Feature

Out of the Archives and to the Streets: Contemporary Anti-Imperialist Activism at Tufts

ART BY STELLA OMENETTO

This article is the second in a two-article series on past and present anti-imperialist activism on Tufts campus. Read part one in the Observer’s Issue 2 published earlier this semester.

Building on the rich legacies of previous anti-imperialist student organizers, present-day organizing continues to hold Tufts University accountable for its economic investments across the world. This activism is most prevalent in regards to the Global South, as explored in part one of this article: From the Archives: Tracing the History of Anti-Imperial Activism at Tufts. Recent student momentum for anti-imperialist campaigns has centered on Palestine and calls for Tufts University to divest from Israeli apartheid

Anti-Imperialist Student Organizing in the 2000s

Note: This is not a comprehensive history. Many more materials exist at the Tufts Archival Research Center that dive into recent anti-imperialist student campaigns in much more extensive detail.

Since the student movement against South African apartheid saw success when Tufts divested in February 1989, several student and faculty coalitions formed in the early 2000s to oppose investments made by Tufts that supported oppressive or imperial states. Students and faculty saw themselves as part of a larger global struggle against American imperialism, leveraging their power within their institution. Calls for Tufts divestment from Israel began as early as 2002, when faculty at Tufts organized a petition calling on Tufts to divest from Israeli companies and companies selling arms to Israel. Alongside students and faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Tufts faculty criticized Israel’s “continual military occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by Israeli armed forces and settlers.”

In the same year, students and faculty also developed a group called the Tufts Coalition to Oppose the War in Iraq. This coalition protested against US military intervention in Iraq and President Bush’s calls for increased aggression. Alongside the petition to divest from Israeli apartheid, students and faculty developed movements to oppose US imperial power in the Middle East. During the early 2000s, both of these movements recognized the financial and political role the university played in perpetuating this violence abroad. 

These movements were built upon in 2005, when faculty and student activists joined national calls for universities to divest from companies operating in Sudan in opposition to the Darfur genocide. A group called the Tufts Coalition for Endowment Transparency formed to pressure Tufts’ trustees to disclose their investments in Sudan and ultimately divest. The group met directly with trustees in February 2007, although the outcome of these meetings was not published in Tufts newspapers.

In this period of intense student and faculty activism, the coalitions saw an opportunity to build solidarity between their causes through united calls for divestment. The Coalition for Endowment Transparency and the Coalition to Oppose the War in Iraq held a joint vigil calling for increased student input in endowment and investment decision-making. In a statement to the Tufts Daily, Gabe Frumkin, a TCOWI representative noted that he was “not requesting what [he] sees as radical changes,” from the Trustees, but rather, “a way of exercising [their] rights as shareholders without threatening the viability of [their] money managers or the profitability of [their] endowment.”

Throughout the movements of the early 2000s, students and faculty directly targeted the university’s financial complicity in violence across the world. The vigil’s organizers highlighted the impact of  past student movements for Tufts to divest from South African apartheid as a precedent. In an op-ed to the Tufts Daily published in 2007, TCOWI member Nicole Zeller wrote, “Divestment is a step universities can take to remove their funds from companies that are directly or indirectly financially supporting humanitarian crises, such as the genocide in Sudan or the war in Iraq… The most prominent example of a successful campaign, especially in the arena of university divestment, was during the era of the South African apartheid.” The methods of organizing against South African apartheid, among these other student movements, continue to inform anti-imperialist activism from the early 2000s to the current day.

Present-Day Organizing

In recent years, Tufts students have built upon the legacies of past student activism by continuing to mobilize against the university’s connections to American imperialism through economic investments. Student activists, for example, have directed much of their efforts towards criticizing companies like defense weapon manufacturers that come to campus to recruit students as prospective employees. These efforts have expanded the anti-imperialist movement beyond divestment towards mobilizing students to resist the military-industrial complex

In 2019, students and off-campus activist organizations such as Massachusetts Peace Action protested the presence of Raytheon, a widely known weapons manufacturing company, at the February career fair. As the Tufts Daily reports, Tufts has direct ties to Raytheon, as the founders of the company’s precursor were Tufts alumni. 

Student protests at Tufts career and recruiting events have become commonplace. Brian, a current senior and member of the Revolutionary Marxist Students who asked to be identified only by their first name, described some of this activism in a written statement to the Tufts Observer. They wrote, “for a couple of years now, I have been working with Revolutionary Marxist Students on anti-imperialist work at Tufts and throughout the country as a whole. Much of this work has centered around protesting events like career fairs or recruitment events for companies [such as] Raytheon and General Dynamics and government entities [such as] the CIA and the US Army among others.” 

