In this episode of Reclaiming Academic Freedom, Status//الوضع host Tareq Radi interviews four students on the university’s stifling of political organizing via the criminalization of student activities that challenge institutional decisions and policies.
The program episode below includes four parts that you can click on separately. Please find the transcript below the player.
Khalil Antonio Vasquez grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx raised by his Puerto Rican grandmother and father. His experiences as a young Afro-Latino urban male growing up working class led him to become a revolutionary communist. He and his comrades founded the Revolutionary Students Coordinating Committee to liberate the educational institution of CUNY for working class and oppressed nationality communities. They have faced various forms of militant and legal repression but have only grown stronger and gained numbers and momentum.
Mohammad Abou-Ghazala is a senior studying Global affairs and Islamic Studies at George Mason University. He organizes with GMU Students Against Israeli Apartheid, Black Students Alliance, Student Power, and Mason Dreamers.
Omar Zahzah is a PhD student in comparative literature at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), as well as a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA and the Palestinian Youth Movement.
Tina Matar is a recent graduate from the University of California-Riverside (UCR), with a Bachelors degree in Business Marketing. While at UCR, she was the president of the Students for Justice in Palestine and a co- founder of the Middle Eastern Student Center at UCR. During her time at UCR, she led many campaigns, including Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions initiatives. She wrote and presented a rsuccessful esolution to her student senate for divestment of UCR funds from companies that profit from apartheid in Israel. She also led a movement to boycott Sabra hummus and remove it from the campus stores. Tina has also taught a class about Palestinians in Palestine, creating a safe space for Palestinians and non-Palestinians to talk about Palestine and it`s people.
Program Episode Transcript
Tareq Radi [TR]: This is Tareq Radi hosting Reclaiming Academic Freedom on Status Hour, where we expose violations of academic freedom and repression on campuses in both the region and the United States. For our third segment, we are focusing on the methods in which the university stifles political organizing by directly criminalizing activities that challenge the university’s decisions and policies. Joining us are four student organizers who have been incredibly active on their campuses: Khalil Antonio Velasquez, Mohammad Abou Ghazala, Omar Zahzah, and Tina Matar.
Khalil Antontio Velasquez, an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] and the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee [RSCC] discusses in detail the events that unfolded at City College New York in response to the 2011 tuition hikes and the 2013 appointment of former CIA director general David Petraeus.
Mohammad Abou Ghazala, president of George Mason University’s [GMU] Students Against Israeli Apartheid [SAIA] recounts the establishment of the organization and the university’s restructuring of the student handbook in response to the organization`s political activity on campus.
Omar Zahzah—a PhD student in comparative literature at University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA], as well as a member of SJP at UCLA and the Palestinian Youth Movement—highlights the role of California’s House Resolution 35, which aims to suppress Palestine activism by conflating with anti-Semitism.
Finally joining us is Tina Matar, a recent graduate from the University of California, Riverside [UCR], a former president of UCR’s SJP and the co-founder of the Middle Eastern Student Center at UCR. Tina discusses the lack of support she received from the administration in response to the course she taught entitled “Palestine-Israel: Settler-colonialism and Apartheid,” where she was targeted and threatened by off-campus Zionist organizations.
City College has a strong history of radical student organizing dating back to 1969, when Black and Puerto Rican students at City College fought and won an unprecedented opening of admissions at CUNY resulting in a radical transformation of the university. In 1999, the board of trustees voted to eliminate remedial classes at CUNY’s senior colleges, thereby finally eliminating a central pillar of the policy of open admissions and effectively ending it. As the neoliberalization of the university advances, technocratic administrators attempt to strip the university of its radical history and its access to marginalized communities.
Khalil begins with discussing both the global and local struggles for equality during the 2011 tuition hikes that were implemented in the City College of New York network. He elaborates on the political climate and activities taking place on universities throughout New York at the time. But explains there was a vacuum for a coalition that addressed the needs marginalized communities.
Khalil Antonio Velasquez [KAV]: 2011 was a big year worldwide. The Arab Spring happened, so that was definitely in people’s heads. You also had Walkerville happening in Madison, Wisconsin. That was also in people’s heads. In New York, early on there were good and bad things going on.
TR: After forming a coalition, Students strengthened their presence on their respective campuses, but it was not until 21 November 2011 that coalition members had a common struggle to galvanize them.
KAV: 21 November 2011 was the public hearing for the board of trustees, and their plan was to increase tuition by five-hundred dollars every year for five years. That is happening up until this year, and this year is the last year experiencing the repercussions of 2011. The tuition hikes were at Baruch College, a business college. I was on security. We had a lot of people because, not only did we mobilize a lot of people, but this was also during Occupy Wall Street, so you had a lot of people coming from Occupy Wall Street. You even had people coming from private schools. I think the New School had an occupation at the same time, so it was very intense at that time.
