U of T students won’t leave until the school divests from Israel

Student encampment is prepared to stay for “as long as it takes”

At 4 am Thursday on a warm early morning, over a hundred University of Toronto students assemble and transform King’s College Circle into “The People’s Circle for Palestine”, setting up an encampment of tents, flying Palestinian flags and pledging not to leave until the school divests its financial ties to Israel. They’ve bypassed a perimeter fence the school had erected around the greenspace in anticipation of college campus pro-Palestinian demonstrations gripping the US landing up north.

When I arrive this afternoon, the sound of chants and noisemakers can be heard all the way from College St. As I walk up to the circle, a large crowd is on the north side of the circle, chanting and singing near the steps to University College Library. Where I am on the south side, a few supporters are passing supplies like water and toilet paper over the fence to a handful of protesters barricaded within the perimeter.

“This encampment is happening because students at U of T have been calling for the university to divest from its financial holdings in Israeli companies for six months,” says Mohammad Yassin, a student and spokesperson for the demonstrators. He’s speaking to me through the fence, as media are no longer allowed inside the encampment — something he has just been announcing with a megaphone to reporters gathered around the circle.

It is 4 pm now, and news has reached the encampment that an Israel-supporting counterprotest is on its way to confront them. As a result, the group is being extra cautious. Protesters are encouraged to cover their faces and where non-descript clothing. Everyone here is on guard. As I walk around the circle, a young man follows me, recording me with his phone. When I stop and try to speak with him, he ignores me and walks away.

“The JDL has been known to be very violent and militant,” Yassin says to me. “A lot of the encampments that we saw in the States got cleared by Zionist infiltration. We saw in UCLA, how Zionist infiltrators set off fireworks, even brought rats in to, like, basically antagonize people and tear down their encampment.”

And now everyone in the encampment is aware that the university has released a statement warning the protesters to disperse by 10 pm, saying “Unauthorized activities such as encampments or the occupation of University buildings are considered trespassing,” and warning of “consequences” should the deadline not be met.

When reached for a comment, a spokesperson for the school says “The university respects the rights of members of our community to assemble and protest within the limits of the law and U of T policies, but activities must not interfere with the ability of students, faculty, librarians and staff to learn, teach, research and work on our campuses, or disrupt or impede other university activities.

“Our preference is to start with dialogue and we’ve been in touch with the protesters since this morning.”

When I ask Yassin if the protesters have heard from the school, he tells me “There hasn’t been a direct dialogue, no. Maybe a couple of admin people” had spoken to them after the encampment had been established early in the morning, “it wasn’t a serious dialogue.”

“For context here,” Yassin offers, “we’ve had actions going back as far as November.” Despite repeated attempts to start a dialogue, “They didn’t want to talk to us. They chose the route of ignoring us and thinking that we would just go away.” After the protests continued, the university’s President finally agreed to a meeting, but “Even at that meeting, all he did was admit that U of T holds investments in military companies that support the Israeli military.”

After a week-long back-and-forth, the message from the school’s President was “I can’t give you any of your demands, you’re being unreasonable,” Yassin says. “We’re really not. We’re asking for the bare minimum.”

After the shocking police violence at other protests happening on campuses in the States, the possibility of those same scenes happening here are not far from everyone’s mind as the deadline approaches. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service tells me they are “in contact” with the school “but our assistance has not been requested at this time.” When I ask what the next steps might be if the school does reach out, perhaps after their 10 pm dispersal deadline, the spokesperson says they won’t “speculate on a response” and that it will “depend on the circumstances”. When reaching out to City Hall for their position on the encampment, they direct me to the police’s media spokesperson.

As afternoon slides into evening, there is a small police presence at the protest already, which moves in as the Israel-supporting counterprotest arrives to separate the two groups. The counterprotest is only made up of about a dozen people, some wearing Israeli flags as capes. At first, they silently stare down the protesters, their backs to the fence, facing encampment supporters who have gathered on the steps to University College Library, as the crowds all around them loudly chant “Free, Free Palestine”. When the chants stop for evening prayer, one of the counter-protesters begins shouting into his megaphone a bizarre stream-of-consciousness rant about how he is “your lord and saviour” and to “convert to Buddhism” in a clear attempt to provoke those praying inside the encampment. He is soon loudly drowned out by chants of “Get off our campus!” by the students. Police smoothly move into the crowd as some kind of scuffle happens behind the main group, but don’t appear to make any arrests.

Despite their lack of meaningful dialogue, Yassin points out that “U of T has a long history of divesting from causes that were immoral or unethical — notably apartheid South Africa, where they fully divested from every company that even operated in apartheid South Africa. They divested from fossil fuels, they divested from tobacco. We think that this is just one of the links in a long chain of unethical causes.”

As I leave, more keffiyeh-wearing students are heading towards the circle with more supplies for the encamped protesters, preparing for a possible showdown with the school and police and the 10 pm deadline ticks ever closer.