UNC-Chapel Hill police detained members of a pro-Palestinian “Gaza solidarity encampment” early Tuesday morning after warning the group to remove its tents from university grounds or face possible arrest, suspension or expulsion from the university.

UNC interim Chancellor Lee Roberts and Provost Chris Clemens announced in a statement at 5:37 a.m. that the protesters “must remove all tents, tables, and other items and depart from the area” of the encampment — Polk Place, the university’s main quad in the central part of campus.

“Failure to follow this order to disperse will result in consequences including possible arrest, suspension from campus and, ultimately, expulsion from the university, which may prevent students from graduating,” Roberts and Clemens stated.

In a news release, the university said campus police “calmly approached the group” at 6 a.m. and detained about 30 people who refused to leave.

“During that time, the protesters attempted to block the UNC Police vehicles by standing in front of them and throwing items at officers,” the UNC release stated. “Polk Place was cleared in approximately 45 minutes. Afterwards, UNC Facilities cleared the area of significant debris.

“After the area was cleared, the remaining protesters escalated their tactics, attempting to forcibly enter South Building by pushing officers and refusing to comply with requests from Facilities and UNC Police,” the release stated.

The UNC chapter of Students for Justice for Palestine, meanwhile, tweeted that people were “violently arrested.”

Which police were involved?

Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies helped UNC Police with safety, security and transport for those arrested to the magistrate’s office in Hillsborough, according to spokeswoman Alicia Stemper.

The arrested “students and community members” were released, according to social-media posts by Students for Justice for Palestine, which initially organized the encampment Friday.

Social media videos posted by Students for Justice for Palestine appeared to show police from other universities in the UNC System, including Appalachian State University.

A system spokesperson, Andy Wallace, confirmed to The News & Observer that officers from “a number of UNC System campuses” were involved Tuesday. System schools have a “longstanding protocol of providing mutual assistance when the need arises,” he said. Wallace did not answer a question from The N&O about which universities sent officers.

Chapel Hill police were not involved, a town spokesperson said.

The videos showed police surrounding the protesters as they linked arms inside the encampment.

Outside Gerrard Hall, Ariana Vigil said she saw nothing that would have warranted police being called to campus. “It’s uncalled for,” she said.

The associate professor of women’s and gender studies had arrived at around 8 a.m. but said she has supported the protesters all weekend and had even brought her 6-year-old daughter to see the encampment.

“At no point have I seen anything that was unsafe until police came here,” she said.

Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jeff Nieman was headed into the office Tuesday morning and said he had not been consulted yet about the arrests.

“We’ll always take everything on a case-by-case basis, and we’ll do what we always do, which is evaluate whether or not we agree the law has been violated and it was properly enforced,” Nieman said. “If so, we will prosecute the cases.”

Vigil and march

By 8:30 a.m., the university had put barriers up to keep people off the central part of the quad where the encampment had been.

Signs that previously were staked in the encampment had been moved elsewhere on the quad Tuesday morning, with several lining the bushes in front of South Building, which houses the chancellor’s office.

Students, faculty and other community members gathered at the steps of Wilson Library at 11:30 a.m. for a silent vigil in support of Palestinians. After an organizer read off statistics about the number of people killed in the Gaza Strip during the Israel-Hamas war, more than 100 attendees sat in silence around the library and on the quad.

At noon, the demonstrators began marching to South Building, on the other end of the quad. The group, hundreds strong, chanted “Free, free Palestine,” and “long live the intifada,” among other chants.

Student organizers continued to call on the university to disclose its investments and divest from companies related to Israel.

Facing South Building, a protester used a megaphone to address those inside and demand that they divest.

The march was also organized by the UNC chapter of Faculty for Justice in Palestine. Some members of the organization stood on the steps of the library, and then on the steps of South Building, holding a banner with the group’s name printed on it.

At South Building, a faculty member read aloud a statement that the group sent to administrators detailing their support for the now-disbanded encampment.

