A 'subdued' history of activism

Rather than actively protest, students often use University's institutions to spark change

Both Israel on Campus and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights held rallies on campus Thursday afternoon.
Both Israel on Campus and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights held rallies on campus Thursday afternoon.
Photo: 
Photo: 

The heart of campus saw students protest yesterday in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza strip.

Almost 100 students and community members gathered to show their support for both sides of the conflict. The relatively small turnout, similar to other recent rallies that have occurred on campus, is in keeping with Queen’s history of “subdued” campus activism, according to University Historian, Duncan McDowall.

A rally hosted by Israel on Campus (IOC) at noon drew approximately 50 students and community members who marched through campus waving flags in support of the Israeli people.

Shortly after, a similar number participated in a second rally run by the Queen’s chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). Attendees chanted, “let Gaza live” and “free Palestine” while waving Palestinian flags.

Although marks of solidarity were evident yesterday, students at Queen’s have historically been slow to rush into the streets at the drop of a hat, according to Duncan McDowall.

“You want to hear that in 1968 the whole student body was on University Ave. screaming. That did not happen,” he said. “There’s a tendency to talk about it like the ten ’o clock news. [But] activism has other forms.”

McDowall believes that students react to global issues on campus in some cases by using the University’s institutions to incite change. For example, student politicians often work inside the system by sending in petitions and holding referenda.

“Its student culture has been very ‘small c’ conservative,” he said.

Since Kingston isn’t close to the urban centres and immigration hubs of Toronto or Montreal, there’s less of a focus on contemporary social issues.

Yet for Alexander Rotman, president of Israel on Campus — a group that promotes the Jewish state ­— the Queen’s public at large seems to be receptive to learning about issues, such as the current conflict in Gaza, due to their involvement in the community.

“We’re here to stand with them and to show them that they’re not alone,” Rotman, ArtSci ’13, said before the rally.

“I think it’s important for the pro-Israel community at Queen’s to stand together and unite themselves, specifically at this event.” He believes people on campus should see that students are passionate about the issue.

Rotman noted that around 75 per cent of the children of the Israeli town Sderot — which is approximately one km away from Gaza — suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to ongoing rocket fire.

“Oftentimes people look at Israel and see Israel as a goliath beating on the Palestinians but it’s important to realize that there are people in Israel that suffer day-to-day struggles,” Rotman said.

He added that while he doesn’t think there is any animosity between IOC and SPHR, different mandates can sometimes lead to the groups butting heads.

SPHR rally organizer Nadine Abu-Ghazaleh said she wants the University to boycott Israeli products or any local companies that support the Israeli cause.

“In light of recent events, we knew this sense of urgency had to come through. Given the ceasefire yesterday, which was a great thing, it’s a perfect time to speak on behalf of the Palestinians,” she said.

Abu-Ghazaleh, ArtSci ’14, said there are many students who are unaware of the current conflict, as well as global issues as a whole.

“People don’t know a lot about anything outside their own country,” she said. “This is why we’re standing here now. If this will make them go research or do anything to learn about this issue, then we’ll have done our job.” Most Queen’s students, she said, are involved in charity organizations and non-political clubs. She believes being a student activist can come with professional risks, particularly in her case. She said there’s always the fear that supporting the Palestinian cause will be equated with anti-Semitism.

“That could in the long-run jeopardize future professions or even interviews, but I’m not really afraid of that,” she said.

The debate surrounding Israel-Palestine has been going on for over half a century, but Queen’s students also took a stance on other major global issues long before that.

The AMS hired buses during the Vietnam War to transport groups of students to bigger Canadian cities to partake in the larger student protests and rallies that were occurring.

Between 1970 and 1990, students were opposed to some of the administration’s endowment fund investments in companies such as Noranda, a Canadian mining company with reserves in Chile.

Students were opposed to Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile at the time, which they considered undemocratic. Other controversial investments were with companies such as Goodyear rubber in South Africa during the apartheid.

A referendum followed the student opposition and the majority of students voted against the investment, which caused the University to pull its investments out of Chile.

With technology increasingly coming to the forefront of activism, the Internet has changed students’ needs to go out and protest, according to Carlos Prado, a professor of philosophy at Queen’s.

“The Internet sort of robs people of a certain impulse,” he said. “The trouble is that the impact it has in a way is less because you get your views out there [on the Internet], feel they’re being read and appreciated and then you don’t do much.”

After moving from Berkeley to Queen’s in 1963 to complete his PhD, Prado said he noticed a difference in degrees of activism between the two campuses.

In California, a significant number of the demonstrators were liable to be drafted to the war and this gave people a personal interest, as well as a political one, he said.

Prado added that he found the coverage of the war in California was more extensive than in Canada and that protests at Berkeley were often focused on specific parts of the Vietnam War, such as the drafting procedures for university students.

“When I got here, I had the impression that there was genuine outrage and protests but maybe not to the same degree of familiarity with what was going on,” he said.

Much of the activism at Berkeley took the form of a number of sit-ins and students demonstrating with banners outside of the administration building, Sproul Hall.

Prado said people tended to congregate in the area around Sproul Hall, where students were allowed to disseminate war information via 15-20 small booths. When these booths were banned by the University, Prado recalled seeing a crowd of approximately 300-400 students outside of the Hall.

“[The leader] was standing on what I thought was a ladder or platform above the students,” Prado said, adding that on second glance the leader was actually standing on top of a police car.

The students had jammed themselves around the police car after the two students had been arrested and the car was unable to drive away.

The group stayed in place for a full day and into the night with students bringing food for those still there, Prado said. He added that this was one of the best examples of the Berkeley protests because it showed the solidarity of the students.

At Berkeley, Prado guessed that, on average, there were a couple of hundred people protesting when there was a demonstration. The biggest crowd he remembers from his time at Queen’s was a demonstration of 40-50 people gathered outside the Principal’s house.

“I thought the protests at Queen’s were, in comparison, much more subdued. There wasn’t any real violence on the part of the protesters.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.