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Inside The Youth-Led Fight For A Demilitarized Future

Above photo: UMass Students gathered for a Palestine solidarity protest on Oct. 12. UMass Dissenters.

A UMass Dissenters organizer discusses the growing youth-led antiwar movement.

And how they are organizing against weapons manufacturers and the war in Gaza.

In January 2020, Dissenters — a grassroots, youth-led antiwar movement — began with the mission to connect violence against Black and brown communities in the U.S. to the systems of oppression that fund, arm and enable global militarism. While born from the legacy of the U.S. antiwar movement, Dissenters takes an intersectional approach that connects global wars with corporate elites, local police, border walls, surveillance and prisons. Operating across the country through campus chapters, training fellowships and a strong social media presence, Dissenters has been organizing for college divestment from weapons manufacturers, ending campus recruitment from military-affiliated companies and disbanding campus police departments.

Since Oct. 7, in the aftermath of the Hamas attack and the subsequent siege of Gaza, Dissenters chapters have doubled down on antiwar organizing, holding local and national rallies, sit-ins, student walkouts and training events both on and offline. One campus chapter — at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — has organized protests, disruptions to sports games, and a sit-in at the chancellor’s office to pressure its university to cut ties with the weapons manufacturer Raytheon, now known as RTX.

Over the past two months, Raytheon/RTX — which develops and sells weapons systems used by the Israeli Defense Forces — has seen stock prices skyrocket and company executives discuss the rise in violence as a financial opportunity. According to UMass Dissenters organizers, the company is deeply entrenched at the college through recruitment practices and the Isenberg School of Management, which has a close educational and financial partnership with the weapons manufacturer.

I spoke with Bre Joseph, a UMass Amherst senior and organizer with the campus chapter of Dissenters. We discussed organizing college students against weapons manufacturers, the radicalizing impact of activist arrests, and the lessons learned from successes and setbacks.

In relation to the siege on Gaza, what are the main goals or demands of the UMass Dissenters chapter?

Number one is that the school must divest and cut ties with weapons manufacturers like Raytheon, but also Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and so on. Our second demand is that the administration must call for an immediate end to Israel’s siege on Gaza and end U.S. funding. A third demand is that the administration must replace weapons manufacturers with jobs working toward a demilitarized future.

I think that third one acknowledges that — while moving away from Raytheon as a campus partner would technically decrease opportunities afforded to UMass students — the onus is on the campus to replace jobs that increase death and violence with jobs that are sustainable and help the earth. We’ve heard students express this on an app called Yik Yak where you can post anonymously. It’s usually unserious, but every now and then I’ll open it and see people say, “I’m an engineering major, and I’m tired of having Raytheon pushed down my throat as an employment option. I don’t want to build bombs. I don’t want to make money for this company that’s killing people. I want better options.” That’s really been our goal from the beginning — get those jobs out and center a demilitarized future instead of militarizing it further.

How does intersectionality both inform and impact Dissenters’ organizing? 

Today I was listening to a quote from Martin Luther King’s daughter who was speaking about the three evil points in society — poverty, militarization and racism. These things are inextricably linked in a way where they cannot be pulled apart from one another. I think that’s really the power and the driving force behind our movement.

Every day we learn about how the Israeli Defense Force is connected to something like Cop City or was connected to something like apartheid in South Africa. So I feel like we’d be doing our movement a disservice — and we’d be doing Palestinians here and abroad a disservice — by not acknowledging how militarization is directly linked to their identities.

At Dissenters, one of our principles is that the people who suffer under oppression have the tools and ideas to fix it. In order to allow them to use these tools, we have to be willing to give them the space and the platform, and we have to acknowledge their pain and suffering as part of a larger system of militarization and criminalization.

How has UMass Dissenters organized to inform and mobilize students on the connections between the campus and weapons manufacturers? 

In terms of education, we have a document that we’ve made public via our Instagram and emails we’ve sent out to interested students really detailing UMass’s connection to Raytheon — and detailing Raytheon’s connection to the IDF and the war on Palestinians. At our weekly meetings, we’ve also had things like teach-ins for interested students. We’ve also crashed Raytheon information sessions to do this thing we call “being the common sense,” where we ask recruiters: “What exactly would students be building? What exactly is making the company money?” We ask the questions they don’t really want to answer but that they need to to be held accountable.

In terms of actions, we regularly flyer as much of the school as possible. We canvas, we hand out papers and speak with people, and we really try to make people aware on an individual basis in one-on-one conversations. Those are our foolproof methods of just reaching the school generally. But then we have more targeted approaches to make sure we’re getting all the little communities that haven’t had the opportunity to join yet and are maybe curious but still on the sidelines.

Within our outreach, we have seven subgroups who are in charge of mobilizing grad students, alumni, parents and others. For example, we’ve sent out emails to parents that they can then send to the school or to the chancellor, expressing their support for the students, for the movement and calling for an end to UMass’s ties to Raytheon. I mainly work with student organizations, reaching out to them via email and on social media — and trying to get them to come to meetings so they can plug in their members. When it comes to mobilization, I would say picture an octopus with a million arms doing a million things.

Since Oct. 7, UMass Dissenters has organized several campus actions from disrupting a hockey game to a sit-in in the Chancellor’s office. What does it take to organize these kinds of actions in a college environment?

There are some actions that are more meticulously planned than others. If actions require a lot of people, those will be discussed at least a week or two in advance so we have time to properly mobilize. Things are rarely off the fly, though, especially when you’re interacting with other campus populations, and we’re not sure how they will react. For example, at hockey games crowds are known to be rather boisterous and people are kind of amped up. So something like that has to be planned a little further in advance for the safety of our members and to make sure we know how to conduct ourselves in any scenario.

