U of W Palestine encampment digs in heels

University administration remains mum on potential repercussions for protesters

The People's University for Palestine on the front lawn of the University of Winnipeg. May 16, 2024

Paul Hodgert

Two weeks after setting up camp on the front lawn of the University of Winnipeg (U of W), students and community members are still occupying the space in an act of protest against Israel’s war on Palestine – and according to the protesters, they won’t be going anywhere until their demands are met.

On the morning of May 10, protesters erected tents on the lawn at the U of W in front of Wesley Hall. The organizers of the camp, which they’ve dubbed the People’s University for Palestine Winnipeg (PUPW), have publicly issued a list of demands calling on the U of W to financially divest from entities enabling what they’re calling “the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people.”

The U of W quickly set up barriers around the encampment. The university then issued a statement announcing increased security measures and surveillance, asking people to bring ID cards on campus. 

“The University respects the right to peaceful protest and assembly within the bounds of law and UWinnipeg policies,” the U of W announced in its press release. “Members of our campus community are free to protest on campus, but camping is not allowed. Setting up tents, temporary structures, or overnight encampments on UWinnipeg property without approval from the University is prohibited.”

The university also cited its Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy, stressing that everyone on campus “conduct themselves in a way that allows all members of our community to work and study in an environment free from harassment and discrimination.”

Muscari, one of the camp’s organizers, says their cause has brought together a varied group of students and community members.

“Whether someone is doing (organizing around) migrant justice, anti-poverty or queer organizing, the issue of Palestine touches us all,” Muscari told The Uniter just outside the camp on the morning of May 17. “Muscari” is an alias. All protesters use code names while in the camp to avoid being identified by campus security personnel.

Accusations of genocide

On Oct. 7, 2023, the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas led a coordinated attack against Israel, killing 1,139 people, including 695 Israeli civilians. Since the attack, Israel has engaged in sweeping military action in Gaza, leading to a humanitarian crisis. 

The combination of Israeli airstrikes, ground invasions and the deliberate blocking of humanitarian aid have led to the deaths of more than 35,000 Gazans and the displacement of nearly two million Palestinians in the Gaza strip. The Israeli government and the Gaza health ministry disagree on how many of the dead are innocent civilians, but both sides acknowledge it is more than half.

The Israeli government has staunchly denied that its actions in Gaza are genocidal or that its treatment of Palestinians constitutes an apartheid system. However, humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and special United Nations rapporteurs have accused Israel of either actively engaging in genocide or creating a severe risk of genocide against Palestinians.

On May 20, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced that he had applied for arrest warrants for top leaders of both Israel and Hamas, alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity. Khan’s previous work at the ICC has included cases relating to past genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, as well as Russia’s current war and genocide on Ukraine.

Khan specifically named Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, both of whom have used racist and dehumanizing rhetoric against Palestinians throughout the conflict and have made statements that some, including the government of South Africa, have claimed shows intent to commit genocide.

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip,” Gallant announced on Oct. 9. “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed ... we are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” In a since-deleted tweet, Netanyahu referred to Israel’s war in Gaza as “a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.”

The encampment movement

The camp at the U of W is part of a broader encampment movement on university and college campuses across Canada and the United States, with students demanding that post-secondary institutions financially divest from entities doing business with Israel. 

In its list of demands, PUPW calls on the U of W to disclose all of its investments, to “divest its endowment, capital assets, and other financial holdings from all companies complicit in Israeli institutions,” to issue a statement “immediately condemning the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people, including the scholasticide in Gaza, and calling on the Canadian government to immediately cease all military contracts with Israel,” and to ensure that protesters in the camp will face no repercussions or disciplinary charges.

The encampment movement has spread like wildfire across North American campuses since mid-April, beginning with an encampment at Columbia University in New York. Several of the protests have erupted into violence when universities have called on police to break up protests, including at the University of Calgary, where cops viciously beat students and elderly protesters alike.

Muscari says the encampment movement is a reaction to the inaction of governments and institutions in the early days of the current conflict.

“When the broad community organizing, the protests and demonstrations and marches, didn't produce any results, there was a lull. There was maybe a moment of disappointment or a realization that simply asking people in power through postcards and voicemails was not going to bring about the end of the genocide,” they say. 

