From ‘Shantytown’ to the ‘Liberated Zone’: Cornell’s History of Encampments

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From the Willard Straight Hall takeover in 1969 during parents’ weekend to the Latino Students’ takeover of Day Hall in 1993, civil disobedience has been an integral part of Cornell’s past. 

On April 25, the Coalition for Mutual Liberation organized an encampment at Cornell on the Arts Quad with a list of eight demands for the University to consider, joining a nationwide movement of students organizing pro-Palestine encampment protests.

In 1985, students created a “shantytown” encampment to urge the University to divest from companies that conducted business in apartheid South Africa — the government-sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination against nonwhites. 

Throughout the 1960s, advocates began to call for divestment from South Africa to protest against the country’s discriminatory practices. Although the movement began in the 1960s, it did not gain popular attraction until the 1980s, when universities across the country — including Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles — started to stage protests to advocate for divestment against South Africa. 

In April of 1985, students at Cornell organized a protest, setting up tents behind Day Hall in support of divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. 

“As part of the demonstrations, students built a shantytown of cardboard and wooden structures and stray tents behind Day Hall to symbolize the living conditions of many black South Africans,” stated a Sun article published in 1985. “Some 15 protesters lived in these structures during the last weeks of the semester and into the summer months.”

Protesters created a shantytown encampment on campus because they wanted to symbolize the living conditions of Black people in South Africa due to government actions.  

Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English, who has taught at Cornell since 1968, remembered the encampment generating widespread support, even having Peter Seeger — an American folk singer and activist — speak in solidarity with the protesters’ efforts when he performed at Bailey Hall on May 4, 1985.

“At the end of that Bailey Hall concert, Seeger said, ‘Let’s all go over to shantytown’ — his appearance was specifically in support against apartheid and in support of that shantytown,” Schwarz said.

1986 graduation issue of The Sun highlighted that Pete Seeger also performed in the shantytown, reflecting his support of the protesters.

The University granted students a temporary permit to construct the shantytowns starting on April 22, 1985, and the shantytown remained until June 25, 1985, when it was dismantled by Cornell officials. Throughout this period, protesters orchestrated sit-ins in Day Hall, resulting in over 900 arrests by the time the spring semester ended. 

A fire in one of the shacks led the City Fire Department to order the shantytown to be dismantled. While the students stood in front of the shantytown to stop the raze, they were ultimately dragged away by security officials.

American studies lecturer Corey Ryan Earle ’07 wrote about the immediate effects of the shantytown encampment in an email to The Sun. 

“The shantytown drew attention to the issues and certainly inspired discussion, and the pressure likely played a role in the Board of Trustees adopting a policy of selective divestment in 1986,” Earle wrote. 

In January of 1986, the Board of Trustees recommended new divestment policies that advised that the University selectively divest from companies “that do not work actively and publicly in support of the efforts to bring about the dismantling of the apartheid.” 

While Cornell adopted these guidelines, students were still calling for the University to completely divest from companies with South African ties. Students rebuilt shantytowns in October of 1986, which led to 23 arrests

Dr. Christopher Plowe ’82 M.D. ’86, a voting member of the Board of Trustees from 1983 to 1985, explained that the shantytowns influenced the conversation of divestment within the Board. 

“I frankly doubt that Cornell University would have divested from South Africa had it not been for the protest,” Plowe said.

Plowe recalled a Board of Trustee meeting that took place in Ithaca during the spring of 1985. During this meeting, Plowe had to evacuate the meeting due to the protesters entering the Statler Hotel, then known as the Statler Inn, the location of the Board meeting. 

“[As] I and two other trustees were going down a set of stairs at the Statler Inn and a group of protesting students came up the stairs — they asked ‘Hey are you a trustee?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I am actually [a] medical student trustee,’” Plowe said. 

Plowe explained that during the meeting, students expressed opposition to existing University investments in South Africa.

“[My] memory is that there were a few students who were chanting or shouting at me,” Plowe said. “But then there were one or two who — when they kind of got the sense [that] I was happy to engage with them — they started chatting me and so we actually had a pretty productive and civil conversation.”

Schwarz expressed that compared to the current “relatively small” Arts Quad protest encampment, there was immense support among the student body for the protesters in the 1985 shantytown.

“It seemed to me that the sympathies of the students and faculty were with the anti-apartheid group,” Schwarz said. “I have been to the encampment four times and there’s never been even a third of a percent of the Cornell community there.”

Schwarz also highlighted that different from the eight current demands from protesters — which include giving back Indigenous land, divesting from “morally reprehensible activities” and removing police from campus — in the encampment, those in the 1985 shantytown were focused on one issue, which was divesting from South African apartheid. 

Schwarz said that because of the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict, he thinks that many of the encampment protesters, unlike those in the 1985 encampment, do not understand the multiple issues that are protested at the current encampment.

“What I noticed is that many of the students, the people who are supposedly part of the solidarity group sitting outside the encampment, don’t understand these issues at all,” Schwarz said. “This is in part because the focus is so diffuse and partly because students, wedded to social media, are not as informed as they once were.”

However, Plowe explained that the students who participated in the shantytown did have a real and important impact on the decision-making process of the University in the 80s, expressing confidence that today’s protesters could also exact change.

“And so the simple logic is that it did have an influence in the past so one could reasonably predict that it would have an influence today,” Plowe said. “If history is [a] prologue, then yes, activism and protest [do] have an impact.”

Source: The Cornell Daily News