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Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Student protest should be about more than just making a statement

Demonstrators should have formulated a list of demands before engaging in protest
Evan Harris
The protest held in front of Wait Chapel on April 30 evolved into an encampment, which was moved to Manchester Plaza on May 1.

As a graduating senior, my time at Wake Forest University has been underscored by the noble act of student protest. I’ve witnessed demonstrations against the university’s COVID-19 policies, a protest against the readmission of a student accused of sexual assault, open criticism of the university’s partnerships with companies such as Aramark (our food and dining facilities provider) and most recently, a rally in support of Palestine that developed into an encampment on Hearn Plaza, which was then moved to Manchester Quad

As we observe similar demonstrations unfold on college campuses across the nation, we are reminded of the potential that student-led demonstrations hold and their ability to create tangible change not only in school and university policies but at a legislative level. Wake Forest must both create and maintain the space for members of our community to protest, to express their right to openly dissent and to criticize the institution that they are a part of, even if it is a private institution.

Accessibility is non-negotiable in protest, but it doesn’t end with accessibility of space in which to protest, nor is it defined by accessibility of ability to challenge without fear of retribution. It also encompasses the accessibility of rhetoric. 

To put it simply, members of our community deserve to understand why a demonstration on a college campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. has any impact whatsoever on a conflict between Israel and Hamas transpiring thousands of miles away. They deserve to understand the vague calls for Wake Forest to divest. Students deserve a publicized, comprehensive list of demands so that they may recognize what steps the protestors are asking the institution to take should they choose to join forces with the protestors. 

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It has taken the protestors days after beginning the encampment to provide the student body with this, when they should have had access to it before the demonstration had even begun. 

The act of protest through encampment is a debilitating process, especially in the Winston-Salem heat. The willingness of members of our community to do this to draw attention to atrocities occurring against Palestinian people who are unable to defend themselves is honorable and must be characterized as such. However, in Wake Forest’s current political climate, the protest is also being characterized as alienating. Members of on-campus Jewish communities, including Chabad and Hillel at Wake Forest, have expressed concern for the safety of Jewish students on campus in light of the demonstration. 

This is rhetoric that has cropped up in numerous college campuses that have hosted similar demonstrations. The rise of protests in support of Palestine has also created rising concerns of anti-semitism on college campuses. However, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that these protests and encampments are not inherently divisive. Last week, Seder dinners were hosted in pro-Palestine protest spaces and at encampments on multiple college campuses in light of the beginning of Passover, including at the tent encampment at Columbia University, which includes many Jewish protesters. While these actions served to unify the community in support of Palestine, they also disemboweled any attempt to label the demonstration as inherently anti-semitic. 

However, divisiveness is not the only factor that separates the protests unfolding on our university’s campus from the ones occurring elsewhere, even at other college campuses within North Carolina. Last Sunday, a demonstration in support of Palestine on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill brought out over 500 students, faculty and community members in support. The protests on Wake Forest’s campus have not exhibited that kind of strength in numbers. 

I will not accept the idea that Wake Forest is not a politically active campus. We may not be rooted in a city as heavily populated, urban and left-leaning as New York City, but our student body does stand for important things. This has been previously demonstrated by past protests, including one held on Hearn Plaza in 2021 against the readmission of a student accused of sexual assault. This demonstration, which drove out over 300 students, proved this campus’ ability to assemble. 

Considering all of these factors, many of us have begun to ask the same questions when assessing the activism currently present on our campus: why is this protest so divisive? Why do the protestors seem so disconnected from the rest of our student body? 

Part of the reason may be the issue being protested, which is much more controversial and divisive in nature than issues that have been protested on campus in the past. However, a large part of it also encompasses the way the protest has been conducted. Any organization or movement is bound to have a difficult time convincing their community that their cause is tied to Black liberation when they deliberately schedule a protest to coincide with a Commemoration of the Enslaved, an event sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion with the purpose of honoring enslaved persons that either worked for or were sold for the benefit of Wake Forest. 

There are groups of people and individuals on campus who may recognize that the struggle for freedom is tied to Palestinian liberation, but overarchingly, the on-campus sentiment focuses on the insensitivity of this action. Protest groups don’t tend to disrupt events whose principles they agree with. 