“In the wake of that realization, students have risen up, as we have done so often throughout history, to bring back to the front lawns of the institutions that hold financial power, that could either undermine or encourage the genocide, to force them to face the issue again.”

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is an associate professor of criminal justice at the U of W. She is one of 93 U of W faculty who signed an open letter expressing solidarity with PUPW.

“One of the most horrible, very acute experiences over the past seven months has been to watch the world explode in popular protest against the genocide and to have a real sense that the world is against it, but to feel extremely powerless still in the face of it,” she says.

“So to me, that’s where the encampment movement comes in, to say, ‘Okay, we can actually look and study institutions that prop up governments that legitimize what’s going on.’ It’s empowering.”

The university’s response

The U of W has remained relatively tightlipped on the encampment, with subsequent statements largely restating the initial concerns raised in its May 10 statement. However, protesters and supportive faculty say they have concerns that the increased security presence and identification protocols may be used as reprisals against students.

“I have seen security guards present papers to members of the encampment,” Dobchuk-Land says. “I haven’t seen what they say exactly, because the members of the encampment that I saw refused to take them. But apparently they said something like, ‘name: unknown, gender: unknown, student number: unknown, you have been banned from campus for five years.’  

“That makes the ID requirement to enter the university so threatening for people who are in the encampment, obviously. Because, right now, security doesn’t have their ID ... It feels like that the administration hasn’t made a statement (about potential consequences for student protesters), and in not making a statement ... they’re kind of letting security participate in whatever kind of empty threats they deem to be strategic,” she says. 

“(The security guards) don’t seem enthusiastic about getting the encampment people off the lawn. But, to me, the university is taking a particular position by not really communicating their position.”

Muscari says these tactics, as well as those from outside opponents of the protest, are the reason for strict anonymity in the camp.

“We take everybody’s safety and security here very seriously,” they say. “We’re under constant surveillance, not only from the university security, but from rogue antagonists, some of whom wear Zionist symbols, some of whom are fully disguised. But we’ve had people come up to the camp and take photos of us, take photos of our license plates, harass and intimidate and yell at us. 

“While we are very competent and capable of de-escalating those situations peacefully, it does speak to the power of what we’re doing that people are so threatened by it that they would come and try to intimidate us into shutting down.”

In an emailed statement to The Uniter, the university declined to answer whether protesters have been threatened with a campus ban. When asked about the protesters’ demands, the U of W stated, “No one from the encampment has reached out (to U of W administration) to share demands. However, the university is aware of messaging online.”

“That’s an interesting characterization,” Muscari says, “because it places the onus on us (to reach out to the university). But everybody else just comes to camp if they want to learn more. It’s also impossible for us to reach out to the university, since the camp protesters have been banned.”

The path forward

Historically, U of W students have had an uphill battle in trying to pressure university administration to make principled divestment decisions. Previous executives of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association lobbied unsuccessfully for the school to divest from fossil fuels.

When asked if they are optimistic about the university divesting from Israel, Muscari strategically reframes the question.

“I’m not optimistic that people who are opposed to the very basic human decency that we are asking for will suddenly have a change of heart,” they say. “What I am confident in is our ability to withstand pressure, our ability to grow our numbers and grow our strength to deepen our knowledge and deepen our resolve.”

It’s a sentiment that Dobchuk-Land shares.

“My understanding of, for example, the campus divestment activism in the 1980s around South African apartheid was that it was incredibly effective,” she says. “I think that when it comes to university administrators, they’re less moved by well-formulated arguments and more moved by threats to institutional stability. So I think that the demands to disclose financial ties (to Israel) are really important.”

Regarding the future of the camp, Muscari is steadfast in the students’ ability to ride out their demands.

“I can see this going one of two ways,” they say. “Either the university meets our demands in full, or they forcibly remove us with a mass arrest and attack on their own students with police. And as we've seen ... in other student encampments across Turtle Island, it is shameful, cowardly, violent behaviour when administrations turn against their own students.

“So, given those two options, I would hope that the University of Winnipeg would choose the former and choose to do the right thing and divest from the genocide in Gaza, to declare that they support the end of the genocide, to defend the students who have brought them enlightenment and encouraged them to do the right thing. Which surely they will advertise 50 years from now as some great deed of their own.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 30, 2024)

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