Home » Amid Gaza Protests, Universities Are Cracking Down on a Celebrated Protest Tactic: Sit-ins

Amid Gaza Protests, Universities Are Cracking Down on a Celebrated Protest Tactic: Sit-ins

On October 25, hundreds of people participated in a sit-in at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, calling on school administrators to cut ties with weapons manufacturers involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It was part of a wave of activism around Israel’s siege of Gaza on university campuses around the country, and it ended in increasingly typical fashion: Campus police arrested 57 of the demonstrators for trespassing because they remained in the university’s Whitmore Administration Building after it had closed at 6 p.m.

Two months later, after the protesters were arraigned in court and placed on probation following disciplinary hearings at school, university administrators banned three of the students from studying abroad during the spring semester. The decision, which was issued on the last day before winter break, left the students scrambling to find housing and come up with new plans for the spring semester.

The sanction was out of step with the university’s past practices of disciplining students in such circumstances, according to faculty member and attorney Rachel Weber, who represented the students in court. In 2016, for example, students were arrested following a sit-in as they pushed the university to divest from fossil fuel companies. But the students did not face any sanctions, such as probation, that would have made them ineligible to participate in programs like study abroad, Weber said.

“It’s not like [the students] could look back at precedent and think ‘Oh, we should have expected that this could happen,’” Weber told The Intercept. “This was new behavior.”

The University of Massachusetts Amherst did not respond to requests for comment.

The incident at Amherst is reflective of a broader university crackdown against students participating in a form of protest with deep roots in the American civil rights movement: the sit-in. Elsewhere across the country, universities have met such sit-downs — often driven by demands related to divestment from companies selling arms to Israel, a tactic with roots in protests against apartheid South Africa — with disciplinary action, off-campus criminal charges, and an over-application of campus policies seldom used in similar circumstances.

“The students are learning for themselves that the United States has never been a place where all people can exercise free speech and political freedom.”

“How can, on the one hand, [universities] pride themselves in teaching American values, free speech, and nonviolent political action, but on the other hand, when those students actually put those guys in their practice, they respond in an authoritarian way,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University who co-authored a recent report called “Presumptively Antisemitic: Islamophobic Tropes in the Palestine–Israel Discourse.”

“Usually through lawfare: by selectively enforcing policies, changing policies, with a particular political motivation to quash speech and quash political action, or to embroil students in frivolous and unrounded internal administrative complaints,” Aziz continued. “And the students are learning for themselves that the United States has never been a place where all people can exercise free speech and political freedom.”

Police officers arrive to explain that student protesters are trespassing and will be arrested outside of the chancellor’s office at University of Massachusetts Amherst on Oct. 25, 2023.

Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images

At the close of the fall semester at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the International Programs Office informed three students who had been placed on probation for their arrests during the sit-in that the sanctions made them ineligible to study abroad. The notice came on December 15, weeks after the November 2 deadline to withdraw from study abroad, which itself was a full week after the protest.

“They could have told me beforehand that, ‘You know what, you are not going to be allowed to go, period,’ instead of having me think, ‘OK, I might be able to go,’ and have all this hope,” said one of the students who was barred from the program and requested anonymity out of concern for their safety.

Aidan O’Neill, a junior who was also prevented from studying abroad, said it was troubling that his eligibility to go abroad was invalidated as a result of his participation in a peaceful protest and that the university did not grant any opportunity to have the decision reviewed. He said his experience feels like a broader pattern of backlash against students nationwide who speak out on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

At the University of Chicago, students spent weeks tabling and protesting over a demand that the university divest from companies that have contributed to Israel’s weapons supply, including General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing. After six weeks of protests, the students staged a sit-in at the admissions office, demanding a public meeting with the administration about its investments. The protest, which extended past business hours, was met with arrests by university police, who also arrested two faculty members who were present as observers.

Youssef Hasweh, a senior at the university who was wearing a keffiyeh — a traditional Palestinian scarf — was among those who were arrested. He and another student who was wearing a thobe, a type of dress worn by Arab and Muslim men, were the only ones placed in handcuffs, according to Hasweh and another student in the room. The officers tried to remove his cuffs before taking him outside, where hundreds of people were gathered, Hasweh said. “It was just weird. If I’m getting cited for trespassing in this building that’s open to students for a few more hours, why are you taking off the cuffs inside?” he said. “So let me outside, let everybody see what you’re doing.”

