Opinion: Why I’m proud to stand in solidarity with the encampment

“In this political climate, that students are willing to face the risk of retaliation for using their voices to speak for the voiceless — the innocent children and families of Gaza — is nothing short of commendable,” writes Harleen Kaur.

Harleen Kaur (she/her) is a third-year psychology student who is passionate about social justice and advocacy.

On April 29, UBC students and faculty began an encampment on MacInnes Field in solidarity with the people of Palestine, with their primary demand calling for the University to divest from companies complicit in the genocide in Gaza.

This action was part of many student-led encampments that spread across North America this spring, beginning at Columbia University. Last month, UBC President Benoit-Antoine Bacon came out with a statement that UBC's Endowment Fund does not directly own any stocks in the companies identified by the movement. 

While the encampment has sparked both outrage and support, as an observer and a student following this movement, I'd like to propose that we should be proud of this movement in light of its members’ willingness to accept great personal risk to stand up and voice support for Palestine, despite the condemnation and scrutiny they face for doing so.

In a time where politicians, world leaders and the bulk of celebrities have shied away from speaking up about what experts say there are reasonable grounds to believe is a genocide being committed in Gaza for the supposed fear of being publicly shamed or ostracized, students have risen to condemn the actions of the Israeli government and called for change through these encampments. 

Over these past few months, there's been an influx of racism and harassment towards pro-Palestinian advocates. An open letter signed by over 600 members of the Canadian legal community outlines the harmful and chilling effects on the freedom of expression being felt by anyone, particularly those in the legal community, condemning Israel’s atrocious subjugation of Palestinians. Despite being well within their rights when forming a political opinion and critiquing the Israeli government, many have faced repercussions at work or school for voicing their views. 

Last November, the United Nations issued a statement saying that calls for a ceasefire have, “in too many contexts been misleadingly equated with support for terrorism or antisemitism."

Canadian universities have levelled various hostilities against the encampments on their grounds, from legal action to public statements of condemnation against the movement to the use of police force. In early May, the University of Calgary had riot police show up with shields, batons and flash-bang explosives to forcibly remove student protestors from encampments on the basis of trespassing and camping on campus grounds after they refused to leave. 

On May 10, McGill University applied for an injunction to remove their encampment due to supposed safety concerns, which the Quebec court later denied. The University of Toronto followed and applied for an injunction on May 27.

Last fall, Toronto Metropolitan University launched an external review against their students for signing an open letter calling for the support of Palestine and opposing the Israeli government’s actions. Despite facing heavy backlash, the letter was ultimately found by a retired judge not to violate the student code of conduct.

In this political climate, students are willing to face the risk of retaliation for using their voices to speak for the voiceless — the innocent children and families of Gaza — and this is nothing short of commendable.

My generation Gen Z is perpetually laden with negative stereotypes and is often referred to as the snowflake generation. The comparison insinuates us as fragile, overly sensitive and easy to melt under pressure. To those who have or still do view us this way, I urge you to look around and observe the age demographic the encampment predominantly comprises. Who is willing to risk their careers and degrees and speak up? 

If UBC and other institutions want to proudly headline that they are the home of future leaders, then give those students a chance to be heard and freely express themselves rather than booting them for engaging in these expressions. Thus far, UBC has not made any official statement on removing the encampment, and I urge the university to continue to allow the encampment to reside in MacInnes Field. 

Those who oppose the movement’s views have pointed to incidents like the admission of Charlotte Kates — who praised Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel as “heroic and brave,” — into the encampment as evidence that it is a place for resentment that will foment hateful speech or spark physical violence. Those critics need to note that one person's comments do not define the encampment at UBC or globally, and should not be seen as reflective of pro-Palestinian advocates as a whole.

Our speculation about further hate speech does not warrant us suppressing these encampments altogether.

In my view, it is important to understand that the encampment at UBC has done its part to avoid undue confrontation, such as avoiding talking to counter-protestors as stated in their community guidelines.

Further, this encampment has an educational basis. It serves to discuss not only the genocide in Gaza but also the long-standing conflict between Palestine and Israel's occupation of it. And with education comes understanding and the avoidance of situations that foster hate speech. 

Additionally, some may argue that this encampment does not make them feel safe to be on campus; to them, I merely ask: what about it makes you feel unsafe?

It is important to recognize that some members of the Jewish community may feel threatened by the encampment, due to its use of phrases like “self-determination by any means necessary” and its perception that demands for a free Palestine and necessitates violence against Israeli citizens. The concern around some language is legitimate. I would however like to point out that while the universal meaning of phrases like “self-determination by any means necessary” is uncertain, what is certain is, in the case of the encampment at UBC, the goal of demonstrators is not to endorse violence against any group but to stand against the horrors the people in Gaza are currently facing by calling for solidarity and action on a global scale. 

If you have not already, I implore UBC faculty and my fellow students to support those at the encampment because these people deserve your pride, love and respect. There are various ways to show your support besides attending the encampment — although organizers have just posted an invitation for more to attend. 

Spreading the word through social media is crucial for garnering further support and shedding light on the events transpiring at the encampments. There is also a link on peoplesuniversityubc, the official Instagram page for the student-led encampment, listing the supplies needed, prioritized by the number of asterisks beside each item. 

Each May, I tune in to watch the Met Gala, but this year, I didn't. Both my TikTok and Twitter timelines, however, were a mixture of the extravagance and splendour of the outfits worn by celebrities and influencers, contrasting the horrific destruction of Gaza with harrowingly bloody images. The disparity between both and the mere fact that both events are even happening simultaneously is unbelievable, yet it is the reality of today. After that night, I thought long about why I had ever idolized people whose selfishness allows them to indulge in lavishness while children are being brutally murdered. 

It is daunting to realize that someone you may have adored or looked up to is devoid of any principles at all, and yet it was a necessary wake-up call to think about who we put on a pedestal. Upon reflection, I felt immense pride in the encampment held by the students at UBC. We all have things we are fearful of losing. And yet the difference is thousands of kilometres away from us in Gaza, where children have lost everything, their voices will never be heard again, and they will never graduate or have a future. 

Oftentimes, the harder things in life are the ones that bear the best fruit, and this encampment, like many others, is the start of that. I'm proud of my fellow students and their movement, who are unafraid to stand on the right side of history. 

When I look at our encampment at UBC, I see the students exude bravery, courage, resilience, integrity and empathy. All these are core values that any university should be proud of its students for displaying.

This is an opinion article. It reflects the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Contribute to the conversation by visitingubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.