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‘We Will Win:’ USC Students Won’t Back Down, Committing To Their Fight For Palestine Despite Arrests

One of their main demands is for the school to not only commit to a complete academic boycott of Israel and their killing of Palestinians, but also to be transparent about how much the school is investing. 

Photo by: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

On Wednesday, it was a fairly sunny day at the University of Southern California, where students continued to occupy the campus's Alumni Park. Some students rested on the grass next to their tents, while others were seen cleaning and organizing supplies. 

The encampment sat just a few feet away from the freshly repaired Tommy Trojan statue that had been previously vandalized. It was now blocked off to the public and watched over by campus security, who were ensuring the statues' safety.

Meanwhile, across from Tommy, signs and banners that read “Free Palestine” and “Stop Funding a Genocide” surrounded the student's encampment. 

Wednesday marked a week since the students first occupied the park, standing against the war and in solidarity with the people of Gaza, joining students at hundreds of other campuses nationwide. It’s also been a week since over 50 USC students were arrested by the LAPD

Although many of the students wore masks in an attempt to hide their identities, the look of exhaustion was still visible on their faces.

Over the weekend, some students re-occupied the park and said they would not move until their demands were met and acknowledged by USC’s president, Dr. Carol Folt. 

USC’s Divest From Death Coalition, which has been at the forefront of the encampment on campus, told L.A. TACO on Wednesday that they had previously talked with the president twice since it all began.

Still, according to them, their negotiations have only been frustrating. The coalition's media liaison referenced a meeting in which Folt made a statement disclosing the difficulty of conversing with the group because she felt every word they discussed was subject to debate. 

“It’s one word she was talking about, and that’s genocide,” said the media liaison outside of the encampment. “There is absolutely a wall, and it’s been erected by the University. [Folt] keeps talking about how she wants to discuss our demands, but how can you discuss our demands without acknowledging the genocide? Our demands revolve around that.”  

The coalition’s demands, which were posted online and taped over a USC informational plaque at the park, are as follows:

1. End War Profiteering and Investment in Genocide. 

2. Complete Academic Boycott of Israel. 

3. Protect free speech on campus and provide full amnesty to all students, staff, and faculty disciplined, penalized, or fired for their pro-Palestine activism. 

4. Stop the Displacement from South Central to Palestine. 

5. No Policing on Campus. 

6. End the Silence on the Genocide in Palestine. Release a public statement calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
On campus security circling around the student encampment at USC on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

One of their main demands is for the school to not only stop any potential funding that partakes in, as they put it, the “killing of Palestinians” but also to be transparent about how much the school is investing. 

“USC is actively contributing to the genocide. Folt said less than 2% of the endowment is invested in companies actively contributing to it,” recalled the student's media liaison. “That means our involvement is still around $152 million.”

The coalition expressed frustration that the school wants to put them through what they see as a “bureaucratic internal process” and suggested the creation of a committee that could investigate the coalition’s asks and questions. The suggestion is seen as an insult to the students who have been living in the encampment for days. 

“How long is that investigation gonna take? One year? Two years? Five years? Will Gaza even be here five years from now?” asked the liaison. “They don’t get it. Every 15 minutes, a child is killed in Gaza, more than 2.3 million are displaced, and more than 35 thousand people have been killed. We need to act now.” 

The students at the encampment, although visibly tired, still stand strong despite not reaching any resolutions with the school. When asked how they were doing overall, the student liaison said: “It can be exhausting, but we have hope.” 

They credit other students and community members who have provided them with an outpouring of support and for giving them the strength to keep going.

“It’s been greatly heartening to see the community come out and support us to help stop the genocide, people have been bringing food and water,” said the liaison. “This was started by students, but the community has helped us keep going.”

On Wednesday, Rida Hamida and Leslie Velez, who are with the organization called Latino and Muslim Unity, donated their time and brought dozens of warm halal tacos to offer for free to students at the USC encampment. This is a service that the organization has been doing since 2017 when they launched Taco Trucks at Every Mosque—serving over 1 million halal tacos since. 

The students were eager to fuel up with a warm meal to prepare for another day of strategizing and holding the line. 

“We’re here to nourish the brave students, to ensure that they are taken care of,” said Hamida. “They are exhausted, and we're here to make sure that they don’t feel like they’re alone and that we're here to serve one another and protect and ensure that we do have a free Palestine.”

Hamida has been feeding student encampments since the protests began, traveling and taking their tacos from UCLA to Sacramento State and more. 

Hamida expressed that, in her eyes, the student encampments here in the U.S. are symbolic of those in Gaza. Saying that, much like in Gaza, the encampments and students here are so also under attack. 

“People and students from all walks of life are putting their selves at risk to ensure these universities disclose and divest in the military aid that is aiding genocide in Palestine.” 

Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO. Organizers within the encampment prepare to hand out food for the day.
Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

Velez, who is from East Los Angeles, has been moved by the student's efforts to support Palestine. She has visited other campuses with Hamida, and the scenes have brought her to tears. 

“We want to show them that what they are doing matters and that we are in solidarity with them,” she said, choking up a little. “They are extremely brave and are putting everything on the line, and that is admirable.”

She added that the movements happening specifically at universities are special, she continued. 

“As a first-generation Latina from East Los Angeles, I know how crucial and important it is for oppressed communities to have an education, and just seeing all the universities gone from Gaza and Palestine and seeing our students mobilize is big.”

Even faculty showed up to support their students; that same day, at around 5 P.M., professors dressed in their academic regalia marched in solidarity with their students. Many were horrified by the actions the school had taken against the students. Actions that some within the encampment said have taken a toll on them. 

“There is a toll when the state enacts violence on you; there is a toll when your own university president makes their own students feel unsafe on campus when they attack its own community,” said one representative of the Divest From Death Coalition referencing the arrests at USC and other campuses. 

That same night at UCLA, a swarm of officers from UCPD (UCLA Police Department), CHP, LASD, and LAPD swarmed the campus, destroying the encampment that had been built by pro-peace protesters over the past week, and arresting and booking over 200 people. And the day before, a brutal attack on UCLA students was staged when a group of pro-Israel counter-protesters assaulted protesters.

“It's been tough here, especially with the police brutality that’s enacted on us,” said the liaison before talking about the videos that came from Gaza with a message to the students. “I can’t even imagine what they’re (people in Gaza) going through. So if we can even provide a shred of hope that materially we can do something, then this work matters.”  

Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

That same day, the president and faculty gathered to answer questions about the protests, commencement and changes moving forward. The main stage for commencement remains canceled because of safety concerns. They also answered questions regarding the school's calling of LAPD, which caused the arrest of students. The president admitted agreeing to their presence but denied that she or anyone called them. 

Today, the Divest From Death Coalition posted a statement on Instagram declaring their commitment to the student uprising. They said they won’t back down. While the students await a resolution, they hold hope after other campuses like UC Riverside have agreed to all their student's demands.

“They won't stop us. We will win. We saw the video, and we see they (the people in Palestine) see us fighting for them, and we won’t stop fighting. We’re here to stop a Genocide.”

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