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UVa faculty say eyewitness accounts of protest differ from university timeline

Many left the University of Virginia’s virtual “town hall” Tuesday with more questions than answers about the school’s crackdown on a small anti-war protest on Grounds Saturday, which saw 27 people arrested and several more pepper-sprayed and pushed off the public university’s campus.

Faculty at the school were so disappointed they volunteered to host their own “honest town hall” Thursday to address community concerns as well as a troubling disparity between the university’s account of events and what was witnessed firsthand.

Faculty said they were disturbed by the “manufactured responses” during the administration’s “town hall.”

All of the questions posed to administrators during the hourlong meeting were curated by university officials, and none of the participants were allowed to speak, so it remains unclear who or where the questions were coming from.

Chief among the questions the university has failed to address:

■ Who were the four mysterious men in black who UVa President Jim Ryan said joined the encampment Friday night near the University Chapel and posed a threat to the safety of the community?

■ If they wore masks and helmets as Ryan said, how did university police identify these individuals as “known to law enforcement”?

■ Where were UVa’s on-site medical personnel who UVa Police Chief Tim Longo claimed treated everyone who had been exposed to pepper spray?

■ What are UVa’s official rules on erecting recreational tents on Grounds, and why were guidelines referring to those rules changed hours before police broke up the protest encampment on Saturday?

Faculty leading Thursday’s “town hall” acknowledged they didn’t have answers to all of these questions, but their primary objective was piecing together their own timeline that made sense and spotlighting the many ways the university’s official timeline has diverged from what was personally witnessed by faculty, students, members of the public and the press present during the crackdown.

“We want to set the record straight on events as they unfolded,” Tessa Farmer, an associate professor in the Global Studies and Anthropology departments, and a member of the Faculty for Justice in Palestine group, said on Thursday’s call. “None of the after-the-fact justifications that we have heard explain, let alone justify, people being assaulted, pepper-sprayed, arrested and banned from their homes. Speaking truth to power, however, does explain this violence; that’s the logic that makes events on Saturday make sense.”

Faculty expressed concern about the mysterious men in black that Longo said Tuesday had responded to protesters’ call for more participants, and who the university determined posed a safety threat.

“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 Tuesday, without identifying which “historical events” he meant.

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

None of the faculty members who had spent time during the week at the demonstration saw any men in black, they said Thursday. Assistant professor of English Laura Goldblatt said she’d participated in several conversations with Longo who never raised any concerns about the presence of potentially dangerous individuals to her.

“On Friday evening especially, there were many very young children around playing tag and having a good time. That would have been a moment to say these children are at risk, but there was no mention of that,” Goldblatt said on the call.

She said she’s skeptical of the university’s claim that a threat of outside agitators was a significant factor in its decision to call in the Virginia State Police. Instead, Goldblatt said the men in black were an excuse for the university to follow the lead of other universities in the country and the commonwealth who forcefully removed anti-war protesters from their campuses using police officers and state troopers.

Goldblatt said that shows of force have been unique to campus protesters opposed to Israel’s monthslong war in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, which at last count had killed more than 34,000 people, the majority of those Palestinian women and children.

“It rather seems like this is kind of a playbook that’s an option on the table of how to deal with these particular kinds of protests about the ongoing genocide in Gaza and Palestine,” said Goldblatt.

Many who were in Charlottesville in 2017, have pointed out university administrators allowed a torch-wielding mob of avowed White supremacists to march across Grounds on Aug. 11 of that year and police on the scene did not declare an unlawful assembly until the racists came to blows with a small group of student counterprotesters.

Walter Heinecke, an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development, said he was there seven years ago. He recalled pulling students to safety while “police did nothing” and watching as “students and faculty were getting beaten and pepper-sprayed by neo-Nazis.”

“I think it’s an unfortunate and difficult irony to see the police attacking our students in one version and the police not doing anything to protect our students in the other version,” said Heinecke.

Another disparity between what the university reported and what was witnessed firsthand: the presence of medical personnel to treat those hit by pepper spray.

At Tuesday’s town hall, Longo said that everyone exposed to pepper spray on the scene Saturday was treated by medical personnel on site.

