A Year of Activism

Post-Ferguson

by Briana Payton ’17

Near the end of the summer of 2014, the unarmed Michael Brown was shot in cold blood and left lying dead in the street for hours. Though the nation was in uproar, I was expected to return to my beautiful campus at one of the most elite institutions in the world and go on with business as usual. There would be meetings to attend and studying to do, all within a bubble of an environment that was perfect for blocking out the real world. I had an escape, yet I chose not to use it. I could not escape my own anger, my own sadness, or any of the grief stemming from a demand for justice. Thankfully, I was not alone. Many of my fellow classmates expressed similar emotions, eventually rising to the point where we couldn’t take it any longer.

Starting with an email chain between members of the Black Leadership Coalition (BLC) during the summer, we began discussing possible ways we could funnel our rage into something positive. The idea of a vigil in honor of those slain to police brutality came up as a chance to pause as a campus to acknowledge that these events affect our reality, to acknowledge the fact that we care. I, along with other members of BLC, spearheaded the vigil. It was amazing to see people from all corners of campus come together to perform, speak, and show solidarity with not only Michael Brown, but also victims of police brutality everywhere.
It was not long before tension again rose in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict the Ferguson police officer who had shot Michael Brown. BLC partnered with ODUS and the Carl A. Fields Center to host a town hall where students could gather in the wake of the decision. There we were: professors, students and faculty alike, hearing our president tell us to keep calm while yet again no one had been held accountable for the death of another black body. We could not keep calm.

In that room people erupted in tears, songs, spoken word, and sincere questions of “how can this happen AGAIN? And how are we supposed to go out and enjoy ‘Dranksgiving’ tonight? Why should we ignore the tragedy occurring in our own backyard?”

On social media, we called on all of campus, urging everyone to gather at the Frist Campus Center wearing all black. From there, we took to the street. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace” were the cries heard throughout the night. Since then we have joined national organizing efforts in facilitating a school-wide walk out of classes and a die in before winter break. We also engaged issues specific to our campus by silently protesting a panel on diversity that seemed to pit racial diversity against economic diversity despite their connectedness. We met with the administration to discuss how racism has seeped through the ivy walls of our campus and how we can address its pervasive presence. We serve on task forces that aim to bring institutional and climatic change to Princeton. We continue to do whatever we can because our hearts continue to burn with a fire that won’t be calmed until we see justice not only in Princeton, but across the nation.

 

Princetonians Against the Occupation

by Joshua Leifer

It has been a groundbreaking year for activists agitating for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In the fall, over 70 tenured faculty members and 500 undergraduate students signed petitions calling on the University to divest from companies that profit from their involvement in the occupation. Now, in the spring, the Princeton Divests Coalition—spearheaded by the Princeton Committee on Palestine but composed of a number of different social justice groups—will bring a referendum before the undergraduate student body. The referendum calls on the University to “divest from companies that maintain the infrastructure of the illegal military occupation of the West Bank, facilitate Israel’s and Egypt’s collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, and facilitate state repression against Palestinians by Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian Authority security forces.” Members of the Princeton Committee on Palestine and the Princeton Divests Coalition have been busy drumming up support for the referendum, which will be put up for a vote sometime in April.

While a number of social justice groups support the divestment initiative, the Center for Jewish Life and its affiliated groups, Tigers for Israel and JStreet U, are working to oppose it.

In an email sent out to a large segment of the student body last fall, the Center for Jewish Life pledged to take the necessary measures to defeat the divestment initiative. In doing so, the Center for Jewish Life’s leadership gave the impression that the Jewish community’s stance on divestment was monolithic when, in reality, it was not. Thirty-nine Jewish students published a letter in the Daily Princetonian asking the Center for Jewish Life to refrain from taking an institutional stance and respect the diversity of opinion with the Jewish community. (Disclosure: I was one of the students who signed and helped write the letter. As result of the letter and the discussions that took place after it was published, Maya Rosen and I created the Alliance of Jewish Progressives. The Alliance is a new group committed to a vision of social justice and equality and to the idea that all people deserve freedom and the opportunity to forge their own futures.)

While it is an exciting time to be involved in anti-occupation activism, the odds are sadly stacked in favor of those who prefer to keep the status quo in Israel/Palestine unchanged. The CJL-affiliated groups have a well-funded and professionally organized institution behind them. They are supported by wealthy donors and assisted by powerful people, including former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer. They receive help from established advocacy groups such as StandwithUs and The David Project.

