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UM students set up encampment on Diag protesting war in Gaza

This story has been updated.

A crowd rallied at the University of Michigan in support of students who erected some two dozen tents in the middle of central campus Monday, saying they planned to live in the encampments for the next two weeks to protest Israel’s war in Gaza and pressure the university to divest its endowment from companies that support Israel or could profit from its war.

“Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!” more than 100 people chanted Monday afternoon.

Police stood about 100 feet away from the rally, a reminder of the tensions flaring nationally between student protesters, school administrators, and police. More than 100 students from Columbia University and Barnard College were arrested after refusing to leave a similar encampment last week. Police arrested dozens of students at Yale Monday morning.

“The purpose of the encampment here is to stand in solidarity with the people who have been facing a brutal, ongoing military campaign that has been described as a genocide by several human rights organizations across the world,” said Salma Hamamy, president of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), which describes itself as a Palestinian student advocacy group.

“We are here because our university, unfortunately, invests in companies that both directly and indirectly aid in the ongoing war crimes, whether that be through funding companies that provide weaponry or bombs to be used by the Israeli occupation forces.”

The Anti-Defamation League of Michigan said in a social media post that some of the protesters' rhetoric could stoke "fear, anger, and division." The group called on the university to "ensure that inflammatory protests do not interfere with students' academic experiences."

The student demonstrators set up tents in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library early in the morning, and the mood was fairly calm as students made banners and distributed snacks from the food tent. Students from Jewish Voices for Peace planned a Passover Seder for later in the evening, and a Maghrib prayer (a daily Muslim prayer after sunset) was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. “Continue to do homework on the Diag, continue to do everything on the Diag — this is going to be your home for the next two weeks,” Hamamy told the crowd.

The Tahrir Coalition organized the protest. The group is a collective of 81 student organizations calling for the university to divest from companies that sell arms to, or profit off of, Israel’s war.

A statement from the group proclaimed, “We, the University of Michigan student body, firmly and proudly demand divestment now.”

The Tahrir Coalition has engaged in multiple protests on campus, including a teach-in at the Diag last week, and a protest that interrupted the Honors Convocation.

The University of Michigan issued a statement, saying students are able to engage in peaceful protest in many places on campus.

"At the same time, the university has a responsibility to maintain an environment that is conducive to learning and academic success. No one has the right to substantially disrupt university activities or to violate laws or university policies," the statement said. "We are working to minimize disruptions to university operations — most especially with classes ending tomorrow and the study period beginning before finals. Safety is always a key priority and, as such, we have increased security on campus. We are carefully monitoring the situation and remain prepared to appropriately address any harassment or threats against any member of our community."

The University’s Board of Regents rejected calls to divest late last month. In a statement, U of M Regents said they had a “longstanding policy to shield the endowment from political pressures and base investment decisions on financial factors such as risk and return.”

Regent Michael J. Behm said comparatively little of the university’s money was invested in the type of companies protesters were focused on. “Less than one-tenth of 1% of the endowment is invested indirectly in such companies,” he said in the statement.

The University of Michigan trustees have made divestment decisions connected to geopolitical developments in the past, saying in 2022 that it would move “as quickly as is practical to exit its remaining investments” in Russia “in light of increasing financial risks associated with such investments.”

In its statement, the Tahrir Coalition said the protest would continue.

“No compromise or unjust use of force levied against us will break our unwavering commitment to Palestinian liberation and just resistance. We are not leaving the Diag until we achieve full divestment.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a written statement from the university. The University of Michigan holds Michigan Public's broadcast license.

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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