Pulitzer Prize–winning writer James Forman Jr was once a student activist for divestment from South Africa. Urging both discretion and bravery, he shares his lessons with student activists calling for divestment from Israel and a cease-fire in Gaza.

Columbia University students protest in support of Palestine on November 14, 2023, in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

On November 8, 1985, more than five hundred student protesters rallied outside of a Brown University administration meeting, demanding the university divest from corporations operating in apartheid South Africa.

The protest organized by the group Brown Divest/Free South Africa was, as even members of the university’s Advisory and Executive Committee had to admit, “well-organized and impressive.” As a result of their broader campaign, which also involved a hunger strike, the Brown Corporation voted to divest from companies that did business in South Africa. When the divestment process stalled, student organizers kept up the pressure. They were harshly punished, with twenty students put on probation in 1987.

On November 8, 2023 — thirty-eight years to the day after that initial anti-apartheid protest — the Brown University administration moved to arrest a group of twenty Jewish students peacefully sitting in at the campus’s central building, University Hall. The students, part of the new group Jews for Ceasefire Now, echoed the calls of their predecessors, demanding that the university divest from “Israel and the military-industrial complex” and calling for a ceasefire in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Organizers at Brown have been laying the groundwork for the present moment for years. In spring 2019, Brown University students overwhelmingly voted in favor of a referendum that called on the corporation to sever its investments that are “complicit in human rights abuses against Palestinians.” The vote passed with a 69 percent majority and joined the ranks of undergraduate university referendums at Swarthmore, NYU, and UCLA, and others. But since the referendum, the Brown Corporation hasn’t moved on divestment. When Brown Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) attended a corporation meeting in 2021 to press board members on divestment, the answers they received were hollow: “The corporation is aware of the topic” and divestment is an “issue before the Corporation.”

On November 26, a man shot three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont. One of them was Brown University junior Hisham Awartani. Awartani and his friends were reportedly wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic, and the violence is being investigated as a hate crime. At a vigil for Awartani, who lay in the hospital injured, hundreds of Brown students began chanting in support of divestment and a cease-fire. The issue has now hit closer than ever to home, and Brown’s anti-apartheid movement is increasingly determined — even in the face of escalating repression of the student anti-apartheid movement — to make the administration listen.

To be successful, anti-apartheid organizers would do well to absorb lessons from the past. James Forman Jr, a Yale law professor whose book Locking Up Our Own won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 2018, was a highly active member of Brown Divest in the 1980s. In the following interview, Forman spoke with Brown student activist Kian Braulik about his experiences operating in and around the divestment movement at Brown University — and the implications for anti-apartheid organizers today.

Kian Braulik

You attended Brown from 1984­–88. What was your involvement in the divestment movement during that time?

James Forman Jr

I was involved in many different activities at Brown, but the two main ones, by far, were the black student movement my freshman year and, what we’re talking about today, Brown Divest/Free South Africa. In 1985, I was just getting on campus and was moved by the upperclassmen. By 1986, I had more of an organizing role. Divest launched in the spring of my first year at Brown, and I was very active in it up until my senior year. It was the biggest commitment that I had at Brown besides classes.

Kian Braulik

In an interview from 2013, you mention Brown Divest/Free South Africa’s hunger strike in 1986. I understand that the hunger strike was pivotal for influencing Brown’s decision-making on anti-apartheid divestment, since afterwards they committed to an incremental divestment that would comply with the Sullivan Principles by 1988. Can you go into a little bit more detail about Brown Divest’s strategy going into the hunger strike and how administrators reacted to it?

James Forman Jr

Since I have an underlying medical condition, I myself was not a participant in the hunger strike, but I was involved in the deliberation. I was certainly involved in the advocacy outside, as the hunger strike was going on. Why did we choose a hunger strike? Honestly it was just out of frustration that everything else we had tried was not working. The administration was entrenched in their position for no good reason.

We were asking for something that to us seemed like a straightforward moral command.

We were asking for something that to us seemed — and I think history has proven us right — like a straightforward moral command. We had an apartheid regime in South Africa, and Brown was invested in companies doing business there. International organizations and Nelson Mandela, who was then still incarcerated, were calling for divestment. He was specifically calling on international organizations to support and fight against apartheid. And the African National Congress (ANC) was loud and clear that they wanted sanctions.

Brown never gave us a good explanation for why divestment wasn’t something that they could do. They would go to their corporation meetings, they would come out, and there was neither action nor even a statement about why there would be no action.

Kian Braulik

I understand that then-president Howard Swearer expressed moral outrage about apartheid, but wouldn’t commit to taking any action.

James Forman Jr

That’s right. Nobody was denying that South Africa had an apartheid regime. For us, seeing what we viewed as a moral requirement and seeing the university refusing to do anything about it, there were two possibilities: either they did not share our concern, or they just wanted to project their financial interests.

