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The evolution of divestment on college campuses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

College students have been using protests to urge divestment for decades and for many different causes. They have successfully pushed universities to cut financial ties with fossil fuel companies and companies with business in apartheid era South Africa. Now, after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's ensuing war in Gaza, some students want their schools to divest again, this time from Israel, though as NPR's Jeongyoon Han reports, the tried-and-true approach to protest is facing new barriers.

JEONGYOON HAN, BYLINE: When I caught up with Kate Kuli in February, her life was incredibly busy. The junior at Brown University had just taken the LSAT and was finally catching up on her assignments.

KATE KULI: And I have two classes after this. Actually, I have three classes - full day (laughter).

HAN: Plus, Coolai had just been arraigned after being arrested in December for the first time in her life. She staged a sit-in, just one of many college students who are making their voices heard with demonstrations, hunger strikes and nonviolent resistance.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Divest now. Divest now.

HAN: Ariela Rosenzweig, another student at Brown, says they're protesting all for one reason. They want the university to cut ties with companies they say profit from the conflict in Gaza.

ARIELA ROSENZWEIG: I have a really strong belief that every person has a stake in the lives of other human beings and that every person with a conscience should be, like, screaming out against injustice.

HAN: Students at other schools like the University of Michigan, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Michigan State and University of Chicago have taken similar action. In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's ramping up of counterattacks on Gaza, students have turned to divestment movements, which have worked in the past. Brown stopped investing in companies tied to human rights abuses in Sudan, while UMass was one of the first major public universities to cut direct holdings in fossil fuels. That's why students turned to peaceful organizing again. But this time, universities are responding in a way that Coolai and other students feel like they haven't seen in the recent past, with arrests, legal battles, academic probation and disciplinary action.

KULI: Treating Palestine as different from any other issue that's been brought up for divestment is taking a stance. You're not being apolitical when you're doing that.

HAN: Joey Biers-Browne, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, protested the school's ties with Raytheon, a weapons manufacturer that makes the Iron Dome, Israel's missile defense system. The university police arrested him and more than 50 other students after a sit-in, putting dozens of them in jail cells overnight.

JOEY BIERS-BROWNE: It was awful. We were, like, huddled on the floor. Some people were handcuffed overnight in the cell to the wall.

HAN: Students at UMass protesting fossil fuels in 2016 were arrested but faced no academic probation. Now, though, Beresbrown and about 20 other Israel divestment protesters had their charges reduced to civil infractions but still face legal battles and school sanctions.

BIERS-BROWNE: It breaks all feelings of trust that I have towards this institution.

HAN: UMass declined an interview but wrote to NPR defending its partnerships, including with Raytheon. They say the partnership gives students valuable research and employment opportunities. Brown University also wrote to NPR, saying the university is not directly invested in defense companies and has little control over knowing what's in their externally managed funds. Brown student Ariela Rosenzweig was also arrested in a sit-in with 19 other Jewish students last fall at Brown.

ROSENZWEIG: I feel responsible as a Jewish student because I feel - I know that I'm able to say things which a lot of my peers are not.

HAN: The university dropped the charges for that sit-in but maintain criminal proceedings against about 40 others for a later sit-in. Rosenzweig has been disappointed by the response from the university toward the protesters and the cause they are protesting.

ROSENZWEIG: This is a real missed opportunity for my university to be at the forefront of the right side of history.

HAN: For now, students at Brown and UMass are waiting to defend themselves - literally - and to exercise their right to peacefully protest without facing major repercussions. Jeongyoon Han, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeongyoon Han