Similarly, we hold something that you could call a teach-in at our meetings, where we teach people the basics of canvassing, flyering, one-on-one conversation, and how to operate as part of a protest space, among other topics. Ahead of two big actions we recently organized, we held workshops around topics like how to navigate being approached by someone aggressive. The advice is — don’t talk back, don’t entertain it, remain safe and respectful at all times. Then when we actually got to the protest and everyone was there, we disseminated that information once again. We’re trying to give everybody the best information possible and keep everybody informed.

We also have a research team within Dissenters that is tasked with looking up rules and regulations and making sure that whatever we do, we remain inside of those. Because some hockey games are televised, we researched campus policy around disrupting an event like that to make sure our students wouldn’t get into trouble. From that, we found a regulation about flags, so we couldn’t bring a flag on a pole or a crazy big banner. That was one thing for safety. Then at bigger rallies or sit-ins, we’ve had to be really careful about the possible consequences of our actions so that students who might have been previously arrested, don’t get into more trouble.

At the sit-in, 57 activists were arrested on trespassing charges. How does the UMass Dissenters chapter plan and organize around student arrests?

Arrests are not something that we leave up to chance. To prepare, we hold workshops and have a lawyer present who explains what being arrested means, possible consequences and also “know-your-rights” type stuff. Basically, we want people to be informed so they can give their informed consent if they want to participate. After that, we have everybody sign documents listing their important information, and we collect and hold onto those.

When people are arrested, we have systems in place for knowing where they are going to be held, posting bail, getting them in contact with lawyers or possibly their parents, and picking them up from jail or taking them to the arraignment. We also help people get food, water, whatever they need, in case this process takes longer than expected. These things are well planned in advance.

What kind of impact have the arrests had on the campus and on activists?

It makes it a lot more real and a lot less abstract when you see it happening — even if it’s not to you — just seeing the reality on your campus. But I also think it’s pretty radicalizing to see how nonviolent protesters can be met with state violence for simply exercising their constitutional right to assemble and to free speech. That makes it a lot more concrete, and it makes it a lot more real. Seeing something on a screen versus seeing it in real life — it’s completely different. I think that it had an impact on this campus, the way that people view activism and even the way people view the administration. It has also made our school’s connection to weapons manufacturers like Raytheon a lot more concrete and real in the minds of students. We have seen the lengths UMass will go to protect that connection.

After a big action, such as the sit-in in Chancellor Reyes’ office and the arrests that followed, how does the UMass Dissenters chapter make space for feedback, reflection and organizing future actions?

Something we really treasure as part of our principles is reflection. In the wake of something so heavy, letting everybody go off and do their own thing without addressing it is not the most responsible thing to do. So we take these big risks, we experiment. But then we reflect to make sure that what we’re doing is effective, conducive to our goals and that our community is being taken care of. That’s why that reflection and community building piece is so important to us.

The next day, following the sit-in, we congregated once again outside the office of the chancellor. He had agreed to negotiations so we had a team go in and ask him to make a statement while we congregated outside to support them. There were poems, there was singing, it was like a time of appreciation and thanking people for putting themselves on the line whether they got arrested or not. We also gave people space to not only talk about the things that the campus has been doing that was bothering them around this issue, but also space to grieve what’s been going on, and just really be a community supporting one another.

The chancellor said he would think about it and get back to us in a week — and less than three hours later he dropped a statement that was nothing like what we asked. In the wake of that, the mood was a little bit disappointed but in no way discouraged. We held space towards the end of that community building day for people to openly discuss their ideas in small groups. We discussed questions like: What’s your reaction to what happened? How do you feel about what the chancellor said? What do you think we should do going forward?

Recently, the chancellor refused to meet with students in a public forum organized by UMass Dissenters and others. What are some of the lessons learned from such setbacks? 

In the aftermath of a disappointment like that, I think the question is how do we anticipate things like this happening and how do we make sure our next steps are getting us closer to our goals.

The sit-in in the chancellor’s office and the canceled public forum showed us that the only thing that will seriously get his attention is something big, something that affects him personally and something that’s very direct. Asking him to speak in good faith has not been working. So we’ve come to the conclusion that while we’ve been taking our time organizing, it’s time to start mobilizing again and show the chancellor that we haven’t forgotten and we’re not backing down from holding the school accountable for connecting students to genocide. So a lesson learned, I think, is how to organize and mobilize on the fly, and how to adjust to altering circumstances. We’re still living and learning.

What do you feel UMass Dissenters has accomplished so far?

I think one victory is showing solidarity with the people of Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian and Arab students who are here in the U.S. To show them that there’s a large community that not only empathizes with them, their cause and their people, but is also willing to mobilize to help them gain their liberation and end our campus’ role in their suffering. Even the chancellor willing to meet with us the day after the sit-in or entertaining the idea of the public forum — even if it didn’t happen — are smaller victories I think should be celebrated. Given that people are losing their jobs or having their education threatened, offering people a safe space to organize, mobilize, or even lead a mobilization is, I think, a victory.

How do you think Dissenters, as a movement, fits into the bigger picture of organizing for a ceasefire?

If this movement were a body, then we’re just one organ functioning as part of it. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. We are successors in a long legacy of antiwar movements in America and abroad. This is just our iteration, this is just us carrying on that legacy of striving for peace in a world that is predisposed to violence.

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