Students Protest for Divestment, Moved from Campus to Hasbrouck Park

Photo Courtesy of Sara Vala

On April 24 at 3 p.m., students from SUNY New Paltz and local organizations gathered to protest the university’s ties to Siemens, a multinational technology corporation, calling for disengagement, divestment and transparency from the university.

Siemens is an engineering and manufacturing firm that works with militaries to build the infrastructure of the Israeli state. They are the main contractor for the EuroAsia Interconnector, an Israel-EU submarine electricity cable that is planned to connect Israel and its illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory to Europe.

Within the SUNY New Paltz 2016 Final Energy Master Plan Report, Siemens was cited as “continuously monitoring and making improvements to the campus HVAC controls system.” SUNY New Paltz is projected to fulfill almost $1 million worth in business contracts with Siemens by 2025. The plans include “Building Services” and “Security Devices,” but lacked further elaboration as to what this specifically means for the campus. 

On April 21, @newpaltzstudentsforpalestine posted a flier for their upcoming rally in coordination with SUNY Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which targets consumer boycotts. BDS calls for the boycott of Siemens “due to the company’s proven record of complicity in the Israeli apartheid.” 

New Paltz Students for Palestine – an unofficial student organization on campus – published an educational guide, taking the stance that “SUNY New Paltz is currently contracted with Siemens AG, the largest industrial manufacturer in Europe, and a major collaborator of the genocidal apartheid Israeli regime.” 

This protest incorporated a three-point approach to frame its intentions and actions against BDS consumer boycott target. The first point is disengagement, which involves “[committing] to severing contracts, withdrawing investments and ending all financial relationships with companies culpable for genocide in Gaza.” The group urges the university to cut their two contracts (C991285 and OC42022), which total over $850,000.

The second point is divestment, which demands the university’s full commitment to the BDS campaign against ties to Israel in all forms. SUNY New Paltz has not officially expressed a stance against BDS or the subsect of SUNY BDS. 

The third point is transparency, asserting that New Paltz “[commits] to increased transparency and disclosure regarding New Paltz’s donations, investments and contracts.” Additionally, the group also demanded that all private dealings between the university and businesses become freely available to the public, both in an online search and in an email sent to all New Paltz students.

In a press release statement, New Paltz Students for Palestine have identified the $1 million active contracts between Siemens and SUNY New Paltz as well as $30 million undisclosed investments in the New Paltz Foundation.

In addition to social media campaigns, the New Paltz Students for Palestine also hung flyers around the campus. These flyers were taken down soon after being posted, which was followed by an email from the Office of the President. President Darrell P. Wheeler cited institutional policy violations as well as “incendiary language” as reasons for the procedural removal. The university granted permission for the event to continue on the condition that “organizers and participants adhere to all institutional regulations.” 

Wheeler included in the message to all students and faculty that staff working in Student Affairs reached out to the organizers of the event to offer support and confirm their understanding of “regulation for events of this nature.” He additionally vowed to continue creating opportunities for the organizers to meet with university personnel as part of the university’s broader effort “to protect the rights and safety of … community members.”

About 15 minutes into the rally, campus officials appeared at the boycott. They requested that the protest be moved to the Student Union Concourse, the university’s designated public forum space. After the protestors declined to move to the concourse, the officials told students that failure to comply with campus policies may result in student conduct charges. In response, protest leaders led the group off campus in a march to Hasbrouck Park.

Once at Hasbrouck Park, the rally was continued and the teach-in began after organized chants and speeches from individuals, restating their demands regarding divestment and avowing their boycott. 

One speaker, who elected to remain anonymous, stated “We are not begging for anything: This is our demand, meaning that the money that flows from this university, from this state, to aid the genocide of Palestinians will stop, and this is not a threat of further escalation. This is simply a promise and a declaration of the truth.”

Rae Ferrara, SUNY New Paltz student and a speaker at the event, rallied for a passionate fight for the university’s divestment. “Right here now we are fighting for something tangible: divestment from Israel, increased transparency. We deserve to know what we buy into when you pay our tuition.” These efforts are in conjunction with the agenda put forth by SUNY BDS. 

Local organizations including HV4FreePalestine, the Redwing Blackbird Theater and Celebrate 845 attended the event. Some individuals provided protective services, such as labeling themselves in neon vests and handing out free masks to attendees. Additionally, faculty and staff from the university department of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and the Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies (LACLAS) program were present. 

Jessica Pabón, a professor of the WGSS department, publicized the department’s stance in solidarity with Palestine. She spoke to the department’s effort to teach solidarity and abolish prejudices and went on to explain the value she places in this practice within higher education.

Pabón expressed how “solidarity across liberation movements is at the base of what we teach in the field of WGSS, as we teach our students that the violence of settler colonialism and the violence of racial slavery at the roots of this nation are interconnected systems of oppression.” This was followed by a reading of a poem by Aurora Levins Morales, a radical Jewish Puerto Rican feminist poet.

The teach-in was split up into sections, with one group focusing on FOIL requests and the process of making them with another introducing the “SUNY New Paltz Guide to Boycotting” which was written by New Paltz Students for Palestine. Afterwards, the group of protestors and speakers stayed to continue discussing.

The event was cited as the first of a series of events organized by student activists instead of a standalone event, though specific plans have not been publicized. Many working within school-recognized organizations and others not affiliated with the university vowed to continue their action and mobilization for boycott, divestment and sanctions. 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that campus officials threatened students with “academic consequences” and “forced” them off campus. When asked about this, University Representatives said, “When this group convened at Old Main Quad on April 24, we spoke with those who identified themselves as organizers and offered the opportunity to move to the designated public forum near the Student Union. The group was informed that President Wheeler had made himself available to speak with them at that location. The group made the choice to move their gathering off campus.