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SF State Students ‘Won’t Stop Until Palestine Is Free’

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Altar with candles, photos, flowers, little Palestinian flags, on a multicolored striped Mexican blanket - main color is red.

Organizers of the successful Students For Gaza encampment at San Francisco State University set their protest in the long arc of the Palestine struggle for freedom. It built on decades of prior work and “it doesn’t stop here. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we need to continue to keep each other strong and united.”

Ziniab Imtair is a student at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and president of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) there. She was one of the core organizers of SFSU’s two-week Students For Gaza encampment, which won three of its four demands.

After moving to the US from Palestine, Ziniab followed her older sister into activism and leadership in GUPS. Palestinian students had formed the organization in the early 1920s; it was formally launched in Cairo in 1959. The San Francisco State chapter is the only one remaining in the US. When students initiated encampments for Palestine at other schools around the country, activists at State looked to GUPS for leadership. Ziniab and the rest of the organization went all in. She spoke with Convergence’s Stephanie Luce about their organizing and what they learned from it.

Stephanie Luce: It sounds like you had a pretty active campaign and at some point the administration agreed to talk with you. Tell us about your demands and the negotiations.

Ziniab Imtair: We had four demands: disclose, divest, defend, and declare. Disclose any and all investments that are complicit in the Israeli occupation. Divest from any and all investments in companies, corporations, everything complicit in Israel. Defend the Palestinian Arab Muslim communities on this campus and oppose SB1287, a bill introduced in the California legislature saying “From the River to the Sea” is anti-Semitic. We demanded our president oppose this bill and take it to the Chancellor’s office. And Declare, name the illegal occupation of Palestine, the apartheid, and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.  

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We had seven leaders for our negotiations, and all of us thought these demands were simple and achievable. They’re things that have happened before, like for South Africa, and could happen again. And these are things that people, especially Palestinian organizations, have been working on for decades. Encampments were a tactic to get those demands, and they created hype and media attention. They were a catalyst for all that hard work for so many years. 

Negotiating in public

Our encampment had general assemblies every day at 3:30. Everyone would get together, and we would  talk about negotiations and how to handle them. So, the first discussion was, do we want to have negotiations with Lynn [Mahoney, president of SFSU], and do we want them open or private? And we voted unanimously to have open bargaining, including being able to stream  it on Instagram Live. We were the first school to get open bargaining with our president. That really gave us hope, because this was a big step to bring students into the movement and to showcase our power to the president when there were 400 students surrounding the open negotiations when we had them. 

A lot of people go into negotiations and just take the first thing that is given to them. We knew that wasn’t what we wanted. We knew that we still had the power. At the first negotiation, we heard what the president was willing to do,  what she was hesitant to do, and what she was very adamant about not doing. She said she was very open to Disclose, because it’s the bare minimum: you’re supposed to disclose your investments and funds. She was down to give us the portfolio that shows all these investments.

For Divest, she was hesitant. She didn’t really explain and just said, “We’ll talk about this.” She was not down on our third demand, Defend. She said she wasn’t a secretary of state, and she can’t make declarations and she can’t really talk on political issues, which was funny, because she spoke about Black Lives Matter, she spoke about the Iranian 2020 revolution, and then she spoke out about trans rights when Riley Gaines came to our campus. So, we just found that a bit hypocritical. And then for Declare, once again, she said she’s not a politician, she’s not a secretary of state, so can’t support.

We had four caucuses, one for each demand. I was on Defend. We went back to each individual caucus and talked about what she said and how to move forward. From there, we started having email discourse with her and we would post these on our Students for Gaza Instagram page to let the public know, and to let her know that anything she says, she’s talking to the whole student body. So we had emails going back and forth, and every day we went back to the General Assembly to discuss what she said. 

Slow progress

Eventually, we realized that we needed a meeting to pin stuff down, to really get concrete information from Lynn. So we had a private session – just an informational session. We weren’t going in there as leadership to say yes or no without going back to our groups and seeing what everyone thought. We were very democratic. We voted on everything from tabling discussions to, “Should we move the tents this way?” So when we went to discuss things with President Lynn we would make sure not to give answers or any promises because we needed to make decisions with the whole encampment.

