In the Fall of 1964, administration officials at UC Berkeley banned students from participating in political activities on campus. In response, students from across the political spectrum protested, sat-in, risked arrest and their academic careers, in what is now known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). The victories won by Jack Weinberg, Brian Turner, Michael Rossman, Bettina Aptheker, Mario Savio, and others in the FSM are in large part, why college campuses remain a place where students can engage in rigorous debate of any topic. Now however, much of what these activists worked for may be at risk.
Recently, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that according to the New York Times, "essentially created a blacklist of entities that boycott or divest from Israel or encourage others to do so, banning those companies from receiving taxpayer funding." The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS, is a strategy intended to combat Israel's nearly 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, "a situation that three former Israeli prime ministers, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry, have warned would become akin to apartheid if allowed to continue."
The New York State legislature has followed suit. This time however, the action is directed specifically at students. The bill recently passed by the New York State Senate, S8017, bars student groups in the SUNY and CUNY system from receiving funds if they participate in any activities that "cause harm to or otherwise promote or cast disrepute upon, such allied nation, its people, or its commercial products." The bill is clearly designed to shield Israel from criticism. The language specifically referring to "allied nation and boycotts" is exactly the same as two other pieces of anti-BDS legislation that circulated earlier this year that focused on penalizing and monitoring NGOs, corporations and individuals involved in the BDS movement.
While blunting the BDS movement on college campuses is clearly the primary aim, the language is a frightening overreach that could have long lasting implications. As a Peace Action New York State Fund Board member, I can attest to the fact that this bill would all but ensure Peace Action student chapters would cease to exist as many depend on these funds to operate. Therefore, students would not be allowed to raise awareness about refugees who are discriminated against in European nations, protest free trade agreements, child labor, rape, human rights abuses, economic inequality, nuclear proliferation, or any campaign that casts a negative light on an "allied nation," in essence shielding 56 countries and various corporations operating with them.
As student peace activists are under attack, colleges and universities continue to serve as recruitment centers for the military. Officers promise to pay for students' education and offer a chance to see the world, while refusing to utter phrases such as loss of limbs, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or death. Universities continue to serve as a resource for the Pentagon to research and develop weapons. Students are dissuaded from studying peace, ethnic studies, or history. They are rewarded for conformity and encouraged to pick a major that will guarantee financial gain for both the student and the college.
Students have always been crucial to the success of social movements in the U.S., whether it was free speech, civil rights, Vietnam, women's liberation, peace, or nuclear disarmament. Now, the New York State Government is trying to eliminate students' ability to fight for change. If they are successful in this endeavor, are we to think other states, especially traditional red states, would not follow suit? Writing this I cannot help but be reminded of Mario Savio's famous words as he stood in Sproul Plaza over fifty years ago imploring activists to resist this type of repression: "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
At a time when the voices of bigotry, racism, and war mongering have in many ways, become the loudest, we cannot allow New York State to silence those students fighting for peace. This nation, and indeed the world, need their voices now more than ever.