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Examining parallels to 1985 student calls for divestment from South Africa

Student and faculty calls for divestment from South Africa in 1985 hold similar demands to protests launched Thursday against Israel by students and supported by faculty. (Daily Bruin file photos. Photo illustration by Mia Tavares/Assistant Design director)

By Matthew Royer

April 25, 2024 4:57 p.m.

This post was updated April 25 at 1:05 a.m.

Student and faculty calls for divestment Thursday echoed the demands made against apartheid in South Africa in 1985, which led to divestment from the UC a year later.

More than 2,000 students and community members rallied in front of Murphy Hall on April 23, 1985, calling on the UC Board of Regents to completely divest from South Africa. At the time, the Undergraduate Students Association Council and UCLA’s Black Student Alliance sponsored the protest. Administrators said it was the largest political protest on campus since the Vietnam War, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Later in the day around 750 people flooded inside Murphy Hall to stage a sleep-in. By the end of the night, 200 students remained inside the building.

In 1985, organizers told the Daily Bruin that their mobilization against divestment was inspired by similar protests across the country – including UC Berkeley’s.

Then-USAC President Gwyn Lurie demanded that the UC drop charges against 159 protesters arrested in Berkeley and that campus communities across the UC should hold a discussion regarding the UC’s investments.

“The university is directly and indirectly involved in the enslavement of black South Africans under a racist, apartheid regime,” Lurie said to the Daily Bruin in 1985. “Divestment from any corporations that do any business in South Africa is the only choice for moral individuals.”

The encampment launched by students Thursday calling for a complete divestment from the UC’s investments in Israel follow similar encampments across the nation, including one that started on UC Berkeley’s campus Monday, as well as on the University of Southern California’s campus Wednesday. Student protests on USC’s campus led to more than 90 protesters being arrested for trespassing Thursday, according to the Daily Trojan.

When students led their divestment protests at UCLA in 1985, by the end of the night of April 25, two days after their sleep-in began, 20 students and one non-student were arrested in an effort to restore Murphy Hall’s complete operations.

“We’re not moving because we occupy this building,” said then-BSA chairwoman Dion Raymond to the Daily Bruin in 1985.

Raymond would go on to serve as the co-creator and inaugural director of UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office from 2014 until 2023.

Another then-BSA member, Terrence Allen, said to the Daily Bruin that the sleep-in would lead to eventual action by the regents.

“This will definitely be something they’ll think about. They don’t want things like this to continue,” Allen said to the Daily Bruin in 1985. “They’ll just intensify. They have to divest.”

However, in return, students and faculty, aligned with Faculty for Divestment, began an encampment in what is now Dickson Court South and remained there until June 10 with the administration’s permission, coinciding with a UC Regents meeting.

Edward Alpers, an emeritus research professor of history, said in an interview Thursday that he and his colleagues joined the calls for divestment in 1985 as part of the group Faculty for Divestment. He added that while students organized their “tent cities,” faculty aimed to help students learn about the region and divestment, including through teach-ins on campus.

He said while divestment at the regents’ level can take time to complete, in 1985, it came down to pushing for ethics and morals, alongside the economic aspects of their demands.

“It sort of plays itself out of both a much disputed economic level but mainly at a moral and ethical, political level,” Alpers said. “This was not something that just happened. … This was a long-building process that came to a head and then continued across the entire UC system.”

Students and faculty alike joined the encampment Thursday started by Students for Justice in Palestine and the UC Divest Coalition at UCLA, with support from members of Faculty for Justice in Palestine at UCLA who look to protect student interests.

[Related Link: UCLA community organizes encampment in response to national call for escalation]

On Thursday, 279 faculty and staff signed a systemwide letter to the UC Regents demanding that nonviolent student protests are protected and that students are not punished or arrested for their actions.

“Entire academic departments owe their existence to nonviolent student protests at the University of California. The nationwide student movement to end the Vietnam War can trace its beginnings to nonviolent student protests at the University of California,” the letter said. “As faculty and staff at the University of California, we believe that the ability to protest nonviolently is essential to our democracy and a basic human right that must be respected and protected.”

In July 1986, the UC Regents voted to divest $3.1 billion from companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government, over a year after the UCLA protests began. It was then the largest university divestment in the country.

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Matthew Royer | Alumnus
Royer joined the Bruin and the News section as a first-year transfer student in 2022 and contributed until he graduated in 2024. He was the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor and the 2022-2023 city and crime (metro) editor. He was also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats and was Copy staff. He studied political science and minored in labor studies.
Royer joined the Bruin and the News section as a first-year transfer student in 2022 and contributed until he graduated in 2024. He was the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor and the 2022-2023 city and crime (metro) editor. He was also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats and was Copy staff. He studied political science and minored in labor studies.
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