The divestment and anti-occupation activists do not have that same kind of institutional support. The Princeton Divests Coalition is an entirely grassroots operation, built by its members’ hard work and not the donations of rich alumni. It does not have the kind of resources that its opponents have. Still, it is unclear what will happen when students will vote on the referendum.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Hopefully, when the vote on divestment arrives, Princeton students will choose to bend the arc towards justice and elect to oppose a brutal system of military control over a disenfranchised civilian population.

 

Dreamers at Princeton

by Courtney Perales Reyes ’17

The Princeton DREAM Team is a community-based, student-run advocacy group that focuses on immigrant rights. Volunteers raise awareness about immigrant-related causes, push for immigration reform, and reach out to and provide resources for the Princeton community.

Being a part of the Princeton DREAM Team allows students to take an active role in community organizing and student activism. The group’s past efforts include organizing a campus rally to stop a deportation, traveling to Washington, D.C. for the Not1More Deportation protest, and holding a vigil in front of the Frist Campus Center titled “In Honor of Las Monarcas.” The latter sought to raise awareness around the growing number of migrant deaths along the Mexico-U.S. border each year and to honor those lost lives through poetry, live readings, and a moment of silence.

Among its ongoing projects, the DREAM Team sends members to the Elizabeth Detention Center every Saturday morning to meet with undocumented detainees who have requested visitors. Volunteers also work with First Friends, a nonprofit that aims to acknowledge the dignity and humanity of incarcerated immigrants by meeting with them to discuss their cases or simply converse. These visits serve the incredibly important role of providing detainees with a connection to the outside world. Finally, the DREAM Team visits the office of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) in Trenton every two weeks to meet with high school students about their college, financial aid, and scholarship applications. Most of these students are undocumented, and LALDEF’s mentoring and tutoring services help answer any questions they may have about the college experience while offering them guidance along the way.

Currently, the DREAM Team is selling “No Human Being is Illegal” T-shirts to raise funds for its Chasing-A-DREAM Scholarship, awarded each year to high-achieving undocumented students who are ineligible for financial aid and loans due to their immigration status. DREAM is also holding a benefit dinner on Friday, April 3 to raise funds for the scholarship and provide an opportunity for the Princeton community to learn more about immigration reform and hear from past scholarship recipients. Finally, the DREAM Team is hosting the annual Collegiate Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) Conference this semester from April 24-26.

 

Making Princeton’s Investments Sustainable

by Matthew Romer ’18

The Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative (PSII) is a student effort to extend Princeton’s on-campus sustainability efforts to its endowment. PSII advocates for the creation of a committee that will write a binding set of environmentally sustainable guidelines to inform the Princeton Investment Company’s investment strategy.

Princeton’s $21 billion endowment is currently estimated to have three to five percent of its investments in fossil fuel companies alone. PSII is not asking for full divestment but rather for increased investment in companies making strides toward sustainability and for relatively fewer holdings in those not part of the transition to clean energy.

PSII is composed of a core group of 15-20 undergraduate and graduate students, who wrote the proposal through a series of collaborative editing sessions during October and November. The proposal was introduced to the campus community around Thanksgiving and has gathered almost 1,600 signatures, including those of professors Peter Singer and Michael Oppenheimer. It has fostered a broader campus discussion on the ways in which our environmental impact should be measured. PSII recently presented the proposal to the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), a collection of students, community members, and faculty administrators tasked with making decisions in the university community’s interest. PSII is looking forward to the committee’s response and to continued campus activism on this important issue.

Against the Surveillance State

by Frances Steere ’16 and Dayton Martindale ’15

Guarding Liberties Against the Security State (GLASS) is a student group founded to discuss and protest the excesses of the national security state. GLASS began as a working group within Princeton United Left (PUL) last semester and became its own organization in 2015. It seeks to mobilize Princeton students around the pressing issue of domestic and international surveillance, and to raise awareness about the research that Princeton conducts for the NSA, the funding Princeton receives from the NSA, and the NSA’s recruitment of Princeton students.

The group recently held a film/discussion series examining Laura Poitras’ documentary trilogy on post-9/11 America. The first installment, My Country, My Country, concerns the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the second, The Oath, Guantanamo Bay. We will complete the series with the third documentary, Citizenfour, on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. [

The group also organized a protest at the “public forum” held by NSA Director Michael Rogers on campus. Wearing orange, GLASS members attended the event with a list of probing questions. Students held up video cameras, symbolically “watching the watcher,” but were told by security at the event to put them down, though they were powered off.

