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VCU students upset about school’s handling of pro-Palestine protest

Students set up an encampment
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Students set up an encampment on Monday, April 29, 2024 at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Students arrested Monday will also face university conduct procedures.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University that VPM News spoke with Tuesday were upset with the way university officials handled Monday’s student-led protest calling for an end to the Israel-Hamas war — and for the university to comply with a list of demands.

“Today's the last day of classes,” said 23-year-old VCU student William Spencer outside the James Cabell Library on Tuesday. “I don't understand why you don't let this sit out a week. And then people go home at the end of next week. And so honestly, I think it would have been much better from the university to just tolerate it.”

Spencer, who attended Monday’s protest, questioned the university’s decision to get police involved and so quickly. He said he witnessed students get hurt.

“I think for a lot of people, this was their first time being pepper-sprayed,” Spencer said. “I know some people had to go to the hospital that had asthma. I know some people had burns as well, some people got bruised really badly. Some people were bleeding.”

According to a statement from Virginia Commonwealth University, the Richmond Police Department declared Monday’s protest an unlawful assembly, which then led to 13 arrests – including six student arrests.

VPM News spoke with one student who was arrested. The student said they’d been following the Israel-Hamas war on social media, but that they weren’t involved in the tent encampment.

“How many people have been bombed, evicted, starved?” they emphasized. “I was just horrified by what I saw.”

VCU students who were arrested on Monday are set to be arraigned later this week and will also face the college’s disciplinary proceedings, according to a statement from President Michael Rao; VPM News is not using the student’s name because they fear retaliation.

They told VPM News they ducked into the library to study for a few hours around 6 p.m. and emerged around 8:20 p.m. The protest had grown significantly, and they were unsure what exactly was happening. They said they had no idea they were trespassing, because they said they didn’t have VCU text alerts on their phone and didn’t see any emails from the university.

Protesters crash with poilce
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Police try to clear away protesting as students in the Library watch on Monday, April 29, 2024 at the VCU Campus in Richmond, Virginia. VCU students and community members are demanding that the public university disclose and end financial ties to Israel.

They also didn’t hear any warnings from police to vacate the area, and said the library is usually open into the early morning hours during finals season; finals start this week and wrap up next week.

Emerging from the library, the student was immediately surrounded by people and said they didn’t know exactly what was going on. Then they saw a row of police officers coming towards them.

“I just kind of froze,” they said. “I guess 'freeze' was my panic response.”

The student said they were thrown to the ground by police and had their hands tied behind their back with a zip tie. They said they later had to ask officers to loosen the restraint because they could no longer feel their hands.

“I think they wanted to use us as an example,” they said. “They want to be like ‘don’t be like these people,’ even though I’m like … I didn’t do anything. I stood there, I literally was just a person existing.”

The student still has bruises on their arms, and was visibly shaken from the arrest and overnight stay in the Richmond jail. They said they’re now trying to get through finals — which has proved difficult because law enforcement still has their laptop, which contains their study materials.

So far, they said, professors have been understanding.

But the student is worried about how the university will respond. In its statement Tuesday, VCU said that students arrested “will proceed normally through the university’s student conduct process.”

“What's kind of the most stressful thing is that I don't know how VCU is handling this,” they said. “Because if this leads to expulsion, suspension or me not being able to graduate — that would crush me more than anything.”

Some VCU faculty are circulating a petition urging the university to refrain from having campus security or police intervene in peaceful student demonstrations — and sent out a letter condemning police involvement in Monday’s protest.

“This action, including the use of chemical irritants, violated the rights of students and faculty to express their freedom of speech and academic freedom, endangered the safety of all students in the area, and undermined any remaining trust in the integrity of university leadership to support our student body,” the letter states.

“The outsized police response approved by President Rao and university leadership placed our students, their wellbeing, and their success at this university at risk.”

In a statement Tuesday morning, VCU President Michael Rao wrote that “I deeply appreciate those who peacefully expressed their views and the efforts of our staff during this time. Please know that VCU stands ready with support services. Student resources include TimelyCare and University Counseling Services, available 24 hours a day. Faculty and staff resources can be found through VCU's RamStrong program.”

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.

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.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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