Kian Braulik

What were the arguments against divestment in the 1980s?

James Forman Jr

I remember a big campus debate with the head of the College Republicans, a student group on campus. She said, “Well, divestment is a weak tool,” because it only indirectly impacts the South African government when Brown sells its stocks in companies doing business there. We counterargued that every single time one entity divested or one country imposed sanctions, the ANC celebrated them. Brown’s just one player, sure, but this was an international issue, and it was happening at college campuses across America.

When Mandela came to the United States, he overwhelmingly thanked the activists and the students, since he felt alone and isolated during apartheid. When he would hear about a university or pension fund or state divesting or sanctioning, he celebrated it. That was fundamentally the point. All we could do from the outside was support and inspire in some way.

The other argument against it was that divestment would hurt Brown’s returns. Brown’s endowment was smaller than other Ivy League schools’, they would argue. “We shouldn’t do anything to damage our economic foundation,” they said. We weren’t persuaded by that. There were plenty of companies not doing business in South Africa that Brown and other universities could invest in. And given the amount of money Brown’s endowment managers make, we were confident they could find an apartheid-free portfolio.

When Mandela came to the United States, he overwhelmingly thanked the activists and the students.

Kian Braulik

Amy Carter was a prominent figure in the Brown Divest movement. She was the daughter of President Jimmy Carter, and I understand that her presence helped the campaign win national attention.

James Forman Jr

That did get national attention. Amy was involved. Amy and I actually knew each other from high school. We met at a summer program. Amy’s presence was a big deal then. It would be the equivalent of if one of the Obama daughters were involved today. Like the Obama daughters, she had been a child in the White House.

Kian Braulik

Today at Brown it’s Jewish organizers who have been most visible for taking action, in part because they know that the university will treat them with more deference than its more vulnerable students — like black students and Muslim students — who have borne the brunt of asymmetric responses from the university administration. For instance, our university president spoke at a vigil for Jewish students after October 7, but has since been actively antagonistic to pro-Palestinian organizing. Did students’ positionalities or identities play a role in the Brown Divest movement?

James Forman Jr

It was different back then. There’s no equivalence to what’s going on today. There’s no South African connection to the United States. There was no group whose identity was intertwined with South Africa, really on either side of the issue. There just aren’t that many South African students at American universities.

I guess you could say that there was an affinity that black students had with South Africa, given that we’re African Americans. There’s a connection to the continent, but that’s not the same as what we’re talking about today. That contributes to why everything felt so galvanizing at the time. For us it was student versus the administration, not student versus student, like you see on campuses right now. There were other students who didn’t care, were apathetic, or had different priorities, sure. We always wanted more of our classmates to show their solidarity, and we were frustrated when they didn’t pay attention. But not paying attention is very different from active counterdemonstrations.

During Free South Africa, there wasn’t the same kind of disagreement, and certainly not the kind of identity entanglement amid that disagreement within the student body. That makes today’s struggle harder, on an emotional level. It’s one thing to walk around campus upset that your classmates aren’t protesting with you about something that you consider as a moral requirement. It’s a totally different thing to go to class and see a student who was just at a counterdemonstration.

Kian Braulik

There’s also, importantly, an ethos of “Not in Our Names” that makes Jewish student organizing much more personal. They’re in the position to reframe narratives about antisemitism on college campuses right now to remind us that, actually, suggesting that all Jewish students must or do endorse the Israeli regime is antisemitic. What are the strategic implications for students commandeering their position in this way?

James Forman Jr

I think that the way that Jewish students are using their position is quite profound. The fundamental claim that is often made when somebody wants to stand up for Palestinian rights is that they’re being antisemitic. To be clear, criticizing the state of Israel can be done in ways that are absolutely antisemitic. Since that’s true, it’s incredibly easy to call anyone who criticizes Israel antisemitic.

The goal of the organizers for Palestine must be to force people into a legitimate conversation about what conditions are like on the ground.

When you have Jewish students who are leading the charge, it forces attention to the merits of the issue. It means you can’t just shut the conversation down with “you’re pro-Hamas, and I’m not going to engage in any conversation about what’s happening in the West Bank or what’s happening in Gaza.”

The goal of the organizers for Palestine must be to force people into a legitimate conversation about what conditions are like on the ground. What does it mean to live in a country where you’re consigned to second-class citizenship? Where your land can be so easily dispossessed? Where you drive cars with different license plates and are prohibited from driving on certain roads? Where you have a limited ability to travel and limited access to education?

In the United States, especially for black Americans, we’re familiar with those conditions: it reminds us of Jim Crow.

Kian Braulik

In a previous interview with Brown newspaper The Indy, you mention that universities often make empty gestures toward policy change in order to deflate student movements. Administrations “are extremely, extremely smart at defanging protests,” you said.

