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UVa allows protesters to remain in 'liberated zone' so long as it doesn't become an encampment

A student-led protest demanding the University of Virginia divest from the state of Israel originally planned for Wednesday got off to an early start Tuesday afternoon. University officials say the nearly 100 protesters gathered on Grounds will be allowed to stay so long as they do not erect tents, as have been seen at other campus protests nationwide.

And those protesters — a crowd including students, faculty and Charlottesville community members — were complying even as a light rain began to fall late Tuesday night.

“Earlier this afternoon, University officials became aware of a small group setting up tents near the UVA Chapel,” UVa said in a statement provided by spokesman Brian Coy. “Representatives from UVA Student Affairs and University Police met with the group and informed them that, while they are free to demonstrate in public spaces, tents are prohibited by University policy. The individuals complied with requests to voluntarily take down the tents. There were no arrests and no disruption of University activities.”

Two protesters told The Daily Progress they were unsure if their group would be staying overnight.

"I’m just playing it by ear," said one.

Would police kick them out if they do?

"I’m not sure," said another.

Protesters have been encouraged to wear masks and not share their identities with the press. The masks, at least according to organizers, are a “COVID-19 precaution.”

Since 1950, it has been a crime in Virginia for any individual over the age of 16 to wear a mask, hood or face covering with the intention of concealing their identity, a implicit tool to prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan.

While some students were unsure if they would last the night Tuesday, at 8:30 p.m. one organizer made the group’s plans more clear, addressing the full crowd:

"It’s definitely been an emotional day, but I’m feeling so good and so proud," the young man said, encouraging the group to invite more friends to the protest. "Hopefully we’re going to be here for a while."

Late Tuesday night, organizers were asking members of the community to bring supplies, including food, water, lanterns, portable chargers, caffeinated drinks, coolers, blankets and umbrellas.

Tuesday marked the last day of classes for the spring semester at UVa, and protesters started to gather by the UVa Chapel adjacent to the school’s landmark Rotunda late in the afternoon. Signs posted in the area declared the corner of Grounds a “liberated zone” and repeated student demands that their school divest from Israel amid that country’s ongoing war with Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

That war, which protesters call a genocide, began Oct. 7 of last year with Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages. Since then, Israel has laid siege to the Palestinian territory of Gaza and the death toll has climbed to more than 34,000, the overwhelming majority of those Palestinians, and the overwhelming majority of those Palestinians women and children.

The conflict has sparked protests at college campuses across the U.S., where students have demanded their schools cut ties with Israel in support of the Palestinian people. Protests at multiple colleges have turned violent, especially after police were called. New York police were dispatched to clear a student protest at Columbia University Tuesday night after protesters took over a university building. At the University of California, Los Angeles, student protesters set up barricades blocking other students from accessing parts of campus, including a library.

In Virginia over the past three days, protests at Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Mary Washington were busted up by police. Police made 82 arrests at Virginia Tech on late Sunday night and early Monday morning after hundreds of protesters set up an encampment on campus. At Mary Washington, police arrested 12 protesters Saturday evening. And another 13 were arrested at VCU Monday night, after police stormed protesters wearing riot gear and deploying tear gas. Almost all of the protesters have been charged with trespassing, with universities arguing that overnight encampments violate school policy.

There have been multiple student-led protests at UVa since Oct. 7. And while the rhetoric has been heated at times, none of the protests have risen to the extremes seen in New York and California.

“UVA has seen an increase in peaceful expressive activity on our Grounds this year in response to the ongoing Middle East conflict,” the school said in its Tuesday statement. “As an institution committed to free expression and the open exchange of ideas, we strive to ensure these activities can take place safely, and in a manner that permits all parties to make their voices heard.”

UVa was established by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, a vocal proponent of free speech and expression in the country’s earliest days. The university said in its Tuesday statement that it will do all in its power not to infringe on those rights, so long as the safety of its community members is not threatened.

“The University is prohibited by the Constitution and our own values from restricting speech based on its content, even in cases where the content is hurtful or offensive,” the school said. “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. As we become aware of planned expressive activities, University officials engage with organizers to inform them of these policies.”

The school and protesters still expect the protest on Grounds to continue into Wednesday, when the original event was planned.

The choice of May 1 is no coincidence. Organizers chose the date to align with an anti-war protest that took place on the university’s Lawn in 1970, when thousands of students held demonstrations to voice their opposition to the United States’ decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

That weeklong protest is remembered as May Days: Classes were canceled, protesters occupied the Naval ROTC building (now John Warner Hall) and police stormed the Lawn, jailing dozens.

An Instagram post by a group calling itself UVA Dissenters specifically highlights the 1970 protest as an inspiration for students’ planned Wednesday protest.

“During the ‘May Days’ strike of 1970, UVA students announced a ‘Freedom Day’ to rally students together in their opposition to the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam,” the post reads.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said that protests at public colleges in the commonwealth must remain peaceful, or face the consequences.

“We will protect the ability to peacefully express yourself, but we’re not going to have the kinds of hate speech and intimidation that we’re seeing across the country in Virginia,” he said in a statement Sunday.

Several officials have voiced concern over how student protesters have treated Jewish students. Israel is the world’s only Jewish nation-state, and reports of antisemitism have spiked in the months since Oct. 7.

At UVa, officials say the school has received a total of 19 "reports related to potential antisemitism" from students, faculty and staff between the start of the 2023 fall semester and Jan. 1 of this year. The U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation in late December after a UVa student filed a claim with the federal agency claiming they felt unwelcome, frightened and discriminated against on Grounds, specifically because of their religious beliefs.

"In response to reports of alleged antisemitic speech or conduct, University officials have connected with reporters, offered them resources, and sought additional information about their reports so that we can investigate and hold people responsible if necessary," Coy, the UVa spokesman, told The Daily Progress in a prepared statement in March. "Many investigations are ongoing, but in some cases, we haven’t yet received enough information to identify alleged perpetrators and hold them accountable. We urge anyone with information about cases of antisemitism, islamophobia, or other forms of harassment and intimidation to share that information as soon as possible."

At the same time, several UVa students and faculty, some of them Jewish, have been the targets of a blacklist compiled by UVa parents who have accused them of antisemitism, in every instance without any evidence.

That list was published by the Jefferson Council, a conservative alumni association with ties to the university’s Board of Visitors. Jefferson Council co-founder and businessman Bert Ellis sits on the board and has been an outspoken critic of the school’s response to reported antisemitism.

The Jefferson Council has since removed links to the list after facing pushback from the named parties and inquiries from The Daily Progress.

On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Bob Good, who represents UVa and the surrounding 5th District in Congress, wrote a letter to UVa President Jim Ryan.

“I urge you to demonstrate courageous and decisive leadership and take appropriate action to protect Jewish students and faculty by upholding Title VI and eliminating any visible demonstrations of antisemitism at UVA,” Good wrote.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Daily Progress reporters Jason Armesto and Emily Hemphill contributed to this story.


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