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Penn's interim president orders pro-Palestinian protesters on campus to disband their encampment 'immediately'

Alfred Lubrano, Susan Snyder, Max Marin, Jesse Bunch and Robert Moran, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — The interim president at the University of Pennsylvania issued a warning Friday night to pro-Palestinian protesters on campus that they must “disband their encampment immediately” because of alleged legal and university police violations.

“The encampment itself violates the University’s facilities policies,” J. Larry Jameson said in a letter to the Penn community.

“The harassing and intimidating comments and actions by some of the protesters, which were reported and documented by many in our community, violate Penn’s open expression guidelines and state and federal law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. All members of our community deserve to access our facilities without fear of harassment or being subjected to discriminatory comments or threats,” Jameson said.

He called vandalism of the statue in front of College Hall with antisemitic graffiti “especially reprehensible” and said it will be investigated as a hate crime.

By 9:30 p.m., it remained unclear what actions the university would take against occupants of the encampment if it did not come down.

“Failure to disband the encampment immediately and to adhere to Penn’s policies will result in sanctions consistent with our due process procedures as they apply to students, faculty, and staff,” Jameson’s statement said.

It was a drastic turn of sentiment.

Earlier Friday, Jameson wrote in an email to the university community that administrators would continue to support the “rights of our community members to protest peacefully and in keeping with University policy.”

He warned, however, that if the protest devolved and words and actions violated Penn’s policies, and led to campus disruption and a hostile environment, “we will not stand by.”

The pro-Palestinian encampments at Philadelphia-area campuses had remained peaceful this week as tumult has roiled other schools.

Clashes with police and arrests have erupted at Emory University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Southern California, where next month’s main commencement ceremony has been canceled.

Encampments at Swarthmore College and Haverford College, the latest local campus where demonstrators have staked protest tents, were more tranquil.

While students nationwide are protesting similar issues — the war in Gaza, free speech on college campuses, charges of antisemitism, and American support for Israel — school administrations have been dealing with protests in a variety of ways.

Princeton University administrators on Thursday quickly dismantled a small tent city after its creation.

At Brown University, students in the encampment there are being told they “face conduct hearings.”

And at Columbia University, the hub of the Gaza-linked protest movement, the school initially allowed police to arrest about 100 students, which ignited activism there and on other campuses. Students regrouped and are keeping an encampment going. Administrators remained in prolonged negotiations with protesters as of Friday morning, while police buses were parked nearby and reporters noticed an increase in police and private security posted at campus entrances.

Meanwhile, at the Penn encampment Friday morning, a black-and-white keffiyeh draped the neck of Ben Franklin’s bronze statue while 60 students from Penn, Temple, and Drexel University emerged from 20 tents into the unusually cold spring day, the start of the group’s first official day as occupants of what they call “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Bananas overflowed from cardboard boxes between mountains of protein bars and bagged chips. The volume of donated foods and supplies has been overwhelming, said camp organizer Emma Herndon, 22, a senior English major at Penn.

She added, “We’re equipped for a long time.”

Herndon said the group has raised more than $13,000, much of which will be sent to humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza.

Herndon said if Penn leaders meet their demands — to disclose the university’s financial holdings, divest from any investments in the war, and provide amnesty for pro-Palestinian students facing discipline over past protests — they would consider breaking down the encampment immediately.

For now, though, students remained focused on building something, rather than tearing it down.

“It’s hope,” says Eliana Atienza, a Penn sophomore from the Philippines, pointing up at Ben Franklin’s adorned neck.

 

Outside the city at Haverford College, students were occupying 15 tents outside Founders Hall on Friday morning. Student organizers said the encampment was formed in solidarity with Gaza and in protest of the college’s investments that benefit Israel’s military campaign.

“There has been no action taken against protesters by campus public safety officers,” said Tala Qaraq a junior Palestinian student.

However, Qaraq said the college had asked that the large, white sheet banner reading “Liberated Zone” be removed from blocking a pathway, and that campus security had taken the banner down once already.

Qaraq sees the national protest movement as a moment where her generation — Gen Z — will reconsider voting for politicians who support Israel’s war in Gaza come November.

Penn’s interim president faces a known conflict

The encampment at Penn poses a test for Jameson, who replaced former president Liz Magill after she resigned following bipartisan backlash over her congressional committee testimony on antisemitism and a semester marked by near-weekly protests over the conflict and bloodshed in Israel and Gaza.

Penn board chair Ramanan Raghavendran declined to comment Friday on what if any role the board has in deciding how to handle the encampment.

Penn’s board was involved in controversy that embroiled the university last fall after the Palestine Writes Literary Festival was held on campus in September.

Tensions flared even more after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and donors began to withhold their money, calling on Magill and board chair Scott L. Bok to resign.

Both Magill and Bok stepped down in December following Magill’s testimony.

‘They will only grow’

In an interview Friday, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said peaceful protest should be allowed on college campuses but not encampments.

“From my experience, the quicker you take these encampments down, the better,” said Ramsey, who served as Philadelphia’s police commissioner from 2008 to 2016 and whose company, 21CP Solutions, recently conducted a safety audit of Temple University’s campus. “They will only grow in size.”

Then it becomes more difficult to remove them as time goes on, he said.

Encampments can begin to attract people from outside the university and raise additional safety and sanitary concerns, said Ramsey, who serves as a law enforcement analyst for CNN and has been commenting on the growing campus protests around the nation.

He emphasized that people should be permitted to stand and protest as long as they want. “If you want to stand there all night, that’s fine,” he said.

But protesters don’t have the right to sleep there, Ramsey added: “There’s nothing First Amendment about that.”

Discussing safety on Friday, Jameson acknowledged a safety plan for university police in partnership with local law enforcement to deal with protesters as they arrived on campus.

He added that the encampment may cause fear and anxiety and noted that the university has safety and wellness resources available.

Recounting how recent events unfolded, Jameson said that at the same time protesters began erecting tents Thursday, he was in a campus listening session where faculty, students and staff could comment on the impact of the conflict in the Middle East on Penn’s campus.

“I left inspired by the collective commitment to productive exchange, mutual respect, and care for one another and was gratified to see it on full display,” he wrote. “These conversations are important and must continue, and you have my commitment that they will.”

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©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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