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Palestinian students ask questions of value and free speech at TTU campus demonstrations

Students gather and hear poetry, joining a show of support for demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.
Brad Burt
Students gather and hear poetry, joining a show of support for demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.

Around 100 demonstrators gathered on the Texas Tech campus Friday afternoon to make their voices heard on continuing violence in Palestine, calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Students in Lubbock and other cities called on Texas universities to divest from companies profiting from the war through investments in Israel, which they say as a government has been taking violent action against Palestinian citizens for more than 200 days since the October 7 attack by Hamas in Gaza, where at least 250 people were killed and an unknown number were taken hostage. Since then, officials estimate more than 30,000 people have been killed in Palestine.

Asmaa Abushanab, a Texas Tech Student with the Students for Justice in Palestine group, helped organize the gathering.

“There's a lot of money that goes directly to Israel and its support,” Abushanab said. “We're trying to demand from our university to divest of those investments.”

Endowment fund donations for universities that follow certain rules to bring income to the school through investments have been asked to divest from companies like fossil fuel industries or firearms manufacturers before, and the State of Texas has taken legal steps to prevent those divestments.

In 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that banned government entities from investing in companies that boycott doing business with Israel.

Systems like the University of Texas and Texas A&M endowment funds are among the largest endowments in the U.S., generating money for the universities by investing those funds, sometimes in corporations like defense contractors providing resources to the war in Israel. However, those investments often run through mutual or “commingled” funds where the universities don’t control or disclose the individual stock.

Texas Tech University’s annual investment report for FY23 showed more than $4 billion in total investments and deposits including mutual funds, index funds, and private equity. It’s more complicated for universities and the public to separate where those dollars are going and coming from in terms of individual companies, or whether divesting would make a real impact on bottom lines.

Along with the financial demand, Abushanab said the gatherings, which included sit-ins at the Tech administration building, are a show of support for freedom of speech among student demonstrations that have popped up around the country and across Texas, sometimes with escalated tensions. At the University of Texas in Austin on Wednesday, more than 50 demonstrators and a FOX 7 Austin photojournalist were arrested.

“Considering all the things –like at UT– that's happened, we really want to show our statewide support,” Abushanab said. “That's really what we're pushing for.”

She said this is the third demonstration by pro-Palestinian students in Lubbock, and it was the most people they’ve seen stop to listen and participate.

Students speak to demonstrators on Tech campus calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.
Olivia O'Rand
Students speak to demonstrators on Tech campus calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.

“We've seen a lot more people become visibly supportive, even here on campus, relative to the conservative community that a lot of people think Lubbock is, but we do have a very strong base, which is really good,” Abushanab said.

As a Palestinian-American, Abushanab said renewed discourse around the war in Palestine has her feeling more supported than the protests of her childhood.

“The one positive I would look at about everything that's going on is how, overall, there's been a huge support compared to let's say, 10 years ago, or 15 years ago,” Abushanab said. “I remember when I was young, and I would be going to protests, and it would just be me and my family.”

The demonstrations on parts of campus including Tech’s “Free Speech Zone,” near the Student Union Building, included students holding signs in support while others read poetry or led dances, songs and prayer, educating passersby on current events and opening conversations with Palestinian students.

Palestinian students and demonstrators engage others in dance as a show of support for pro-Palestinian student movements in Texas and across the country.
Olivia O'Rand
Palestinian students and demonstrators engage others in dance as a show of support for pro-Palestinian student movements in Texas and across the country.

Abushanab said she’s been met with some anger and counter-protestors at events before, but the anger often comes from misinformation and stereotypes.

“They already have all this preconceived stuff that like, they haven't yet talked to me but they're already like, ‘I know what you think. I don't want to have this conversation with you,’ it doesn't even allow a possible conversation to happen in the first place,” Abushanab said.

She said she believes events like Friday’s gatherings help to counter that mindset with peace and understanding.

“It's a very simple statement, like, do you think my life is important?” Abushanab asked. “That becomes obvious, you know, when you're going to class every day, and you're sitting in classrooms with people that may not have the same views as you, but we are here to learn, to learn from each other and to hear other people.”

TTU President Lawrence Schovanec issued a statement Thursday night, before students began to gather on Friday, calling faculty, staff and students to keep activities within “the bounds of the law” and the university’s Freedom of Expression policy, without trying to “materially and substantially disrupt the normal operations of the University.”

However, so far, Tech’s biggest disruption over this issue has been for one assistant professor, who was suspended during an investigation into social media comments that were alleged to be “antisemitic” and “antithetical to the university’s values.”

Jairo Fúnez-Flores, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies and Teacher Education with research into sociocultural studies in education, decolonial theory, and student movements, was suspended on March 4.

In a joint statement on Fúnez-Flores’ suspension, Schovanec and University Chancellor Ted Mitchell said the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights warned universities they could be found in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they knew or should have known that discriminatory harassment occurred on campus and did not act quickly to address it.

Five and a half weeks later, Fúnez-Flores returned to work when the university announced that the investigation “did not find evidence of a violation of Texas Tech policy for discriminatory harassment.”

On March 29, Gov. Abbott issued an executive order requiring schools to respond to what he described as a “sharp rise in antisemitic speech.” Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine called the order a “shameless attempt to suppress” freedom of speech on college campuses.

According to Abushanab, actions against Fúnez-Flores may have been effective at showing some on campus that there can be risks to being vocal, but she added the investigation’s determination of his innocence may be just as encouraging.

“It will only take one person to do something. And I feel like that will encourage others… After the assistant professor was declared innocent, I feel like maybe that will encourage other people to come out. But at the end of the day, a lot of people are scared of losing their livelihood. It's such a high price for them to pay,” Abushanab said. “I'm gonna be honest, I have no fear.”

When it comes to safety, peace and understanding, for her people in Palestine and her home in West Texas, Abushanab said she wants to be proud of the side she’s chosen in history.

“Maybe right now, it feels really bad. Or you feel like you're putting so much on the line,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I want to look back at this 10 years and be like, ‘you know, I'm proud that I stood. I stood up for something.’”

Read President Schovanec’s full statement on “expressive activities” here:

“With the increasing occurrence of protests on university campuses in Texas and across the country, I want to emphasize that at Texas Tech University, expressive activities must be conducted within the bounds of the law and our institutional policies, including our Freedom of Expression Policy.

Texas Tech recognizes the rights of individuals to engage in expressive activities that the First Amendment protects. However, we stand firm in our commitment to providing a safe environment for all students, faculty and staff.

We expect differences in viewpoints to be conveyed professionally and civilly, free of discriminatory harassment. We will not tolerate any activities that compromise the safety of our community members, violate the law or institutional policies, or materially and substantially disrupt the normal operations of the University.”

Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.