Editor’s note: This op-ed was signed by the 41 members of the Brown Divest Coalition that sat in University Hall on Dec. 11. The full list of signatories is included at the bottom of the op-ed.
In the Maddock Alumni Center, behind a glass case, a photograph reads “1992 University Hall Takeover.” The photo shows several of the 253 students arrested by Brown after calling for need-blind admissions. It would be 11 years before the University finally heeded their calls to change the admissions policy.
Brown has no issue capitalizing on student protest to manufacture its image as a beacon of social justice, claiming that these actions “exemplify the humanitarian spirit at the core of the Brown community.” In reality, the University punishes students who demand accountability, one of their claimed core values. When our University fails to live up to the ideals that they pride themselves on, we, as students, have a responsibility to hold them to account.
On Dec. 11th, 41 members of the Brown Divest Coalition called on Brown University to do its part to promote an immediate, permanent ceasefire and a lasting peace by divesting from “companies that facilitate the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territory.”
The BDC sat in University Hall to urge President Paxson to publicly commit to forward and support the 2020 Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies divestment proposal at the February Brown Corporation meeting. Instead of listening to its students’ calls for accountability, action and change, Brown arrested its second group of students in five weeks for peacefully protesting for divestment (for a total of 61 students). We do not have 11 years for Brown to decide to be on the right side of history. Gaza cannot wait years as it faces genocide. Palestinian students may not have a home in 11 years. We cannot wait — we demand that Brown University divest, not arrest its students.
The BDC’s sit-in called for divestment as a material way for Brown to promote an immediate, permanent ceasefire and lasting peace in Palestine. Divestment has a long history as a tool against systems of oppression. Divestment from South African apartheid began on college campuses and helped erode the legitimacy of the apartheid regime. Brown itself divested from South African apartheid in 1987, also after pressure from student activists. And in 2006 “in light of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region,” Brown was one of the first universities in the nation to divest from Sudan, following the advice of ACCRIP.
The 2020 ACCRIP report names 11 companies that profit from human rights abuses in Palestine and suggests criteria for identifying additional corporations for divestment. Brown maintains that they hold no direct investments in weapons manufacturers, but an overwhelming amount of the endowment is indirectly invested through independent managers. The Investment Office communicates expectations to these managers through investment principles and can demand divestment from Israeli occupation, as it has done for tobacco and the genocide in Darfur. President Paxson declares that “Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument,” but there is nothing apolitical about refusing to formally divest from occupation and genocide. President Paxson explicitly makes a Palestine exception to divestment.
There is strong support on this campus for divestment. In 2019, 69% of undergrads who participated in a referendum voted for divestment, and in 2021, 87% of graduate students did the same. Now, over 2,300 faculty and students have signed the Brown Students for Justice in Palestine demands for divestment and ceasefire. President Paxson and the Brown administration have been ignoring the democratic demands of their student body, so the BDC took action by sitting in.
The formation of coalitions advocating against oppression, like the BDC — which consists of students from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds calling for Palestinian freedom — is part of a long tradition of activism at Brown. We are Arab students whose grandparents experienced the 1948 Nakba. We are Jewish students echoing Jews for Ceasefire Now's call that Jewish safety is intertwined with Palestinian safety. We are Black students who sat in because the same tear gas used against Black Lives Matter protestors is used in Palestine and because police in Atlanta, the center of the Stop Cop City movement, train with the Israeli Defense Forces. We are Asian and Latino students whose families have suffered for generations as a result of the same American militarism that supports genocide in Gaza. We are Indigenous students who are witnessing the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their land. We are queer students who understand that our liberation includes queer Palestinians, especially in the face of Israel’s pinkwashing. We are environmental activists who sat in because freeing Palestine is a climate issue. We are housing justice activists who sat in because 90% of Gaza’s population are now displaced homeless refugees. We are education activists who sat in because half of Gaza’s population are children whose access to education has been, and continues to be, derailed by occupation. Freedom in Palestine is essential to us all. All of our ethnic backgrounds, religions, traditions, and our humanity, call for action against genocide.
The recent shooting of our classmate Hisham is one of many instances of Brown failing to protect its Palestinian students. Brown University must divest to call for no others like Hisham.
On Nov. 25th, our friend Hisham Awartani, a Palestinian junior at Brown University, was shot in a horrific hate crime alongside his two childhood friends, Kinnan and Tahseen. Hisham himself previously voiced safety concerns to President Paxson, and made it clear that the University cannot purport to protect its Palestinian students while investing in the military occupation of Palestine. The attack suffered by Hisham and his peers is a direct result of the dehumanization of Palestinians and American support for Israeli occupation, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Brown has a responsibility to condemn — rather than profit from — this violence.
In a speech at a “vigil” for Hisham, President Paxson said, “sadly, we can’t control what happens across the world … We are powerless to do everything we’d like to do.” (Although the latter sentence was cut from the official release of the speech). But we are not powerless. There are clear, tangible steps Brown can take toward better realizing its mission — and steps its students can take in compelling that change. Hisham is a vocal proponent of the campaign for Brown to divest. In his honor, and with his permission, the action on Dec. 11th was called “Divest for Hisham.” Divestment is one of the most powerful and immediate actions Brown can take to counter injustice.
In the wake of the November 8th sit-in by Jews for Ceasefire Now and the University’s arrests, as well as the accelerating violence in Gaza, this sit-in was necessary and urgent. The University still refuses to listen to the demands of its student body, but our academic and personal lives cannot go on as normal when over 17,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed. Institutions like Brown can make an impact by divesting and addressing the social harm caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The university has gotten into the habit of brushing us off, and we must remind its leaders of their responsibility to distance themselves from any profit associated with violence. There is a physicality to a sit in that is impossible for the University to ignore. It is a peaceful way to put pressure on the administration and bring broader attention to the injustice at hand. Given the choice of action versus inaction, there is only one ethical choice in the face of genocide. The University is not powerless — and neither are we as students.
In Hisham’s own words regarding his shooting, “I am but one casualty in this much wider conflict … when you say your wishes and light your candles today, your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual, but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.” As members of a college community, we have a unique ability to make our voices heard and exert influence over one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most powerful institutions that continues to invest in violence. We channel the steadfastness of Hisham’s statement and are determined to divest to achieve liberation for him and all Palestinian people. When the University refuses to divest and help promote a lasting peace, it is our role as students to protect each other and channel the values of empathy and equity that Brown claims to uphold.
Hanna Aboueid ’24, Ava Bradley ’25, Garrett Brand ’26, Caitlyn Carpenter ’26, Isabelle Centola ’24.5, Helene Comer ’25, Lizzy Duke-Moe ’26, Sadie Elliott-Hart ’24, Aaron Epstein ’25, Bella Garo ’24, Lauren Griffiths ’24, Madison Harvey ’26, Tyshon Hattori-Lindsey ’24, Karen Hu ’24, Mindy Ji ’24, Coco Kaleel ’24, Kate Kuli ’25, Alec Lacerte ’25, Bennett Lacerte ’27, Ethan Levine ’25, Lorenzo Mahoney ’24, Pilar McDonald ’24, James Nesbit ’24, Lena Noya ’25, Matteo Papadopoulos ’26, Maira Rojas-Tineo ’25, Caroline Sassan ’24, Alex Seemar ’24, Janek Schaller ’24, Yuna Shprecher ’24, Sam Theoharis ’24, Gabriela Venegas-Ramirez ’26, Isa Venegas-Ramirez ’27, Lucas Washburn ’24, Angela Wei ’24, Catherine Winger ’24, Emma Zwall ’25