Given the profound consequences of the War on Terror at home and abroad, GLASS believes that it is important to start broader campus discussion and raise student awareness on national security issues. Princeton’s involvement with the NSA must become more transparent and the subject of public discussion.

 

Animal Liberation

by Dayton Martindale ’15

There’s a large vegetarian and vegan community at Princeton, but in my time here, that has not translated into political action. This may partially be a result of how distanced we are from the obscene animal abuse and environmental degradation that goes into a slab of meat. We never see the pig; we just see the strip of bacon.

But animal exploitation exists more tangibly on campus. There are thousands of mice and hundreds of other animals, including a few dozen monkeys, in our neuroscience labs. In 2011, a series of USDA inspections revealed consistent violations of the Animal Welfare Act at Princeton, including regularly depriving monkeys of water. Even under legal conditions, life as a caged object of experimentation is never pretty and is often short.

After an alleged, though now disputed, incident of marmoset abuse, concerned students petitioned for reforms and transparency measures and for the retirement of the affected monkeys to a sanctuary. The group met with various research administrators and has been able to negotiate several small changes.

Public opposition to animal research is approaching a majority, especially among young people. After I wrote an article detailing conditions in the primate labs, many students joined a new group, Princeton for Primate Justice, affiliated with Princeton Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), to advocate for our evolutionary cousins.

Toward the end of this semester there will be a few outreach events between students and lab staff to increase transparency and allow for critical dialogue. I hope these events will facilitate greater student engagement on the issue of nonhuman animal research, create a space for neuroscience undergrads to reexamine their career choices, encourage the community to decide whether the optimal path forward is reform, reduction, or outright abolition. Personally, my loyalty lies with the animals—I won’t be satisfied until every cage is empty.

 

Fighting for Prison Reform

Clarissa Kimmey ’17 and Daniel Teehan’17

Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) is a student run advocacy and education group that seeks to advocate against mass incarceration & solitary confinement, provide educational opportunities in New Jersey prisons, and educate members of the Princeton community about the inequities and injustices rampant in the United States criminal justice system. To this end, SPEAR often takes direct action aimed at raising awareness on campus, helping those who are incarcerated, and catalyzing change in policies at the university, state and national level.

Members of SPEAR are involved in a variety of advocacy, education, and research projects that seek to contribute to the criminal justice reform movement. The organization initiated and teaches the Princeton Reentry Employment (PREP) project, which provides weekly workforce preparation to those incarcerated at A.C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility. SPEAR also engages more than 60 students in letter correspondences with people held in solitary confinement across the country. This year, members of that program have collectively sent and received almost 300 letters.

SPEAR frequently works with and assists other organizations that ground their work in the lived experiences of incarcerated people. For example, working with a lawyer People’s Organization for Progress, members of SPEAR’s advocacy team read through and catalogued over 60 letters from people suffering from correctional officer inflicted abuse at Bayside State Prison in south Jersey. At a panel hosted by SPEAR this year, members of the advocacy team confronted NJ DOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan about the reports. Some of the most egregious abuses were later excerpted in a report by the American Friends’ Service Committee entitled “Torture in New Jersey Prisons,” which SPEAR intends to help disseminate. SPEAR has also recently joined the Interfaith Prison Coalition, a grassroots advocacy organization centered around the needs of those most affected by incarceration. The coalition is currently undertaking a boycott of phone companies that charge exorbitant rates to family members trying to stay in contact with their incarcerated loved ones.

On Princeton’s campus, SPEAR undertakes campaigns to demonstrate student and faculty support for more humane criminal justice policies. This year, SPEAR has been an active proponent of S.2588, a bill to severely restrict, and hopefully end, the use of solitary confinement in NJ state prisons. To this end, SPEAR collected the signatures of over 130 students and professors within a period of two days leading up to the bill’s first legislative hearing. The letter of support, with the co-signatures, was delivered to the Senators deliberating the bill in committee. SPEAR’s Admissions Opportunity Campaign is also in its second year, having received the support of over 500 Princeton students and faculty last year. The admissions campaign calls upon Princeton University to remove the question about past involvement with the justice system from applications for undergraduate admission. Since starting the campaign last Spring, the campaign has spread to seven other campuses and the issue of access to higher education has received attention in the New York Times and Marshall Project. As part of SPEAR’s annual conference this year, students from several other campuses came to Princeton to discuss and organize a national “Abolish the Box” Campaign.

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