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Occidental Still in Standoff Over Divestment

Times Staff Writer

South African divestment protests at Occidental College over the last 15 years have been relatively small affairs, such as candlelight vigils and rallies involving only about 40 students.

At times, student organizations have tried to apply pressure through meetings with trustees, administrators and President Richard C. Gilman.

“We took a peaceful strategy. We wanted to try to resolve the issue of divestment through governmental channels,” said Phillip Terry, co-chairman of the Anti-Apartheid Coalition at the liberal arts college.

But all that changed on May 12 when 12 students rose at dawn and, dragging wood, nails and other materials, converged at the center of the 120-acre Eagle Rock campus. For six hours, the students hammered.

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4 Shacks Built

By noon, they had built a four-shack shantytown to symbolize their opposition to the school’s financial investments in corporations that do business in South Africa.

Dubbed “Biko Commons” in honor of Steven Biko, a black South African leader who died in police custody in 1977, it stands in the rose garden in front of the administration building. The wood and cardboard structures are covered with spray-painted messages such as “Freedom for All” and “Divest Now.”

The shantytown began a controversy the likes of which the campus has not seen for a decade, administrators and faculty members say.

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“I don’t think this campus has experienced anything like this since the Vietnam War protests,” said Brigida Knauer, dean of students.

Issue of Freedom

A week after the shantytown was built, administrators asked that it be taken down and a standoff developed. The coalition refused and students--even some who are opposed to divestment--have rallied around the group’s right to exercise their freedom of protest.

“I don’t believe that if we pull out our money the South African government will fall, but I think we have the right to build what is essentially a peaceful expression of protest,” said Luke Mullen, a junior.

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According to 1986-87 Insider Guide to the Colleges, Occidental is considered an exclusive school with a student body that is generally conservative. Tuition is about $14,000 a year, and about 25% of the student body is made up of minorities.

The college has a $100-million endowment. School officials have declined to say how much money is invested in corporations that do business in South Africa, but its board of trustees has steadfastly maintained that divestment would be inappropriate.

Statement by Board

“It is not regarded as either proper or feasible for the college as an educational institution to act as an agent of social change by economic or political means,” the board said in a statement last year. “To do so could be a deeply divisive factor both within the college and without.”

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The one-week deadline to dismantle the shantytown has been extended twice, the last time indefinitely, and students and administrators are still negotiating. The administration is opposed to the coalition’s demand that the shantytown remain until graduation on June 14.

Some students believe the shantytown is an eyesore.

“I think it should come down because it makes the whole campus look bad,” said freshman Christine K. Kohler. “They’ve made their point.”

The issue of divestment has so engulfed the campus, which has about 1,600 students and 130 faculty members, that even a usually dignified annual banquet given for the college’s major financial supporters on May 21 was the scene of a silent protest.

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Entertainment for the group, known as The President’s Circle, was provided by the Occidental Glee Club. More than half the club’s 24 members arrived wearing red armbands to show their solidarity with those calling for divestment.

“The students had the option to participate or not participate,” music instructor Thomas Sommerville said of the armband protest. “That some did not shows they are practicing freedom of expression on both sides of the issue.”

Some student organizations are opposed to divestment and are calling for students to support the college’s freedom to invest its money as it sees fit.

“It’s better to stay there (in South Africa) and try to improve the situation from inside the country,” said Christopher W. Konzelman, vice president of Occidental College Republicans. “Divestment is a method of making the government unstable and it promotes conditions for civil war.”

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Longstanding Interest

Interest on the campus in the South Africa issue began about 15 years ago then tapered off, said David Axeen, associate dean of faculty.

“But in the last three years we’ve held extended debates on the subject,” Axeen said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that a nonprofit educational institution such as ours has to make investments in line with its educational policies.”

Student and faculty organizations stepped up their tactical pressure in recent weeks to force the university to divest its holdings. Among the actions taken:

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The senior class set up a separate endowment for alumni who wish to give the college money with the stipulation it not be invested in South African business.

The Faculty Senate, which voted last spring to urge the university to divest, voted two weeks ago to support the shantytown.

A rally was held by 150 students, and more than 600 students signed a petition urging divestment.

A group of seniors is planning a demonstration on the administration steps just before commencement.

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But none of those measures has generated as much tension and dissent as the shantytown, students and faculty members say.

“The shantytown has forced people to confront the issue. Some don’t like it because they think it’s ugly. But people who formerly had no opinion one way or another about divestment are forming sides now; they’re involved in the issue,” said Gregory Dalton, a senior who helped established the anti-apartheid endowment fund, which has raised $1,500.

Coalition members said three students attacked the shantytown one night by spraying the insides of the shacks with a fire extinguisher. Angela Gunn, a member of the group, said the coalition has received two threatening phone calls from people who say they will tear the shacks down overnight if the administration does not act soon.

Administrators have generally taken a low-key approach to the controversy, and Gilman has not issued a promised statement on what action will be taken if students refuse to remove the display.

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Gilman has repeatedly declined to be interviewed.

Lee O. Case, the college’s vice president of planning and development, said the administration is trying to avoid a confrontation but will suspend students if it is deemed necessary.

Neither students nor administrators are willing to speculate on the outcome of the standoff over the shantytown issue, but both sides stress that they hope for a peaceful solution.

“This is not a power game,” Knauer said. “We don’t want this to end up in a bad confrontation. If that happens, everybody loses, the students and us.”

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Vietnam-Era Protest

There have been few student demonstrations at Occidental over the years. The biggest protest on the campus was in the spring of 1969, when 200 students occupied the placement office to protest the presence of military recruiters on campus. After a week of sit-ins, hunger strikes and the suspension of 42 students, Gilman temporarily banned military recruiters from the campus.

In 1963, the campus received national attention when a fraternity withdrew its affiliation with Kappa Sigma after it was told it could not admit a black as a member.

A wave of divestment protests have occurred on campuses nationwide, leading to some arrests of students and some violent incidents. Some institutions, such as the California state universities at Northridge and Los Angeles, recently voted to divest their holdings from corporations that have operations in South Africa.

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Liberal arts colleges with emphasis on the humanities, politics and philosophy should be more willing to divest than other institutions, faculty and students say.

“How can a college teach one thing and than do another?” said Richard Berg, an English instructor. “A liberal arts college should not subsidize racism, in whatever indirect form.”


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