‘This is not the end’: Pro-Palestinian protesters vow continued pressure on Western to divest | CBC News

The tents may be gone from campus, but members and supporters of a pro-Palestinian group behind a recent on-campus encampment say Western University should expect ongoing pressure to meet divestment demands, including through vigils and rallies.

The protest group, the Western Divestment Coalition, says students will continue to push the university to divest itself from companies with ties to the war in Gaza, among other demands, despite removing their encampment from Concrete Beach.

“This is not the end. The administration has a very long academic year ahead of them, and they should expect to see the students very soon,” said Mahmoud Elsaleh on Sunday, speaking for the coalition.

Protesters dismantled their roughly 40-tent encampment on Saturday, nearly two months to the day since it was erected, and one day shy of the nine-month anniversary of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel that sparked the current war in Gaza.

The attack left some 1,200 Israelis dead, and about 250 abducted by Hamas. Israel says 120 remain hostage. Israel’s response has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza health ministry, and led to widespread devastation and a humanitarian crisis.

Elsaleh said no future talks had been scheduled as of Sunday, and no public demonstrations were planned by the group. Asked if another encampment was possible should a deal remain elusive, Elsaleh didn’t rule it out, but said whether one happens isn’t relevant.

“It’s called the Western Divestment Coalition. It’s not the Western Encampment Coalition,” he said. “It could work later. It could not. It could be brought up, no one knows. But it’s only one means to try and bring divestment to the university.”

Dry patches of grass remain on the green near Western University's Concrete Beach, where tents had stood for a pro-Palestinian encampment.
Dry patches of grass remain on the green near Western University’s Concrete Beach, where tents had stood for a pro-Palestinian encampment. Protesters dismantled the encampment on July 6, 2024, but say they will continue their calls for divestment. (Matthew Trevithick/CBC News)

Even though a deal wasn’t reached, the encampment should still be seen as a success, said David Heap, an associate professor at Western and member of the group Faculty for Palestine.

“I think it’s always a success when movements like this succeed in raising an issue… for 60 days in a sustained way,” said Heap, who has been a vocal supporter.

The coalition has been demanding the university divest from companies with ties to the war, including military contractors, and businesses in a UN database of having links to Israeli settlements.

They’ve also called on Western to help rebuild higher education in Gaza, and boycott agreements with academic institutions it says are “complicit in discrimination and human rights violation.”

Proposed commitments put forward by Western have been rejected by the coalition, who have described them as procedurally vague.

“Students have made it clear, they don’t want a process without accountability… That if Western says it adheres to certain guidelines about ethical investing, that it actually is enforceable, and they hold themselves to it in an accountable fashion,” said Heap.

Western’s president, Alan Shepard, has previously said divestment would likely see limited or no impact, and that the school’s investments are held in pooled funds overseen by external managers. 

He’s also stated universities don’t generally take positions on political or social issues, with few exceptions. The coalition has pointed out Western voiced solidarity with Ukraine in 2022, and divested from companies dealing with apartheid South Africa in 1986.

“We’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel, we’re asking them to uphold precedent and to uphold their own ethical investing policies,” said Ilana Guslits of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a group supportive of encampments at Western and other universities.

“We continue to stand beside our Palestinian comrades. We commend them in their steadfastness, their moral clarity, and their dignity in the face of all of this adversity, while they’re feeling the personal toll of losing friends and family every day.”

Western gave the coalition until the end of the weekend to take down the encampment, or face unspecified disciplinary action. It’s not clear if it was planning to file a court injunction like the University of Toronto, which led to demonstrators removing a similar encampment last week.

Elsaleh said the coalition didn’t want to give Western the chance to follow suit, noting at least one coalition representative had been handed a trespassing notice.

The university has refused all requests for comment about the encampment over the last two months.

“With the U of T injunction, it’s not surprising Western would use the news of that to give them some sort of backbone to force an ultimatum,” said Derek Silva, an associate professor of criminology at King’s University College, who has also been a vocal supporter of the coalition.

Western, he said, could have sued student leaders, as was done by the University of Waterloo before it reversed course, or try and lever police into pressing unspecified criminal charges.

A worker uses a pressure washer to remove a portion of the pro-Palestinian messaging written at Western University's Concrete Beach on July 7, 2024.
A worker uses a pressure washer to remove a portion of the pro-Palestinian messaging written at Western University’s Concrete Beach on July 7, 2024. The man told CBC News it took him more than an hour to remove the writing. (Matthew Trevithick/CBC News)

At Concrete Beach on Sunday, two security guards were seen documenting pro-Palestinian messages written onto picnic tables, while a worker used a pressure washer to remove messages on concrete. It’s not clear if Western plans to file charges.

“If Western decides it wants to investigate and ultimately punish their own students, that’s on them,” Silva said. “What university should be suing or punishing or charging or even investigating their own students for completely trivial things like that?”

On Friday, Shepard said some on campus had reported “intimidation, harassment and other disrespectful acts” linked to the encampment, and that Western was investigating reports of “illegal behaviour including assault and vandalism.”

The coalition argued Saturday the comments showed a lack of good faith from Western in negotiations, with the school opting for “misleading and inflammatory descriptions” of protesters.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button