Kathryn Laughan, an associate professor of nursing who treated several students of her own accord, said Thursday that she did not see “any kind of organized medical first aid response beyond what had been organized by students and perhaps community members themselves.”

The Daily Progress also witnessed multiple people, many of whom appeared to be students, exposed to pepper spray. They either treated themselves using personal water bottles or received assistance from the other members of the public who had gathered at the scene.

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 alongside other members of the local media.

Several UVa professors who had either served as faculty liaisons for students in the encampment or simply as bystanders on Saturday took turns laying out a timeline of events as they unfolded, supplemented with pictures and videos taken throughout the day.

The demonstration started April 30, the last day of spring semester classes. Despite calls for more people to join, after hitting a peak of 80, attendance suffered and fell to roughly 25 by Saturday morning.

Goldblatt was present at the demonstration Thursday night, describing it as “very peaceful and very bucolic.” She also revealed some new information, that “three angry men” approached the protesters at around 1 a.m. Friday, but those in the encampment successfully deescalated the situation before reporting it to Student Services.

All of the eyewitnesses who spoke Thursday said that the protest’s atmosphere remained calm and safe up until the point when university, local and state police began to arrive on Grounds late Saturday morning.

“Many of us who were present on Saturday believe that it was the police who rioted and were aggressive, not our students, nor community members,” said Oludamini Ogunnaike, an associate professor of religion. “I believe that it was the police assembly and violent aggression that was unlawful, not that of our students or faculty or community members. But I also believe that the reason that they were treated violently is not because they set up tents, nor because they were protesting, but rather because of what they were protesting.”

Ogunnaike noted that the demonstration was so peaceful that he felt comfortable bringing his children to visit, which is why he said he was “confused by the assault charges” Longo mentioned on Tuesday.

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

On Thursday’s call, faculty showed a video of that encounter that depicted a slightly different scene from what Longo described. The video shows Longo standing with a fellow officer in front of the tents where roughly 15 protesters can be seen holding umbrellas and chanting at the two officers. After about a minute, Longo, with his hands clasped behind his back, turns his back to the protesters and walks away.

Longo brought up the protesters’ use of umbrellas several times on Tuesday’s call, saying they were used “in an aggressive manner.” Fahad Ahmad Bishara, an associate professor of history, argued the umbrellas were employed as “shields” not “offensive weapons.”

“Given that the protesters were ultimately pepper-sprayed, one might understand why an umbrella might be a useful device,” said Bishara on Thursday.

Another device at the scene that administrators took issue with: tents.

Another disparity between administrators’ timeline and what was witnessed firsthand: UVa’s tent policy.

Early on, the university had told protesters that it was the school’s policy that recreational tents are forbidden without a permit. Protesters complied by that rule until some found that the university’s printed guidelines actually say that recreational tents do not require a permit.

On Tuesday, Ryan admitted that someone on his team changed the language in the university guidance so that the document was consistent with what UVa had been saying was official policy, mere hours before police broke up the encampment.

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

“It concerns me because you can’t change policies without getting faculty input into the policy change process. I’m not quite sure how policy can be changed on the fly,” Heinecke said Thursday. “That was concerning to us. It was definitely just unclear to the folks in the encampment about what was the actual policy.”

University administrators have maintained there was no confusion over the tent policy, but accounts from the encampment contradict that.

Heinecke said that protesters believed that the tents were exempt after finding the printed guidelines. Furthermore, Heinecke said he pointed out to police on the scene last week that there were several tents erected across Grounds for sporting events and social gatherings without permits, even just down the road at the beach volleyball courts.

Faculty closed the town hall Thursday by “demanding” the university and the University Judiciary Committee, a student organization that adjudicates school policy violations, drop all charges against the students and school employees who are now facing trespassing misdemeanors.

There were 27 people in total arrested on Saturday — though this number has been revised down and up over the past week — including 12 students, four employees, three who are either former students or employees and eight who are unaffiliated with the university.

Farmer on Thursday said that the charges against students, employees and members of the public had been “very unevenly applied,” as several others counterprotesting at the same scene, some of whom cheered on the violence, left free men.

“We had a number of students who were cheering on the cops,” Farmer said. “We had students who said pretty vile things to the encampment, and they were let go, they were not addressed. So we have a really uneven application of the UJC rules.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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