By Kate Dempsey
Pro-Palestine protesters interrupted a meeting between CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and the Board of Trustees on Monday, Dec. 4, to oppose the Chancellor’s and Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson’s statements regarding Palestinian organizing across CUNY.
According to the organizers of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the goal to interrupt the meeting was to stop “the repression of CUNY organizing in solidarity with Palestine liberation,” and to advocate for Palestinian students who they felt CUNY administrators failed to acknowledge and left out of official statements.
“The statement issued by CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez on October 11th set the tone and context for the subsequent statements and actions across CUNY, including John Jay,” a protester read at the meeting. “In the 457 words of the Chancellor’s statement, the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ did not appear once. The statement makes one point entirely clear: CUNY’s administration values some lives at the expense of others.”
The protest also comes amid continued efforts to advocate for President Anderson to step down after a coalition of 19 BC clubs released a joint letter on Oct. 25 criticizing the president’s statement ahead of the protest held on Oct. 12. In this statement, President Anderson shared that BC would be working to increase the presence of campus security, adding that there would be no penalties for students deciding not to go to campus that day.
To the coalition, the response from administration “Unjustly [associated] Palestinians, our student organizations, and communities with violence […] Such statements pose a substantial risk of inciting violence and harassment in our community,” which was also read at the Board of Trustees meeting.
As part of their continued demonstrations, ahead of the meeting, protesters organized a “die-in” on Nov. 14, consisting of people laying on the ground on BC’s East Quad to represent those killed in Gaza, a death toll that has now reached over 15,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Protesters held signs reading, “Never forget, this campus has a history of Islamophobia; they illegally infiltrated, surveilled, and attacked Muslim students,” referencing NYPD’s infiltration of Muslim student clubs from 2011 to 2015, as reported by The Gothamist. Protesters also held up a large banner covered in painted red handprints to look like blood reading, “Anderson, your silence speaks volumes.” As President Anderson made her way over to the meeting, protesters chanted, “President Anderson you can’t hide; we charge you with genocide.”
The theme for the November Faculty Council meeting was “belonging” – specifically, how BC faculty can come together to cultivate a sense of belonging for all students. At the meeting, however, students voiced that the protests stood in the way of that feeling.
“I came here today as a representative of the Jewish community […] Last month, at the previous Faculty Council, a group of students were invited to speak and presented as if they spoke for the student body. I, as an Arab Jew, am here to say that those students do not represent me,” said a student at BC. “How can we feel like we belong when our professors target Jewish students in classrooms? […] How can we feel like we belong when our campus is littered with false propaganda, which continues to put targets on our back?”
Similar to the Faculty Council meeting held on Oct. 18, students and faculty expressed concerns about professors talking about Israel and Palestine in the classroom. In the letters, both Israeli and Palestinian students expressed concerns of potentially facing repercussions on grades for advocating. On the other hand, some professors expressed the importance of continuing dialogue at the school.
“It’s so essential to have freedom of speech in the university. We have to be able to talk about these things. People on both sides are saying they are not in favor of free speech because the other side doesn’t deserve the right to speak. We need to hear these messages and respond to them […] If we can’t discuss it, we have to cut back freedom of speech in the classroom. The university is in trouble,” one professor said at the meeting, which was met with disagreements from other faculty claiming that the issue at hand should be kept outside of the classroom.
In the comments from the administration portion of the meeting, President Anderson addressed claims made about her since the Oct. 12 protest, referring back to the Oct. 18 explanation that the SJP protest was moved off campus by SJP who decided to not go through with permits from Student Affairs. President Anderson also refuted again that she had contact with Councilwoman Inna Vernikov prior to the protest and failed to denounce Vernikov’s actions, stating she already did so at the last meeting, referencing an article published by The Vanguard on Oct. 25. The president’s last comment expressed how she has advocated for Muslim students, including her personal connection to the issue.
“The final claim was that I’m biased against Muslim students. This is false. The fact is that as a president, I’ve been a strong supporter of Muslim students, I’ve supported and attended the students’ iftars, my administration installed a wudu station for Muslim students, and I’ve advocated for having classes off on Eid,” President Anderson said. “And this is personal for me. My husband is a Muslim Arab. Mustafa and I have been particularly passionate and inspired by the collaboration between Muslim and Jewish students that has evolved in the student government over the last number of years.”
As pro-Palestinian protesters continue to organize walkouts on campus, sentiments still hold that BC administration is not supporting their right to vocalize concerns for Palestinian students, that even after attending the Oct. 18 meeting they still feel they did not denounce Councilwoman Vernikov and did not listen to their concerns of safety on campus.
“We stand here today to expose the Brooklyn College administration’s clear bias and President Anderson’s clear bias, disregard, and outright discrimination of the Palestinian and Muslim student body of Brooklyn College,” said a protester at a walkout organized on Nov. 29.
At the meeting disrupted on Dec. 4, organizers echoed that CUNY administration needs to do more to hear Palestinian students and not “selectively protect” others. As the semester comes to an end, it remains to be seen what on-campus organizing will look like come spring.
This is a developing story. The Vanguard will report on updates as they are made available.