Willamette students occupy campus center, seeking divestment from arms industry

This article was updated at 9 p.m. following the students’ Shabbat observance.

A group of Willamette University students are occupying the Putnam University Center on campus, demanding the university divest from the U.S. arms industry which they said is profiting from genocide in Gaza.

The occupation, organized by the university’s Students for a Democratic Society, joins a growing protest movement on campuses around the U.S. seeking to call attention to the Israel-Hamas war and urge divestment from Israel.

Willamette students gathered Friday afternoon in Jackson Plaza outside the campus library before moving to the student center.

About 20 students were on the third floor of the building as of 5:30 p.m. Friday preparing to spend the night. A group of Jewish students gathered in preparation to light candles for the Sabbath. Other students sat together in circles on the floor or on couches in preparation for the overnight occupation. 

Zeke Druker and Aiden Dopson, two of the occupation’s organizers, sat with their faces covered on a couch draped with a Palestinian flag. Both said they are inspired by student movements throughout history and by the bravery of other students across the nation. 

“Speaking for myself, I am a Jew. I am very strongly motivated by my Jewish religion … but I believe that there is nothing more Jewish than the intergenerational fight for justice that Jews supported during the era of apartheid, during the era of Vietnam, during countless other student struggles across the world,” Druker said. “I view myself as part of that tradition. And I find it very sad that the national discourse has eliminated the room for that position.” 

Around 8 p.m., dozens of students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, gathered to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night in a show of solidarity for the Palestinian people and their fellow student protesters across the nation.

Zeke Druker, center, joints other Willamette University students observing Shabbat the evening of Friday, May 3, as part of a pro-Palestine occupation of the student center. (Joe Siess/Salem Reporter)

In an all-campus email Friday morning, Willamette President Steve Thorsett said the university’s $305 million endowment is managed by an outside firm, Global Endowment Management, under a 2018 policy the university adopted to consider the environmental and social impacts of investments.

“A report on Willamette’s (investment) policies is brought each year to the University Council, our representative body including students, staff, and faculty from all of our schools,” Thorsett’s email said. He encouraged students with questions to speak to treasurer Dan Valles, who is traveling with family until next week.

Druker said he wanted it to be clear that the students currently occupying the the Putnam Center understand how the endowment system at the university works and how it is managed, and said he is confident there exists the capacity for divestment from the U.S. arms industry and what he called “the war machine supporting the crimes of genocide and apartheid in the state of Israel currently.” 

He also made clear that no form of hatred whether Islamophobia or antisemitism will be tolerated during the occupation. 

“We are also uniquely committed to Willamette. We believe that a significant part of what this institution claims to represent in its motto, in how it presents itself in admissions, and to the outside world is responsibility to not ourselves alone … but to everyone in our community,” Druker said. “Not just the community that is here in Salem, but everyone around the world who is struggling for liberation and against genocide at this moment.” 

Dopson said the movement is inspired by the plight of the Palestinian people and that the nationwide crackdown on encampments is something students have experienced throughout history. 

“I think when one encampment falls another one comes up. We’ve seen this before time and time again. This is not unprecedented,” Dopson said. “This is continuous and students always have a right to know where their money is being allocated … and I think there is a lot of bad coverage for students here in the nation, but we all understand that history will vindicate us.” 

More than 2,300 students have been arrested at 46 universities around the U.S. since April 17, the Associated Press reported, as some protests have drawn a heavy-handed response from law enforcement.

But Willamette doesn’t have plans to involve law enforcement or confront students, Thorsett said.

“As they seek to draw attention to their message, the students have been respectful of the need of their classmates to prepare undisturbed for exams, and have not interfered with the work of university staff,” he said in an email to Salem Reporter. “The University Center remains open as usual, and as long as conditions don’t change we have no plans to remove the students.”

Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 503-335-7790. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Joe Siess is a reporter for Salem Reporter. Joe joined Salem Reporter in 2024 and primarily covers city and county government but loves surprises. Joe previously reported for the Redmond Spokesman, the Bulletin in Bend, Klamath Falls Herald and News and the Malheur Enterprise. He was born in Independence, MO, where the Oregon Trail officially starts, and grew up in the Kansas City area.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.