University of Toronto student protest continues its call for divestment

May 10, 2024 | Campus News, GTA/Local News, Headlines, News

The beat of a drum and songs of hope were heard throughout the student encampment at King’s College Circle at the University of Toronto with Palestinian flags and posters throughout the grounds on May 9.

Large tents filled with food and water, areas for counselling, and students creating Palestinian-inspired jewelry within the encampment in support of their demands that the university divest itself of business and academic ties in Israel.

Dakota Russell, a student at the University of Toronto, said the week-long protest has made a tremendous impact on him because of the community’s involvement.

Dakota Russell shares his experience within the encampment and voices the protests goals to Humber News.

Dakota Russell shares his experience within the encampment and voices the protests goals to Humber News. Photo credit: Brandon Harris

“I’ve seen organization, I’ve seen protests, but something never like this where we’ve built a community that functions really well, and also stays in touch,” he said. “Every night we have an update on what the current situation in Rafah is, and how things are going on the other side of the world that keeps everybody in check, keeps everybody knowledgeable, and focuses us back on what the point of all of this is.”

Russell said students are joining the encampment, with engineers building tents and blocking lawn sprinklers, history majors sharing the history of Palestine, and journalism majors acting as media liaisons.

The protesters began setting up their camp on the university’s campus on May 2.

The terrorist group Hamas launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, sending thousands of armed individuals into the Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,100 people and kidnapping more than 250, including children.

In response, the Israeli military launched air and artillery strikes, causing more than 33,000 Palestinian casualties in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The protest is urging the University of Toronto to back out of partnerships that support Israeli military work in Gaza.

“There are academic institutions in Occupied Palestine that the university is allied with and helping with,” Russell said. “Those academic institutions are doing research on AI and physics and face detection that are currently being used to find targets in Gaza and in Rafah, and we don’t agree with our bright minds of the University of Toronto going towards killing children.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged encampment protesters on University of Toronto property to step down during a May 6 press conference after a Holocaust memorial at Queen’s Park, just blocks away from the university encampment.

Ford said he is a believer in free speech, yet said the encampments are inappropriate.

“I’m not in favour of these encampments on the universities, they need to move. The university has to move these people along,” he said.

Russell said Ford commented without proper education on the protest. He said those in power should not be biased when it comes to the public voice.

“I haven’t seen him come outside of the fence, he hasn’t looked inside, talked to us, or anything like that. He’s making a statement from behind closed doors,” he said. “Obviously, we were all kind of appalled at the way that he called for us to be dealt with.”

The university stated in a May 2 message to its community that the encampment would be allowed unless it breached any rules.

“Our property is private. You do not have our permission to be here after 10 p.m. In our communications with a representative of your group today, we reiterated our request that you leave campus by 10 p.m. However, if your activities remain peaceful, we do not intend to remove you from campus this evening,” the message said.

Sandy Welsh, the vice-provost of students for the university, said in a message the university welcomes and encourages “the full and frank exchange of ideas at U of T” but any action that contravenes policies, is illegal or is hate speech or threatens the safety of U of T students won’t be tolerated.

“We remain concerned about large numbers of the broader public coming to campus for rallies and marches,” she wrote. “There have been several incidents of particular concern, including reported assaults and hate speech.

“It is not clear how many of these involve individuals inside the encampment or members of the public,” Welsh said. “We have forwarded four reports to Project Resolute, a Toronto Police Service initiative to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia, for further investigation.”

The University of Toronto said online that disturbances will not be allowed.

“The existing encampment is limiting the use of a large shared-use space on the St. George campus,” the message read. “It entails health and safety risks for individuals in the encampment and for other members of the community, and it contravenes U of T policy on the temporary use of university space.”

In an updated version of the message, published May 9, the university said it received videos of altercations and concerning speech from members of the community.

Russell said the encampment protest has not been violent, and smoking and drinking are prohibited. He said they are complying with university rules.

“We are not violent, that’s one of our big things,” Russell said. “There’s people dancing, there’s people playing football on the field, people are bringing their kids and there’s families visiting.

Signs, banners, and flags decorated Kings College Circle at the University of Toronto, making a bold statement.

Signs, banners, and flags decorated Kings College Circle at the University of Toronto, making a bold statement. Photo credit: Brandon Harris

“We have been completely non-violent here,” he said. “If they think our chants and our protests are violent, then they have an issue with protesting, not with violence itself.”

Russell said the protesters’ interactions with counter-protests have been difficult but never physically violent.

“The only violence that we’ve seen so far is from the Zionists from the other side of the wall, yelling hateful messages at us,” he said. “Yesterday was the big 100-person Zionist rally that came by, and that wasn’t really violent in any way.”

Student encampments appeared throughout the United States, starting at Columbia University in New York City, supporting Palestinians and demanding their universities divest from Israel.

Many of the encampments have been torn down and removed by the universities. The New York Times reported more than 2,700 protesters have been arrested or detained in the U.S.

Calgary Police used tear gas and flash bangs to clear an encampment of about 60 people late Thursday at the University of Calgary.

Russell said he sees the conversation with the University of Toronto moving in the right direction and hopes to see positive change and involvement in the future.

“There is space for everyone,” he said.