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UMass police say most campus arrests involved 'zero force.' Some faculty say students were hurt

Nearly 500 people packed into a University of Massachusetts Amherst auditorium Tuesday afternoon to hear Chancellor Javier Reyes discuss his take on recent arrests of protesters, during a special meeting of the faculty senate. Faculty, administrators, the UMass police chief and students attended.

Reyes said many on campus are hurting after the arrests on May 7 of about 130 people, who were protesting university investments that support the war in Gaza. He called videos of the arrests distressing.

Reyes said he is committed to finding "a better path forward."

"If that means reviewing our polices let's start there. If that means adding capacity for mediation in our responses we will do so," Reyes said. "If we are going to make sure this doesn't happen again, we are all going to have to take responsibility in finding solutions."

One of the policies that led to the arrests is the university land use policy which requires pre-approval to set up any structure on campus. Reyes said the unauthorized encampment on the campus violated the policy.

"Even today I ask the same question: why do you need the encampment? As a community that values academic freedom and explorations we must work to solve differences through reasoned debate and facts," he said.

Reyes said the protesters were told they could keep demonstrating if the tents were removed.

UMass Police Chief Tyrone Parham said the university had provided protesters "multiple warnings to tear down the tents, protective walls, the wooden pallets and the fencing on the west side of the campus pond or the police would be called."

As he described the events that led to arrests, Parham said his goal on the night of May 7 was not to make any arrests.

"At 6:40 p.m. one of our students reported being slapped on the back of the head near the library with a disagreement with one of the demonstrators. So we knew this was a different crowd," he said. "The crowd continued to build."

Parham said at about 7 p.m., the chancellor informed the police that the negotiations with the protesters had ended.

The Northwestern District Attorney's Office said police arrested 130 people that night. The charges include trespassing, rioters failing to disburse and resisting arrest.

State police along with police from the towns of Amherst and Hadley assisted the UMass police force.

"Most arrests happened that night with zero force," Parham said, adding that he had seen some videos of the arrest.

"I have seen a couple of the arrests that did involve uses of force to overcome—I would just explain that typically the officers are trained that they use just enough force to overcome — the resistance and not anything more," he said.

Parham said the police "received zero reports of injuries as it relates to use of force."

He was interrupted by some members of the audience coughing in unison.

A bit later, Anthony Paik, the secretary of the faculty senate who helped run the meeting, asked for a "point of order."

"There is surprising breakouts of coughing in the room. So, I'm worried about people's health of course," Paik said to some laughter. "But just wanted to point out there are disruptions from the back of the room."

Some faculty, like Laura Briggs, a professor in the women, gender and sexuality studies department, said some of those arrested report being "roughly treated."

"Students, who had been arrested reported harsh treatment including being zip tied, tight enough to cause bleeding and shoulder industries, and being denied access to bathrooms for as much as ten hours," Briggs said.

Parham said if someone believes there was excessive force they should file a complaint.

Alison Messier, a business and entrepreneurship librarian at UMass, addressed the chancellor.

"How are we supposed to keep hope with all of this happening?" she asked. "We're told, 'you are UMass,'" referencing a campus slogan. "I'm not sure I want to be UMass if it is going to be colored by events that make people feel unsafe, whether the events are encampments or arrests. I'm not picking a side."

"We are going to have to have difficult conversations together," Reyes responded. "I believe in us. I believe in UMass."

He said he told student protesters, "'Keep doing it and let us continue to protect your freedom of speech by staying within the guidelines we have provided.'"

The Student Government Association voted the day after the arrests to express "no confidence" in Chancellor Reyes.

Outside the meeting a small group of students gathered standing behind a newly-erected tent. They chanted, "Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest."

Elsewhere on campus, students from the chemical engineering department were celebrating commencement a day early. Dressed in academic regalia, they took selfies of each other, near the site of the arrests.

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

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.

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