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UVA encampment cleared by force after four days; 25 arrested

The Lawn at UVA.
Steve Helber
The Associated Press File
On Sunday, a group of antiwar protesters gathered at the University of Virginia's Rotunda in Charlottesville and marched to President James Ryan’s residence.

Since April 30, students and faculty had gathered at the Charlottesville campus in support of Palestine.

Virginia State Police and other law enforcement broke up an antiwar protest encampment Saturday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The dispersal came after nearly four days of peaceful demonstrations on campus.

Since April 30, students and faculty on the Lawn engaged in readings, shared food and chanted in support of Palestine while juggling the academic responsibilities of finals.

As VPM News previously reported, University Police Chief Timothy Longo and protesters — who were there ahead of a planned Wednesday sit-in against the Israel–Hamas war — agreed they could remain as long as they were awake and remained peaceful.

“That a world without state violence is not only possible, but it exists in pockets around our communities and around our world today,” said one student during an interfaith prayer Wednesday.

Members of the encampment erected tents on Friday night, when rain and moderate winds swept through the campus. According to the National Weather Service, Charlottesville saw approximately 1 inch of rain and winds ranging from 10 to 24 miles per hour between Friday and Saturday night.

University officials said setting up tents without prior approval from the administration was a violation of school policy. They also said protesters had violated other rules, like using amplified sound.

An unlawful assembly was declared at 2:45 p.m. Saturday. Law enforcement in riot gear began approaching the encampment, eventually forcing demonstrators back with riot shields and chemical deterrents. Some protesters were thrown to the ground and held down by multiple officers.

The Daily Progress, Charlottesville's newspaper, also reported members of the media were sprayed with tear gas. Virginia State Police told VPM News via email on Monday that state troopers only utilized pepper spray.

On Friday, an external UVA document, which included the tent permit application form, said “Recreational tents for camping are exempt.”

That line was removed Saturday morning, according to multiple reports from local media and activists. UVA later told reporters the document includes guidance and was updated to accurately reflect school policy.

As Saturday’s events unfolded, what was initially a relatively small demonstration grew to about 100 people, according to the Progress.

In all, 25 people were arrested, according to one university press release. UVA President Jim Ryan wrote in a separate statement that efforts by UVAPD to disband the encampment were met with “physical confrontation and attempted assault.”

“We also learned last evening, after the protesters had made a public call for others to join, that individuals unaffiliated with the University – who also presented some safety concerns – had joined them. Despite numerous requests to comply with multiple University policies, the protesters refused,” Ryan wrote.

According to Corinne Geller, Virginia State Police's public relations director, UVA Police requested state troopers' presence in an assist capacity for Saturday. Geller also said that no VSP officers were injured during the dispersal.

“I reached out to UVA days ago to understand what plan was in place and I’m continuing to reach out now to understand what is happening now,” Del. Katrina Callsen (D–Charlottesville) wrote on social media. "It does not match what I was told. Violence is NOT an appropriate response to peaceful protesting.”

State Sen. Creigh Deeds responded to Callsen’s post, writing, “People have a right to protest. The protests at UVa have been peaceful. I’m not sure what change provoked this sort of response by the police. Violence is unnecessary. I will be interested in knowing whether the change in tactics was decided in Charlottesville or Richmond.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Good (R–05) has not publicly commented on the UVA protest, but has called for Congress to withdraw federal funding for some universities as similar protests around the country have been dispersed by law enforcement — including several in Virginia.

Earlier Friday, before tents were set up, members of the encampment and UVA administrators traded communications.

Demonstrators sent a list of demands to the school that morning, including:

  • that the University of Virginia Investment Management Company — which handles the schools’ $13.6 billion endowment — disclose all investments;
  • UVA no longer invest its endowment in institutions materially supporting or profiting from Israel;
  • UVA permanently withdraw from academic relations with Israeli institutions;
  • and UVA allow students, faculty and staff to demonstrate in support of Palestine without administrative discipline.

School administrators responded later that day in a letter signed by Vice President Kenyon Bonner and Vice Provost Brie Gertler.

They said UVIMCO controls investments of the endowment and other funds, and it has an advisory committee that “regularly consults with students, faculty, alumni and other UVA stakeholders.”

Bonner and Gertler offered to arrange further communication with the endowment committee, though school administrators declined the request to withdraw from relationships with Israeli institutions.

“To terminate study abroad-programs, fellowships, research collaborations, and other collaborations with Israeli academic institutions would compromise our commitment to academic freedom and our obligation to enabling the free exchange of ideas on our Grounds, both of which are bedrock values of the University,” they wrote.

Gertler and Bonner agreed in their letter to not discipline protesters with one notable caveat: “provided of course that such expressive activity occurs within the limits of the laws and policies we have in place.”

UVA’s press statement following the protest’s dispersal referenced this response, but did not elaborate on what actions it might take against any school-affiliated protesters.

Several attendees, onlookers and members of the UVA and greater Charlottesville community have recalled the flawed law enforcement response during the 2017 Unite the Right rally, and asked why white supremacists were allowed to march unimpeded through campus until physical altercations with students broke out.

On Sunday, a group of protesters gathered at the Rotunda and marched to President Ryan’s residence. According to Larry Sabato, the director of UVA's Center for Politics, they could be heard chanting without the use of amplified sound: “Up, up with liberation; down, down with occupation.”

The UVA protest was one of several at Virginia universities in recent weeks, echoing nationwide callsfor both divestment from financial ties to Israel and a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Since April 25, more than 130 people have been arrested on public college campuses across Virginia in connection with the demonstrations.

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 May 3, the most recent count available.

Roughly half of the hostages remain unaccounted for, including former Richmond resident Hersh Goldberg-Polin.

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.

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, making that accusation in late 2023. The court ordered Israel to take steps to prevent genocide, but has not ruled the country's actions can be referred to that way. The Israeli government has rejected the accusations.

Updated: May 6, 2024 at 3:21 PM EDT
May 6, 2024: This article has been updated to add responses from Virginia State Police.
Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
Dawnthea M. Price Lisco (dawn-TAY-uh, she/her) is the managing editor at VPM News.
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