I remember doing security. I had a green bandanna on my arm, and everything was going smoothly. We had people outside, and the plan was to have some people go inside and start testifying. It was a public hearing, so we were supposed to be publically allowed to into this meeting, especially as students who are affected by the tuition hikes. We divvied up forces and told the people who wanted to go upstairs and testify to the board of trustees at the public hearing to do that while other people stay downstairs. I stayed downstairs, outside of the building. And Baruch is big on 24th Street. There are these glass windows. I am getting interviewed by a student journalist from Hunter College, and while I am getting interviewed by this person, I see all of the students at Baruch start banging on the windows. I am on security, so I am thinking that this will not look good. So I ran over there and asked what they were doing, told them to stop, and then they told me to look inside. I see CUNY security beating students, arresting students for no reason.
After 21 November, I went on YouTube and saw some videos from the inside because I was outside. I saw a video, and people were not resisting CUNY security at all. There was one young woman who put up a peace sign while they were shoving people. She put up a peace sign and they just shoved her, put her on the floor. It was very intense. They were even armed. Some of the security had guns on them. Then from the balcony inside the atrium of Baruch, professors and students saw this and starting throwing textbooks at CUNY security. Even professors got arrested. It was that kind of intensity. There was a lot of struggle that happened then.
The next week—Monday, 28 November 2011—we had another rally, but it was not the public hearing. This was an actual board meeting. We were outside and nothing too intense happened, but we went out more organized this time as well. It went well, but within the coalition itself -- “…For Free CUNY” [unclear [00:07:00]] -- there were different political lines. It boils down to the historic political line struggles of the CUNY struggle in general. There were people who wanted to go back to the free tuition type of CUNY and the CUNY that fights for that. We did not disagree with that idea, but the more radical wing, the more left wing—the people who became RSCC later on—we saw that it was not just about tuition hikes. It was about these broader questions of education in general. And it was not just about education, but education for whom to do what? We did not just look back to the strikes of 1989 and 1991, which were more economic. We looked back to the struggles of 1976 and Hostos [College], City College and Lehman [College], across CUNY and generally in 1969 when open admissions happened.
TR: He contextualizes the history of the struggles at CUNY and draws inspiration from the revolutionary students who came before him.
KAV: City College is in the middle of Harlem. In 1969 CUNY was only ten percent Black and Latino, and the ninety percent was white. They used to call it the white Rhodesia of Harlem—Rhodesia being modern day Zimbabwe before it became a settler-colonial colony of the British—and they used to call it the white Rhodesia of Harlem for that reason. In 1969 CUNY was already free, so they did not fight for free CUNY because it was already something given to the working class. But they fought because they wanted to open up admissions to their community. They wanted to open it up to Black and Latino people.
And not only did they want to change the political question of access, they also wanted to change the political question of content. So one of the demands or visions of the 1969 struggle was that they wanted to have one entire university—because CUNY is a different system at different universities—that would be a third world studies institute, where you could go and study different third-world issues. It would be centered on that. They also wanted separate orientations for Black and Latino students because they felt they needed an orientation to orient students on the revolutionary past.
Out of the 1969 struggle, you had people who were already Black Panthers, you had people who became Young Lords, and you had many people who became Students for a Democratic Society. You had a lot of people who became revolutionaries and actually saw themselves as part of a revolution because the 1969 struggle was happening after 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and you had revolutionary activity happening worldwide. People in 1969 saw themselves tied to 1967 in Palestine, they saw themselves tied to the Cultural Revolution in China, they saw themselves tied to Cuba, as well as anti-colonial struggles in the Congo, Nigeria, and across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These were actually things they talked about and understood themselves as being a part of, a world historic movement.
TR: We fast forward to 2013, the university has decided to appoint former CIA director general David Petraeus to the Macaulay Honors College, and they have reestablished the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps [ROTC] program, which had been banned since the Vietnam War. Khalil gives us a detailed account of the events to follow.
KAV: It came out on the news that David Petraeus was going to come teach at the Macaulay Honors College. Off the bat, one of the things on our platform was to get rid of Macaulay Honors College. The Macaulay Honors College is there for many students from out of state, Long Island, or other privileged backgrounds. They are basically kids who could have went to Columbia or other Ivy League schools of that sort. Instead of going to those Ivy League schools, they would get a completely free ride at CUNY as Macaulay Honors College students, and they would take classes at different CUNY schools. They would get free laptops, free study abroad, etc. We obviously wanted funding for the working class and Black, Latino, and Muslim communities from NYC. We wanted a Macaulay Honors College for everybody.
When the news of David Petraeus teaching at CUNY came, a lot of the outrage did not come from him causing genocide in Falluja, in Afghanistan, and in other places; it came from him being paid a lot. If I can recall, I might be wrong, but he was going to be paid around one-hundred thousand dollars. He was getting paid a very ridiculous amount of money to teach at Macaulay Honors College. We immediately started hitting up different people, especially towards the end of the summer. We started trying to gather different forces, such as professors, other students groups, and community groups. But by the end of the summer when we started trying to get a coalition together, they had already reduced his pay to one dollar. This was obviously a tactic to cut out a lot of the people who were very interested in economic issues, and that made it a little more difficult.
