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Student protests: High profile, low risk

Inside an encampment

A pro-Palestine student protest encampment at George Washington University’s Yard in Washington, D.C., on Thursday Getty Images/Photo by Amid Farahi/Middle East Images/AFP

Student protests: High profile, low risk

WASHINGTON—At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Department encircled a student encampment at the University Yard at George Washington University just three blocks from the White House. Officers gave nearly 100 students three warnings to leave the private property. Most of the protesters left, fighting with police officers a block away, but roughly 30 remained sitting and linking arms in the center of the yard. MPD deployed tear gas and arrested 33 protesters. University Health Services arrived to provide water and medical care. Later in the morning, the 33 arrested protesters were released.

The arrests and raids happened right before Mayor Muriel Bowser and MPD representatives were scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability about why they had refused GW’s earlier requests to clear the encampment, which lasted for 14 days. The hearing was canceled this morning, just hours after the raid.

Officers at the scene said they collected numerous personal items that demonstrators may pick up within 90 days. Throughout the morning, janitorial services tossed all the tents, remaining backpacks, and Palestinian flags into trash trucks. Only patches of dead grass remain on the quad. Though the encampment is gone, it will have a lasting effect on GW students and the surrounding community.

Protesters insisted that the goal of their demonstration was to highlight suffering in Gaza and oppose Israel’s military action there. Jewish students I spoke to said the protesters crossed the line from engaging in free speech to hate speech. They chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” calling for the removal of the state of Israel. Other chants declared, “We don’t want no Zionists here,” “Israel can go to hell,” and “There is only one solution, intifada revolution.” Roughly a week into the encampment, organizers renamed the yard “Shuhada Square,” using the Arabic word for “martyrs.”

Jewish senior and media studies major Tess said she has endured profane insults just for walking on the sidewalk and wearing a Star of David necklace. She did not share her last name out of concern for her safety.

“I don’t think that they’re advocating for real solutions,” said David Naftulin, a Jewish third year law student. “I think they’re just advocating for very divisive rhetoric that has done nothing but cause more conflict and has failed the Palestinian people for the last 100 years.”

During our conversation on the quad, a student entering a nearby building yelled across the sidewalk and called Naftulin an anti-Semite. “Not me!” he called back.

The protesters demanded that GW end any investments in Israeli businesses, identify the war as a genocide against Gaza, cut study abroad trips to Israel, and lift all disciplinary actions against students. They argued that anyone supporting the nation of Israel supports colonization and oppression of Palestinians.

“The climate now has become so toxic,” said Arie Dubnov, a history professor at GW and the chair of both the Middle East Studies department and the Judaic Studies department. He says he frequently has students arguing each side of the debate over Israel and Gaza in his classrooms, and he supports students’ rights to protest, but “while respecting the desire of many students to protest, and even agreeing with many of their key messages, some red lines were crossed.”

One of these red lines, Dubnov said, were chants that called, “glory to the martyrs,” which he said has a specific violent context. He also said that students forcing peers to take sides on a complicated issue is not beneficial for academia.

Freshman Emily Weprin spoke briefly to Republican Congress members last Wednesday when they visited the encampment. She said she felt unsafe, especially when she heard the chants calling for intifada. That’s the Arabic word for “uprising,” though protesters said it merely means to push back an oppressor.

“They don’t want peace. If they wanted peace, they would be screaming ‘cease-fire,’” Weprin told me. “The past intifadas have resulted in numerous civilian deaths of Israeli people.”

Many of the student’s chants came from an approved list provided by pro-Palestinian organizations that supported encampments at GW and other college campuses. American Muslims for Palestine and the Palestinian Youth Movement sent books and pamphlets for protesters to have onhand. They also supplied tents and instructions on how to set up an encampment. The Party for Socialism and Liberation supplied drums.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, those organizations, along with several others supplying the protests, have a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric. They call Hamas terrorists “freedom fighters” and tell students that violence is justified against Israelis and their supporters.

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters from colleges throughout the city planned and erected the encampment in four days. The organizers provided most meals by either accepting community donations or purchasing food using funds from the Palestinian Youth Movement’s area chapter.

When not chanting or actively demonstrating, most student protesters spent the days studying or attending class, either in person or from their laptops in the tents. Organizers announced quiet study times each night to help students prepare for finals. The encampment was across the street from a food hall where students could purchase meals and hygiene products or charge their devices. During a rally on Wednesday, one student sat in a folding chair in a Zoom class. One girl attended a class nearby, came back to drop off her laptop in her tent, and then put on a black and white keffiyeh and joined a painting group to make pro-Palestinian signs for the tents. Most protesters told me professors sent out emails that they would not penalize students for class absences.

Just outside the encampment, on the sidewalk along H Street, students and some faculty members sat in circles of folding chairs, vaping or smoking cigarettes and marijuana. Throughout the day, organizers asked for volunteers to walk through the camp and pick up trash. When the campus trash and recycling bins filled up, students loaded garbage bags into their cars and drove them away.

As the protest went on, students started to lose patience. On day nine, many in the folding chair circles complained about going for days without a shower. Two students told friends how they had to empty the portable bathrooms in the middle of the night to avoid a health code violation. After the messy project, they went to their apartments to shower and sleep. Another group of friends greeted a female student who said she left for the afternoon to take a nap, recharge her devices, and get her nails done.

On Tuesday night, the protesters marched to University President Ellen Granberg’s home to demand that the college divest from all revenue streams tied to Israel. MPD Police Chief Pamela Smith cited escalations like collecting makeshift weapons,, plus attacks on police officers and trespassing in campus buildings, as reasons why MPD decided to clear the encampment on Wednesday.

Jewish law student Ben Burchbank said he also disagrees with some of Israel’s military strategy in Palestine, but he blamed GW for creating an environment where the encampment could spring up and last so long.

“It’s their fault for spending the past 10 years telling the students that universities will actively engage in political speech,” he told me. “It’s strange to me that they all of a sudden have gone from having political opinion after political opinion to now saying, ‘We’re a neutral institution where we host opinions but don’t have them.’ They have enticed the students into making these demands of the university.”

Burchbank, a senior, has tried to engage protesters in conversation about Gaza and to learn about their motives. He said most would not talk with him. He also attended their rallies and felt disturbed about some of the chants.

“They say the means are justified or resistance is justified when you’re facing an oppressor,” Burchbank said. “But I find something deeply unsettling that one of the most privileged groups in human history is calling for violence in an area thousands of miles away from them, that will not affect them in any sense.”

At a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, local activist organization Harriet’s Wildest Dreams berated Bowser and Congress for taking action against the encampment. They said the organization would help the student protesters, some of whom were at the conference.

“They want to show up, but they’re tired,” an unnamed organizer said. “They’re hurt, and they’ve experienced a traumatic experience. The majority, if not all of them, have never encountered the law. So I want to acknowledge that and acknowledge that rest is revolutionary. We want them to rest, and we’re going to be 10 toes down with these students.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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