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Yale students take over Beinecke (Gaza) Plaza

An interview with a Yale student organizer

Tempest interviews Elisa Miah, a student organizer for Palestine on the campus occupation by Yale students inspired by the Columbia University encampments to demand Yale divest from arms manufacturing.

As part of an ongoing wave of student occupations at universities across the U.S., Yale students erected an encampment on Friday, April 19, and began a round-the-clock occupation of Beinecke Plaza. The encampment was set up following a week of action which was preceded by months of protest calling on Yale Corporation to divest from weapons manufacturing. As reported by the Yale Daily News, “According to Yale’s November 2023 SEC filings, the University holds over 6,500 shares of iShares Core S&P Total U.S. Stock Market ETF, a Blackrock-managed fund that invests in major weapons manufacturers such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon — which all sell weapons to Israel.”

Throughout the occupation, student protesters received support from Yale’s Faculty for Palestine chapter, Jewish Voices for Peace, the Connecticut Palestine Solidarity Coalition, and many other university, city, and statewide groups. Despite this overwhelming show of support, Yale’s administration has attempted to shut down the camp. On Monday, April 22, 47 student protesters were arrested and university and city police dismantled the camp. In response, student protesters took over a city intersection which they held for much of the day. A second encampment was established on April 28 after over 1,500 marched through the street; however, university and city police dispersed the camp within 24 hours. Readers can keep up with ongoing developments from the independent student newspaper Yale Daily News.

On the third day of the occupation, Tempest Magazine sat down with a student organizer, Elisa Miah. Elisa is active with the Revolutionary Communists of America. What follows is a transcript of that interview lightly edited for clarity.

Tempest Collective: Can you tell me a little bit about the encampment here at Beinecke Plaza? How did it come about?

Elisa Miah: The movement for Palestine here at Yale has been getting increasingly emboldened. We have been organizing more and more as Yale has continued to ignore our demands. For a good while now, the student movement here has been calling for divestment from arms manufacturing. A large part of our endowment is indeed invested in the production of military weapons that get sent to Israel. The nucleus of this encampment is the fact that there are hunger strikers on their eighth day of hunger strike, and they are also demanding that the Yale Board of Trustees divest and disclose its investments in arms manufacturing. And so, we have been camping out and the encampment has only grown. Every night we have more and more people out.

The night before last there was a meeting of the Board of Trustees right here in Schwarzman Center right next to our encampment, and so something like twenty, thirty cops had come out and were sort of antagonizing us. There have been threats; they said they are not going to arrest us without multiple warnings, but it’s certainly clear that they want us gone. As a result, hundreds of students came out to support us, and last night there was only more. Indeed, every day the administration is trying to stop us, but they are being rebuffed by the power of the hundreds of people that have come to support us. We have had lots of support, and it’s not just Yale students, mind you. People are coming in from all over. From New York for example. I met someone from Illinois yesterday, and from other universities, like UConn, from the movement here in Connecticut in general. There are more and more people coming out here to support us, making donations; lots of restaurants in New Haven are making donations. People have been so generous. It’s obvious that New Haven, and Connecticut, and the country are on our side, and want to see a free Palestine. It’s really heartening to see the movement growing and I hope it only continues to grow.

TC: I understand the hunger strikers are one important element of the encampment but there is a lot of other activity going on as well. Can you tell me about that?

EM: There are lots and lots of people here. Many have come out to join the encampment; many others will come and visit during the daytime for a few hours or will come at night when we often have rallies of hundreds. At night is when the risk of police action is strongest, so it’s important that we have a large presence during those hours.

TC: Have you had a lot of support from the faculty here as well?

EM: From what we have heard, the faculty is very sympathetic. Yesterday, all fourteen heads of college [Yale University is comprised of 14 residential colleges] declared that they did not want us removed, and indeed lots of members of faculty have been pushing for the administration to take a soft line with us. The Yale unions Local 33, the graduate student union; Local 34, clerical and technical staff, and Local 35, service and maintenance staff have decided not to come out and join us, but we hope that changes. The faculty has also been very supportive and we hope they will also come out and join us. Some faculty have come out to the encampment, but not as an organized bloc. But many faculty are on the side of Palestine, as I think every sensible person is.

TC: Can you tell me a little about the groups who have helped to organize this? Is there an organizing committee? How is the camp structured?