“We stand in solidarity with the protesters, call university administrators to meet their demands and pledge to support the meeting of these goals in any way we can,” the faculty member said.

What the protesters want

The encampment had stood since Friday. It included students from UNC, N.C. State and Duke universities and several non-students, and by midday Monday, had grown to hundreds of people.

The demonstrators called on UNC to disclose investments related to Israel in its endowment and, if they exist, to divest from them. They also demanded the university end study-abroad programs to Israel and “acknowledge the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

The encampment was similar to those on college campuses nationwide, including at Columbia University, which became a flashpoint of pro-Palestinian student activism in recent weeks. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested at various campuses as protests mount against the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The war began Oct. 7 when Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, launched a terrorist attack that killed more than 1,200 Israeli civilians, with 240 hostages being taken. Since then, Israel has dropped thousands of bombs in Gaza, killing over 32,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Throughout the afternoon Monday, organizers had warned the group that “escalation” and arrests were likely and “imminent,” but such measures did not materialize until Tuesday morning. Members of the encampment who were willing to risk arrest, indicated by wearing a red wristband, gathered near the group’s tents, while those not willing to do so remained at a distance. Those wearing orange wristbands were willing to serve as “jail support.”

Sofie, an organizer with SJP who did not give her last name, said Monday morning that the group planned to stay in the encampment until the university complies with their demands, but did not want to comment on what the group would do if the encampment was disbanded.

“We are out here until there are meaningful negotiations moving forward on meaningful movements to address our demands,” Sofie said Monday. “But we’re going to be out here until the university discloses, divests and actually ends complicity in the genocide against the Palestinian people carried out by the U.S. and Israel.”

UNC policies violated

Monday evening marked 24 continuous hours that the tents had stood in the encampment at UNC, which is a violation of the university’s facilities policy. The policy prohibits “temporary structures,” including tents, from being constructed on campus unless approved in advance.

In addition to the tents, several other items in the encampment were also in violation of the policy, including Palestinian flags that were attached to the main campus flagpole and homemade signs that were staked in the ground throughout the quad.

Roberts and Clemens stated that demonstrators also broke policies by “trespassing into classroom buildings overnight.” Over the weekend, UNC SJP posted videos on its social media accounts of demonstrators being locked out of an academic building where protesters were using the restroom facilities. Such buildings are typically locked after 7:30 p.m. on weeknights and over the weekend and the university does not allow doors to them to be propped open.

“For the last several months, we have spoken regularly and respectfully with the demonstrators on our campus, consistently supporting their right to assemble and express their views,” Roberts and Clemens stated. “We have also clearly communicated the University’s long-standing policies on the use of shared public spaces. We have been clear that students and community members can assemble and make their voices heard, but University policies must be followed. “

Demonstrators deconstructed their tents Friday after negotiating with university administrators, but then put them back up Sunday evening following a pro-Palestinian rally and march that drew hundreds to campus.

SJP members Sofie and Sylvie, who declined to give their last names, told The N&O on separate occasions that they wanted the administration to meet with the group and act on their demands. Demonstrators made those requests during negotiations Friday without apparent success.

But Roberts and Clemens cited the group’s disregard for the university policies as bringing an end to “constructive dialogue” between the protesters and the administration.

“During events in recent weeks, the student demonstrators abided by our policies. That changed Sunday evening when protesters – including outside activists – backtracked on their commitment to comply with these policies, including trespassing into classroom buildings overnight,” Roberts and Clemens stated. “This group has now made it clear they will no longer even consider our requests to abide by University policies and have ended our attempts at constructive dialogue.”

Roberts and Clemens said the university has to “consider the safety of all of our students, faculty and staff, as well as visitors to this campus,” noting that the encampment was formed at a time coinciding with the end of the academic year.

“Our students are preparing for final exams and end-of-year activities, including graduation, and we will continue to promote an educational environment where they can do so safely and without disruption,” Roberts and Clemens stated.


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