But aside from Petraeus, as you mentioned, there was also the return of the ROTC. We got the schedules of the ROTC class and orientations. First we investigated one. I think it happened in early August. We went to see what they were talking about. It was really interesting. They had a Black officer in the military, and it was directly pedaled to people of color, oppressed nationality people. So we already saw CUNY angling toward certain communities. And RSCC—as an anti-imperialist organization—and our interest as people of color is not serving US imperialism. In fact, why fight the people who are not causing strife in our communities here?
The next ROTC meeting happened 3 September 2013, and that was when we had our first action for the semester. A few people went inside and disrupted the orientation, and then we had a lot of people outside. It was covered by Russia Today [RT]. We had chanting and speaking out that happened on 3 September. Then the next week—on 9 September—was Petraeus’ first class. We had seventy to one hundred people outside the Macaulay Honors College, and a few people tried to infiltrate. Security was horrendous. They had many people. This guy was a former CIA director and a former commander for the “allied forces” in Afghanistan and Iraq at different periods. We could not get to him inside the building, so that was a failure.
The protest died down, we were all going to walk away and debrief, and the next thing you know, some people who were straggling behind saw Petraeus walk out of the building and called people immediately. We all rushed. This is on YouTube on the RSCC NYC YouTube page. There were about thirty people following him and heckling him. We got death threats from veterans and reactionaries, including white supremacists. But it was actually very pivotal in our strategy because it completed the first phase, in which we wanted to unite people who were anti-imperialist and agreed—students, professors and all that. This created the polarization that we needed. Once the video of what was happening to Petraeus outside of his class came out and went viral, it polarized people and people had to take a side. So for better or for worse, it polarized people all across CUNY.
The next week that his class took place we had a protest outside, and nothing really happened. We chanted and he got in his car. They basically cleared five blocks for him. Other than parades, I have never seen that before in New York City. The police came and they cleared blocks for him on Amsterdam, around the Lincoln Center area. We tried to heckle him, but he had an SUV and they skedaddled. That was on 16 September, and the very next day—17 September 2013—was his second class, which was an interesting day because it was also coincidentally the day Occupy Wall Street started in 2011. On 17 September 2013 we had a protest outside of the Macaulay Honors College again because they had a fundraiser for Petraeus. Even though they reduced his pay to one dollar, they still had this fundraiser with all kinds of reactionaries, such as Fareed Zakaria. We had a peaceful protest. It is all documented on the RSCC NYC YouTube page.
I remember this white shirt being right in next to me, and this is in the video. The next thing you know, I am walking, he starts shoving me, and I am trying to get out of his way. He keeps shoving me and then I was pinned down. He pinned me down, and a whole commotion happened. I got away somehow, and it was very crazy. People were running around, and six of my comrades got arrested. In the video, people were getting arrested who were already down. One of my comrades Louis was getting punched while he was on the ground. This event was covered by RT as well. Another one of my comrades got pushed on the floor and her head hit the concrete. It was brutal. Both CUNY security and NYPD were out for blood that day. That day turned the tide in terms of morale but also legally. On the one hand, it got us publicity, and on the other hand, a lot of energy was diverted to the legal struggles. That was the first phase of the struggle that year until the Morales/Shakur Center was seized.
TR: Ending phase one of the recent struggles at CUNY, it is important to note that the university not only failed to protect the students from physical harm, but went on to seize a historical, revolutionary space on campus.
KAV: It was the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Center. If people do not know, Assata Shakur was a Black Panther and revolutionary in the Black Liberation Army. Guillermo Morales is a Puerto Rican revolutionary part of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional [FALN] and a leader of Los Macheteros. They’re both in Cuba today. Assata Shakur went to CUNY and so did Guillermo Morales. The center was won way back in the 1989 student strike way, and it was basically a link between the community and the student struggle. If a student club wants to reserve a space, you have to submit these forms, get it approved, etc., but at the Morales/Shakur Center you did not have to do that. It was an activist space. It was a space for the community and students to share. Students have meetings in the day time up until 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m., and afterwards the community groups have their events. This is a space that organized healthy, organic food deliveries to the community. This is a space that organized Know Your Rights training against stop and frisk policies and engaged in Cop Watch. This is a space that did political prisoner writing and organized against gender violence. Anything that is considered progressive or revolutionary could be found in the Morales/Shakur Center.
22 October is the National Day Against Police Brutality, and RSCC has come out for it every year since we were founded. 20 October was the Sunday before, and we were going into the Morales/Shakur Center to have a meeting at around 11 a.m. We arrived there and David Suker was doing something random. He is a veteran of the CUNY struggle who was in the Student Liberation Action Movement [SLAM], which we consider the predecessor of RSCC. SLAM was a CUNY-wide group of revolutionaries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. David Suker is still active doing other things in the community, and on this day, he was using the Morales/Shakur Center. We got two blocks away from the center, and he called us telling us, “They just seized the center.” We thought, “This is crazy.” So we rushed over, and there were police everywhere. By the time we got to the center, he was already arrested and they took him away. Then they locked down the building, and whenever they saw an RSCC person, they would shut down the doors. They would not let anyone in.
