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'It wasn’t about the tents': UVa officials say outside agitators, aggressive behavior prompted state police crackdown on protesters

University of Virginia officials held a virtual “town hall” Tuesday, their first public appearance since Saturday’s chaotic crackdown on an anti-war protest on Grounds, during which 27 were arrested and several others were pepper-sprayed by state troopers.

The virtual meeting was meant to “provide an update and answer questions about Saturday’s protest near the UVA Chapel that led police to declare an unlawful assembly and arrest demonstrators who didn’t leave.” Many left with their questions still unanswered.

That was because the university curated all of the questions it would answer beforehand. Participants were allowed to register to submit questions, but were not told how the university would determine which queries to pose. None of the questions submitted by The Daily Progress were asked or answered Tuesday.

University officials were asked who made the ultimate call to bring in Virginia State Police and break up the small encampment of people protesting Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza on a patch of grass near the University Chapel.

On the call, university President Jim Ryan called it a collective decision made by him and others who were not on the scene but rather watching it unfold from a “command post” at an undisclosed location.

After Tuesday’s virtual meeting, UVa spokesman Brian Coy clarified: “The University engaged the Virginia State Police after University Police, led by Tim Longo, determined that the University had exhausted all other methods to resolve these events and that the Virginia State Police was best trained and equipped to engage with the demonstrators safely. That decision was made in consultation with President Ryan and J.J. Davis, the University’s Chief Operating Officer.”

On the call Tuesday, Ryan and Longo reiterated what the university has maintained since this past weekend: Protesters knowingly violated UVa policy by erecting tents Friday evening and refusing to take them down Saturday morning despite repeated warnings from Longo and others.

“There’s no doubt that law enforcement have the ability and exercise that ability to prohibit tents, and I don’t think there was any confusion among the protesters about whether tents were allowed either,” Ryan said.

Others dispute this notion that there was no confusion regarding university policy. They have noted that an official UVa document said recreational tents were allowed on Grounds. That clause was quietly removed from the document hours before police broke up the encampment Saturday.

Ryan said that someone on his team removed the clause so that the document was consistent with what UVa has said has been official policy.

He conceded, however, “I’m not sure this was the right judgement.”

Robert Redick, a Charlottesville native, author and fourth-generation UVa graduate, visited protesters in the encampment on Thursday.

“People were saying very sincerely, ‘We actually are allowed to put up small individual tents, but we’re choosing not to do so,’” Redick told The Daily Progress. “So when they say there was no confusion about this, I think that’s just not true.”

Ryan and Longo did provide new information Tuesday regarding the “individuals unaffiliated with the University” who “presented some safety concerns” that were previously referenced in a public statement Ryan issued Saturday night after the camp was cleared.

The president and the police chief said that four men dressed in black, carrying backpacks and wearing helmets joined the encampment Friday night.

“At least two of these were known to law enforcement personnel as participating in violent acts elsewhere in the commonwealth,” Ryan said, without identifying which “violent acts” he meant.

Longo later added that those in the encampment had made calls for more people to join them.

“At least four persons who responded were known to law enforcement, and at least four persons who responded had been engaged in organized work in the past around historical events that have occurred here that resulted in violence,” Longo said, without identifying which “historical events” he meant.

Since the demonstration on Grounds began Tuesday, the last day of spring semester classes, protesters had regularly issued calls for supplies: food, poster board, water, umbrellas and, by Friday night, tents. They also called for more people to join them. It was a call that went largely unheeded as the demonstration dwindled from roughly 80 at its peak on Wednesday to roughly 25 on Saturday morning. Many at the demonstration raised concerns over attendance. Many of the student groups that organized previous well-attended protests, rallies and marches over the past few months were not involved in planning last week’s demonstration, including Students for Justice in Palestine, which never publicly promoted the protest or those participating. Those who participated in the protest last week have said they intentionally did not have leaders organizing the event.

Even though the camp had dwindled in size as protesters urged more people to join them, Ryan and Longo said they were worried that the encampment would start to sprawl in size, as has been witnessed at other campus protests, including at Columbia University and University of California, Los Angeles.

“It’s a lot easier to have to move 20 tents than it is to move 75, and that’s what we were worried about,” Ryan said.

The university has not provided further details on the four men dressed in black, including what threats they posed and if they were arrested.

UVa COO J.J. Davis, who was on the call Tuesday, said 27 people were arrested in total: 12 students, four employees, three who are either former employees or students and eight who are unaffiliated with the university. That is yet another revision of the arrest numbers. Over the weekend, The Daily Progress was told 25 people had been arrested, and on Monday, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail said 24 were arrested.

