“Our university is complicit”

May 3, 2024

“Our university is complicit”

Inside the pro-Palestinian student encampment at the University of Toronto
The University of Toronto student encampment in solidarity with Palestine. (Photo: Omar Taleb)

University of Toronto (U of T) is ground zero for pro-Palestinian activism in Canada as Occupy for Palestine (O4P) mobilized encampments at King’s College Circle. As previously reported by The Media Co-Op, students breached the fenced perimeter around the Circle on Thursday, May 2, racing to evade campus security and set up tents at 4 a.m. The encampments follow weeks of pro-Palestinian student activism sweeping across post-secondary campuses in Canada and the United States to protest Israel’s war on Gaza, as well as end partnerships with Israeli universities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

O4P organizers describe an atmosphere of quiet tension in the days leading up to the encampment. The university’s preemptive fencing of King’s College Circle came as students began occupations in institutions including McGill and the University of British Columbia. 

Renewed action follows a two-day occupation of U of T’s Simcoe Hall that ended on April 3 after students secured a meeting with President Meric Gertler. Students say that Gertler was unprepared and dismissed their demands in a letter posted on the university’s website.

After rushing to set up their “People’s Circle for Palestine” with supplies, a tarp for prayer, and a wide perimeter of tents, student organizers reiterated three main demands, asking the school to disclose all investments and financial holdings, divest all financial holdings that “sustain Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement of Palestine,” as well as end partnerships with Israeli universities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

“Ultimately, we know when the university responds – when there’s public pressure and when their reputation has been harmed,” explained Erin Mackey, a political science student at U of T and a media liaison at the camp. “This university needs to listen to its students and be on the right side of history. It’s not a question of persuading President Meric Gertler, he doesn’t have a backbone.”

The organizers refined their tactics for the new occupation as police attacked and dismantled encampments at Columbia University in New York and, with the help of pro-Israel protestors, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Planning and training sessions were held off campus. Communication between organizers and media was moved to secure channels on messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. Less than 24 hours before the occupation began, rumours circulated of a preemptive agreement between U of T administration and Toronto Police Services to enter and tear down any encampment. 

“We decided to escalate the pressure and set up an encampment on the lawn. King’s College Circle is very visible, it’s a space people walk by every day, and [our presence is] forcing them to confront the fact that they are funding a genocide,” noted Mackey.

“Our representatives went into the meeting [with Gertler] in good faith and [with] facts to support their case,” said Parsa, a U of T student and O4P organizer. “We’re not here to protest for the sake of protesting. We’re not here to yell. We’re here because there’s a genocide happening.”

“We have very specific demands – to divest from Israel. It’s shocking how little that gets talked about in the media,” he added.

An April 28 letter from Vice Provost Sandy Welsh about “authorized activities” on university property emboldened the students. In response on April 30, the University of Toronto Faculty Association publicly addressed Gertler, refuting the administration's “mischaracterizing” of university policies and “premature attempt to inhibit the lawful and peaceful exercise of freedom of expression on campus.”

“There have been students demanding that U of T divest from Israeli apartheid as early as 2006,” explained Mackey. “There were active student protests in the 1980s for divestment of South African apartheid. There was an occupation of a building at Victoria College last year demanding divestment from fossil fuels. We are building on these movements today. We are asking they not invest in companies that are complicit in funding the genocide happening right now.”

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is investigating whether Israel has committed acts of genocide in the ongoing war in Gaza. Over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed following the Hamas-led attack on Southern Israel on October 7, in which 1,200 were killed and 250 taken hostage.

By sunrise, U of T faculty members, community, and members of the media began gathering outside the perimeter as campus security looked on. Around 150 students and supporters spent the morning organizing supplies and coordinating communications inside the encampment as the crowd grew outside.

Against the backdrop of students chanting “Free, Free – Free Palestine,” Alejandro Paz, an associate professor of anthropology and a member of the steering committee for the Jewish Faculty Network, called the institutional structures in place to support the Israeli state “unacceptable.” 

“Students are using university property to be part of a growing movement for liberation,” he said. “My experience with the administration is that they are very fearful of even saying the word ‘Palestine.’”

Paz is joined by colleagues such as Deborah Cowen, associate professor of geography and planning and member of the Jews Say No to Genocide Coalition, as well as other faculty members, who issued a statement Thursday morning supporting students’ right to protest without fear of disciplinary action.

By noon, O4P posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the university would not allow the protests to continue past 10 p.m. Over the next couple of hours, hundreds more supporters gathered outside the encampment to cheer and deliver food and other supplies.

At 4 p.m., O4P called on supporters to congregate outside the King’s College Circle perimeter after getting word that Zionist counter-protestors were planning a demonstration. Counter-protestors affiliated with Jewish Defense League (JDL), a right-wing, anti-Palestinian organization showed up to agitate protestors. Videos circulated on X of counter-protestors harassing pro-Palestinian supporters outside the encampment.

A rally called for 7 p.m. grew to nearly a thousand supporters on U of T’s campus past sunset. Toronto police cars were parked on campus but did not interact with demonstrators or the encampment occupants. As the deadline to dismantle the encampments inched closer, the Vice Provost issued a new statement, stating “​we reiterated our request that you leave campus by 10 p.m. However, if your activities remain peaceful, we do not intend to remove you from campus this evening.”

Campus security and Toronto police continue monitoring the protest, but for Mackey, Parsa, and the rest of the students occupying King’s College Circle, dismantling the encampment without a commitment from U of T is not an option.

“It’s important to centre Palestine in these conversations,” said Mackey. “Students know the risks, and we’re willing to take all of them.”

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