"Turath event addresses divestment controversy with visiting student"
Columbia students listened intently as Jess Chilton McConnell, a junior from the University of Edinburgh, described her and her classmates’ six-day occupation of their school to call for its divestment from companies supporting the occupation of Gaza and limiting academic freedom for Palestinian students.
In a lecture sponsored by CU’s Turath and moderated by Matt Swagler, GSAS ’10, a member of the Columbia Palestine Forum and the Barnard-Columbia International Socialist Organization, McConnell spoke about their occupation of the George Square Lecture Theatre from Feb. 11 to Feb. 16 to encourage their school’s divestment from companies that are complicit with Israel’s actions in Palestine. Members of the Columbia Palestine Forum said they hope to use McConnell’s experience as a model for their own divestment campaign that began in early March.
Previously, around 30 universities had similar occupations, such as Oxford University and London School of Economics.
Among the many demands were requests to end relations with companies allowing the occupation, such as Eden Springs; provide scholarships for at least five students in Gaza; make donations such as textbooks, chairs, and computers to schools and hospitals in Gaza affected by the war; offer support for lectures and debates at Edinburgh concerning the conflict; and take no legal, academic, or financial actions against students participating in the occupation. All demands were met, as well as an opportunity to bring their case to the University Court.
“There were negative reactions but we weren’t disheartened. We couldn’t be disheartened by any accusation. We were excited about the debate we incited,” McConnell said.
She also addressed the controversy surrounding their use of the word “occupation” to describe their protest.
“There was some question about whether we should be using that word. ... We were occupying against the occupation in Gaza,” she said. “No one felt that it was too problematic.”
She insisted that the primary goal of the occupation was to push forth demands and respond to a specific event in Gaza.
In terms of the initial support for the occupation, she said that people in the UK felt that conditions were brutal in the Gaza Strip.
“There was a national understanding why the government wasn’t responding to the massive humanitarian, civilian death toll,” she said. “People were seeing what was going on every day on the BBC, nothing was being obscured. The national feeling was very angry. ... Things just snowballed.” As a result, students were eager to get involved.
She also addressed the issue of there being a lack of coordination on a national level, citing the spontaneity of the situation as a contributing factor.
“We just wanted to focus on the fact that this was the beginning of the campaign,” she said. “We didn’t want to get into people’s disagreements and divisions at the time.”
Students would come and go as the occupation progressed but towards the end, many were in attendance. They also garnered around 600 signatures.
“It was definitely a sign of the anger and desire to get the government or get someone to do something,” she said. “People were willing to put their name on this piece of paper to demand what were largely humanitarian demands. ... We didn’t polarize the issue.”
Students seemed impressed with McConnell’s occupation success and how it might pave the way for students at Columbia to take more action in support of academic freedom for Palestinian students.
“I thought Jess’ talk was excellent,” Michele Showman, a Teachers College student, said. “A great chance to hear about the occupations—to make political comparisons between thr overall environment in UK compared to here with respect to Zionism. It would encourage students to take action against Columbia.”
“The context in Columbia and England is very different,” Olivia Rosane, BC ’09, and a member of Columbia Coalition Against the War said. “She had some good strategies.”
“I think hearing from her experiences organizing is a huge resource for students in the US who are in the beginning stages of organizing—for shaping our campaign and organizing on campus,” Akua Gyamerah, Mailman School of Public Health ’10 and a member of the Columbia Palestine Forum, said. “It indicates that it is possible to actually win demands from the University.”
“Columbia has this legacy of students having occupations on their own campus—part of having Jess come was to talk about the possibilities of taking radical action on Columbia’s campus,” Swagler said. “Part of what made Jess’ stay so captivating is how natural it was for students to want to respond to human rights’ abuses that they saw.”