In the final session of student government on April 20, a bill urging the university to cut ties with all companies that benefit from abuses of both human rights and the environment was passed with near unanimous support.
The bill passed on a 36-0 vote, with 10 abstentions from senators who wanted more specifics as to what companies and organizations would be boycotted, explained Soheil Saneei, the author of the bill.
S.G.R. 26, sponsored by Sens. Harris Quadir, Cooper Ferguson and Lyric Mandell, requests that LSU “divests its stocks, funds, and endowments from companies and institutions that profit from or engage in human rights violations in US prisons, at the U.S.-Mexico Border, in Occupied Palestine, and environmentally.”
The only named organizations in the text of the bill are Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, the Israeli Institute of Technology and the Geological Survey of Israel, all of which are part of the inaugural U.S. Israeli Energy Centers alongside LSU’s College of Engineering.
Saneei, who just graduated with a degree in biological engineering, explained that while the bill uses language of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that directly targets offenses in Occupied Palestine and seeks to divest from Israel, it seeks to address all forms of structural oppression.
“We first thought of how we can incorporate and support an effort to divest, which is a common strategy by oppressed groups,” Saneei, the founder of Cooperation Rouge, a local socialist organization, said. “Then we thought about how we could relate it to more people. A lot of people don’t have a connection specifically to Palestine and a lot of people want something that in some way incorporates them.”
Claire Neal, an International Studies Senior and President of Tigers for Israel at LSU, a pro-Israel organization, criticized the bill.
"LSU and its Student Government consistently preach diversity and inclusivity of all minorities on campus," Neal said in a statement to The Reveille. "It does not go unnoticed that the student government has elected to exclude the minute Jewish population from its radar, through this disgusting bill."
Neal accused the BDS movement of putting Israelis at risk, going on to blame Palestinian leaders for human rights violations against Palestinians.
Boycott, Divest and Sanction movements stem from the actions of South Africans during Apartheid, Saneei explained, and eventually grew into a movement that encompassed assisting all oppressed people.
The road to the bill’s passage started last summer, when Saneei’s group, alongside members of Students for Justice in Palestine, a Palestinian-rights advocacy group with both Jewish and Muslim members, protested the conflict between Israel and Palestine in the March for Palestine.
A year prior in 2020, Saneei and Cooperation Rouge, then Democracy at Work LSU, worked with student government to pass a resolution to rename 12 buildings on campus that held the names of white supremacists and slave owners, including Troy H. Middleton, whose name was removed from the LSU Library in June 2020.
By Spring 2022, Saneei sought to put pen to paper on a bill for student government that would address issues of systemic oppression against people in Palestine, as well as those in Cancer Alley and other areas.
After writing the initial text of the bill, Quadir, a fourth year senator for the College of Art & Design came on board to assist in the bill’s passage, having discussed issues related to the legislation with Saneei previously.
“There were a lot of questions that came up during it about human rights violations,” Quadir said. “We worked hard on the text of it.”
The bill uses the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a baseline for determining violations, with all people being “equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law.”
The bill, Saneei explained, was supported by the Tiger Prison Project and graduate teaching assistant Jessie Parrot. Members of SJP were also instrumental in the bill’s passage, Saneei said.
“The fact that LSU students have managed to pass this BDS bill is a monumental step for the university, as well as the southern region of the United States,” Minna Ismail, President of SJP, said. “A lot of the time we are struggling to grab our surrounding communities’ attention about an ongoing event that is happening somewhere else in the world, and we all know that it’s even more difficult to find people that want to make a change to something that they feel has no effect on them.”
Saneei explained that using broader language in the bill helped garner support. While the university is located in a red state, LSU Student Government has a history of progressive policies, including the name change resolution and resolution seeking to end the use of prison labor on campus.
“The South has a lot of potential for leftist activism and leftist politics,” Saneei said. “A lot of it is that the powerful institutions in the South are conservative and manufacture consent to the constituency that everyone is conservative. But if you look, there’s a huge leftist presence and always has been. And a lot of people who are conservative support leftist policies as well.”
Saneei feels the South has the potential to create real change, citing student government as a prime example of where progressive policies can thrive.
“It’s something every ticket for student government runs on each year,” he said. “This year, the issue of Palestine is probably the most controversial one and we asked every single ticket about their position, and every single one offered their support whether it was carefully worded or full throated support.”
The next step for the bill is to be prepared for presentation to the university’s administration for consideration, Quadir explained. He said that he hoped the bill would create a lasting change in the culture of the university and its surroundings.
“We want to support a better, more peaceful world,” Quadir said. “And LSU should be a part of that, leading it and not the opposite.”