According to the Tufts Daily, at the most recent September 2023 career fair, protestors called attention to about a dozen companies involved in militarism and imperialism. Their goal was reportedly not to discourage Tufts students from seeking jobs, but to encourage them to think critically about who their careers would impact. 

In recent months, Tufts students have organized sustained campaigns against Israeli apartheid and the attacks in Gaza. Though notably active right now, the movement for Palestinian liberation at Tufts—led primarily by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine—has consistently organized over the 13 years it has been active, since its founding in 2010.

Movement for Palestinian Liberation at Tufts

Refer to this Observer article published in 2021 for a quick history overview of student activism at Tufts related to divesting from Israeli apartheid since 2010: Dedicated to Divestment

Responding to the urgency of the mass death toll of Gazans by the hands of the Israeli army, student activists have escalated their two-decades-long demands for the university to cut ties with the 75-year Israeli occupation. Since October 7, as Israel’s violence against Gazans has intensified, casualties have risen up to 11,200 as of November 13 and US military funding to Israel has also increased. These events have led Palestinian human rights organizations, residents of Gaza, and US citizens with family members impacted by Israel’s ongoing assault to sue President Biden and other federal officials for failing to “prevent an unfolding genocide.”

In response to these events, students have organized protests, teach-ins, and other actions to challenge the university’s complicity in these atrocities. On October 23, 2023, Tufts SJP published their official demands to the university through the organization’s Instagram page. They demand the following: “an immediate ceasefire and end to israel’s siege on Gaza and all US funding to israel, [that] the university disclose its direct and indirect investments and fully divest from any companies that profit off or fund israeli apartheid, President Kumar release a statement condemning the genocide in Palestine, [and] the university end all programs and funded trips to the entirety of occupied Palestine.” 

Tufts SJP is not the only student group on campus making demands of the university. Around mid-October 2023, a group of anonymous South Asian students and alums wrote a public statement addressed to President Sunil Kumar and the greater Tufts Community. This statement directly responded to President Kumar’s message titled A personal note on October 11, 2023, which responded to Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7. 

In their anonymous statement, the group wrote that they were “deeply appalled by [President Kumar’s] lack of sensitivity in this [statement and how his] personal note demonstrates [his] worldview as being one entrenched in Islamophobia, settler-colonial rhetoric, and white supremacy.” They noted that “absent from President Kumar’s email is any mention of the thousands of Gazans killed (not including the bodies still unpulled from the rubble) in relentless bombings at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces over the past few days.” Furthermore, they demanded President Kumar to “mobilize [his] power to fight for Palestinians… [starting] with cutting Tufts’ ties to Israel. Pressure from donors, alumni, and the administration should not change [his] moral obligation to protect [his] students.” 

The group of South Asian students and alums specifically cited President Kumar’s own South Asian background in their argument, drawing parallels between the Israeli occupation and “India’s violent settler-colonial regime in Kashmir.” 

On November 4, dozens of Tufts students disrupted President Sunil Kumar’s conversation with the Tufts Community Union Senate (TCU), calling for the university to divest from Israeli investments. In a video posted on Instagram byBDS Boston, a group dedicated to building the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in Boston in solidarity with Palestine, student protesters were seen chanting, calling for Tufts to divest, and staging a die-in during the event. 

Tufts SJP wrote in a statement to the Tufts Daily that the group did not plan the protest, although some of its members may have been in attendance. In the statement, Tufts SJP wrote that they understand this protest to be a “result of grassroots word of mouth organizing,” demonstrating that “a great number of students and the global majority are showing solidarity with Palestine.”

In a written statement to the Observer, Kalimah Redd Knight, senior deputy director of Media Relations, notes that the administration takes heed of student demands. Knight writes that “while more visible forms of feedback, such as demonstrations, tend to garner the most attention, the reality is that student input is built into the university’s everyday decision-making processes. For example, the president’s office meets monthly with the leaders of the TCU Senate, who represent student priorities and sentiments on a variety of issues and frequently present the president’s office with petitions on issues of the day.” 

However, many student activists are not convinced that the TCU Senate is the best channel for students to voice their frustrations and concerns with the administration. For example, on Wednesday, November 8, Tufts SJP posted on their Instagram explaining why their organization is focusing on direct action instead of structured communication with the administration. They write that “direct action and disruption are how [they] put pressure on the university to meet [their] demands.” In addition, they cite that “past student organizing through official channels has been ignored by the university” and reference two initiatives that the TCU Senate enacted in 2017 and 2020 urging Tufts to divest from Israel, both of which were rejected by the administration. 

The following Thursday, November 9, student organizers at Tufts responded to a call made  by a national coalition of Palestine liberation organizations for a nationwide walkout in solidarity with Palestine. The action began at 2 p.m. with a rally at the Lower Campus Center and led to a 10-hour sit-in of the Mayer Campus Center’s main floor until its closing at midnight. 

