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Officials, orgs respond to Virginia-wide protest arrests

Protesters crash with poilce
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Sereen Haddad stands and other protesters clash with police on Monday, April 29, 2024 at VCU in Richmond.

More than 100 antiwar protesters have been arrested at colleges in the commonwealth.

More than 100 protesters gathered at dusk Tuesday in Richmond’s Abner Clay Park.

People took turns standing on a picnic table to address the pro-Palestine gathering. Those speaking to the crowd, who were mostly seated in the grass, touched on topics like healing and self-care.

Several spoke about how to weather aggression from law enforcement, and one led protesters in song. Most also mentioned standing against U.S. support for Israel's military and called for the disclosure of how Virginia Commonwealth University invests its money following 13 arrests during a similar gathering at the school’s library a day before.

Protesters had gathered Monday in front of the James Branch Cabell Library, demanding the university divest from Israel and calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, before erecting tents.

VCU Police, supported by Virginia State Police and the Richmond Police Department enforced university policies to disperse the peaceful gathering: protesting without a permit and erecting structures; andusing force, including pepper spray. University officials later said protesters threw water bottles and used chemical sprays on police. VPM News staff saw water bottles coming from the crowd after police arrived but did not see chemical sprays being used.

Following the arrests at VCU, politicians reacted largely along party lines to recent antiwar protests at three Virginia public colleges — as well as whether law enforcement’s response was appropriate, given the circumstances and violations of university policy.

Republicans react

Republicans have broadly denounced the protesters at VCU, Virginia Tech and the University of Mary Washington. And Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who’s currently on a trade mission abroad, posted from his state-run social media account that Virginia had seen students and nonstudent protesters “obstruct and disrupt student life and endanger public safety.”

“After repeated warnings and refusal to disperse, law enforcement must protect Virginians,” he wrote. “My administration will continue to fully support campus, local and state law enforcement and university leadership to keep our campuses safe.”

Youngkin’s campaign account also called the pro-Palestine protests “antisemitic.” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, of Shenandoah County, called the protesters antisemitic “agitators.”

Gilbert also referred to the protest slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as “genocidal” — a legal term the International Court of Justice has not ruled applies to Israel’s actions in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks.

Pjhiilips fixes a sign
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Virginia Tech senior Megan Philips fixes a sign on her tent during an encampment on Friday, April 26, 2024 on at the Campus at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The slogan itself, in reference to land betweenthe Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, has been simultaneously called a rallying cry adopted by supporters of statehood for Palestine and anti-Israel or antisemitic rhetoric suggesting the destruction of the state. (NPR, The Associated Press and Forward all have explanations regarding its historical and more recent political connotations.)

U.S. Rep. Jen Kiggans thanked law enforcement for breaking up “hateful and unlawful demonstrations.”

“Make no mistake: these protests are meant to harass and intimidate Jewish students and supporters of our ally Israel,” she wrote on her Instagram page.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears questioned whether the protests were funded or manufactured, a move reminiscent of repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories that Jewish billionaire George Soros funded the protests.

Democrats vary

Democrats’ response to the protests have varied. Some have voiced support for law enforcement’s use of force, while others have condemned it. And some have remained silent.

While the Democratic Party of Virginia has not issued a statement as of Wednesday, Virginia Young Democrats issued a Monday statement condemning police actions. Independently, the Southwest Virginia Young Democrats issued a call to collect bail funds for the 80-plus protesters arrested at Tech.

The Metro Richmond Area Young Democrats said campus and police officials should support protesters by “protecting students’ ability to peacefully protest, not by instigating disorder to drive a false narrative of chaos.”

Two Democratic candidates for statewide office, did not mention police’s use of force or students’ voicing their views in statements to the press.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who is running for governor, also did not make direct reference to specific Virginia universities in a Wednesday appearance on Fox 5.

“The fact that we see some campuses where learning is shut down or campus classes have gone solely online because the campus is out of control and the students don't feel safe, that's frankly a disservice to the type of learning and the type of inquiry and intellectual inquiry that's supposed to happen on campus,” she said.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a candidate for lieutenant governor, previously faced public pressure over the Richmond Police Departments’ use of force on racial justice protesters in 2020. This week, he expressed support for VCU officials.

“My administration and Richmond Police have been in close contact with VCU officials and will continue to support them in their mission to ensure the safety of all students and community members,” he said in a statement.

State lawmakers

General Assembly legislators also varied in their remarks following the arrest of 13 people at Monday’s protest at VCU. Four Democratic delegates and one state senator — representing Arlington, Fairfax County, Fredericksburg, Suffolk and Woodbridge — issued a joint statement asking universities to change their approach to dealing with the protests.

In the letter, Dels. Rozia Henson, Adele McClure, Joshua Cole and Nadarius Clark, as well as state Sen. Saddam Salim “urge colleges and universities that have arrested their own students for participating in constitutionally protected protesting to de-escalate tensions, reconsider their actions, and critically re-engage their own student bodies.”

A pro-Palestine encampment at the University of Mary Washington, in Cole’s district, was dismantled over the weekend. The Fredericksburg Free Press reported that 12 people — including nine students — were arrested and charged with trespassing.

U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, who represents Richmond, said in a Tuesday statement she was “deeply concerned” with how quickly police used “chemical agents.” The use of pepper spray was later confirmed by VCU.

“The reports, images, and videos of last night’s events were reminiscent of the unjustified use of teargas in response to 2020 George Floyd protests, and for many Richmond residents, triggered the same visceral reactions felt at that time,” she said.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine did not say whether the use of force was appropriate during press appearances Tuesday.

“My hope is that the college presidents and administrations will be communicating with each other and try to show them appropriate restraint,” said Warner. “But again, when the law is broken, there needs to be consequences.”

Warner said he spoke with VCU officials Tuesday morning, but didn’t elaborate.

Kaine, who is running for re-election this fall, also didn’t take a stance on the violence.

“What's the difference between dialogue, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, and disruption that is intimidation or harassment?” Kaine asked. “There's no simple tests that define that, but that's what university presidents are grappling with.”

Locally, at least one elected official in Richmond condemned police violence.

“Last night, law enforcement made the decision to escalate an otherwise peaceful demonstration on VCU’s campus by violently confronting unarmed protesters and deploying chemical agents. This level of response was wholly uncalled for,” wrote City Councilor Andreas Addison, who is currently running for mayor.

The Progressive Jewish Student Union, recently founded at VCU, issued a statement Tuesday condemning the university and police actions, and standing in solidarity with pro-Palestine protesters.

“At PJSU, we hold space for anyone affected by the extreme displays of violence perpetrated by the university,” the statement said. “We are sending peace and love to those who are processing amidst the international struggle for Palestinian liberation. … It is our Jewish values that teach us to improve our world and support peace and liberation for all people.”

Updated: May 1, 2024 at 4:13 PM EDT
Adds comment from other elected officials.
Updated: April 30, 2024 at 10:58 PM EDT
This article has been updated to add information from one of Tuesday's protests.
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