After multiple sit-ins, walkouts, rallies and over 60 protester arrests, Brown University students are demonstrating their commitment to the university’s divestment “from all companies perpetuating and profiting from Israel’s occupation.” On the afternoon of Feb. 2, 19 students joined a hunger strike launched by the organization BrownU Jews For Ceasefire Now in anticipation of the Brown University Corporation meeting on Feb. 8 and 9.
In addition to the students in JFCN and the other on-campus organizations at the forefront of this movement, such as Brown University Palestine Solidarity Caucus and Brown Divest Coalition, hundreds of students have rallied behind this cause, garnering massive displays of support coming from alumni and faculty alike.
This outpour of advocacy is no surprise, given the long legacy of student activism at Brown, and discussions of divestment have continued for over a decade. However, in the months following the Oct. 7 attacks, the movement has gained momentum like never before. This ongoing hunger strike and the disruption it is causing is the most recent of five crucial junctures in the timeline responsible for the acceleration of this movement.
The first is the Jan. 2020 report of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (ACCRIP) to recommend divestment from companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. After the eight-month process, the committee held a vote, resulting in a seven-to-one majority consensus that “the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory constitutes social harm.” Additionally, the finalized vote officially recommended that the Brown Corporation and separate account managers sustain a withdrawal of investment in companies identified in the report as facilitating human rights violations in Palestine.
Yet, the proposal never made it to the floor of the Brown Corporation meeting, the committee with actualized governing power. Although historically, ACCRIP’s reports carry significant weight in encouraging action from the Corporation, the glaring flaw with this recommendation is in its non-binding nature – simply put – the report is a suggestion that requires no official action.
In defense of her decision not to pass the recommendation along, University President Christina Paxson wrote that “the bar for divestment is high,” requiring a “demonstration that the University’s investments in the assets of specific companies create social harm, and that divestment will alleviate that harm.” She claimed the recommendation did not meet the rigorous standards.
The next critical incident is the Nov. 8 JFCN sit-in in University Hall. The 20 students arrested for willful trespassing were informed earlier in the day of campus protocol in regards to occupying the building after hours. The students were set to be arraigned on Nov. 28 despite hundreds of faculty calling upon the university to drop charges.
The charges were dropped three days before the hearing date, following the tragic shooting of three Arab students in Burlington, VT, the third pivotal event. One of the students targeted in the hate crime is a member of Brown’s junior class, Hisham Awartani. Following the shooting, there was a community request for everyone to wear their keffiyehs to project a message of safety for Palestinian and Arab students. According to Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki, one of the strikers, and current senior, “There was overwhelming support, it just seemed like everyone was wearing keffiyeh, and coming out to protests and showing up for different actions.”
This instance of violence, though appalling, brought conversations regarding the safety of Arab and Palestinian students into prominence. Awartani’s attack forced the previously unbudging administration to acknowledge the rise of Islamophobia, though due to Paxson’s remarks that Brown “could not have done anything to prevent the tragedy,” the official vigil turned into a rally with hundreds unified in chanting “Brown divest!” Importantly, in a 2019 undergraduate and a 2021 grad student referendum 69% and 87% of students voted for divestment.
Next, standing in solidarity with Awartani, there was yet another sit-in followed by 41 arrests. This time, however, the administration strategically got the Providence Police Department to carry out the bookings, continuing with criminal charges.
Following months of escalation, with retaliation and denial of demands from the university, students decided they needed to hunger strike.
On day one of the strike, Paxson sent a letter to the strikers suggesting they go through official channels again, for she does not plan on changing university protocol. With each day passing, the administration continues to request strikers play by their rules, yet given the results of previous attempts to do so, the strikers continue on, demanding immediate action.
Here at Wellesley, administration has similarly demanded activists follow their rules, including getting official approval in advance of every on-campus protest.
Kalāhiki ’24 explains why they think the disruptive, yet nonviolent nature of hunger-striking is effective, saying, “It’s hard to ignore; the university’s already responding in ways that tell us that they’re scared.”
Another student elaborates on the necessity for severity, saying, “We need to ensure that the Corporation knows our demand for divestment is not only possible but necessary.”
As Brown students get the ball rolling for this movement, they call upon other university students to follow suit. They hope this strike will be a call to action for American college students to take advantage of their inherent privilege, and use their freedom to rally for those whose liberty has been stripped away. As one Palestinian striker said, “I miss my home more than ever,” but, “as long as I am here, I will use my privilege and my studies to speak up and to defend Palestine.”
Brown has continuously refused to divest the 4% of endowment that represents direct investment to companies contributing to Israel despite the success of the 2017 divestment in fossil fuels, which represented 6.5% of the endowment.