This is a Sunday during midterms as well, so you had people coming in from across the city who go to City College to use the twenty-four-hour library and study for midterms. We noticed that they would open the door separately for people who were not affiliated with us, so we started to place people at different doors around the campus and redirect people. As people funneled in for the next two hours, we moved them to the front of the North Academic Center [NAC]. We had a mini rally and we explained to everyone, “Hey, they just shut down the Morales/Shakur Center where we were organizing against Petraeus.” Security did a number of things in response, such as blocking off the library. That started at around 11:00 a.m., and I remember one of the administration’s representatives came outside between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to announce that everything was going to be open except the Morales/Shakur Center. That obviously cut a lot of base out because a lot of people there were there just to study. So that was the end of that, but we stayed up all night getting ready to plan our rally.
On Monday, 21 October, a very huge rally happened. Starting off, there were maybe one hundred or two hundred people, but then there was a fire drill, and ironically, we ended up with about one thousand or more people outside. That gave us a lot of weight. Then we marched around the campus.
TR: It is clear that the attack on the Guillermo Morales / Assata Shakur Center was not only an attack on the students but to the community that benefited from the services that the center offered. Despite it being midterms the students continued to organize and demand access to their space. Khalil discusses in detail the struggle between the students and the security as they breached the building.
KAV: They opened the door on one wing of the building. Some of the activists including myself ran to the door, and we held the door open. We had a struggle session, tug-o-war with security at the door. Then security got more people, and they pulled the door so hard that they broke it. Then they started putting barricades right in front of it. This video is online as well. There were about sixty people struggling, security gave in, there was an eruption, and everyone rushed into the building. You could see this through the side because it is all glass windows.
TR: The exchange resulted in the suspension of Khalil and his comrade Tafador Surav with the threat of expulsion if they had returned to campus. The punishment successfully extinguished the momentum they had built to challenge the appointment of Petraeus. We can observe the effects of the neoliberalization of the university with the administration`s next move as it attempts to reshape the face of CUNY and its future applicants.
KAV: The social science division of City College was renamed the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership the same year that they seized the Morales/Shakur Center, giving a clear picture of who CUNY deems a worthy person among minorities in the United States. Assata Shakur fought for her people, Colin Powell served US imperialism, and we see who CUNY favors. But it also instilled fear in students and made them feel as though they could not continue doing this because they would end up suspended like Khalil and Tafador.
TR: Following this unfortunate defeat, Khalil concludes with a description of the repressive conditions students at CUNY are living under today. As he describes the enhanced tactics of surveillance, the restriction of freedom of movement, and the militarization of campus security, he reveals a matrix of the academic military prison industrial complex.
KAV: Our struggle is against the militarization of CUNY. For us, the militarization of CUNY is a deterrent against student activism. There are security guards with tons of weaponry, and we do not know for what. Maybe it is for us. From what we have seen, they have night-vision goggles as well as hollow-point bullets. They do not just have guns; they also have hollow-point bullets. I do not know if people are aware, but hollow-point bullets are against the Geneva Convention. You cannot even use them in war, but CUNY security has them. For what reason? You take that guess. Fall 2013 was a very big semester for us.
We faced a lot of repression, and that obviously hurt us in terms of killing morale and converting energy into the legal stuff. But it helped us in the long run. We grew a lot more. After that—from fall 2013 to fall 2015, we have grown exponentially, five-fold. At least I can say we got better. They taught us a lot of lessons because your enemy can teach you a lot more things. So we actually got a lot better politically and organizationally, and we see the results. But it also shows that they got better in terms of repression.
Today, CUNY even represses us coming back from the Million Student March. In 2015 CUNY has been more repressive. They installed a new surveillance system in City College, they hire a lot more security, and they have been very repressive on each campus. In the CUNY system and on almost every CUNY campus you can move freely. So even if I go to City College, I can go to Hunter, show my ID, and say I am a CUNY student. They are trying to limit that by increasing security, checking people’s IDs, and basically cutting off students’ ability to move around to different campuses.
TR: Turning to Mohammad’s interview, he gives us a brief introduction to the inception of Students Against Israeli Apartheid [SAIA] at George Mason University.
Mohammad Abou Ghazala [MAG]: The organization goes back to an impromptu protest that was not planned at all. It was a lot of students during the massacre on Gaza called Operation Pillar of Cloud in November of 2012. A lot of students met at what was the only free speech zone at the time—or one of the only free speech zones at the time on our campus in North Plaza. Some of us stayed in touch from there. I was just a freshman, so I did not have much of an idea of what solidarity work really was, but I made some contacts and we stayed in touch. We decided to try and join an SJP, the SJP that was already on our campus, but they were not interested in doing any grassroots work or really any sort of consistent activism to make a presence on campus. So we decided to start our own and started SAIA in the beginning of the following semester. We started off very small, just a couple of students in a small meeting room that we had to reserve ourselves individually.
TR: Immediately following SAIA’s first attempt to expand, the administration attempted to extinguish their presence on campus.
