McGill, News

Protestors occupy James Administration Building, demanding McGill heed encampment’s calls for divestment

At roughly 4:00 p.m. on June 6, student protestors occupied the James Administration Building to demand that McGill divest from companies complicit in the Israeli genocide of Palestinians. Protestors obstructed doors to the building using materials such as metal fencing and blocked paths leading to the entrance by standing side by side, linking arms. Police arrived at the site by 4:50 p.m. At around 7:30 p.m., police used force to break up a crowd of roughly 150 protestors outside the building, pushing them with riot shields and using pepper spray and tear gas. At around 10:00 p.m., police left the site, arresting 13 protesters for breaking and entering, and two for obstruction of police. 

Just under two hours after the occupation began, McGill sent out an email to all staff and students asking them to avoid James Square and Milton Gates, warning that police were on site. At 8:00 a.m. the next morning, McGill sent another email stating that police had been on site the previous evening in response to protestors, and that the area was now clear. 

The occupation came 41 days after student protestors from McGill, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÁM), and Concordia University began an encampment on the lower field of McGill’s downtown campus. The encampment strives to pressure McGill and Concordia to disclose and withdraw from investments valued at less than $500,000 in institutions complicit in the genocide of Palestinians. McGill’s investments worth over $500,000 are already publicly available. Protestors also demand that their respective universities compel the Canadian government to condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza and that they refrain from punishing student protestors with disciplinary action. 

In an interview with The Tribune, a representative of the encampment, Dana*, explained that the occupation came after weeks of unsuccessful negotiations with McGill in which they have failed to meet demands for concrete action towards divestment.

“Instead, [McGill] kept trying to give proposals that go through these institutional mechanisms that have historically failed the student body, but also that take up to years, […] to achieve divestment, and it’s not even a guarantee,” Dana said. 

In response to the occupation, Saini issued a statement on June 7 in which he noted that police made multiple arrests and thanked them for “their expertise in handling the situation.” Saini wrote that protestors vandalized the interior and exterior of the building and alleged that some staff in James Administration reported protestors shouting verbal threats at them.

In response to these claims, the encampment representative emphasized the violence perpetrated through McGill’s investments.

“I think investing in companies that manufacture weapons and bombs being used to genocide an entire population is more violent than students actively protesting against it,” Dana said.

Dana also condemned McGill’s choice to call police on peaceful student protesters on several occasions both before and after the encampment was created.

“It’s shameful, because this is an institution that preaches about freedom of speech and democracy, but then they repress their students, which have articulated their demands in a very democratic way,” they said. 

In his June 7 statement, Saini went on to list other incidents that have occurred since the encampment began, citing the hanging of an effigy of an Israeli politician outside Roddick Gates, protests outside the homes of senior management, demonstrations outside the offices of McGill staff, “verbal altercations between protesters and students and their families who came to take pictures on campus after the convocation ceremony,” and graffiti on buildings on campus as examples of unjustified actions.

Dana told The Tribune that “a lot of autonomous groups” were undertaking these actions, but noted that some of the incidents demonstrate community support behind the encampment. 

On June 11, McGill President Deep Saini issued another email with an updated proposal to organizers. It included three actions that McGill had already offered encampment organizers in a previous meeting, along with one new action. McGill offered to “examine divestment from companies whose revenues largely come from weapons.” The administration proposed to speed up the process that brings concerns about the university’s investments before the Board of Governors Investment Committee—the body responsible for approving changes to the McGill Investment Pool. 

The university also offered to “increase McGill’s links to scholars and institutions in Gaza and the West Bank, and provide urgent support to displaced students and scholars.” Thirdly, McGill offered to make public their investments valued under $500,000 where possible. 

The fourth and final item was to offer amnesty to those participating in the encampment prior to June 15. However, this amnesty would not apply to those who occupied James Administration, or were responsible for “the destruction of property, vandalism, harassment, etc.”

Dana described this additional action as a “distraction” from the important issues at stake for protestors.

“Refusing amnesty to specific people is just a way to divide and subdue certain people whose only charge really is protesting against a genocide,” they said.

In his June 11 email, Saini went on to emphasize that McGill has faced difficulties in negotiations with encampment representatives, and compared McGill’s offer to those of universities in which students agreed to dismantle encampments.

“In many other institutions, we’ve seen encampment leaders work with campus administration to find some common ground that represents positive change, despite disagreements,” Saini wrote. “Yet, McGill’s offer, which is comparable to that made by other universities who have reached resolutions, has been rejected by the encampment on our campus.” 

However, a representative of the encampment, Omar*, was critical of McGill’s approach to negotiations. They told The Tribune that after the university’s first injunction request was rejected in court, organizers asked McGill not to file further legal action against the encampment while negotiations were ongoing. However, McGill moved ahead with filing an interlocutory injunction, which seeks to permanently remove the encampment. 

“[That] shows what McGill is willing to do, how they are engaging in the conversation, and [how it’s] not in good faith at all,” Omar said on June 5.

In response to these claims, McGill’s Media Relations Office reiterated in an email to The Tribune that the university had “presented offers in good faith” with encampment organizers.

On June 18, Saini issued another email announcing that the administration will cease discussions with encampment representatives. He wrote that while McGill intends to follow through with the first three items, they will now seek disciplinary action against encampment participants. 

“As our proposal was rejected, the University will pursue disciplinary processes against individuals participating in the encampment to the full extent outlined in the university’s policies. We are also investigating the full spectrum of legal recourses available to us to recover from the damages incurred.”

A recent graduate of McGill and a current McGill student, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed criticism of the university’s handling of negotiations and the occupation. They were among those supporting a Montreal-wide protest calling for an end to Israel’s siege on Gaza on June 9, which ended at Roddick Gates. They told The Tribune that they attended the protest to show solidarity with Palestinian and Muslim people, to support students at the encampment, and to oppose the university’s response to student protests for Palestine. In particular, the recent graduate condemned Saini’s choice to thank police for their work during the occupation, stating that it demonstrated a lack of care for the health and safety of students.

“If I had known that this is how McGill would have handled this when I applied, I would not have applied to the school,” the recent McGill graduate said. “It’s just so embarrassing to say that I’m going to this school, I’m paying money, I’m funding this.”

*Dana and Omar’s names have been changed to preserve their confidentiality.

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