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UMass: Students protesting the war in Gaza dismantle their tent encampment

A group of students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst — calling on the school to divest from Israeli companies — dismantled their "Gaza Solidarity" tent encampment Tuesday morning, about 24 hours after it was set up in a central part of campus.

Students have remained in the area and are continuing their protest, which UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes said in a statement was in accordance with university policy.

"We are fully in support of the right to free expression and conveyed to participants in the encampment that their protest could continue so long as their tents and structures, which are in violation of the campus land use policy, are removed.”

Students were warned several times Monday and Tuesday they were in violation of school policies about land use, and if they remained they would be trespassing, according to protestors and university officials.

In an email Monday, Reyes wrote that while the school strongly supports students rights to free speech and assembly, the encampment didn’t qualify.

"The presence of unauthorized structures, including tents, is not protected speech. Disruptive behavior is not protected speech. Activities that violate university policy or the rights of others on campus to participate in the regular business of the university are not protected speech," Javier said.

A final dispersal warning came Tuesday morning, according to a spokesperson from the group, when officials from the university’s Student Conduct and Community Standards Office came to the tent site.

In avideo posted to Instagram, the protest group claimed police "coerce[d]" the students to take down the tents and said the "administration threatened arrests."

They would be arrested for having illegal structures on the campus property, they were told. The spokesperson described seeing a growing police presence overlooking the encampment, maybe 40 officers she said, and they chose to take down the tents and keep the overall protest going.

UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in an email, about 10 police officers in the general vicinity near the library, and about 20 officers were in place elsewhere on campus on standby – “but their presence was not needed nor called upon.”

Most were University law enforcement, he said. Some were Massachusetts State Police.

Blaguszewski said the Campus Demonstration Response Team met with the demonstrators Tuesday morning “and they peacefully dismantled the encampment.”

Ruya Hazeyen is a senior at UMass Amherst, and co-president of the campus’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter.

The protestors – about 100 – are making multiple demands of the school, said Hazeyen.

"We're saying divest from Israel and companies that are enabling this genocide. We are calling for a democratized campus where students, faculty and the like are listened to, and we are calling for 'cops off campus' and an end to student repression," Hazeyen said.

The latter, she said, would include dropping disciplinary charges against 57 UMass students arrested in October for occupying a campus building, including herself.

Right now schoolwork is on the back-burner, said Hazeyen, who is Palestinian and grew up between Turkey and Jordan.

It's hard to focus when universities in Gaza have been destroyed and students are either displaced or killed, she said.

"I feel morally bankrupt, you know, preaching about Palestine and then sitting there and focusing solely on my schoolwork," said Hazeyen, who is a political science major. She said her grades this semester will definitely take a plunge.

All of this comes as college students around the U.S. are protesting the war in Gazaand as UMassAmherst faces an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, regarding claims made by 18 students who said the school discriminated against Palestinian students.

Disclosure: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. The newsroom operates independently.

Updated: April 30, 2024 at 11:40 AM EDT
This story was updated after the tent encampment was "peacefully dismantled," according to the UMass chancellor.
Updated: April 29, 2024 at 10:02 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include statements from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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