Davis noted that one of the unaffiliated individuals was charged with assaulting an officer. Police claim 41-year-old Kristen Finn, a local freelance photographer, punched a police officer. Video of the moments just prior to her arrest obtained by The Daily Progress shows no such violence taking place. Finn and witnesses say she was attempting to assist an older woman with a cane close to the police line.

Longo said that in his final attempts to have protesters take down their tents on Saturday morning, a group of 45 people “clustered tightly around the space I was approaching.”

His immediate fear was that he and his colleagues would be encircled and they would have to defend themselves. The protesters, Longo said, told him they had “a duty to fight for their cause, they had a duty to win and they had nothing to lose.”

He concluded that they would not voluntarily comply with an order to disperse and began a plan for police to execute no-trespass orders and make arrests if necessary. Law enforcement, including state police, established a perimeter to prevent additional people from entering the site.

University officers approached the protesters, who responded by locking arms, refusing to leave. When officers approached them again, Longo said police were “met with the use of umbrellas in an aggressive manner.”

“At least one person swung their hands in the direction of officers and one officer was actually struck,” Longo said. “My fear was that, if active resistance would continue to escalate, it would be met with reasonable force to overcome that resistance, and the potential for escalating force was possible and likely.”

It was then, in consultation with Ryan, provost Ian Baucom, Davis and law enforcement partners that the decision was made to send in state police.

Longo said they had attempted multiple times to resolve the situation using only university police but were met with “active resistance.”

“It wasn’t about the tents. It was about the behavior,” he said.

After the event, Coy wrote The Daily Progress a “clarification” on Longo’s comment.

“Our decision to engage with the group was due to the presence of tents in contravention of our policy, after multiple repeated warnings and attempts to secure their compliance. Our concern for safety was less about the tents and more about multiple factors including the presence of outside agitators, the aggressive response of those within the encampment, and a concern about the calls for additional people outside the encampment could destabilize the situation,” Coy wrote.

Longo also said that everyone exposed to pepper spray on the scene Saturday was treated by medical personnel on site, which is not true. The Daily Progress witnessed multiple people, many of whom appeared to be students, sprayed and using their own bottles of water to clear the irritants from their faces and eyes. No one with The Daily Progress reported seeing any medical personnel move in to treat individuals, which includes a Daily Progress reporter who was pepper-sprayed in the face alongside other local members of the press.

Professor Walt Heinecke was among a group of faculty members who served as a liaison between the protesters and UVa administration. He said he spoke with Longo on Friday about what would happen if protesters kept up their tents. Heinecke said that what he was told by Longo — and what Heinecke then relayed to students — is not what ultimately happened on Saturday.

“When the police came up on protesters, they stood there with umbrellas out and police started getting aggressive: shoving, pushing, grabbing,” Heinecke told The Daily Progress. “That escalates it, and people were trying to protect themselves.”

“I was ten feet from state police as they brutalized protesters and students. I saw people thrown to the ground and roughed up and pepper-sprayed,” he said.

Redick took issue with Tuesday’s “town hall,” saying it was more akin to a press conference. He said it was one-sided, with viewers only hearing from police and administration, and no one speaking up for students.

He also took issue with the few questions Ryan and other officials took.

“I find it impossible to believe that all the questions that were asked were as bland and without critical edge as the ones that were actually used in the Zoom meeting,” Redick said. “The audience was made invisible, and only the administration and the police had this virtual stage, if you will.”

As for the university’s claims that it had safety concerns, particularly regarding the four men clad in black, Redick is unmoved.

“There were fifty or more state and county police in riot gear. Why did you need to walk in a phalanx to apprehend four individuals?” he asked.

Redick said there was sincere confusion about the tent policy.

“If they broke the rules, OK, they broke the rules. That calls for some kind of response, but it doesn’t call for 50 or 55 police offices to march in a line and tear down everything in a huge show of force,” he said, claiming that the university did not take time to deescalate the situation.

“There was no need to rush this and create that spectacle. It just wasn’t necessary,” he said. “They did not exhaust other options. They really did not. They chose to push this ahead.”

In his closing remarks Tuesday, Ryan said he was “painfully aware” that he had lost some trust from the community.

“At the same time, I have an obligation as a president to make decisions that I think are in the best interest of the entire community, not one segment of it. And that includes making decisions that others vehemently disagree with,” Ryan said. “Those decisions, like the ones we had to make on Saturday, are no-win situations, because some will always question them, but they have to be made and I have always tried to make them based on principle.”


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