haven Police Department, which overtook jurisdiction Monday morning after the protest moved from Beinecke Plaza to a public intersection outside the Schwarzman Center.

Bruckhart estimated about 20 New Haven police officers were monitoring the situation.

“Our directive at the moment is to just let things proceed as long as it’s peaceful,” he said. 

Late Monday, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker thanked the city’s police department for “ensuring that all protesters were able to demonstrate peacefully and safely.”

“People have a First Amendment right to free speech and to protest, and New Haven has a long history of supporting people’s ability to peacefully express their views,” he said, before noting that the busy Grove and College streets intersection was cleared in time for the evening rush hour commute.

About 200 students remained at the protest all day Monday, painting the streets with colorful chalk, posters and cloth banners. Students chanted phrases like “Yale, Yale you will see, Palestine will be free,” and sang “We shall not be moved,” a hymn that rose to popularity during the Civil Rights Movement.

“The struggle is to take up space that’s not given to you, to advocate your point of view and to do it peacefully, to do it as a coalition and to build alliances across different races, classes, genders, ages and abilities. That’s the only way change has ever happened,” said Jordan Carver, an architecture professor. “If you believe in the process of divestment, if you believe in the process of liberating Palestine, as I do, then it’s important to go and support the people that are putting their necks on the line, which is the students.”

Tensions remained low despite isolated instances of individual counter-protesters throughout the afternoon and an email sent to faculty by Pericles Lewis, the dean of Yale College, claiming that “according to law enforcement, the core of the group holding the intersection outside Schwarzman are non-Yale protesters with a known history of violent confrontation with the police.”

When asked by the CT Mirror, Yale Police Chief Anthony Campbell said he wasn’t “familiar” with those claims.

“There’s clearly Yale students here,” Campbell said. 

Later in the day, however, Lewis retracted his claims, telling the Yale Daily News: “My email regarding the protest at Grove and Prospect was mistaken and I apologize for the suggestion that the protesters might turn violent. I was repeating speculation I had overheard and I should not have done so.”

A university statement issued last Wednesday rejected disinvestment in military weaponry and said “authorized sales did not meet the threshold of grave social injury, a prerequisite for divestment, because this manufacturing supports socially necessary uses, such as law enforcement and national security.”

However, despite challenges with administrators, students say they remain hopeful.

“There is such a barrier between your students — the community that it claims to serve — and the administration itself,” Bista said. “But, this is the furthest we’ve been able to go with the administration, which is incredible. It shows something is happening, but there is a long way to go.”

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