MAG: George Mason is a relatively depoliticized campus. When we first started, most groups were merely interested in making a presence on campus, and they were just focused on internal development, resume building, and things like that. But what we wanted was something much different, so we made some contacts with the International Socialist Organization [ISO], which was interested in and sympathetic to our cause. They actually offered to allow us to reserve a kiosk in the Johnson Center to give us a space to get our message out because we were just a new organization, and we had not had the opportunities most other established organizations had.
From then on—with nothing more than a piece of cardboard and flyers that had the letters “SAIA” and a link to our new Facebook page—the university clamped down on us, threatened to ban us, and put us on probation, saying we were violating university policy because we were not registered, and therefore, we were not allowed to speak our minds around this issue. Then they even threatened the ISO. If they continued their partnership with us—I think that is a good word for it, their “partnership” with us—then they too would be banned from campus and would face termination as an organization.
TR: Interesting. And throughout this entire process, where were you in becoming an org?
MAG: We were definitely on our way. We were doing everything that the university was asking of us. To be honest with you, we were the best, most well-behaved organization that semester because we were trying so hard to prove ourselves to the administration. We did everything early, we did everything spectacularly, we did everything to the T. We did everything exactly the way it is supposed to be done, and now, four years later, I see that we did not really need to.
There is a lot of leeway given to a lot of these organizations because they understand that they are students and are not professional organizers. They are students first and foremost. We went through all of these hurdles as if we were professional organizers, and then faced further recriminations because of the work we were trying to do. For example, they kept postponing handing over our organization number, without which we cannot do anything on campus. The organization number is basically DNA, if you will, for reserving spaces, for purchases, for hosting events, and anything at all that an organization does. It cannot be done without the organization number.
TR: And even the kiosk; the first complaint that they had.
MAG: The very first complaint was because of the kiosk. We were never told who filed the complaint in the first place. Only later did we find out that is was someone who is not at all relevant to the university’s campus. From then things started to get weird.
TR: He highlights the administration’s bias that allows the feelings of off campus Zionists to supersede their students’ rights.
MAG: With the neoliberalization of the university outside influences are nothing new, but the fact that this outside influence was not only running in the face of students—who are supposed to be first and foremost on the administration’s agenda—but that those interests were also being privileged over the interests of student organizers who are very serious and passionate about what we are trying to do. We were not afforded the concept of dialogue—that we were later criticized for not having—in the beginning either. No one sat us down and told us there is someone complaining about you. All we were told was, “Shut the hell up, do not come back,” and the ISO was told the same thing.
We persisted, however, followed all of their rules, and eventually we became a full-fledged organization on our campus—fighting every hurdle on the way, of course. Finally we were told that it was an outside complaint, something we did not know before. It was a complaint from someone who was not a student, not a student organization, nor anything else related to the university itself, but until today, we actually do not know who exactly filed the complaint, which is interesting.
TR: At the same time there are other organizations that are not part of the Registered Student Organization [RSO] that come on campus, correct?
MAG: All the time. What is really odd is that whereas student organizations have to fumble over each other for kiosk spaces, every single day you have different ministries, religious organizations, political organizations coming to flyer, petition, or do whatever they want to do at the kiosks, and they actually pay money. The reason they get priority over us is because they pay money. So with the limited space that we have, we already had a huge chunk of it taken out by outside organizations. Not only that, we were further banned, further limited because other outside organizations were trying to limit the already limited space that we had. That is really the “say-song” of SAIA’s inception, if you will.
TR: Following the official establishment of SAIA and the early stages of repoliticizing students on campus, the university decided to restructure the way they interact with student organizations.
MAG: After they finally agreed to allow us, we started organizing in January. We were not a full-fledged organization until around April. It took around three or four months of hard work on our part and negotiating with the administration. Over the summer they did a restructuring of the student guidelines, like you just mentioned, and changed a lot of rules that are very eerily reminiscent of actions tied directly to SAIA’s early existence on campus. For example, there was a new rule that we were not allowed to move more than fifteen feet away from our kiosk, which previously did not exist. This is clearly an attempt to restrict space of student organizing. North Plaza is now the only free speech zone. Whereas before North Plaza was the designated space for free speech—so students could always go there without reserving it and say whatever they want, build whatever they want (within certain guidelines, of course)—now this is the only place where you can do that. Now, outside of North Plaza, there is no political consciousness allowed by the administration without going through the several other administrative hurdles.
To answer your question, what these different things add up to was that they were starting to restructure the way that the administration had relationships with politically-energized student organizations. You can interpret that in several different ways, but the bottom line is that after SAIA came into being, the entire climate of student organizations and student organizing, specifically around politically-sensitive matters, also changed. Like I said earlier, before SAIA we were a relatively depoliticized campus
TR: When walking through George Mason’s main building, you now see banner with the SAIA emblem and mantra—“For the equality of all and the supremacy of none”—on one side, and a kufiyyeh and Palestinian flag with the BDS call on the other. Mohammad explains the obstacles the university placed on an initiative they had once encouraged and the nature of the previous banners.