EM: It’s quite decentralized but what there is is a coalition of all the Palestine-friendly groups on campus, along with support from wider groups across Connecticut. Activist groups throughout Connecticut have brought in speakers, supplies, and have supported the organizing, and so it’s a very broad tent of people that are united in wanting Yale to divest.

I joined the encampment yesterday. Before that, I was coming in and out throughout the week, but I decided to stay. I chose to stay because the only way that I think this movement to free Palestine can win is if it grows. What we need is a mass movement; we need faculty and the staff to join us. We also need New Haven to join us. We need the tenants’ unions across New Haven, we need the Immigrant organizations, we need the Palestine movement here. If I can contribute to that by making this camp a little bit bigger and calling on people to come and join me then I am happy to.

TC: What have been some of the highlights for you as a participant in this action? I notice there is a library. There was a drag show the other day. There is live music. What is the social and political culture here? What have been the highlights for you?

EM: I think what’s been really inspiring to me is just seeing how many people are coming and chanting together–staying until late at night in the cold and in the wind, united for a free Palestine. During the day there is programming. There has been music. There has been lots of art that has been created as you can see. There are posters put up all around the plaza, and I think just seeing lots of people come together to make this happen is really incredible because it’s drawing layers of people into this movement that have never really organized for anything before. That’s what’s really special for me.

TC: Why do you think that Palestine has become such a flashpoint for your generation?

EM: Well, war is often the midwife of revolution. I think what it has done is expose the complete, complete hypocrisy of the American ruling class and its pretenses to support democracy and justice. What it has made very obvious is that the U.S. interests are in protecting its imperial control. I also just think that people feel so powerless seeing millions of people displaced in Palestine and the utter brutality of Israel’s aggression. And Biden and Trump are two sides of the same coin. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are making lots of money off of the bombs that rain down on Gaza. Biden is no friend to peace and justice. He is no friend of the working class and I think that is one reason people are so angry. Biden was sold as the lesser evil, and yet not only has he backed Israel’s genocidal war on Palestine, but he has also increased deportations, he’s also appointed union busters to high positions.

TC: Yes, and he’s also reversed the COVID-era social welfare investments, which momentarily gave people a taste of a life more economically secure than the one they were living. He reversed promises of student loan forgiveness.

EM: It’s been a joke, and certainly, there is a lot of anger at Biden here. A lot of young people are incredibly disillusioned with him, and are disillusioned with the American political system. People are starting to understand that we can’t count on the Democrats or any “lesser evil” to support us, but that we need to take power into our own hands.

TC: What would be your message to your fellow Yale students who have not yet joined you? Related, what would be your message to students at other campuses who have been inspired by Columbia, who are looking to what you all are doing at Yale–what would your message be to them?

EM: I would say that students can be the spark of a wider movement and we are here in this academic environment with this very visible institution around us and by taking action and mobilizing, we can spark a wider resistance that can bring down Israeli and even American imperialism. I would say to students here at Yale or even across the world that the power is in our hands and that we can’t count on any other factor but ourselves to rise up. We have a solemn duty and there is something we can do. We don’t just have to sit here, watching what’s happening on our phone screens and despair. Instead, we need to see what’s happening and use it as inspiration to rise up and fight for free Palestine, which means organizing, and which can mean having these sit-ins and these occupations that may be the spark of a wider mass movement as we are seeing at Columbia.

TC: What has been your reaction to the organizing at Columbia? Were you surprised?

EM: I wasn’t surprised; I think something has got to give. People can be fooled by seeing a lack of real action to think that there is no possibility of real action, but there is growth under the surface. People are getting more and more angry. I wasn’t surprised when students began the Columbia occupation. Eventually, it was bound to happen that people would come out of their individual anger. Columbia was long in the making; it’s been in the making since the eighth of October. I was very glad to see it.

TC: Has there been communication between the student organizers at Yale and Columbia?

EM: We are certainly very inspired by them. I don’t know if there has been communication for sure, but I would suspect that there has been. We are trying to take lessons from their struggle. It’s definitely a big point of inspiration.

TC: What do you think it’s going to take to win your divestment demands? Are you optimistic?

EM: I think it can go either way. I think it depends on how we carry ourselves forth. I think what is necessary for this struggle to win is to draw in more layers. We have hundreds of people coming out and every night more come. I am hopeful that we will see more and more students but also I really want to see the faculty and staff come out and I’d love to see wider New Haven come out and join us. The point at which the university administration will have no choice but to listen to us is when we can pose a more serious threat; when we show that we will “shut it down” as we keep chanting. I think it’s possible.

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