Ming DeMers/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Around 60 students held a "mock trial" of President Martha Pollack outside of Day Hall on Dec. 1, before moving inside to occupy the administration building.

December 1, 2023

Pro-Palestinian Demonstrators Occupy Campus Buildings, Stage Mock Trial of President Pollack

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Editor’s note: The Sun is choosing to blur the faces of participants due to safety and doxxing concerns unless otherwise requested. 

Pro-Palestinian students occupied Day Hall on Friday, Dec. 1, demanding the University adopt policies against doxxing, a new definition of antisemitism and commit to divestment in companies that support Israel’s military. The occupation ended on Sunday, Dec. 3, after the University agreed to set up a meeting between protesters and the University’s Chief Financial Officer to discuss their investment concerns.

Starting at noon, organizers began a “mock trial” for President Martha Pollack outside of Day Hall, accusing her of complicity in “genocide against Palestinian civilians.” The Cornell Coalition for Mutual Liberation — an on-campus group advocating for the Palestinian cause — organized the demonstration.

In an email to the administration, CML demanded protections for pro-Palestine speech, recognition of anti-Zionism as an ideology distinct from antisemitism and revisions to the University’s endowment that divest from companies with “involvement in human rights abuses” in Palestine. 

They demanded Cornell work with them to make determinations about environmental, social and governance policy around investments. They also demanded that the University agree to a Wednesday, Dec. 6 meeting between President Martha Pollack, Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina, Provost Michael Kotlikoff, a representative from the Board of Trustees and group liaisons for CML to discuss these policies.

This demonstration comes after several events in support of Palestine over the past week. On Wednesday, Nov. 29, CML held a rally for Palestine and Sudan outside of Willard Straight Hall, and on Thursday, Nov. 30, advocates staged a die-in on the floor of Duffield Hall. 

“Trial” of President Pollack

Prior to entering Day Hall, demonstrators held signs such as “Disarm the Apartheid,” “Free Palestine” and “Divest Now,” carried large trash bags painted with a money symbol and brought a cardboard cutout of Pollack, placing it on the patio outside Day Hall. Other signs at the event said “DEFENDANT: CORNELL” and “CHARGE: GENOCIDE.”

A speaker who said they were “prosecuting” Pollack defined genocide next to the cutout, citing examples of actions by Israel that they said constituted “war crimes.”

Following the opening remarks — which “found” Israel guilty of genocide and apartheid, the demonstrators began chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The “prosecution” then condemned Cornell Tech for its collaboration with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Cornell’s investment in defense company Raytheon — which they said provides missiles to the Israel Defense Forces. They also condemned the University’s investments in Tata Motors and Hewlett Packard. The Sun was not able to immediately verify whether the University invests in Raytheon, Tata Motors or Hewlett Packard. 

The crowd then chanted “Cornell is complicit in genocide,” and “Martha is complicit in genocide” before once again chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The prosecutor then “charged” Cornell with complicity in what they called the genocide, forcible deportation and apartheid of Palestinians, as well as the targeting of civilians and intentional deprivation of objects necessary for survival, which they deemed “war crimes.”

By 12:30 p.m., the crowd had swelled to roughly 60 demonstrators, who demanded Cornell’s “divestment from genocide and apartheid.”

Pollack was then “found guilty” of genocide and apartheid. 

Occupation of Day Hall

At 12:30 p.m., demonstrators announced they would be occupying Day Hall but did not begin to occupy the building until 1:40 p.m., making speeches in the interim. Some demonstrators remained outside once the occupation began, where they held up a Palestinian flag. 

Approximately 40 students entered Day Hall, and at around 2:15 p.m., met with Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi downstairs to discuss their demands.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student and campus life, discusses demands with students approximately two hours after the demonstration began (Ming DeMers/Sun Assistant Photography Editor).

In a letter to Pollack from Nov. 9 posted to their Instagram account, CML describes itself as a “coalition representing many diasporic and marginalized populations at Cornell.” Some speeches held outside of Day Hall before the onset of the occupation sought to contextualize the Israel-Hamas war and Palestinian movement within larger global trends.

One Malaysian speaker spoke about the connection between fighting in solidarity in Palestine with global movements against colonialism.

“I think the sea is narrow, and I think our blood is near,” the speaker said. “The waterway that connects Southeast Asia, that connects South Asia, that connects the [Middle East and North Africa] region — that connects us to Europe — are deeply, deeply tied. We are not far from each other.”

Another speaker compared the occupation of Day Hall for Palestine with the Day Hall occupation from May 11 to May 12, 2023, in which Starbucks unionization activists staged a takeover in an effort to oust Starbucks products from Cornell’s campus. 

“I don’t know if you all remember [that] last semester around finals time, there was a movement to divest from another company, Starbucks,” the speaker said. “If there’s one thing that last semester taught us it’s that Cornell is capable of divestment.”

The reaction to the demonstrations outside Day Hall along Feeney Way was mixed. Several cars driving down the street honked at the demonstrators as drivers shouted sentiments both in support and opposition to the protest out of their side windows.

One student, Emmet Ades ’27, confronted protesters outside of Day Hall at around 3:45 p.m, temporarily halting the protesters’ chants. Demonstrators were told not to engage with Ades, but several chose to speak with him about his disagreement with their rhetoric.