MAG: About half of them are different corporations and companies. Actually, a couple of them were advertisements for student organizations that had banners made and put up there. That is how little involvement there was. It was mostly just frats, Greek life organizations, or other more established organizations that had their banners up there. But the banners would stay up for a really long time. When SAIA came along and we decided that this was something we wanted to do, part of the new student guidelines now held that the banners had to rotate every two weeks. So our banner would only stay in the same place for two weeks, and then it would be moved to some other place. It is supposedly random. I am not going to say it is not random because I have no idea if it is or it is not, but it is interesting that this change, this shift in how you deal with student expressions—really idle expressions, such as a banner or advertisement on the university campus—needed this much regulation or this response. Now you had to rotate them every two weeks. The university is just adding more stress on itself because that is a whole other job that they had to do, but they did not have to do before.
TR: Mohammad goes onto discuss the persecution of one vulnerable professor that stood with us early on.
MAG: So first I will speak to Thomas Stanley’s relationship with SAIA and his relationship with me personally as a student. He had the courage to speak on the cultures of resistance and connecting global struggles through hip hop and music during SAIA’s very first Israeli Apartheid Week, which was a very bold move on the part of a non-tenure track faculty member. Now that I understand what it really means to be non-tenure tracked, I really see the courage that he had. His politics were definitely present every step of the way in our education. He had no qualms about challenging students’ different convictions, but I will say he was always respectful. He and I have had arguments, but he was always respectful as a university professor.
Then oddly enough last year they refused to renew his contract. Keep in mind that Thomas Stanley was the only African American professor in the arts and video technology [AVT] department. He was only African American professor available for art students, and the reason that they declined to renew his contract was because of—and this is literally what the administration said—“redundancy.” I fail to see how the only African American professor in any department would be a redundancy, but we took action against this. The department itself was not consulted in the administration’s decision.
Here we see the connections of the neoliberalization of the university through our struggle as SAIA. Less than a year after someone had the bravery to stand up and speak at our very first Israeli Apartheid Week, his entire livelihood was threatened, and I absolutely believe it had to do with his political leanings and the way his politicized arts. Because how else could you justify calling the only African American professor in any department a redundancy. It baffled a lot of students, and we banded together and made a huge show of commitment to continue combating this type of oppression. We see this as an unfair threat to not only Thomas Stanley’s livelihood, but to the university as an ideal place, as a laboratory of democracy, which really is at the core of SAIA’s belief. The university is a laboratory for democracy. Or it should be. In reality it is a laboratory for capitalism and colonialism, but we are going to try to democratize it as much as we can. I think Thomas Stanley’s story serves as an allegory for a lot of the struggles that we and several other student organizations go through on a day to day basis, just trying to get by on campus.
TR: Following the American Studies Association’s resolution to endorse BDS, President Cabrera of GMU released a statement denouncing the resolution stating, “Universities are meant to build bridges, not blow them up.”
MAG: I think we need to contextualize this incident that you are talking about with what was going on at that time on campus. This was the winter of 2013, right? Do you remember what happened at the winter commencement of graduation? You heard about that, right? Basically, an Israeli business woman was invited to speak. Not just any Israel business woman, an Israeli war profiteer. This was not some local mom and pop shop. Again, this was a war profiteer coming to give a speech at winter commencement about “doing good values,” which does not even make grammatical sense. I have no idea how you would do a good value, but I suppose universities are not about grammar.
In this whole context when we were challenging the university’s decision, they knew we had a huge air population, they knew about SAIA, they knew how wrong this is. But still, when we reacted in the way we did—respectfully, with high dignity, principles, and integrity—the president was, I think, alluding to us when he said “blowing up bridges.” As if sitting in the presence of a war profiteer responsible for the ethnic cleansing of your people at your graduation that you have been waiting twenty-two plus years for is building bridges. If it is, I do not think anyone in SAIA or George Mason is interested in riding on any of these bridges.
TR: We asked Mohammad to reflect on the initial obstacles that SAIA faced and the current climate on campus today.
MAG: Here I am, four years later, and I look back and see a lot of the ways that the university has changed, almost in a direct response to the attempts by the university to stifle student speech and student activism. We had a group that we work with closely today called Student Power arise. Sam Parsons, the president of Student Power, is still a member of SAIA and does amazing work as part of the Virginia Student Power Network. We have Rodrigo Velasquez who started DREAMers to help undocumented students adjust and give them resources to strive and succeed at George Mason. We have great relationships with the Black Student Alliance, the African and African American studies departments, as well as the Native American and Indigenous Alliance.
The list goes on and on. I do not know if this answers your question in the way you were expecting, but when SAIA came, we exposed hurdles or limitations on student existence at George Mason. And we exposed some of the different double standards being afforded by the administration to special interests over students. This, of course, will rile other people. The democratization of education is not really something that SAIA is concerned with. It just so happens that we were the ones who exposed the limitations on a truly democratic education process at George Mason through our experiences with threats of termination and stifling of free speech and expression.
