A photo of the giant UCR letters in the center of the UC Riverside campus with Palestinian flags and other posters displayed on it.
Flags and posters were displayed on the giant UCR letters at the center of the UC Riverside campus just outside of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment Tuesday. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Students at UC Riverside (UCR) started setting up a tent encampment near the Bell Tower in the early hours of Monday morning, an encampment that by Tuesday afternoon had grown to about 40 tents.

Hibah, one of the student leaders of the movement, said the protestors plan to stay until their demands are met. If that means going past June 18, so be it, said Hibah, who declined to give her last name due to safety concerns.

“We are here until Highlander Day, we are here until Spring Splash concert, we are here until graduation — until our demands are met,” Hibah, who is also the president of the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Riverside chapter (SJP UCR), said. “We believe that it is very possible for our demands to be met by the university prior to the quarter ending.”

Those demands include the “full transparency and student control” of the university’s investments and funding; the divestment of UC systemwide and UCLA Foundation funds from companies and institutions that are “complicit in the [I]sraeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide,” of the Palestinian people; end the silence about “the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the 76-year-long occupation of Palestine” and call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza; and permanently sever all ties with Israeli universities.

“There are currently no standing universities in Gaza … and to watch a university not only be silent, but to be complicit in it, is disheartening and disappointing,” Hibah, who is from Gaza and has lost more than 17 family members, said. “We have a moral obligation and responsibility to stand against genocide.

“The fact that there were over 17 universities within Gaza and every single one of them has been completely demolished is a crime against humanity, and we need people’s support to show that we stand against war crimes,” Hibah continued.

According to an April 18 release from the United Nations (UN), at least 60% of all educational facilities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed after six months of Israeli airstrikes, leaving at least 625,000 students without access to education. This includes UN schools being used to shelter displaced civilians, even those in areas that the Israeli military has designated as “safe zones.”

Students within in the encampment blow bubbles as others study, nap and catch up with friends on the lawn. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

While the stated goals of the encampment are clear, the space has also come to serve as a place where those interested can go to learn more about what’s happening in Gaza through talks given by faculty members and outside guests as well as open conversation with the demonstration’s organizers.

“I think that’s an incredibly important part of this kind of protest, as it always has been,” David Lloyd, the faculty mentor for SJP UCR and a member of the UCR Faculty for Justice in Palestine (USC FJP), said. “I mean, I was part of the divestment movement against South Africa in Berkeley in the 1980s, and there too, study was an important part of what people were doing.

“They need to educate one another, they need to educate themselves, and they are showing that this is not just a movement to protest, but a site, genuinely, where students are learning and learning autonomously,” he continued. “And we couldn’t ask for anything more from our students than that they seek to learn and learn autonomously.”

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Lloyd, an English professor at UCR, said that while he teaches on a variety of subjects, his work focuses on post-colonialism, colonial theory and settler colonialism in relation to literature, and specifically, in relation to Ireland.

“I’m utterly proud of these students for what they’re doing,” Lloyd, who wore a lapel pin featuring the flags of both Ireland and Palestine, said. “They’re taking a great risk, and they know that. Risk of police violence, frankly, if they do call the police, but they’re unafraid, and they’re doing it, and I think that in doing so, they are offering us a leadership that I wish would come from the [Regents of the University of California].”

In a letter sent out to the UCR community on Monday, Chancellor Kim Wilcox acknowledged the situation in Gaza, something Hibah said was a “win for the students.”

“The suffering in Gaza since the start of this war has been unimaginable – more than 30,000 deaths, millions of people displaced, and hunger that is bordering on famine,” Wilcox wrote. “The crisis has affected many on our campus in a personal and profound way.”

Wilcox went on to announce that large signs and banners would be removed, chalk writing on the sidewalks around the Bell Tower must be removed and blocking access in and around the Bell Tower would not be permitted.

Tents were set up on the Bell Tower lawn Tuesday as messages written on the sidewalk in chalk surrounded the encampment. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

However, on Tuesday, large signs and banners could be seen throughout the encampment and sidewalk chalk drawings were seen both in and around the encampment and the surrounding campus areas.

“UCR must continue to prioritize the purpose of the university, which is teaching, research, and public service,” Wilcox wrote. “Thank you for your patience as we navigate this complex matter with sensitivity and respect.” 

Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson, the first UCR graduate elected to the office, declined to comment on the demonstration.

Programming on the first day of the encampment included a rally at the Bell Tower and speakers from UCR Faculty for Justice in Palestine. Second-day programming included a teach-in and talk by Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“People are blowing bubbles, playing frisbee, playing soccer,” Hibah said. “We have snacks for everyone, we have chalk. So many children came out [Monday] night with their family members and members of the community.”

Organizers told The Record that as of Tuesday afternoon they had not yet met with the administration to address the group’s demands, but that the university has made accommodations so those camping overnight would have access to restroom facilities in nearby buildings.

The demonstration comes just two months after the Associated Students of the University of California, Riverside (ASUCR) Senate voted unanimously to no longer purchase goods or services from companies identified as “being complicit in the violation of the human rights guaranteed to Palestinian civilians under international law,” as reported by The Highlander. The resolution also called on the university to do the same, prompting the university to issue a statement opposing the action the following day.

“This resolution runs counter to UC Riverside’s longstanding position and practices, does not align with the university’s views and does not affect the investment practices of the university,” the statement said. “We strongly oppose this action and believe that it goes against the culture of open dialogue and discourse.”

In response, UCR FJP authored an Op-Ed, published by The Highlander, rejecting the university’s statement and reiterating the group’s support for the student action.

“UCR Faculty for Justice in Palestine want to be clear: the ‘we’ of the ‘[u]niversity’s statement’ does not include us,” the Op-Ed reads. “We support the Palestinian call for the [a]cademic and [c]ultural [b]oycott of Israel. We are proud of UCR’s students.”

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.

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