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Appleton, WI: Historic week of Palestine actions by students at Lawrence University

By staff

Students march through the Warch Campus Center en route to disrupting a board of trustees meeting on May 16.  | Fight Back! News/staff

Appleton, WI – After a massive rally and march throughout downtown Appleton on May 15 in commemoration of Nakba Day, the very next day, the student movement at Lawrence University took an action unseen on campus in decades.

Appleton Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), with the support of Lawrence University Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), staged a walkout and rally on May 16 to support their divestment campaign. Dozens of students joined them at the front of Main Hall. Energy was high, and, as students chanted, the energy only grew.

Theresa O’Donnell, a member of SDS, addressed the risks students must take, stating, “I have every intention on graduating June 9, but let me be clear that I have no reservations about jeopardizing a piece of paper to stand with the people of Palestine and a chance at the possibility of a livable future for all people on earth. The status and recognition from a piece of paper from a settler colonial institution that continues to ignore and thus enable the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people means little to me.”

After hearing from speakers, it was announced that students would be marching to the Warch Campus Center, bringing their demands for disclosure and divestment right before the board of trustees, whose investment committee was meeting at the time.

Students marched right to the doors of the meeting, chanting “Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!” and “Meet with us!” Representatives of SDS offered to send four students inside their meeting to present their demands, and their offer was dismissed by a number of Lawrence administrators. However, the students were not deterred by this, and they continued to chant right up until the board of trustees ended their meeting. The trustees left by walking right through the crowd, heads bowed and surrounded by chants from the students.

After this rally, SDS leadership decided that they should still attend the meeting with the chair of investments. 25 minutes before the meeting, administration changed the location from a building at the center of campus to a building half a mile away. The strength of the students' action the previous day is telling. Despite further efforts to bar students from sitting in on this meeting, SDS through sheer force of will made it happen.

This meeting was not approached in good faith by any member of the administration and board of trustees who attended. Students were smirked at, laughed at and interrupted many times. No commitments were made to SDS members, and, after the meeting, it was decided by the students that further escalation on campus was necessary.

On Monday, May 21, the campus saw a disgraceful response from the administration. LU administrators sent out an email detailing their response to these student actions. Among its many outlandish claims was an accusation that SDS and YDSA violated the Disruptive Conduct and Hate Speech Policy. The email also announced a change to the protest policy, which would severely restrict the ability of students to demonstrate. Administration also claimed that the decision to change the protest policy was made with input from the student government, but this lie was exposed mess than an hour later by an email from the president of the student government condemning the changes.

Appleton SDS Co-chair Adam Fleischer described the policy as a “clear illustration of how the administration at this university is out of touch with its students and faculty.” He continued, stating that “telling students at a so-called institution of higher education that they must demonstrate ‘with civility and in conformity’ is an insult to their freedoms and critical thinking skills.”

The following day, on May 22, SDS and YDSA held a rally for divestment and a retraction of the new protest policy. Over 100 students and a dozen faculty gathered. Two police officers also arrived, seeking information from protesters. Lawrence University is a police-free campus, so when students saw the cops, their disgust with administration grew.

SDS member Bailey Nez began her speech in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. Later in her speech, she said, “I’m speaking today because I see the genocide in Palestine occurring not as some foreign conflict, as people claim in order to subdue us. I see my cheiis and masanis [grandfather and grandmother] in those faces in Gaza, my sisters and brothers in these children. The same horrific tactics used to try to exterminate my people are being done to the Palestinian people. It is sickening.”

At the end of the rally, Patrick Sweeney, co-chair of SDS, asked the crowd “Who wants to march?” The crowd responded affirmatively and marched right to Hamar House, the contracted residence of President Laurie Carter. As the crowd gathered, Sweeney spoke about the martyrs of Palestine and the resolve of the Palestinians. Then, when speaking to the emotional devastation brought upon parents and children, he said, “I will never forgive anyone who dismisses this, I will never forgive anyone who enables this, I will never forgive anyone who normalizes this, I will never forgive anyone who funds this.” In that passion, students took to staging a die-in inside the back lawn of Hamar House.

As students read the names of thousands of martyrs, it became clear that students did not want to leave. What began as a die-in soon turned into a full-blown occupation, and as students continued to rally and read the names of martyrs, students set up an impromptu encampment. As supplies came in and the message spread that students occupied the president's back lawn, students raised the Palestinian flag on her flagpole.

The student encampment in the campus president's backyard on May 23.  | Fight Back! News/staff

The next day, head of campus safety and ex-cop Jeff Miller attempted to intimidate students, claiming they were trespassing and would receive punishment; students were undeterred and continued their occupation. Hours later, Miller returned with a message from administration: if students do not leave, the police will be called. After receiving this warning, students remained steadfast in their occupation and put out a call for community support.

As dozens of students and faculty returned to the lawn, students began to chant “We aren’t leaving” and more students joined the occupation. Students remained adamant, sitting down to do their homework, eat lunch and engage in song and chants. Miller would announce threats to students' academic and legal standing several more times, but students continued with a chant of “Are we leaving? No!”

Right before 6 p.m., a member of Lawrence administration, Kenny Yarbrough, entered the encampment and requested to speak with SDS leadership. Yarbrough questioned students on their unwillingness to hear the administration's “promises,” and politely requested that protesters move the encampment to Main Hall Green due to concerns for our “safety.” This was rejected unanimously. The threat of arrests on a police-free campus brought about tremendous efforts from supportive Lawrence Univeersity faculty to negotiate with administration on behalf of their students.

Soon enough, a deal was brokered where students would meet with President Carter and two select cabinet members the next day, under the moderation of five faculty of students’ choosing. Administration agreed to the conditions set out by the students, including that no police would be called on protesters and that each participant in the occupation would receive no academic sanctions. As a result, SDS and YDSA ended their brief encampment.

Stay tuned to Fight Back! for additional coverage of the struggle for divestment from genocide at Lawrence University.

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