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UVa student protest remains subdued in its second day

A student-led protest at the University of Virginia remained peaceful as it entered its second day Wednesday, standing in stark contrast to how similar anti-Israel protests have unfolded across the country and the commonwealth.

Roughly 80 protesters — a crowd including students, faculty and Charlottesville community members — spent the day on the school’s Lawn, the center of the Academical Village founded by Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago. They blew bubbles, sang songs, led call-and-response chants, discussed Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and posted signs welcoming visitors to the “liberated zone,” calling for a “Free Palestine,” urging the United States to “Stop Funding Genocide” and demanding the school “Divest” from financial ties to Israel.

Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs have warred over territory in the Levant for decades now, both believing the area to be a holy land for their people. The latest conflict started on Oct. 7 of last year, when Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages. Since then, Israel has laid siege to the Hamas-controlled territory of Gaza. The war has now claimed more than 34,000 lives, the majority of those Palestinian women and children.

An ocean away, protests have erupted on college campuses across the United States, where students, siding with the Palestinian cause, have demanded their schools divest entirely from the state of Israel. The country, they say, is engaged in genocide.

Protesters have been split on their other demands, some demanding the U.S. forsake its longtime ally in the Middle East and withhold military aid to Israel, some demanding that Israel lay down its weapons and negotiate a cease-fire, some demanding that Israel cede all of its territory to the Palestinians, or a combination of the three.

At UVa, student organizers issued a list of their own demands Wednesday afternoon. In an Instagram post from an account called @uvaencampmentforgaza, organizers asked that UVa administrators:

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

■ Divest from all weapons manufacturers aiding the genocide 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.

“What we’re all here doing goes further than convictions about morality or about politics,” said one of the protest’s organizers, addressing roughly 50 people on the Lawn around noon. “We are all here involved in it as a part of a deep tradition of justice that is fueled by those who shoulder oppression with courage and with love, by those who shoulder it with trust that is built together, and together we are all here gathered in the struggle for a life worth living and to stand against those who get in our way.”

He thanked those in attendance for participating in the protest before leading them in a chant: “Viva, viva, Palestina.”

Despite the public nature of the protest, the event’s organizers have discouraged participants from speaking directly to the press and identifying themselves to members of the media, police or UVa administration. Participants have also been asked that they wear masks. Those masks, at least according to organizers, are a “COVID-19 precaution.”

At one point, during a call-and-response chant, an organizer alerted participants that a Daily Progress reporter was among them. The crowd paused for a brief moment before returning to its chanting.

Organizers spent much of Wednesday asking those gathered on the Lawn to encourage others to join their ranks. While it may come as a surprise, given the school’s reputation for left-leaning politics and the fears of campuswide chaos stoked by Virginia Republicans earlier in the week, the protest at UVa has so far paled in comparison to those at other schools — and to the weeklong, thousands-strong "May Days" protest against the Vietnam War at the college in 1970, from which protest organizers said they took their inspiration for the day’s proceedings.

A similar “liberated zone” at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg attracted a crowd of hundreds over the weekend, and 82 protesters there were arrested for trespassing late Sunday night and early Monday morning. Police in riot gear stormed an encampment at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond Monday night, arresting 13 after using shields and tear gas to push into the crowd. At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, 12 protesters were arrested Saturday evening.

Protesters at Columbia University in New York were arrested en masse Tuesday night after they occupied a building on campus and requested the school feed them. That same night, protesters and counterprotesters at the University of California, Los Angeles, came to blows.

Protesters at UVa, meanwhile, have mostly been battling the elements.

A light rain fell on demonstrators Tuesday night, and temperatures in Charlottesville hit a high of 86 degrees Wednesday afternoon. Clear skies offered little protection against the sun’s rays for demonstrators, who eventually broke into four smaller groups seeking shade under the branches of the ash trees that line the grassy Lawn. Those groups participated in “teach-ins,” discussing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and student-led protests in the U.S.

As of early Wednesday evening, there had been “no arrests or disruptions,” UVa spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress.

Unlike other protests, there were also no tents, Coy said. Protesters were told early on when they first started to gather on UVa Grounds Tuesday afternoon that erecting tents was strictly prohibited and would qualify as trespassing.

Protesters spent Tuesday night on blankets and in sleeping bags.

Another university policy is that students on Grounds not use “amplified sound” without permission. Perhaps the most tense moment of Wednesday afternoon was when a protester leading a chant via megaphone was approached by a university administrator who asked him to stop.

Police presence on the Lawn was minimal throughout the day Wednesday.

UVa Police Chief Tim Longo made an appearance at one point to speak with protesters about the university’s policies regarding trespassing and amplified sound.

As of Wednesday evening, protesters showed no sign of leaving their “liberated zone,” and the university showed no sign of asking them to do so.

“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 a statement Tuesday night. “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.”


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