Police officers removing University of Chicago student Youssef Hasweh out of Rosenwald Hall, where students staged a sit-in and demanded a public meeting with the administration about its investments in Chicago, Ill., on Nov. 9, 2023.

Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haswah

The 26 students faced disciplinary hearings for infractions including the disruption of a campus building by using amplified sound, chanting and not leaving when directed to, and gathering on the quad after allotted hours — policies students say have not typically been enforced against other student groups. The university set the hearings during the middle of finals week, right before holiday break, Hasweh said. “This is a month post-arrest, and this is when you choose … it all felt very calculated.”

Though the local prosecutor declined to prosecute the students, the arrests are still on their records and they will have to pay fees to get their records expunged.

A spokesperson for the University of Chicago told The Intercept that university leaders expect to meet with students on the school’s investment strategy. It declined to comment on the disciplinary consequences students may face.

Likewise at the University of Michigan, a mass protest against the school’s lack of response to calls for divestment from companies tied to Israel’s military, including HP, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, was met with a massive police response. On November 17, students staged a sit-in at the university’s administration building. By evening, over 25 police vehicles from the campus public safety office, Ann Arbor Police Department, and seven other local departments showed up, the Michigan Daily reported. The campus paper added that many of the vehicles, some of them equipped with riot shields, arrived before the sit-in began.

The students were asking to meet with university President Santa Ono to reiterate their calls for divestment. They ignored officers’ demands to exit the building, after which the police arrested 40 students, who are now facing charges for trespassing. Since then, there have allegedly been multiple instances of officers detaining individuals who were at the protest, students told The Intercept. A university spokesperson declined to comment.

“The University of Michigan’s campaign to suppress students comes at a time where hate crimes against Palestinians in the U.S have manifested in the murder of Wadea Al-[Fayoume] and the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Vermont,” Rifqa Falaneh, an attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Intercept. Falaneh added that the organization, which is representing the University of Michigan students, received over 480 requests for legal support from Palestinian rights activists at universities across the country between October 7 and the end of 2023.

Amherst, MA - October 25: UMass students march across campus following a walkout at University of Massachusetts Amherst and a rally against, "UMass Amherst's ties with war profiteers and call for a ceasefire and end of the blockade on Gaza". (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

University of Massachusetts students march across campus following a walkout at University of Massachusetts Amherst on Oct. 25, 2023.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A student movement has also taken shape at Brown University, where a university advisory committee on corporate responsibility in investment policies made a 2020 recommendation for “divestment from companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.” Students spent the fall semester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for President Christina Paxson to support the findings of the report. In November, they staged a sit-in at an administrative building, after which 20 members of the organization Jews for Ceasefire Now were charged with trespassing. (Their charges were dropped after the shooting of Brown second-year student Hisham Awartani and two other Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont, over Thanksgiving.)

On December 11, students held another sit-in in the same building. Administrators delivered a letter to the protesters from Paxson, in which the president said she would not be taking the report to the next university corporation meeting. “The divestment recommendation did not meet established standards for identifying specific entities for divestment or the articulation for how financial divestment from the entities would address social harm as defined in the committee’s charge,” she wrote. Paxson said she expected the students to leave the building by its closing time or risk arrest and criminal charges.

Shortly after the building closed at 5 p.m., officers moved in and arrested 41 students, booked them on-site, and directed them to take turns exiting from one of three doors. For student Bella Garo, these steps seemed calculated to avoid the outrage that ensued following the November arrests. “Seems to me like it was more about saving themselves the optics of carrying kids out in handcuffs one by one like they had done with Jews for Ceasefire Now,” said Garo. The university has not yet informed the students about campus disciplinary action they may face, but they are due in court in February on charges of “willful trespass within school buildings.”

University spokesperson Brian Clark told the Brown Daily Herald that the university might “escalate the level of criminal charges for future incidents of students occupying secure buildings.”

Clark told The Intercept that decisions for future arrests “would include an individualized assessment of the circumstances,” though they’d “also consider the cumulative impact of repeated disruptions to the University community and operations.”

Garo said that while it may be reasonable to lay out harsher punishments for individuals who violate policies more than once, the generalized threat felt like a way to discourage dissent.

“It’s especially frustrating given the severity of the siege on Gaza right now that they are more willing to escalate against the protests rather than actually talk to the corporation and have conversations around divestment,” Garo said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s all our demand was: We were simply asking the corporation to talk about and vote on divestment.”

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