USF Divestment Coalition leads student movement for Palestine
USF students lock arms. Photo courtesy of the @usfdivestcoalition Instagram page.

USF Divestment Coalition leads student movement for Palestine

As pro-Palestinian student protests erupt across the country and the world in the form of encampments, what began at the University of South Florida (USF) as a hunger strike has now become a center of violence against protesting students. Beginning on April 29, USF students set up tents as a form of protest to demand the university’s divestment from companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar, Northrop Grumman and Hewlett Packard (HP), which fund Israel and, they say, the ongoing violence in the Middle East. Ten people were arrested and dozens of others trampled, tear gassed and shot by rubber bullets by police. In response to protests across Florida’s university campuses, Ray Rodrigues, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida, has promised to remove law-breaking protesters who violate university policy. At a University of Florida press conference he said, “There will be no appeasement. There will be no amnesty, and there will be no divestment.”  

On Feb. 11 the instagram page @usfdivestcoalition, originally @usfhungerstrike, made its first post, announcing that at least 11, later 18, USF students would be going on a hunger strike until USF ceased enabling “the starvation and genocide” of Gaza. They demanded the university stop investing millions into companies that supply the Israel Occupation Forces (IOF) with weapons and that USF make its investment portfolios public—documents that haven’t been publicly disclosed for the past 10 years. The students additionally demanded that USF President Rhea Law call for a ceasefire and offer support to affected families in the community and that USF establish a student oversight committee that would allow for significant input on future university investments. 

The hunger strike was initially organized by Students for Socialism, an organization that has held campus rallies and protests in support of Gaza. When USF officials heard about the strike, they called a meeting with the group, along with university staff and Student Health Services. Following the meeting, the university sent the group a cease and desist letter

Throughout the strike, some students were initially afflicted with vomiting, drops in cognitive function and insomnia. By the end of the first week only eight indefinite strikers remained. By then, students reported having lost 20 pounds, hair loss and fainting spells. By week two student protestors were being hospitalized. One student, referred to as ‘Striker Z’, along with two others alleged that they were denied healthcare on campus when nurses realized they were ill from striking. According to the group’s instagram page, after 17 days organizers of the protest encouraged students to break their strike due to multiple hospitalizations, fatal health concerns and reports of ongoing police intimidation. 

The Catalyst spoke to two USF students involved in the hunger strike, Will Mleczko and Nabil Shariff. 

Mleczko explained that he saw what other university students have been doing across the country in order to either divest or to bring attention towards divestment from complicity and genocide. “I was inspired to take part in the hunger strike because I had been seeing what’s been happening in Gaza over almost 200 days now and the atrocities that we’ve witnessed have put me in a position where I feel like the only option is to take action,” he said.

Mleczko was one of the organizers of the hunger strike. A similar form of protest was initially put together for a week at Brown University.  

“We wanted to see where we could take this sort of thing and how much pressure we could put on the admin here at USF,” Mleczko said. “We already had a very wide base of students that we knew were supportive either publicly or anonymously and students that we knew we could rely on for something like this.”

Shariff wasn’t able to participate in the hunger strike due to a medical issue, but was directly involved in organizing speeches and events that have taken place during and since the action. . He said he was motivated by the severity of the situation in Palestine and the lack of response from USF towards students who cared a lot about the issue or were directly affected by it, either by having family members over there or the rise in Islamophobia

“This is a very intimidating and grave issue for a lot of us and I think that’s the biggest driving point of it, just the size of this,” Shariff said. “A majority of students on campus not only care about this issue, ranging from passively to much more involved, but it really just reflects the will of the students.”

Mleczko explained that the strike didn’t begin with a lack of hands on deck. He noted that many people were willing to make sacrifices, whether they were striking themselves or contributing monetarily. “We had a pretty strong base from existing structures here at USF and we just utilized those for the strike.”

Mleczko described the experience as exhausting, taking a lot out of him. Despite the strike having been over for a couple of weeks at the time of the interview, Mleczko said he was still coping with the toll it had taken on his body. 

“But I’m just really proud to continue fighting for all of our goals, especially after the student government Senate passed a resolution in favor of divestment,” he explained. “That was a very historic win for us here and I’m really proud to see all the students that are continuing and will be continuing to make their voices heard on this issue.” 

Resolution passed by USF Student Senate. Courtesy of Will Mleczko.

Throughout the strike, organizers were communicating with members of the student senate who are also passionate about human rights and USF’s investments in companies that distribute weapons. 

“We just had some conversations with them about the best way to do it,” Mleczko said. “It ended up taking a couple of weeks because we brought it to certain committees within the student government and they denied it.”

The resolution was returned and revised to make it as clear as possible. Then it was  a matter of meeting with the Senate for their second meeting of the year in what Mleczko defined as a “pretty hostile environment” to defend the resolution against criticism from administration. 

“The main gripe with any of our demands is that they argue that it’s not possible and that they can’t do anything about it and that they need to remain apolitical,” Mleczko said. “So a great deal of the Senate resolution was proving how the status quo, as it is, is already political and that investments in weapons companies are a very political matter and divestment from said companies.