How do we organize in the face of universities’ overwhelming authority to “defang?” Is “defanging” even an appropriate lens in light of such overt censure — with administrations even going so far as to outright ban pro-Palestine student groups at Columbia and Brandeis?

James Forman Jr

This is, to me, the toughest challenge in an organizing space. I don’t think you can solve it necessarily. For Brown Divest, the hunger strike was an attempt to tell the administration, “You can’t keep delaying and deferring, the arguments are available, the information is there, nobody is saying anything new to one another. You are only refusing to engage.” We wanted to increase the pressure, if you will. That is the challenge at hand.

I think that the biggest piece of advice I can give is for people to be aware of the challenge, and not to get sucked too far down the road of university commissions and committees and study groups. Faculty and administrators never want to move as quickly as students.  The university is a place of contemplation, study, and research — those must all have a role. Committees have a role. But committee-making can’t go on forever. Now that I’m a university faculty member, I can say that most faculty committees come together in the fall to issue a report and take action in the spring.

In the United States, especially for black Americans, we’re familiar with those conditions: it reminds us of Jim Crow.

What I would say to students is to try to work with your faculty members who are familiar with how committee meetings typically operate at U.S. universities. Make sure that if you get put into a committee-making, study-grouping mode of organizing that you have a timetable that is at the very least similar to one that your university normally functions on.

Kian Braulik

I’ve heard the line that Brown Divest wasn’t successful on its own terms, that it was really Harvard and Berkeley students that helped score the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1987. My take on this is that it’s clearly never one group but a coalition of groups that leverage policymakers’ decisions. How did Brown Divest work with other university anti-apartheid organizations, if at all?

James Forman Jr

You all are much more connected to one another than we were, because of the Internet and because of social media. Look at the fact that we’re talking today. To find out what was happening at Harvard in 1986, you’d have to get on the phone. And to organize with other students at your own university, you had to go to your dorm room, and call everyone you wanted to organize with, one by one.

I often felt frustrated during my time in Brown Divest that I wasn’t sure what was going on at other universities. It was mostly hearsay: “Oh, I heard so and so divested in such and such.” There might be a conference somewhere once a year where all student organizing spaces would get together, but that wasn’t the same as learning what was happening as it happened. The only time I learned directly what was happening on other campuses was over one Thanksgiving break. I drove to Dartmouth to see what was up. I met with some students who were protesting on their green in a tent.

Kian Braulik

Did you take cues from other organizing spaces at Brown, like the black student movement your freshman year?

James Forman Jr

The black student movement definitely had an impact on Divest. A number of people in Divest started out in black student organizing, as first years.

One of the things I learned in that space was that the university will always resist at first. Their initial stance is invariably in opposition, but with advocacy you can win over your peers on campus and build toward structural change. Your movement doesn’t have to remain as small as when you started. Over time, you can persuade others — including administrators — and maybe even force change at the highest levels.

The university’s initial stance is invariably in opposition, but with advocacy you can win over your peers on campus and build toward structural change.

For us, the black student movement on campus, going back to 1975, was very influential. I remember that some alumni were a resource. Both the ’85 black student movement and the ’75 black student movement were really inspirational.

Kian Braulik

Do you have any comment you’d like to make about campus organizing for Palestine?

James Forman Jr

I would say a few things. A few days after October 7, a Jewish friend of mine wrote to me to share how she was struggling with people’s inability “to hold both grief for the murder of Jews and grief at the murder of Palestinians in one place.” It’s crucial that anyone entering this conversation enter it from a standpoint that victimization is wrong. Hamas’ killing of Israelis — some of whom, it is worth noting, were very much against the occupation — is horrific and must be condemned. If you can’t utter those words, if you can’t feel that in your heart, then you have work to do. ​​

Some of the language I saw on campuses immediately after October 7 failed that test, but I think that the organizing that I’ve seen recently — the letters and the demands — have taken productive lessons to heart. Those Jewish students at Brown standing up for Palestine are doing something extraordinary. They’re brave. They understand that all kinds of pressure will be brought to bear on them, including doxxing, no-hire lists, and grad school no-acceptance lists.

University students in general are entering this conversation with a level of precarity, and they deserve a lot of credit for taking on a not-insignificant amount of risk. It was easier for us. During Brown Divest/Free South Africa the administration wasn’t attacking us, even if they weren’t on our side.

I have tremendous admiration for students standing up for this population of people, the Palestinian people, that have been regularly ignored or forgotten for decades. Palestinians only get talked about in fits and spurts. You hear it now and again: “Conditions are terrible in Gaza.” “The restrictions in the West Bank are like Jim Crow.” But then the attention moves on. The fact that these students are willing to remain focused on Palestine is a testament to their courage. I believe that history will look back one day and remember them as being on the right side.

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