So we had our informational session with Lynn and she came in unprepared. She didn’t have her portfolio with her after she explicitly said that she could give us that the week before. We were upset about that. She didn’t have concrete answers. She didn’t like our human rights language for Divest. Our human rights language included weapons manufacturing, militarism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and occupation. Also, in the State of California, there’s the anti-BDS bill that passed in 2016 which bans supporting BDS or anything along those lines. So when we’re asking for divestment, we have to be very specific in our language to avoid lawsuits because of that bill. It’s a stupid law. But she wasn’t down for any language besides war and weapons manufacturing.

But being down to divest from weapons manufacturing, that’s a really big win. Our school is fully invested in Lockheed Martin, which is directly complicit in annexing Palestinian villages, bulldozing them, and exiling people from their land.   For Defend she said she was down to oppose SB1287 because it affected academic free speech. She made it very broad, but a win is a win since she said she would oppose the bill. And then for Declare, once again, she was strictly no, no, no – it’s not her place to say anything.

We knew that our biggest win was divestment. It’s the most materially important demand that we’ve had and this goes for all the encampments across the country. We asked her to create a first draft of what she’d promised and send it to us for review. Also, we demanded that she explicitly say that she’s doing this because of the Students for Gaza encampment, because so many presidents – like the Sacramento State [University] President, and the University of California presidents, and all the presidents of the private universities are taking credit. Students are getting these wins, but they’re not getting credited for them because the presidents say, “We’re doing these things because of our own activism and our own social justice campaigns on campus.”

We demanded her to write a draft and to send us a message that night. Morale was down. I won’t lie. I was upset. She just kept avoiding so many questions we had. We had come in there so prepared. We came with a binder just for Disclose that was like 50 pages. Anytime she said something, we were ready. We were on our top game but the administration was not prepared. One of them asked me at the start of the meeting, “What are your demands again?”  I thought, “Girl, we’ve been camping for two weeks, we’ve had open negotiations where we listed our demands one by one, going into each one for 10 minutes!” So that was upsetting. 

So we all go back to the encampment and eventually I get an email from President Lynn. I’m with campers and faculty who have been supporting us in the beginning, and as we read the email, I’m like, “Wait a second. She essentially agreed on three of our four demands!” She gave us weapons manufacturing, she gave us violence and discrimination as human rights language and the right of  people to live in dignity. So that’s three parts of our human rights language. She took that from us so we appreciated that. And then we got in writing that she agreed to disclose. We also got in writing that she was down to oppose SB 1287 and to send a letter to the Chancellor’s Office about it.

So we got three of our four demands! But before we wrote her back, we held a meeting with our general assembly and voted on whether we supported this draft. The vote was yes. We let Lynn know and asked her to post it on the President’s page that day.  Morale skyrocketed after we got that email. Being able to see your hard work pay off like that. And we had been in a time crunch.

Democracy is key

The encampment went for two weeks, and the semester was about to end. We’re a commuter, working-class school and don’t have the privilege other universities have, where students live in dorms. Most of our people have long commutes – I commute an hour just to get to school every day, to get to that encampment. Every single person in that encampment put the work in, whether they were in the general activities committee or the security committee, everyone put the work in. Especially the research teams for the demands.

And we saw that having open bargaining and a democratic process created such a positive atmosphere on campus. Essentially, the encampment was a little village. We all kept each other safe, we took care of each other, we made sure we were all informed and willing to learn. Seeing that pay off was the best feeling I’ve had. So we posted Lynn’s email and then we posted our statement in response which said that we’ll take these agreements and we appreciate this, but this is just the first step. Getting these demands is not the end. We still want that fourth demand, Declare. Also, an encampment was just a tactic to the bigger wins. We want Cal State [the statewide system] divestment.

We just recently went to Long Beach for the Board of Trustees meeting along with seven other CSUs [Cal State Universities] to demand divestment from [Chancellor] Mildred Garcia. We know our organizing doesn’t stop at what we’ve won at our own isolated campuses. Recently, the president of Sonoma State, Mike Lee, was fired for agreeing to the students’ demands. And if that can happen there, it can happen at SF State. We need to be prepared and ready for mass mobilization.

Stephanie Luce: Can you say more about your summer plans? How will you keep students engaged?

Ziniab Imtair: Our main plan is to create and solidify concrete plans and roles for CSU divestment. We’re in contact with every CSU’s Students for Justice in Palestine and other organizations active in their encampments.  I’m already a part of the teach-in and research committee for the CSU divest coalition that we’ve created. Our plan for the summer is to think about strategy and mobilization around that. We need everyone on board. We have so many people from our encampment who are still active on our group chats and making sure we’re having meetings weekly, and getting people involved, but we need to start planning for Fall.

