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'No other choice': UVa president defends decision to call in state troopers on campus protesters

Hours after calling in state troopers to break up a quiet, rain-soaked encampment of anti-war protesters, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan issued a public statement calling the episode “upsetting, frightening and sad.”

Ryan had been noticeably absent from the episode itself. His public statement Saturday evening, his first on the matter, came well after the encampment had been raided and the 25 demonstrators who had pitched tents on the patch of grass by the university’s chapel were arrested and carried off to Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

For hours Saturday, while his students were being dragged off Grounds, while state police were turning on the gathering crowd witnessing and protesting the display of force, while members of the press were being pepper-sprayed, Ryan’s office was silent.

While community leaders, including faculty at UVa, Charlottesville’s delegation in the General Assembly and the editor of The Daily Progress, publicly and privately reached out to the university demanding answers, Ryan’s office was silent.

“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,” Democratic Del. Katrina Callsen posted on X Saturday afternoon amid the chaos. “It does not match what I was told. Violence is NOT an appropriate response to peaceful protesting.”

“People have a right to protest,” replied fellow Democrat state Sen. Creigh Deeds. “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.”

While protesters and their supporters chanted, “Where is Jim Ryan?” Ryan’s office was silent.

What had started as an almost picnic-like gathering on UVa’s Grounds Tuesday met a violent and chaotic end Saturday afternoon. The turning point for the university was not the protesters’ demands — that the university divest from its financial ties to Israel amid that country’s ongoing war in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. On Friday, the university said it was willing to open a dialogue between students and the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, which manages the school’s $13.6 billion endowment. And in his statement, Ryan said he too has been moved by “the violence and heartbreaking loss of innocent lives in Israel and in Gaza.”

In his statement, Ryan said the encampment had been a peaceful public demonstration that had adhered to university policies until Friday when protesters chose to violate one policy in particular: “a long-standing prohibition on erecting tents absent a permit.”

University Police Chief Tim Longo and the protesters had reached an informal agreement early on: If the protesters did not pitch tents, the university would leave them alone.

Protesters pointed out that the university’s own guidelines indicated recreational tents are actually exempt from the permit policy. University administrators quietly changed the guidelines Saturday morning, hours before state police circled the encampment.

UVa spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress Saturday that the school was unaware that its official policies and its posted guidelines were out of sync. When university officials realized the mistake, the guidelines were changed, he said.

Ryan also suggested that individuals unaffiliated with the public university had joined the encampment. Those individuals, which he didn’t identify, “presented some safety concerns.”

“Chief of Police Tim Longo offered a final warning to the protesters, reminding them once again of their University policy violations and pleading for a peaceful resolution,” Ryan wrote. “That request was ignored.”

Ryan claims that university police efforts to remedy the issue “were met with physical confrontation and attempted assault,” and therefore it became necessary to rely on state police.

“The police declared an unlawful assembly, issued no trespass orders to those who refused to disperse, and arrested those who continued to refuse dispersal,” he wrote.

While UVa defends constitutional rights to free speech, Ryan wrote, the university has rules regarding the time, place and manner of that speech so it does not interfere with the rights of others.

“The neutral and even-handed enforcement of these rules is the only way to ensure that all members of this community have an equal opportunity to participate in the life of the University. We also have a duty to ensure the physical safety of our community,” Ryan said.

Since it began Tuesday, the last day of spring semester classes, the demonstrators at UVa had remained peaceful, quiet even. They sat on blankets, ordered pizza, read poetry and studied for their final examinations.

Ryan called it unfortunate that a small group had chosen to break university rules after receiving repeated warnings.

“I sincerely wish it were otherwise, but this repeated and intentional refusal to comply with reasonable rules intended to secure the safety, operations, and rights of the entire university community left us with no other choice than to uphold the neutral application and enforcement of those rules,” he wrote.

People throughout the UVa community have pointed out that tents are erected across Grounds on a regular basis for sporting events, social gatherings and the like, several of those tents are erected absent a permit and none of those tents have prompted a response from the Virginia State Police.

Asked if those tents also require university approval or face similar consequences, Coy told The Daily Progress he would follow up on that question.

“Whenever we see cases of someone violating a policy, we begin by asking them to stop. That was certainly the case with the tents on the Lawn, repeatedly over the past few days, and certainly in the last 24 hours,” Coy wrote in an email.

In his statement, Ryan wrote that he understood some would disagree with his decision. He also called Saturday’s episode “an aberration,” a departure from the norm.

Several in the UVa community and surrounding Charlottesville have been quick to point out that when a torch-wielding, hundreds-strong mob of White supremacists marched across Grounds in 2017 and came to blows with student counterprotesters, it was not declared an unlawful assembly until violence broke out and the university defended the initial gathering as a form of protected expression.

As police confronted protesters at UVa Saturday afternoon, many shouted, “Where were you in 2017?”

UVa now joins the ranks of major American colleges, from Columbia University in New York to the University of California, Los Angeles, that have called for a police response to campus protesters opposing Israel’s war in Gaza, which at last count had killed more than 34,000 people, the majority of those Palestinian women and children. UVa’s stands in stark contrast to those other protests, where hundreds of demonstrators occupied university buildings, erected barricades and came to blows with counterprotesters.


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