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Tents go up at UVa protest

For days, the “liberated zone” on University of Virginia Grounds was quiet.

After the last day of spring semester classes on Tuesday until the end of the week Friday, students, faculty and community members peacefully demonstrated: painting signs, singing songs and breaking out into discussions of Israel’s monthslong war with Palestinian terror group Hamas.

Since that group’s surprise attack on Oct. 7 of last year, Israel has laid siege to the Hamas-controlled territory of Gaza. While Hamas’ initial assault killed 1,200, the ensuing war has claimed more than 34,000 lives to date, the majority of those Palestinian women and children.

The conflict has sparked demonstrations at colleges across the U.S.

While protests at other schools have attracted hundreds in the past week, UVa’s demonstration actually dwindled in size, from as high as 80 Wednesday to as few as 20 Friday afternoon.

But Friday night may have marked a turning point.

After the university failed to meet all of the protesters’ listed demands, what had been a quiet, almost picnic-like demonstration became an encampment.

On Thursday evening, protest organizers sent a list of demands to university officials, requesting that UVa:

■ Disclose all direct and indirect investments made by the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, or UVIMCO, the agency charged with regulating the school’s endowment fund.

■ Divest from all weapons manufacturers aiding the killing of Palestinians, specifically Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon.

■ End all financial and academic ties with Israeli institutions, including study abroad programs, fellowships, internships, research and grants.

■ And ensure that students will not face any disciplinary action for engaging in protest.

The letter, which gave the school until noon Friday to respond, had the backing of student protesters as well as the roughly 50 faculty members who comprise the Faculty for Justice in Palestine group. That group issued its own statement Friday afternoon to “endorse and amplify” the protesters’ demands.

“The University of Virginia invests in companies that profit from the ongoing occupation and genocide in Palestine and UVa has formal ties to Israeli institutions that manufacture and promulgate consent for that occupation and genocide,” faculty wrote. “These investments and relationships are fundamental contradictions of and barriers to our mission of being both ‘great and good.’”

UVa administrators responded to the protesters’ demands Friday afternoon.

In their correspondence, university officials offered to arrange a meeting between protesters and an advisory board that offers guidance to UVIMCO “on how the organization can fulfill its responsibility to generate strong returns while incorporating important environmental, social and governance factors into its investment decisions.”

They noted that such meetings between students and the advisory board had already occurred after a nonbinding student referendum was passed in February that called for an audit of the school’s investments 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.”

Officials wrote to protesters that the advisory board “would welcome the opportunity to hear more about your questions and concerns.”

The letter did not indicate one way or another whether the advisory board would be open to disclosure of and divestment from the university’s financial ties to Israel, which are the protesters’ primary demands.

UVa administration flatly denied protesters’ request to cut academic ties with Israeli institutions, arguing that such a move “would compromise our commitment to academic freedom and our obligation to enabling the free exchange of ideas on our Grounds.”

They did agree with protesters’ final demand: that students, faculty and staff could demonstrate without risk of administrative discipline. But it added an important caveat: That activity must remain “within the limits of the laws and policies we have in place.”

UVa wrote that the U.S. Constitution requires that it uphold the right to free speech and expression.

“We do, however, enforce reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of expressive activities, so as to assure the safety of our community and to avoid disruption to University life or the rights of others.”

Since the demonstration at UVa began Tuesday, organizers have worked with the university to follow school policies regarding assemblies on Grounds. This has included not using megaphones and not erecting tents.

“We appreciate your cooperation with our request to follow University policies, which has enabled us to ensure that your protest can proceed safely and that your voices are heard,” administrators wrote.

In the final paragraphs of their response to protesters, officials wrote that they share their concern for the suffering of Palestinians and mentioned that UVa’s newly formed task force on religious diversity “is preparing to share an update.”

“We hope that you will be willing to participate in further discussions on the issues you’ve highlighted so that we can better understand one another,” the letter concluded.

Organizers uploaded a photo of the letter on their @uvaencampmentforgaza social media accounts.

Over the first page,they wrote in bold red ink, “BULLS–T.” Over the second page, “FREE PALESTINE.”

In a caption, organizers called UVa’s response “shameful” and wrote that they would “not debate nor negotiate genocide.”

“We will not back down. We will stay until the University meets our demands!!” they wrote.

Hours later, as the sun began to set over Grounds, protesters pitched their tents.

That move is a direct violation of university policy, policy which protesters had obeyed until Friday evening. For days, tents had laid flat on the ground, unassembled but ready to be pitched at a moment’s notice. The decision to erect the tents comes as rain is expected over the next week.

For days, the demonstration at UVa looked less like a formal encampment and more like a picnic or barbecue, with blankets spread across the plot of land between the university’s landmark Lawn and Chapel.

But the tents have given the protest a different look, that of a formal encampment which intends to remain until protesters’ demands are met.

That means UVa must make a decision, a decision universities nationwide have had to make. While some administrations have allowed demonstrators to stay in place, even engaging with them day to day, others have chosen to send in the police to break up encampments, leading to disturbing images of armed officers storming camps, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds and physically dragging students off campus. There have been more than 2,400 arrests on 46 campuses since April 17.

Since its formation, UVa’s protesters have used Instagram to request various supplies from the community, such as food, water and blankets. Late Friday evening, they made another request: “more tents.”


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