TR: For the third portion of our segment, Omar Zahzah discusses his introduction to Palestine activism on campus, which occurred shortly after the passing of House Resolution 35—a non binding resolution that conflates political activism related to Palestine with anti-Semitism.
Omar Zahzah [OZ]: It is interesting because I basically came to campus and started organizing just as House Resolution 35 was passed, so it was definitely a very chilling experience. I wrote this in the article too, but it was strange to be there in 2012 and see political bodies passing legislation that banned forms of political speech. I thought this was unreal, something out of 1984. In a way it was a great introduction because right from the outset these were the stakes. Whatever it is you are doing, there are some very influential and powerful people who do not want this message to get out, and the stakes are going to be really high from this point forward. So it was kind of like getting thrown into cold water. It just hits you right away, you realize what you need to do, and you have to ask yourself if you are willing to meet the challenge. It is weird to talk about something like that being beneficial, but I do think there is something to the notion that confronting this type of urgency. The degrees of restriction that we were going to be facing really forced a lot of people to step up to the task and to really refuse to be silenced even though the resolution made the stakes seem really high.
TR: Omar comments on the correlation between the intensity of the repression on campus and the political development of those who are victim to such tactics. In our interviews with Khalil and Mohammad, they both attest to the growth they have experienced as a result of the obstacles imposed upon them.
OZ: I do agree with that. I think at times when you are in really dire straits that can be in itself the most galvanizing impetus to make sure you get the message out there and refuse to back down no matter how intense the opposition is. So I definitely think that there is something to the idea that this urgency is really what actually forced groups—various SJP chapters, including within SJP West—to really get smarter about how they get the message about what is happening out there.
I do not know if your other questions get into this, but this idea of not just mobilizing but being very good about making sure the wider public knows what is going on has always been really crucial to this kind of stuff because this type of repression really thrives on secrecy and inaction. So for example, something like HR35 can pass and if nobody does anything, then that is the end of the story. It is when people start speaking out against it and saying that this is really just an attempt to stifle political speech that change is able to occur. When responses are introduced into the conversation in terms of the general public that is when change is able to occur.
TR: He argues that the university`s central role in oppression has allowed solidarity amongst marginalized communities to form organically.
OZ: At the end of the day, those of us who work in SJP might say that we organize around Palestine, for example. But when you look at all of the things that have been happening—like what happened with Professor Steven Salaita, when you look at what is happening in Mizzou right now—you see that a lot of these things seem like they are disparate or seem disconnected, but in reality all of these things—such as student organizing around Palestine and Black Lives Matter—are really showing how, rather than being disconnected, the university in itself is really the central nexus for the dynamics of race and oppression that are playing out in the United States right now. There has been a lot of solidarity and an increasing connection of Palestine with the plights of various other marginalized communities. But I also think that this state of being is very organic because we are not forging solidarity, we are realizing, in a way, how interconnected different modes of oppression really are and always have been. We are also realizing the ways in which the university itself is not becoming but always has been a very central site for these dynamics of oppression, repression, and resistance.
TR: Despite being a student who was targeted by the blacklist site Canary Mission, which deploys McCarthyite tactics against Palestinian activists, Omar is quite optimistic for the future of student movements.
OZ: I am actually very optimistic about it despite that because I think no matter how bad things get, every time a political body passes a piece of legislation that attempts to circumscribe political activity, every time somebody makes some kind of blacklist of organizers, basically what they are doing is ceding the argument. So it is a very positive thing because that level of desperation shows there is no argument anymore, and it is a complete refusal to even engage in the issue directly by instead attacking and smearing individual organizers.
I think people are right to be cautious and worried about those actions, but I think we should also be aware of what that really says about the larger issue, which is: These things are definitely happening, but at the same time, as far as somebody has said, we are winning the war of words because when you have to stoop to that level, then you really have nothing left—nothing credible to present and no real moral sanctity to your argument. You have completely ceded that. So we should see these instances of repression not just as something formidable that we are up against, but also, in themselves, as forms of defeat and surrender of the issue.
TR: For the final portion of our segment, we are joined by Tina Matar from University of California, Riverside [UCR]. Tina starts with an overview UCR’s R program, which offers their students the opportunity to design and teach a course on a topic of their choosing. In coordination with Professor David Lloyd, UCR’s SJP faculty advisor, Tina spent the next few weeks researching and developing a curriculum for the course.
Tina Matar [TM]: Like you said UCR created this program called R course, where students can literally teach about whatever they want. The quarter I was teaching, there was a class about Harry Potter, a class about super heroes, and a class about classical Indian music, so we had a lot of stuff going on. I heard about this idea and thought it would be a cool idea to go and teach. We filled out all of the paperwork needed, we signed up for all the classes I needed to take in order to be prepared to teach, we met every week to come up with the syllabus, and after a quarter of doing that, I was approved and everything was great. I was set to teach a class in the spring quarter of last year.
TR: I was surprised to discover that the university approved Tina’s course entitled “Palestine-Israel: Settler-colonialism and Apartheid” without any objections.