In an interview with The Sun, Ades explained the moment in the protest that motivated his confrontation.

Counterprotester Emmet Ades ’27 confronts demonstrators outside Day Hall (Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor).

“When I heard ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ that was a saying that struck my heart, because when they say ‘river to the sea,’ I assume the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which includes the U.N. borders of the state of Israel,” Ades said. “So when I hear that, it sounds like they want to dismantle and destroy the Jewish state, which makes me very concerned because obviously I have a lot of family that lives there, and I go to Israel all the time.”

Meeting With Administration

At his public meeting with the demonstration’s organizers, Lombardi agreed to a meeting with the organizers regarding the doxxing of students and to make introductions to relevant administration officials to that effect.

Lombardi also encouraged the demonstrators to follow a protocol outlined when Cornell chose to divest from fossil fuels in 2020, saying any such action would require involvement of Christopher Cowen, the University’s chief financial officer. Lombardi also agreed to contact Cowen — who is currently in New York City along with Pollack, according to Lombardi — and ask for a meeting on behalf of the organizers, although he could not guarantee it would be when the organizers demanded.

However, Lombardi was more reluctant to agree to the CML’s demand that the University adopt the definition of antisemitism as it appears in the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. According to its website, it is a 2020 document developed and signed by scholars of antisemitism and related fields that has been met with mixed receptions across academia. Lombardi expressed the process of adopting an outside definition does not have a recent precedent and that would require further consideration.

“The institution is not typically in the practice of adopting outside definitions that aren’t ours, and I am trying to stay out of that. But that’s something that would require an additional discussion,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know what the process would look like and I would need a lot of time to think about that and talk with others [in the administration] to see what that might look like.”

During the meeting, Lombardi also stressed the administration’s cooperation and commitment to free expression and student protests. He emphasized that the administration has cooperated with students and demonstrators with respect to the events planned for the week by CML.

“You’ve had a lot of activities [and] demonstrations, and the staff that’s been here has been very committed to helping you be able to do that and express yourself during your demonstrations throughout the week,” Lombardi said. “So we remain very committed to that, including today.”

Lombardi then met privately with CML organizers, and following the meeting, a demonstrator announced that an anti-doxxing policy would be implemented by Spring 2024.

“There will be a comprehensive anti-doxxing policy by the start of next semester,” the demonstrator said. “And representatives from CML organizations are guaranteed a seat on the group and the meetings that produce that policy.”

The demonstrator also spoke to CML’s demand for the University to formally recognize the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, which they said the University did not find clear enough to meet.

“[The definition] was not clear enough for the University to be able to outline a plan in which this demand would be met,” the demonstrator said. “After a long period of discussion, we understood this to be true. And this will be in further talks.” 

The student said the administration must meet with the University’s CFO and Board of Trustees  to discuss any divestment from companies that support the state of Israel.

“The entire Cornell leadership is meeting on Monday. We were promised a meeting time by Tuesday,” the student said. “It is our belief that until we have a meeting time, the occupation should continue.”

The Demonstration Continues

To avoid encounters with law enforcement, it was announced that the demonstration would move to Willard Straight Hall after the closure of Day Hall at 5:15 p.m. They announced the demonstration would relocate to Klarman Hall, which is open 24/7, in the event staying in Willard Straight Hall could lead to arrest. It was also announced that the occupation would resume in Day Hall in the morning on Saturday, Dec. 2. 

Approximately 60 students demonstrated outside Willard Straight Hall at around 5:20 p.m. Several minutes later, they moved inside to occupy the building’s lobby, where students appeared to study on their laptops and talk among themselves while sitting on benches and the floor.

Students demonstrated in front of Willard Straight Hall for a few minutes after Day Hall closed at 5:15 p.m. on Friday. Following some chants, the students moved inside. (Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor)

Into the Weekend

Demonstrators returned to Willard Straight Hall on Saturday, Dec. 2, where they put up posters and signs in the windows and around the main entrance and remained there throughout the night. 

CML advertised a “leftist potluck” at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday Dec. 3 as an opportunity to share food with other “comrades,” for which demonstrators brought food. CML also updated demonstrators on the ongoing negotiations with the University in an Instagram post at about 5 a.m. on Sunday, saying the University had agreed to their demand for a meeting with Cowen. However, CML also said the occupation would continue until a date had been set for the meeting and at least eight representatives from CML were permitted to attend, an increase from the three that the administration offered. CML also told The Sun via press release that a further update on the occupation would occur at 2 p.m. on Dec. 3.

However, Cornell administration officials and CML organizers were able to reach an agreement, with the occupation ending at 1:30 p.m., in which the administration agreed to CML’s counterproposal and set dates for the meeting on Friday, Dec. 8 and Monday, Dec. 11.

“The administration has been super responsive,” said Momodou Taal grad, Cornell’s intercampus liaison for CML. “I don’t think they want to [agree to CML’s demands], but I think they’re willing to do it.”

Demonstrators remained in the building to celebrate until after 2 p.m., where they gave speeches, continued to share food from the potluck and began dancing in groups. The protesters also chanted a round of slogans, including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Martha, Martha, you can’t hide, you’re silent on genocide.”

Update, Dec. 1, 12:37 p.m., 2:35 p.m., 4:12 p.m., 6:12 p.m. and Dec. 3, 7:17 p.m.: This story has been updated to include more detail as the event unfolded.