Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Antiwar protest at VCU ends in multiple arrests

State police and VCU police crash with students
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
People try to help Sereen Haddad after she was knocked down while she and other protesters clash with police on Monday, April 29, 2024 in Richmond.

The school said 13 people were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, trespassing.

Looking for the latest coverage of antiwar protests around Virginia? Click here.

Police at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond used force to make 13 arrests roughly 10 minutes after arriving at a Monday night protest. Students and community members who had gathered were demanding the school disclose and sever financial ties with Israel — and called for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

According to a Tuesday press release from VCU, all 13 were charged with unlawful assembly and trespassing, including six students. Those six will go through the school's student conduct procedures, too.

VCU students began implementing a “liberation zone” on the Monroe Park Campus early Monday, writing chalk messages of support for Palestinians and antiwar sentiments at the public college.

“We're here to create a statement. This is — we declared this a liberation zone as of now,” said Sereen Haddad, one of the student protesters. She said students are demanding VCU call for “an end to the occupation, colonization, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and condemn U.S. complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

(Multiple countries have suggested Israel’s actions in Gaza since Oct. 7 constitute genocide. South Africa filed a case at the International Court of Justice, accusing the country of genocide, in late 2023. The court ordered Israel to take steps to prevent genocide, but has not ruled the country's actions can be called genocide. The Israeli government has rejected the accusations.)

Police line up
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Police confront students encamped outside of the James Branch Cabell Library on Monday, April 29, 2024 at VCU in Richmond.

Throughout Monday, students moved freely between the James Cabell Library and the protest — some were watching the demonstrations from inside throughout the day, while others ignored it.

Later that evening, protesters erected tents and barricades, sang songs and chanted: “Free, Free Palestine.“

Dozens of VCU Police officers arrived on the scene shortly before 8:30 p.m., and gave multiple warnings three minutes apart over a loudspeaker telling students they were in violation of university policies.

In response, protesters chanted “peaceful protest” and “Who protects us? We protect us.”

VCU's Tuesday statement said the Richmond Police Department declared the encampment an unlawful assembly after providing four mass warnings.

By 8:40 p.m., law enforcement clad in tactical gear — including VCU police, Virginia State Police and RPD — began forcibly dispersing the protest, employing riot shields and pepper spray.

In a statement issued shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, the school said: "Final exams begin this week and VCU must provide students the opportunity to safely and successfully complete the semester. The gathering violated several university policies. VCU respectfully and repeatedly provided opportunities for those individuals involved – many of whom were not students -- to collect their belongings and leave.

State police and VCU police crash with students
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Sereen Haddad gets knocked down as she and other protests clash with law enforcement on Monday, April 29, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

“Those who did not leave were subject to arrest for trespassing," the statement continued. "While supporting an environment that fosters protected speech and expressive activity, VCU must maintain an atmosphere free of disruption to the university’s mission."

As law enforcement dragged students and other protesters out of the lawn at night, others observed from inside the library, at times banging in unison on the glass.

On the ground, some resisted the police from behind pallets and barricades. Others ran away from the protest in visible distress after being sprayed.

Some students were brought by VCU police to other campus buildings. VPM News attempted to follow up, but was not granted access and instead referred to the university’s 9 p.m. statement.

"Yesterday's events outside of Cabell Library remind us of the complexities we face as a university committed to free speech, safety and operating our university," VCU President Michael Rao said in a Tuesday statement. "While our community cherishes the right to peaceful protest, setting up structures on our campus lawn violated our policy. Our staff respectfully and repeatedly asked individuals to comply. ... As has happened on other campuses around the country, conflict between police and protesters took place."

Throughout Virginia, just under 100 people total were arrested and charged with trespassing at similar encampments on school grounds.

In Fredericksburg, 12 people — including nine students — were arrested at the University of Mary Washington on Saturday. A statement from UMW President Troy Paino said arrests there occurred after the protest event was canceled due to health, safety and security concerns communicated to organizers.

More than 80 people were arrested at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Monday. According to University President Tim Sands, they were “largely students.”

And on Sunday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said during CNN’s "State of the Union" — via remote link from his third European trade mission — that intimidation and encampments will not be permitted on Virginia’s campuses.

“We will protect the ability to peacefully express yourself, but we're not going to have the kinds of hate speech and intimidation that we're seeing across the country in Virginia,” he said.

State police and VCU police crash with students
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Protests clash with police officers on Monday, April 29, 2024. VCU students and community members are demanding that the public university disclose and end financial ties to Israel.

In a statement condemning campus crackdowns on the protests, the Virginia Young Democrats said that the governor “should not violate the civil liberties of protesters as a political stunt.”

“Freedom of speech and the right to protest are rights protected by the United States Constitution. Full stop,” said Del. Rozia Henson (D–Prince William) as part of the Virginia Young Democrats statement. “Arresting students for exercising their constitutionally protected rights to peacefully assemble and protest violence erodes confidence in our own governmental institutions and must be closely scrutinized.”

The Virginia campus protests echo calls nationwide for both divestment from financial ties to Israel and a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

During the Oct. 7 attacks, Hamas killed roughly 1,100 Israelis and abducted about 250 people; approximately 9,000 Israelis have been injured from Oct. 7 through April 29, the most recent count available.

Roughly half of the hostages remain unaccounted for.

While the number of Palestinians killed and injured in Gaza is contested, the health ministry there says at least 34,000 have died and more than 77,000 have been injured.

Updated: April 30, 2024 at 12:24 PM EDT
This article has been updated to include arrest totals, follow-up statements from VCU and a note from university President Michael Rao.
Related Stories