“Unfortunately, USF isn’t going to cooperate in any manner regarding the publication of their investments,” Mleczko continued. “So we’re going to have to take it to a higher body. We’re already engaging in legal action on the best way to move forward.” 

Even though the student government bill is not binding, for Shariff it is the first step towards change because it shows exactly that—the will of the students. 

Shariff referenced another group in 2014 called the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), who collected 10,000 signatures for their petition to have USF divest. He said this was one of the largest petitions made by students in the state of Florida. They were largely ignored by the administration, he noted, and again in 2018 when the Student Senate passed a bill to get USF to stop investing. 

“This is not a new thing,” Shariff said. “Obviously this didn’t start in October 2023 and both before and after there is a massive amount of support from the student body at large.”

The purpose of the resolution is to have a document not just for historical purposes, but to show USF a legal bill.

“It just says this is what has happened historically since October 7, this many people have died, this is what has happened, et cetera, et cetera,” Shariff explained. “We have hunger strikes and we haven’t gotten an answer from USF. They refuse to even admit that they’re investing in these companies, for example. So this resolution is to show that we as a student body want this and know this is possible.”

Organizers were able to find in documents from prior appeals that USF is investing in companies like Boeing and Northrop Grumman. They also found that in the 1980s, USF did divest from companies that were involved in the apartheid in South Africa which, according to Shariff, goes directly against what they told students. 

“Which is ‘We can’t divest, it’s out of our hands’” Shariff recounted. “‘We have financial brokers who do those things. We cannot do it, it’s impossible.’ So that’s how we were able to bolster our claims and show that what we’re asking for is not unreasonable.”

Students lock arms and hold up Palestine flags to protest. Photo courtesy of the @usfdivestcoalition Instagram page.

“You have to change at least the methods of your protest because you can go and hold up signs as much as you want and that’s a good thing and we continue to do that, but the only thing that can inspire USF to value what they’re doing with their money is to take to their claim that they care about the health of their students,” Shariff said. “You know it’s something you hear on every college campus, right? ‘Here you’re a part of our family here, we care about you. You’re our utmost concern,’ that sort of talk. I don’t think that’s all necessarily fake but if that’s true, then maybe they might care if we put our bodies on the line and our lives on the line.”

For Shariff, that’s exactly what the hunger strikers did. “Students put their lives on the line and said if you truly care about us, then you’ll change where you’re putting your money,” he said. 

“It really is an emotional cost to me, not just because of the loss of human life and suffering,” Shariff offered. “Being Muslim and South Asian in America, Islamophobia and racism is something I’ve dealt with in my life generally, but this is something that has exacerbated that. I think there is a sense of international community in terms of Muslims and knowing people  who are like me are over there suffering due to the choices that companies and politicians are making over here. So it is very dear to me in that sense. But I think overall it’s intense for everybody because it is just a loss of life. Thirty thousand people are dead and people are people regardless of their race or religion.

“I think it’ll take time, but if anything the South Africa divestment proves that it is possible, even if it’s going to take however long it takes, I think we will inevitably reach our goal.” Shariff continued. “This isn’t something that is unattainable and I wouldn’t want anyone to allow themselves to be convinced by others that it is. I think no matter what school you’re at, or even if you’re not in school, complicity is everywhere, and you yourself have the power to fight that. All it takes is that will, and then of course organization, but I think that in the end the goal of winning that fight will prevail.” 

Students come together as police and other law enforcement stand in the background. Photo courtesy of the @usfdivestcoalition Instagram page.

On April 17, students established an encampment of approximately 50 tents on the Columbia University campus, calling it the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, and demanded the university divest from Israel. Following the events at Columbia, at more than a dozen institutions across the country students set up tents and sleeping bags on central quads or thoroughfares, where they are spending nights, hosting teach-ins, reciting prayers, and waving signs and Palestinian flags, in an effort to get administrators to hear out their demands, USF included. The student movement erected six tents on a lawn at Martin Luther King Jr. Square on April 29. That same day roughly 100 police officers and law enforcement armed with tear gas, semi-automatic weapons and riot gear dispersed the encampment. Multiple students were arrested, suspended and barred from final exams and graduation. Students were told that as long as no tents were put up no one else would be arrested. 

President Rhea Law and USF Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford sent an email to the student body during the active protests, stating that the safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and all members of the university community is their highest priority. They noted that the decision to intervene with law enforcement was not taken lightly and was based on approximately 75-100 protestors expressing their intent to refuse to leave the site by 5 pm as requested and to occupy the space through the weekend, which included commencement. The email says protesters then locked arms, raised shields and umbrellas, and again communicated their intent to refuse to leave. USF Police determined that these actions were a dangerous escalation and that the protest was no longer peaceful. According to Law and Weatherford, one of the individuals taken into custody was found to be carrying a concealed firearm.

The email statement further said, “We are deeply grateful to the USF Police Department, our regional law enforcement partners, and the Student Success team for their unwavering dedication and commitment to prioritizing the safety of our community.”

Screenshot from a video of multiple police officers restraining a student protestor. Photo courtesy of the @usfdivestcoalition Instagram page.
Students running from tear gas. Photo courtesy of the @usfdivestcoalition Instagram page.

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