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Students confront UVa President Jim Ryan, demand answers after police crackdown on protesters

The meeting did not go as planned.

When University of Virginia President Jim Ryan walked down the Lawn Thursday afternoon, he was expecting to sit down in Pavilion VI with a handful of students who want the school to sever financial ties with weapons manufacturers and other companies “complicit in Israeli human rights violations.”

His appointment with UVa Apartheid Divest, a coalition consisting of 43 student organizations, had been on Ryan’s schedule for a month and had only come after the group’s repeated, and occasionally denied, requests for a meeting with the president.

Through conversations with other university administrators, students felt their university had a pattern: some willingness to engage in conversation, but no willingness to translate conversation into meaningful change.

Still, they wanted a chance to meet with Ryan, make their case and continue to pressure the university.

That is until Saturday, when Ryan and his team called in Virginia State Police to break up a small encampment of anti-war protesters, a controversial show of force that resulted in several students, faculty and members of the public being pepper-sprayed by police and forced off of Grounds.

“President Ryan’s actions were so inexcusable that there was no way we could have a good faith conversation with him after he refused to engage in good faith with students protesting peacefully for Palestine,” Josh Rosenberg, a third-year student speaking on behalf of UVa Apartheid Divest, told The Daily Progress.

The group’s members said they were disturbed by what they consider state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters and began to rethink their meeting with Ryan.

A virtual “town hall” hosted by Ryan and other administrators on Tuesday made the decision easier. With a list of curated questions and a narrative about Saturday that eyewitnesses are openly disputing — including a demonstrably false claim that all people pepper-sprayed received medical attention — UVa Apartheid Divest members voted for an alternative course of action: Instead of a meeting, they would draft a statement and quietly plan a demonstration on the Lawn, without alerting Ryan.

“The meeting wasn’t going to yield any results,” Eli Weinger, a second-year student and a representative for UVa Apartheid Divest, told The Daily Progress. “If he is willing to lie in front of 3,000 people in a town hall, he’d be willing to lie in a closed-door meeting with five students.”

When Ryan entered Pavilion VI, accompanied by Chief Student Affairs Officer Kenyon Bonner and Dean of Students Cedric Rucker, he expected the meeting he and UVa Apartheid Divest had agreed to on April 11. What he encountered was five students who had but nine words for him.

“President Ryan, your students are waiting for you outside,” they said, before exiting the room and walking onto the Lawn, where 30 of their classmates had gathered.

Bonner peered his head out of the door, where he saw the group of students standing in silence, their hands raised up and painted red.

This was the new meeting.

Bonner was the first to step outside, followed by Ryan. Rucker stood in the doorway. The three stood before the students in silence that was only broken when Najwa Labban, a fifth-year student, began to read a lengthy statement the coalition had penned hours beforehand.

The statement began with a reference to Ryan’s “town hall,” “an effort to justify the violence the university enacted on its students.”

“Unsurprisingly, to undertake this impossible task, the administration decided to blatantly lie,” Labban said. “We know the truth.”

For the next several minutes, as Labban read the statement word by word, as people sitting on the Lawn watched from a distance and as several unarmed security officers moved closer to monitor the situation, Ryan stood in silence.

“Fear-driven, reactionary decision-making by institutional powerholders demonstrates their severe lack of clear-sightedness and moral backbone,” Labban read aloud, before calling Ryan’s claim that police were met with physical confrontation and attempted assault on Saturday “a lie.”

“A group of unarmed, noncombative students and community members decidedly do not pose any legitimate physical threat to anyone, let alone a battalion of state police wielding military-grade weapons and donning full riot gear,” she said.

Ryan was stone-faced throughout, holding a notebook and water bottle in his hands, scanning the field of 60 red hands before him.

“By frequently referring to community members as threatening ‘outsiders’ and dichotomizing student and nonstudent protesters, the university is attempting to paint the state violence deployed on Saturday as more palatable,” Labban said.

She also highlighted that the demands of the protesters — that UVa disclose and divest from its financial ties with Israel — were the same demands students voiced when they passed a referendum this past February calling on the school to “submit itself to an auditing process to determine the extent to which University endowment funds are invested in companies engaging in or profiting from the State of Israel’s apartheid regime and acute violence against Palestinians and to immediately divest all funds so identified.”

The nonbinding referendum passed with 68% of the vote.

“The lack of action following student consensus further exposes the university’s disingenuous commitment to dialogue. We will not engage in dialogue with bad-faith actors fetishizing conversation at the expense of necessary action,” Labban said.

The silence resumed after Labban finished reading. Ryan and company seemed uncertain about what to do next. Then the chanting began.

“Thirty-five thousand dead, and you arrested kids instead!” the students began to shout.

It was then that Ryan and Bonner began to walk away, down the Lawn in the direction of the Rotunda. Behind him, the students stood in place, hands still raised, voices chanting in unison.

“Jim Ryan, you can’t hide! You’re committing genocide!”

How does UVa Apartheid Divest expect this will affect its relationship with administration going forward?

“This was one way for us to show the administration that we’re not willing to engage with them if these are the terms they’re going to engage us on,” Rosenberg said. “We’re not unwilling to have dialogue. But we’re certainly unwilling to have dialogue on these terms, with the constant threat of violence if we protest in a way that the university disagrees with, even if it’s peaceful, is on the table.”

Ryan and UVa Police Chief Tim Longo, Rosenberg said, have shown that there is an acceptable level of free speech and peaceful protest on Grounds.

“If we cross those lines, if they disagree with the way that we are expressing our opinions, they’re willing to sic violence on us and sic state police with riot gear on us,” he said.

Labban added that the demonstration was meant to send a message: Students don’t want words; they want action.

“We don’t have any use for empty, meaningless words,” she said. “Once they’ve proven to have repaired the trust, made amends for what happened on Saturday, perhaps we can reengage in dialogue under better terms, but only when we see action being taken.”

Rosenberg said the university abdicated its responsibility to student safety, a broken trust that will take time to mend.

“Until steps are taken to repair that harm, then it really changes the ground on which we can interact with administration,” he said.


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