TM: Actually no, it went really smoothly. I had about fifteen people sign up for the class, all of them from different majors, ethnic backgrounds, and other things like that. I had nothing but positive reactions from the students and from the faculty on campus. They told me it was a good idea because nobody really teaches or talks about Palestine.
TR: It was not until halfway through the semester that Tina began to face harassment for teaching the course. The AMCHA Initiative, which we have discussed in previous episodes, issued a letter to UCR’s Chancellor Wilcox, critiquing the approval of the course.
TM: So I clicked on the letter to see why they wanted to shut down my class. There were three main reasons for wanting the class removed. One, they were saying this was “a misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination.” Two, they said this class has an anti-Israel bias, and therefore, should have never been approved. Three, their main reason for it being a biased class is because the teacher—AKA me—is SJP president, and they said SJP’s purpose is to “demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state and work towards its elimination.”
TR: After a reporter contacted Tina for a statement regarding the accusations AMCHA charged her with, she contacted the university’s public affairs representative and R program administrator to receive support.
TM: I called them and said this was happening. This letter was written, and now I am being asked for an interview. I think you should respond and defend the class, defend me, and say I did everything correctly. So what they did was they immediately responded to that local reporter and told him that everything I did was correct, but they did not respond to AMCHA. Professor Lloyd and I thought that was kind of weird, so we kept asking them. We directly emailed the chancellor asking if he was aware that one of his students was being harassed and attacked for something that she was doing at your school. We believe you should respond.
TR: While the administration responded to the reporter in a way that would protect the university’s image, they failed to address the claims leveled by AMCHA. This is clearly an instance where we can observe the neglect that many students from marginalized communities experience at their universities. As Professor Lloyd’s concerns for Tina grew, he personally contacted the chancellor to further address the issue.
TM: He ignored it for a while. Then he sent a response back saying that he does not respond to these types of things and that they tend to work themselves out or something like that.
TR: Despite the harassment against Tina increasing, the university continued to hope that the issue would settle itself. Once Tina discovered a blog with allusions to sexual violence towards her, she decided she could no longer depend on the university to protect her. Only after Tina found legal representation did the university respond to her concerns, which brings into question issues of access. Had Tina not had access to a lawyer, would the university have ever taken her seriously? How many students are dismissed and subjected to further harassment simply because they do not have that access?
TM: We decided to get a lawyer involved from Palestine Legal, and that is when the university actually started talking to me. They decided to meet with me and see what they can do to help me. Then when we actually met with the school, I told them everything, asked if they knew that this was happening to me, that lies were being spread about me, and that my safety was in danger. I was planning on going to Palestine at the time, and I told them if they find out about this stuff, I will not be able to go back to Palestine. My freedom of movement is in danger because of this and you are not doing anything about it, you have to do something about it. They said, “Okay, let us see what we can do about this.”
And at this point the year ended, I already graduated, and it was a week or two before I was about to travel. They decided to meet with me at that time because it was still going on even though the class ended and I already graduated. They said, “You know what, it is kind of too late to respond. We do not want to fuel a fire that is dying, so maybe a response is not necessary anymore, but we will look into the rape article, see what we can do, and blah, blah, blah.” I believe the rape article is still up too, so they did not even take that down or anything
TR: Unfortunately, the administration`s still refused to release a statement. In response to non-university affiliated actors, the R course program had asked Tina to make several changes to the course—requests that have not been imposed on other students involved in this program.
TM: The head of the R course program told me that I should change the name of my course. The original title of my course was “Palestine and Israel: Settler-colonialism in Apartheid,” and they told me to change my title to “Palestinian Voices.”
TR: She reluctantly changed the title to appease the school, despite the school’s lack of concern for her rights. She goes on to discuss their other ludicrous requests.
TM: Then they asked, “Would you ever consider possibly teaching the class with the other side also teaching next to you?” So they basically hinted that I should have a Zionist student teach the course alongside with me, which I refused. I would never do that because that would be the equivalent of having an African American studies class, in which the person teaching is told that they need to have a KKK leader present in order to teach the class. I thought it was very offensive that they would even bring that up to me in the first place.
Then, towards the end, they also asked me to send them private email correspondence between me and Professor Lloyd because someone from AMCHA or some other outside organization asked for our emails. They thought maybe the professor and I were doing something sketchy, racist, or fishy. So they wanted to look through our emails regarding the class and do a full report on it, which is an invasion of our privacy.
TR: Tina’s story reflects a university bias against Palestine activism that is rampant on campuses in the United States today. As student movements across the country expand, it is without doubt that the tactics to stifle their progress will also advance. While universities undergo a process of neoliberalization, their role in the academic military prison industrial complex will become apparent as surveillance, centralization, and censorship increase while transparency diminishes.
I would like to thank our guests Khalil Antonio Velasquez, Mohammad Abou Ghalaza, Omar Zahzah, and Tina Matar for sharing their experiences and inspirational work. As always, I hope you will heed our call for your submissions on issues concerning repression on campus and academic freedom. This is Tareq Radi, hosting Status Hour’s segment on Reclaiming Academic Freedom.