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News / Northwest

University of Washington regents met with chants to ‘free, free Palestine’

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: May 9, 2024, 5:30pm

SEATTLE — Protesters packed the University of Washington’s Board of Regents meeting Thursday, demanding the university cut ties with Israel and Boeing and turning the normally staid meeting into a boisterous affair punctuated by chants to “free, free Palestine.”

About 200 protesters gathered an hour before the meeting, holding signs saying “divest from genocide,” “divest from war profiteers,” and “long live the intifada.”

They chanted outside UW’s Dempsey Hall, while regents met three floors above. A few police officers were stationed at the building’s entrances.

The demonstration in front of the regents marks the latest effort to bring attention to the relationship between the university and Israel. Protesters have been calling on UW to divest from companies that do business with Israel, including Boeing, a major weapons supplier to Israel as well as a longtime donor to the university.

Divestiture was not on the board’s agenda, and the regents listened but did not substantively respond to protesters. UW leadership has made clear it has no plans to cut ties with Boeing, but said Thursday they hope to find “common ground” with protesters.

Hamady Shaqur, a third-year undergraduate, was one of a handful of protesters to address the board during a 45-minute public comment period.

A Palestinian student, she said she’s lost 159 family members in the war in Gaza, calling the UW “complicit in the horrors of what is happening.”

“How is it fair that my sisters and I can graduate alongside our classmate when she has to bury hers in unmarked graves,” she said, speaking of her cousin in Gaza.

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There are more than 100 tents on the UW Quad, an encampment that began 10 days ago, protesting the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

“We are a peaceful demonstration,” Juliette Magid, an organizer with the UW United Front for Palestinian Liberation, told the Board of Regents. “We hope and we pray that you are listening to us that you are engaging with us in good faith.”

Last week, protesters at The Evergreen State College in Olympia agreed to remove their week-old encampment after striking a deal with administrators that includes the school publicly urging a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and exploring divestment from companies that profit from “the occupation of Palestinian territories.”

As the Board of Regents meeting commenced, cheers and chants were faintly audible from protesters outside.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” protesters shouted, with a refrain that has been a rallying cry to demand equality for Palestinians but is also seen by some as a call for eradicating Israel.

Dan Berger, an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell, framed the protest as a fight “for the soul of the university.”

“Whether the university should be a place for the pursuit of knowledge or the pursuit of profit,” Berger told the rallygoers. “Is it acceptable for universities to benefit from human suffering?”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce has declined to meet the demands. In a February letter to protesters, before the encampment was set up, she wrote that the university can’t cut its ties with Boeing and wouldn’t want to even if it could.

The Boeing name is splashed across the campus: The Boeing Advanced Research Center, Boeing Auditorium, the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics. In 2022 the company gave $10 million toward a new interdisciplinary engineering building. Boeing has donated more than $100 million to the UW and thousands of graduates have gone on to work at the aerospace giant.

Thursday’s meeting was the first for newly appointed regent, David Schumacher, who is director of Washington’s Office of Financial Management and a former Boeing executive.

“Boeing’s support for the UW in time, talent and funding cannot be replaced by other endowment sources, nor would we choose to sever our relationship if they could be,” Cauce wrote in February.

Last week, a university spokesperson essentially reiterated that stance.

Protesters left the meeting after about an hour, as the board went into private session to discuss unrelated matters.

When the public meeting resumed, Cauce and Board Chair Dave Zeeck, speaking to a much emptier room, offered measured praise to the protesters.

“Today was a relatively successful day, could have gone much worse. I appreciate the general civility of the students,” Zeeck said. “I respect and appreciate the passion and the kind of moral center that they’re trying to express.”

Cauce said she was proud “many of our community members have raised their voices.”

“The current moment feels especially turbulent and therefore agonizing,” she said. “We are engaging with students across an array of positions and we hope that we can find some common ground.”