A member of Tufts SJP, who requested to go by the initials C.B., said that “[they] will continue to show up and disrupt business as usual until [their] demands are met. As people living in the belly of the beast, [students] are inherently complicit in the imperialist activities of the US government. Tuition dollars and tax dollars are currently and have been funding genocide.”

Reminiscent of past coalitions Tufts community members built to oppose imperialism, the November 9 rally was organized by the newly formed Coalition for Palestinian Liberation at Tufts. The coalition consists of 11 student organizations: Alternative Jews at Tufts, the African Students Organization, the Eritrean and Ethiopian Students’ Association, the Indigenous Student Organization at Tufts, the Pan-Afrikan Alliance, the Revolutionary Marxist Students, South Asian Political Action Community, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Tufts Asian Student Coalition, and Tufts Labor Coalition.

At the rally, two students who spoke on behalf of the Coalition for Palestinian Liberation at Tufts announced their formation and their purpose. “Today we gather as Jewish students, Muslim students, Asian students, Black students, Indigenous students, queer students, white students, and Palestinian students to hold those that try to divide us accountable and show that Palestinian liberation is global liberation,” the students said. 

Beyond protests and other forms of visible demonstration, student groups have also leaned on educational tactics to advance their activism. Political education has been a strong tool for students to continue anti-imperialist efforts both in Tufts’ past and present. For example, in 2002, TCOWI held a teach-in about opposing the Iraq War. According to a Tufts Daily article, “the event was an attempt to educate members of the Tufts community on the issue, and speakers advocated anti-war action on campus.” 

In the context of modern-day Palestinian activism, C.B. emphasized that the media alone may fail to properly educate students and faculty on what is happening in Gaza. “There is so much propaganda from our government and the mainstream media,” they said, “that people either have never heard about Palestine or are completely misinformed about Palestine. Tufts SJP holds events on everything from the basic history of Palestine to how topics like environmental justice intersect with Palestinian liberation.” C.B. writes that “political education is crucial for mobilization and increases student support at our events by educating students about the truth of what is happening.” 

Institutional Roadblocks 

Since the 2010s, the anti-imperialist actions led by Students for Justice in Palestine and the Coalition for Palestinian Liberation have been entirely student-led. Although faculty were involved in the earliest coalition movements against investments in Sudan and Israel as well as the war in Iraq, in recent years students have been the sole organizers. In a written statement to the Observer, History Professor Emeritus Gary Leupp said, “My sense is that faculty are not leading students but instead lagging behind them politically.” As students continue to lead organizing for Palestinian liberation on the ground, it is unclear how Tufts faculty will respond to current student mobilization. 

The university’s response to student momentum on campus has involved an increase in policing. Hours after SJP’s first rally on October 20, the Tufts Office of Public Safety issued a statement that declared, “To ensure our community’s continued safety… Tufts University Police Department has increased its foot and cruiser patrols.” Knight writes that “[they] acknowledge that the presence of additional police and security may make some members of [the Tufts] community uncomfortable. However, [they] are also working hard to ensure that there is also a positive feeling of safety and community on campus during these anxious times through direct outreach and engagement.” 

C.B. stresses that “[they] are disappointed but not surprised that the university has increased police presence, as [they] know police do not make [campus] safer. Given Tufts’ history of sending officers to ‘counter-terrorism’ training in Israel through the deadly exchange, Tufts cannot call itself an ‘anti-racist’ institution. It is clear that Black, Brown, Indigenous, Arab, and Muslim students feel deeply unsafe in the presence of TUPD and that their presence at [SJP’s] protests is an intimidation tactic to stop [them] from showing up.”

Despite pressure from TUPD and Tufts administrators, student organizers remain undeterred and steadfast in their goals. As C.B. wrote, “administration loves to wait for [organizers] to graduate and hopes that student organizing follows [them] out, but [they] know that will never be true.” 

From the earliest movements to divest from Israeli apartheid, genocide in Sudan, and the war in Iraq to the present organizing for Palestinian liberation, students at Tufts have dedicated themselves to international solidarity with communities in the Global South. C.B. noted, “Global liberation solidarity movements are here to stay… Over decades of student organizing, the university remains complicit in these systems of violence. Students have a responsibility to resist the university’s attempts to stifle our movements which have always been key to the struggle for global liberation.”

Near the close of November 9’s sit-in, a student activist declared that the fight for Tufts to divest from South African apartheid lasted 12 years and, similarly, that the student movement for Palestinian liberation was “here to stay.” 

Similar to activists who came before them, current students understand their struggle for Palestinian liberation to be ongoing. C.B. reminds the Tufts administration that “students will keep showing up and disrupting until this institution acts. We will not back down until that happens.”