Stephanie Luce: It sounds like you all had tremendous skills and talent to do the research and negotiate. Did you train one another? Are you getting training from your prior movement leaders?

Ziniab Imtair: I’ve been on the GUPS board since my freshman year, so I’ve had experience organizing. And I have been around my sister who also worked organizing in the Bay Area at a grassroots organization, and I was able to have her expertise. We have two faculty advisors for GUPS and they’re there anytime I have a question or need advice. When it comes to leadership, or organizing in general, it really takes just experience. Going into this encampment I had that, and then the encampment built it up so much. You don’t know everything, and you’re never going to be perfect, but it was just the best experience ever. The community support, and community organizations coming to help support and donate was just amazing. I would see them everyday at the encampment and they’re my besties for real. We got so much support from the community, and our faculty, and even my own parents – I could ask them for advice.

Stephanie Luce: What advice do you have for students who haven’t won yet, or might be struggling with negotiations?

Ziniab Imtair: I think my biggest advice is that we as students underestimate ourselves and underestimate our power. This movement is not just isolated to our individual campuses;  we are part of a national – worldwide! –  movement at this point. You need to be able to understand that and understand our role in it. I know this is a corny cliche, but there is that one chant, “Ain’t no power, like the power of the students cause the power of the students don’t stop.” And it’s just so true. If you look back in history, in the ‘60s students at SF State went on strike for eight months, the longest student strike in US history. And they were able to win the first-ever college of Ethnic Studies. Students protested in the anti-war movement. Students protested against South African apartheid. Look at what students have achieved.

Also it’s very important for students to get in touch with other students, and build connections with students from other schools. I didn’t really know students on other campuses, but the encampment really got me talking with so many new people that are a part of this movement. We’d share with each other about specific college struggles and what we’re going through regarding our own negotiations. It would offer us support and help us know we were not alone. 

Stephanie Luce: It sounds like operating democratically and with open bargaining was a big advantage. Is that something you would recommend as well?

Ziniab Imtair: I think going into this encampment democratically was the best decision we ever made. People felt comfortable expressing their opinions and thoughts without this follow-the-leader thing. I think people stayed informed and stayed active because of it. A lot of times when things aren’t open, people just leave things to leadership and don’t feel like they are a part of the movement. They’re not encouraged to continue or build their own leadership or organizational skills. We had the opposite: people who have never been a part of any Palestine movement, or any Arab organizing at all, were able to build their own understanding of it and see their role in it.

Stephanie Luce: At the same time, it seems some encampments have struggled with structure, and how to have democratic functioning without one or two loud voices dominating and blocking negotiations from moving forward. How did you work out that balance?

Ziniab Imtair: I’ve talked to so many other campuses, and they were going through the same problems, just at different scales.  I heard that in some encampments, if one person voted no or abstained, the whole vote is rejected, or no one continued in negotiations.  But for us, we operated by majority vote rather than complete consensus. And if I saw someone abstaining or voting no, I’d go to talk to them and try to understand, and a lot of times, it was just misinformation.

I think every encampment had those types of people, but a lot of these people were new to Arab organizing and new to the Palestine movement. We talked with those people and let it be clear that this is not just an individual thing. This movement is bigger than just us, or our own personal opinion. All the wins we’ve made in the Arab movement, or the Palestine movement here in the diaspora, or even back home – these don’t just happen just because we ask for it. We built up towards these wins – this is the strategy.

We as people of color can’t just open doors and be able to get what we want. We have to go through the system that was implemented to make shit harder for us. It’s not ideal, and it sucks to have that system, but that’s what we need to go through in order to get what we want. We also emphasize that this is the first step. I’ve seen my sister work on campaigns for Arab American Studies in high schools. That didn’t take one month – it took like, three years. And even then, it was vetoed, which was horrible. But the wins we do get in the Arab community and the Palestine community, these take time and strategy. We need to take what we know from the past and build from that. And you need to be able to have your voice as a student body, and without negotiation, that would be difficult to do.

Stephanie Luce: What else would you like people to know about this movement?

Ziniab Imtair: I hope everyone knows that it doesn’t stop here. And that this isn’t just up to the students. It’s up to everyone to be a part of this. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we need to be able to hold each other accountable for that and continue to keep each other strong and united. This is a continuing struggle, and we won’t stop until Palestine is free.

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