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Student describes divestment negotiations with Brown University

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As protests continue on college campuses across the country in response to the war in Gaza, many schools have responded with suspensions and arrests of students and staff who participate. But at Brown University, they're trying something different. The university agreed to discuss the demonstrators' demands for divestment from, quote, "companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory," end quote, if they dismantled their encampment.

Isabella Garo is one of the students who was in the room for these negotiations. She's a member of the Brown Divest Coalition, and she joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ISABELLA GARO: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Isabella, to start, can you just briefly spell out what the demands of yourself and the other demonstrators were?

GARO: So, for this particular action, we had two central demands. One was to present a report. We wrote a 50-page report we called the addendums to a 2020 report in which an advisory committee at Brown University actually recommended divestment from the Israeli occupation all the way back in 2020. But the president of the university, President Christina Paxson, had refused to bring that report up for a vote in front of the corporation, which is the university's governing body.

And so our first demand was to allow us to present that report and then for the corporation as a full body to vote on that divestment resolution. And our second demand was to drop the charges against the 41, which is what we used to refer to the 41 students, myself included, who were arrested in a sit-in back in December at University Hall.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned, you were one of the students who was in the room for these negotiations with the university. Can you give us a sense of what it was like? What happened there?

GARO: Right. So I was actually quite intrigued by the entire process. I've had many interactions and meetings with various university administrators as a student activist over the years. But usually, those meetings are quite waffle-y (ph). It's very clear that the university is attempting to save face so that they can say they've engaged with students without actually doing anything about it after the fact.

But this was different. This time, I think they were worried about the backlash they'd seen against other universities, and so they wanted to negotiate. And that certainly were a benefit. There were six of us negotiating in there. And we negotiated with two university administrators - Eric Estes and Russell Carey - with a proposal in hand that they had actually sent us earlier that day.

SUMMERS: What's the status of the encampment there at Brown today?

GARO: The encampment itself is gone. As part of the agreement, we cleared out by 5 p.m. Tuesday, which is the day that the negotiations ended. That's not to say that we are gone or that our campaign is gone. We very much intend to continue organizing to ensure a yes vote in October in the corporation.

But in terms of conduct, the students will go through the regular conduct proceedings of Brown University. They will meet - I say they - myself and others will meet with conduct deans and other people who work in the university to handle these sorts of things. Discipline will be doled out on a case-by-case basis, but it will be nothing worse than probation as guaranteed by the agreement.

SUMMERS: Some people might make the argument that divestment could lessen the endowment, which then could jeopardize things like scholarship funding or, say, financial aid. How do you respond to that?

GARO: I respond by saying, once again, our university has divested on multiple occasions, and yet, over these years, they have still been able to increase things like financial aid. And so I do think it is a tool that administrators and corporation members might use to deflect responsibility for needing to divest. But at the end of the day, they have found a way to make their academic institution more accountable. I'm confident in the ability of our university to do that.

SUMMERS: You've mentioned that a vote by Brown's board would happen this fall. I'm hoping you can map out the steps that happen before that. We're here in May. What happens next?

GARO: Well, what happens next is the presentation to a group of corporation members actually this month. So that was also guaranteed in the agreement, that we will get to present our report, the addendums to the '20 ACCRIP report, detailing what divestment from the Israeli occupation might look like here at Brown.

After that, it will be a lot of mobilizing. And the lead-up to the October corporation meeting - what that looks like, exactly, you know, I can't know. But I'm confident in the ability of my fellow activists to do the work and to do it right.

SUMMERS: You're there on campus. What has the response been from your fellow students to this latest development?

GARO: Right. I mean, there's a lot of responses, right? Some people are just relieved that there's finally movement in this campaign. Some people never liked the protests in the first place and are simply relieved the encampment is gone. There's also some people who have expressed some disappointment. You know, they wanted to see divestment outright.

SUMMERS: The vote that we've been talking about - it doesn't happen for six months, and none of us have any way to know what public sentiment may feel like then, what it may look like then. But you sound incredibly confident that this vote in six months could go your way. What makes you so sure that the sentiment will be on your side then?

GARO: I think the hope of a yes vote in October is actually really mobilizing. I think it fuels the fire of this movement. I am excited to see how we continue to organize. When we do clinch that yes vote in October, there will be students around the country who see that. Even if the media is not all zeroed in on this movement then, the students will be.

SUMMERS: That's Isabella Garo, a senior at Brown University and a member of the Brown Divest Coalition. Isabella, thank you.

GARO: Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: We reached out to Brown University for comment, and University spokesperson Brian Clark sent a Response. It reads in part, quote, "reaching a peaceful end to the unauthorized encampment was an important focus over the last few days." He continued, and I'm quoting here, "the Brown endowment is almost entirely invested through external specialist investment managers, all with the highest level of ethics. This includes the rejection of violence." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.