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Alumni: Divest from CUNY’s complicity, invest in Palestinian liberation | Opinions

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As alumni of City University of New York (CUNY), we have always felt proud. CUNY is the largest public urban university system in the nation and boasts a population of majority Black and Brown students.

As students from working-class backgrounds, we saw CUNY as being more reflective of our city’s diverse demographics than the private and elite universities. The inherent diversity of our campus communities provided us with an invaluable education that went far beyond the syllabus – we learned from the realities and histories of our peers. At CUNY, we learned how to build community. We learned to organise. And we spent our time mobilising for Palestinian liberation.

Last month, students and workers set up a Gaza solidarity encampment, showing the true potential of CUNY to become a people’s university. Years after we graduated, we headed back to campus to help organise and witness this historic action.

The encampment presented five demands to the CUNY administration: divestment from companies and military contractors complicit in the Zionist genocide and occupation; boycott of academic institutions complicit in Zionist settler-colonialism; solidarity with the Palestinian national liberation struggle; demilitarisation of the campus; and a return to a fully funded, tuition-free people’s CUNY.

While the focus was on ending CUNY’s complicity in the genocide in Gaza, the encampment built a community based on solidarity and care. De-occupiers organised daily meals, an accessible food pantry, and a 24/7 medical tent in case of emergencies. Every day, the encampment offered political education, movie screenings, and activities for children.

The encampment also paid homage to the rich history of radical organising at CUNY and in Harlem. It drew on the legacy of our elders who mounted a similar occupation in 1969 to demand educational equity for Black and Puerto Rican students through their Five Demands. The students publicly renamed City College to the University of Harlem. In 2024, echoing this mobilisation, we also raised five demands and declared in a banner: “Harlem University: est. 1969, re-est. 2024”.

We also sought to rekindle the legacy of the student protests of the 1980s, reclaiming the Shakur-Morales Student and Community Center which was established back then and forcefully closed by the university administration in 2013. We named the encampment’s political education programme the “Shakur-Morales-Kanafani People’s University”, adding a reference to the late Palestinian intellectual Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated by Mossad in 1972.

At the encampment, students and CUNY alumni, faculty and community members created something extraordinary: a collaborative, safe, and transformative space rooted in radical love and a commitment to Palestinian liberation.

But the encampment was not meant to be a utopia that offered peace alone. It was an escalation that threatened the hegemony of the university administration and its pursuit of profit from colonisation and war. In other words, the encampment threatened the university’s status quo, and that in its essence is never a peaceful process.

As the Palestinian intellectual and martyr Basel Al Araj stated, “The beginning of every revolution is an exit. An exit from the social order that power has enshrined in the name of law, stability, public interest, and the greater good.” The CUNY Gaza solidarity encampment marked the student movement’s advancement from struggling with the constraints of a neoliberal profit-driven university to openly defying university authorities and outrightly refusing to be policed and governed.

When campus police were sent by the university administration to dismantle the de-occupation, protesters spontaneously pushed them out. This moment was a display of collective power that we, as former student organisers, never expected to witness on campus. The collaboration of students, workers, and community had expanded the possibilities of resistance in the belly of the beast.

The encampment continued to demand that CUNY clean its hands of Palestinian blood and return to being a people’s CUNY. Instead, the university administration responded by inviting armed policemen to spill more blood – that of its Black, Brown, working-class CUNY community. According to protesters, the NYPD and Public Safety broke bones and smashed teeth. The very campus on which we had united for the cause of liberation turned into a battleground as hundreds of policemen violently invaded.

As alumni, scholars, activists, and organisers, we had never been under any illusions regarding the conservative politics and profit motive that drive the CUNY administration. Since 2018, CUNY students have been organising against CUNY’s $1.09m investments in weapons and surveillance technology companies. Instead of heeding our calls to divest years ago and despite student governments voting for divestment, CUNY reacted by expanding its genocidal investments. In 2021, we learned that CUNY had spent a whopping $8.5m on contracts with companies implicating in supporting or profiting from Israeli apartheid and war crimes.

As the Zionist entity escalated its 76 years of colonisation and dispossession into a full-scale genocide, students were left with no choice but to respond accordingly with more decisive action, setting up protest camps and occupations.

Though we expected CUNY to respond to the encampment with repression, we were surprised by the sheer violence of its response. Instead of heeding the call of its students, CUNY sent the NYPD to brutalise protesters and arrest almost 200 of them, slapping 28 protesters with life-altering felony charges.

And in an extreme act of betrayal, after the crackdown, the CUNY Board of Trustees just introduced a resolution to spend $4m on a private security firm that advertises its services to police pro-Palestine protests and “experts” who were trained by the Zionist entity.

Students who hold encampments and decide to escalate now for Palestine do so as a realisation of their elders’ legacies. Throughout the past century, US students have escalated against the War on Vietnam and South African apartheid. The cause of Palestinian liberation is similarly a righteous one, and the university intifada is only a fulfilment of their duty.

For this reason, we say: escalations are noble and necessary to end universities’ participation in the genocide in Gaza. The best time to escalate was yesterday. The second-best time is now.

We also reject the “outside agitator” dog-whistle. All of us are affected by college administrators’ decisions to fund genocide using taxpayer money and student tuition. There is no dividing line between students and community. CUNY campuses should be accessible to everyone, without gates sealing education off from surrounding communities.

This racist rhetoric is only employed by the CUNY administration to deprive current students of the collective wisdom of the larger pro-Palestinian movement. As alumni and organisers, we can share with students our experiences of past demands being ignored; of the Israeli Occupation Forces being welcomed on campus long before October 7; of exploratory committees and meetings with administration wasting organisers’ time while Palestinians die. In turn, we are inspired by and learn from new escalations that student organisers courageously introduce. The struggle for liberation depends on knowledge that is collectively developed between one generation of resistance and another.

Administrators, however, count on student movements having a short institutional memory. They seek to alienate student organisers from the rich legacy of Palestinian and anti-colonial resistance – sealing off this knowledge in books that are meant to be read but never practiced. Alumni-student collaboration is a direct threat to the administrators’ strategy of waiting out student movements until organisers graduate.

Given CUNY’s complete and utter failure to rise up to this historical moment despite its posturing as a social justice university, we invite our fellow alumni to join and uplift the campus movement – a people’s movement – for Palestine. Divest from CUNY until CUNY divests from genocide.

Cease all donations and collaborations with this university which uses alumni influence to bolster its faux image of social justice education and inclusivity. Instead, invest in Palestinian life, liberation, and the student movement that has courageously paved the way for our collective liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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