Emil Guillermo: An Asian American student protester explains why she disobeyed and got arrested

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After Columbia's imposed deadlne to end student encampments had passed on Monday, 200 student protestors were blocking the entrance of Columbia's Hamilton Hall. Another dozen protestors were inside the building waving a Palestinian flag in a symbolic move. Hamilton Hall was occupied in 1968 during student protests then.

Flashback to Country Joe and the Fish, the rock band from San Francisco during the Summer of Love, when the Vietnam War was the source of campus unrest.

The “Fish Cheer” was on the Woodstock album and offered a soundtrack. You may recall the song opened with a loud “Give me an F!”

Only they didn’t go on to spell fish, but an expletive instead.

The refrain was the count, “And it’s 1,2,3, what are we fighting for? Don’t tell me I don’t give a damn; next stop is Vietnam. And it’s 4,5,6, open up the pearly gates. Oh, I ain’t got time to wonder why, we’re all going to die.”

Dark humor. Good time music.

Something I’m not hearing much in these present-day protests on campus.

But people are earnest. More so and less prone to violence than anyone realizes---unless you include police in the mix.

Achinthya Sivalingam will tell you how things went down in Princeton.

Born in India and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Sivalingam is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Princeton.

She’s one Asian American among the hundreds of students arrested in campus protests over the Israel-Gaza War that has swept the nation.

One of the problems with watching the videos on the news is it shows “news,” essentially, bad behavior, mostly of cops confronting otherwise peaceful protestors. One video at Emory University of police aggressively taking down a female economic professor is particularly disturbing.

There are not enough shots of boring, intractable protestors making their point by just being there without confrontation for most of the last few weeks on some campuses.

And that’s what Sivalingam claims she was doing last week--protesting peacefully over Princeton’s investments in Israel. But Princeton says it warned all the protestors repeatedly that encampments on campus were against the school’s safety rules.

In other words, Sivalingam was free to pitch her ideas, just not her tent.

Why did she do it anyway? An act of civil disobedience.

“We were not causing harm to anyone” she told CNN, adding context to her actions. “We were out there setting up tents so we could bring light to the university’s investments in a genocide.”

For that, she was charged with trespassing and barred from classes, but not her dorm.

Her actions, she said, were in solidarity with other students on campuses like Columbia, as well as UT Austin and Emory in Atlanta, where students were brutally cuffed and pepper sprayed.

“The focus of this protest is to stop killing Palestinian people and to get our institutions to take accountability for their investments.”

But aren’t the protests antisemitic in nature?The demonstrations have Jewish students on campuses fearing for their lives.

“Antisemitism is not anything we condone,” she said. “It’s abhorrent. I know it’s a very real threat but that’s not what we’re advocating for. In fact, one of my classmates who just got arrested today is a Jewish Voice for Peace member, and he was brutalized by the administration for protesting. So, I think it’s important to consider what our institutions are doing in this moment.”

Just as it is important to realize that the student protestors are students, not Hamas, and not terrorists.

And that is a problem.

People are able to join in the demonstrations and mask up so identities are concealed. it’s hard to tell the students from “professional demonstrators.” How connected all the protestors are across the nation isn't even clear.

That’s why it’s good to hear the goals of the students from an actual grad student like Sivalingam.

Students are demanding divestiture, an idea from student protests in the ‘80s. It could just be protest rhetoric, but it is a goal. Getting to the goal is the hard part.

When I was in college in the late ‘70s, I wore a white armband at graduation calling for Harvard to end investments in South Africa. It would be years before divestiture was accomplished.

If these current protests are about divestiture because of inhumane Israeli policies and not antisemitism, then one better take the long view.

It will take time to make it happen if it happens at all.

Already, schools like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have said no to divestiture.But that’s always the first answer. One of the problems is that with most endowments, identifying specific investments is harder than you think. Axios reports that especially for private schools, financial details of investments (in stock or private equity funds) aren't readily available, aside from market performance and asset class.

Columbia has also offered health and educational aid to Gaza in negotiations with students. And it's willing to talk about greater transparency in investments. But that wasn’t good enough.

Given the impasse, the protests don’t sound likely to be over by graduation day. Threats of suspension don’t seem to work.

Let's hope both sides stay patient and cool. By allowing the protests in the beginning, Columbia's response is limited. Still, it must balance free speech, student safety, and its own ability to provide educational services. As we've seen, bringing in the police only has the potential to escalate to violence.

That doesn’t have to happen if campuses honor their students, and students honor the rules– and both sides keep talking in good faith.


NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on