The participants of the protest seem to have one consistent, centralized point around which all of their rhetoric is based — the call upon Wake Forest to divest in Israel-backed companies, shareholders and partnerships. While this is an admirable principle, Wake Forest only actually invests in partial indexes that track the stock performance of Fortune 500 companies, which are passive by definition. What this means is that, as far as we know, Wake Forest is not actively investing in any Israel-backed companies or weapons manufacturers. In part, this is what makes the protestors’ calls to divest so obscure.

This rhetoric becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously when accounting for the fact that there are much more solid, tangible steps our institution could take to withdraw support from companies and individuals supporting Israel. Currently, Wake Forest contracts The Budd Group for the provision of service facility staff to campus. The company itself is owned by the family of N.C. Senator Ted Budd. Not only does the company have a history of unfair employee treatment and workplace violations, but Senator Budd himself has been incredibly consistent with his pro-Israel stances. Budd has received about $159,000 from pro-Israel donors due to his stances. 

Just this week, Budd headed a coalition of U.S. Senators aiming to introduce a resolution condemning anti-Israel student protests nationwide. He also introduced the United States-Israel Anti-Tunnel Cooperation Act, expanding the collaboration between the Department of Defense and the Israeli Defense Forces by $30 million with the goal of destroying tunnels that have been constructed underneath the Gaza Strip. 

“We should send Israel the weapons they need to eliminate Hamas and free the remaining hostages – one, by the way, is a North Carolinian,” Budd said in a press release in April. 

Yet, there is no mention of the University’s agreements with the Budd Group amongst the protestors’ list of demands or on any of the social media platforms they have been using to publicize their message. Instead, the demands double down on calls for Wake Forest to restructure its investment portfolio, and call attention to the University’s partnership with Harvest Table, our food and dining facilities provider, which is an independent division of Aramark.

Aramark is an unethical organization, as evidenced by the numerous controversies they have been embroiled in that involve workplace harassment, the provision of poor quality food to prison inmates and employee mistreatment. However, their involvement in the Israel-Hamas war has been incredibly limited, encompassing a singular statement released by the corporations’ socials on Oct. 12 where they sent their thoughts and prayers to those affected by the Oct. 7 attacks. While demanding that the University end its collaboration with Aramark is valid, this diverts from the main, stated goal of the protest because the corporation simply cannot be linked to Israel in a meaningful way. 

This is not the only area where the University is subject to calls for improvement. Demonstrators are subject to additional rules such as which sidewalks they can or cannot chalk slogans onto. In fact, there is a different set of rules that apply to Hearn Plaza that aren’t enforced on other on-campus spaces — rules that seem incredibly arbitrary. Furthermore, last week Wake Forest University President Dr. Susan Wente sent out correspondence to the community in which a slogan spray-painted onto the sidewalk was labeled as “vile, antisemitic language.” According to a statement released by Winifred W. Palmer Professor in Literature Dean Franco, Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History Barry Trachtenberg and Associate Professor of History Mir Yarfitz, the slogan the correspondence refers to states “from the river to the sea”. (Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, the Old Gold & Black has not confirmed that “from the river to the sea” is the phrase that Wente refers to in her email.) The idea that this is an inherently bigoted sentence when enlisted by pro-Palestinian protestors is absurd — it simply calls for Palestinian people to be given the right to exist free from oppression in a land that is their own.

As it stands today, the encampment on Manchester Plaza has been cleared following the escalation of discourse between the protestors, anti-protestors and members of the administration yesterday. After limiting all student protests for the remainder of the academic year to 12 hours in the daytime (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), banning the use of sound amplification devices in demonstrations (while student-run recreational organizations are still allowed to use them for their events) and forcing the protestors to move their demonstrations to yet another field on campus, the University seems to have missed the point of the demonstrations in the first place. The act of protest is meant to be an act of defiance, the kind of defiance the protestors exhibited when they spray-painted University property. This is something that the University seems to deliberately water down when enforcing these rules. 

