A group of UR students, along with members of the Rochester community occupied Goergen Hall on Friday, Feb. 6 as a part of a peaceful sit-in to support Palestinian victims of the violence in Gaza.

The University group Students for a Democratic Society organized the sit-in. SDS presented a list of demands to the University regarding the ongoing war in Gaza.

Tensions in Gaza have been high as of late. Reuters estimated on Jan. 17 that there have been 5,300 Palestinian casualties including 1,200 deaths, in comparison to 500 Israeli casualties, including 13 deaths.

‘As was the case with many people, we were devastated and outraged by the atrocities that took place in Gaza on the eve of the new year…” sophomore Mara Chinelli, an SDS member, said. ‘We wanted to declare ourselves in solidarity with the student movement in the UK and more importantly call for our academic institution to terminate its direct connections to U.S. and Israeli violence in the Middle East.”

Chinelli explained that SDS planned on having such an event prior to the start of the semester. She stressed that the goal was to call for the University to terminate what she believes to be direct connections to U.S. and Israeli violence in the Middle East.
Similar actions were taken in Europe last month as students from 16 different universities across England occupied facilities, condemning ‘atrocities perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip” and demanding their universities to stop investing in ‘companies complicit in human rights abuses.”

After nine hours of protest, Dean of Students Matthew Burns met with students to negotiate demands.

‘There are a bunch of administrators that are strongly in favor of free speech,” Burns said. ‘We need more dialogue and need more education. There are some unanswered questions out there. This is a point of education for our students.”

In a letter to University administration received on Feb. 4, SDS outlined four formal demands.

SDS demanded that UR adopt a UR-Peaceful Investing Initiative that would encourage divestment from UR’s endowment from corporations that manufacture weapons and stand to profit from war. For example, UR invests in General Dynamics, which manufactures weapons to maintain a 41-year-occupation of the Palestinian territories and wars that have led to hundreds of Palestinian civilians by the hundreds.

A day of fundraising for humanitarian aid in Gaza was also requested within the next two weeks.

SDS also demanded that UR help restore education in Gaza including providing aid to Gaza University in the form of recycled computers, books, etc. Its final demand was that UR provide five scholarships to Palestinian students annually.

The students offered to help execute these demands in a letter to the administration.
‘We would be glad to assist in the implementation in any of these demands,” the students wrote in the letter. ‘We feel a deep sense of urgency as the bodies of war continue to pile up and the futures of Palestinian children grow more hopeless.”

Protesters began congregating in Goergen at around 3 p.m. where discussions were held, videos were shown, music was played, information pamphlets and brochures were distributed and people gave speeches.

Over 75 students and citizens participated in the occupation. Other groups represented at the sit-in were Rochester Institute of Technology’s Campus Antiwar Network, Iraq Veterans Against War, Rochester Against War, as well as UR’s SDS.

‘We started with a talk in Goergen Auditorium about the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Chinelli said. ‘All of those who attended were very emotional about the issue.

Chinelli added that deliberations between protestors about the formal list of demands ensued soon after the sit-in started. Students gathered in solidarity in the atrium of Goergen as guitar music played in the background.

Later in the evening, participants of the sit-in led a parade around campus. The objective was to increase visibility and invite UR community members to get involved in the sit-in protest and activities.

Burns arrived at the protest around 10 p.m. to begin negotiations with three delegates from SDS.

The occupiers presented Burns with the following final demands, which did changed slightly from the original letter sent to the administration on Wednesday.

The conditions that were altered included a request for an open forum organized by the administration to discuss why the University invests in weapons manufacturers and companies that could potentially profit from war and devise a process for the University to move toward a more socially responsible, transparent and democratically controlled investment policy.

Occupants also voted to add one more demand , which stated, ‘community members, students, and University of Rochester employees not be penalized or charged with anything for occupying the building.”

Fund-raising for humanitarian aid and the provision of excess school supplies to Gaza University was still the same, as was the demand for scholarships for Palestinian students at UR.

Burns discussed the University’s position on the issues and returned just before midnight to sign a similar plan of action he presented. The occupiers accepted this plan and declared victory to their original purpose.

‘This was a fairly volatile topic,” Burns said. ‘Some of the demands provided we agreed were impractical. What we need more than anything else is clarification with our students and student groups.”

The group avoided any potential issue with UR Security by reaching the deal by midnight, as administrators warned they would close the building at that time. Burns said that no disciplinary action will be taken for those who participated in the protests.

‘They reserved the spot in advance,” he said. ‘No one did anything wrong. I don’t see any lines that were crossed.”

Students and citizens marched through the River campus afterwards, bellowing chants and declaring victory, ending at the Rush Rhees Library where they discussed further action. Both the occupiers and administration said they were pleased with the outcome.
SDS and Burns met as late as Tuesday and plan on continuing dialogue well into the future. Burns assessed the issues presented as ‘long-term,” but he plans to involve SDS and other student groups along the way.

‘We’ve already started the movement,” said Dean Burns, ‘We have to keep discussion going. We aren’t at any decision point yet.”

Chinelli felt that the SDS organized sit-in was a success.

‘Altogether, the success of the sit-in has created a strong momentum that will enable us to meet our demands and help the Palestinian people,” Chinelli said.

Smith is a member of
the class of 2011.

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