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Pro-Palestine protesters rally for free speech

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday May 03, 2002

Two hundred pro-Palestinian protesters marched on UC Berkeley’s California Hall Thursday afternoon, protesting the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine, calling on the UC system to divest from Israel and demanding a meeting with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl. 

“What does Berdahl have to hide? UC’s funding genocide,” the protesters chanted. 

Protesters met a wall of UC Berkeley police at the entrance, and the Chancellor’s office did not send a representative down to meet the group. 

“It wasn’t exactly conducive to conversation,” said Assistant Chancellor John Cummins. 

The university did allow one SJP member, Meera Vaidyanathan, to hand deliver a statement to Cummins demanding that the university lift its temporary suspension of the student group. 

UC Berkeley suspended the organization last week pending an investigation of its role in the April 9 occupation of Wheeler Hall. Under the terms of the suspension, the group cannot reserve rooms or outdoor spaces for meetings and protests. 

SJP reserved Sproul Plaza, where Thursday’s “Free Speech Free Palestine” protest began, under the name of a different organization – Mediawatch. But members defiantly proclaimed their SJP affiliation at the protest. 

“I am a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and proud to organize for Students for Justice in Palestine,” said Snehal Shingavi, an SJP leader. 

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“As far as we’re concerned, Mediawatch reserved the plaza,” said Dean of Students Karen Kenney, suggesting that SJP will not face further charges for Thursday’s action. 

Kenney emphasized that, while SJP cannot reserve campus facilities, the group can still participate in rallies staged by other groups, speak out freely and identify itself as Students for Justice in Palestine. 

Kenney said Director of Student Judicial Affairs Neal Rajmaira will meet with an SJP representative Monday, concluding its investigation of the group’s role in the April 9 occupation. The university will then determine whether to file formal charges against SJP. 

If charged, the group will have an opportunity to negotiate a settlement or go to a hearing, Kenney said. 

Activists suggested that the university has suspended SJP because of its political point of view. 

“The university does not want anyone to hear about...what it’s helping to fund and support in the occupied territories,” said Linda Sherif of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. 

But university officials said the issue is SJP’s disruption of classes at Wheeler Hall, not its message. Chancellor Berdahl issued a statement Wednesday reflecting this position. 

“It is important to understand that this is neither an issue of free speech, nor of the right to hold demonstrations on campus,” the statement read. “The issue is the occupation of an academic building, interfering with the rights of other students to continue their education.” 

“The demonstration at Wheeler Hall was an attempt at education,” replied Dennis Childs, a graduate student who spoke at the protest. 

Randy Barnes, a member of Israel Action Committee, was one of dozens of pro-Israeli activists who held a counter-demonstration Thursday. 

“They’re throwing a big temper tantrum,” Barnes said, describing SJP’s protest of the suspension. He said the university’s action is warranted because the students violated campus rules during the Wheeler Hall occupation. 

UC Berkeley police arrested 79 activists on April 9, including 41 students. The activists were arraigned on various charges Tuesday, ranging from trespassing to resisting arrest, and face pre-trial hearings next week. 

The 41 students also face possible disciplinary action from the university, ranging from probation to a one-year suspension.