Ultimately, this demonstration has not had the impact on our community that many hoped it would. The demonstrators have been unable to enlist the widespread support of the student body, instead becoming the subjects of jokes on Fizz, an on-campus anonymous social media app. Having witnessed the shortcomings of this protest, the importance of accessibility of protest has become increasingly evident. A protest such as this one should be about concrete, publicly stated steps the institution can take to mitigate injustice, instead of camping just for the sake of making a statement.

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About the Contributor
Maryam Khanum
Maryam Khanum, Opinion Editor

Maryam is a senior from Karachi, Pakistan. She is majoring in political science with a minor in philosophy. Outside of OGB, she’s either listening to indie rock, watching true crime documentaries or looking for a new (pretentious) book to read.

Comments (7)

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  • A

    anonMay 15, 2024 at 11:34 pm

    i’m sorry but is it the author’s genuine opinion that protest shouldn’t be about making a statement??? that’s what protest is……..

  • S

    StudentMay 12, 2024 at 12:23 pm

    This is a fantastic piece. I think you articulated precisely how many students are feeling right now — great job.

    • S

      studentMay 13, 2024 at 1:24 am

      disagree ngl

  • S

    StudentMay 11, 2024 at 11:17 pm

    “A protest such as this one should be about concrete, publicly stated steps the institution can take to mitigate injustice” I’m confused whether the author knows what divestment is. “Passive” investment is meaningless, because the distinction being made is whether Wake picks the stock or whether we invest in an index fund that includes private military contractors profiting off destruction in Palestine. The end result is Wake holding investments in companies supporting genocide. They held teach-ins you could have attended if you didn’t understand the goals, but that’s a failure of your understanding at the end of the day. Wake’s investments are not meaningfully different from any of the other campuses considering divestment right now, you just fell for a press release. This article is, frankly, silly. You’re making marginal critiques of 20 protestors among a student body of 5000. What does this article achieve? Who is it for? If you care so much, you could have been there with them. What have you done for Palestine?

    • A

      AnonymousMay 13, 2024 at 12:20 am

      It’s silly to police constructive criticism. There are lots of people who support Palestine but didn’t join the encampment for a myriad of reasons. This article is clearly just offering points of reflection for better student activism going forward. You seem personally offended, which is understandable, but get over yourself. It’s about taking a step back to see how much more effective the protest/encampment could have been given more strategy and accessibility being incorporated throughout the planning and execution. Stop being defensive it’s embarrassing.

      “What have you done for Palestine?”
      1) don’t assume shit about someone else’s work towards a cause they clearly care about
      2) activism isn’t a competition…you sound silly responding with this in the face of critique. if you can’t handle critique from people on your side, there’s no hope for you to build a large enough coalition to accomplish your goals. (hence why it was only about 20 students)

      • S

        StudentMay 15, 2024 at 11:44 pm

        It’s not about policing constructive criticism. It’s about the author making *basic* factual misunderstandings that color their perception of the protest. If I didn’t understand what divestment was, I also wouldn’t support a protest for Wake to divest. Constructive criticism means having a meaningful contribution — not parroting Wake’s press release without an ounce of critical thought. The core issue here is that the article literally just misunderstands what an index fund is, and was fooled into believing Wake doesn’t profit from Israeli contractors because we pay someone to invest in them for us instead of investing in them ourselves. The article did offer points of reflection, but it would have been good for the editorial board to reflect on them for a moment before hitting publish.

        Activism isn’t a competition, it’s collaborative. When someone who didn’t participate in a protest critiques from the outside, that’s stupid, because they had the opportunity to participate and chose not to. The point is that they’re more interested in imagining a utopian vision of protest than they are in the actual work of organizing. Writing a pithy article after the fact is silly because if they wanted any of this to happen they could have just participated and done that themselves! I’m not assuming — I know for a fact the author didn’t participate in the encampment!
        Critique from people on our side is critique from people who were protesting. Those who sat by silently are not on our side!

  • AnonymousMay 11, 2024 at 1:19 pm

    the demands were articulated since day one outside the chapel idk what ure talking about. how does it look when wake forest commemorates the stealing of land from the natives when its actively a part of the stealing of another people’s land? idc whether wake forest helps israel a lot or very less, it should be none. also the protest was not just about palestine, but other colonised and oppressed people all over the world like congo, haiti etc.