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Protest about the derecognition of Brandeis SJP ends in arrests, violence

On Friday, Nov. 10, Brandeis students held a protest surrounding the recent derecognition of Brandeis’ chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Brandeis Revolutionary Students Organization (RSO), advertised the event on their Instagram account, saying in a post that the rally was being held “in support of Palestinian people and their struggle for peace, justice, and liberation.” The RSO noted that “It is absurd for Brandeis to frame itself as an institution for social justice while openly supporting an ongoing genocide, and attempting to censor students for speaking out or even holding a vigil.” They also posted several demands, including “That Brandeis stop supporting the genocide of Palestinian people at the hands of the zionist occupation, through its engagement with the occupation’s economy and institutions,” “that Brandeis stop supporting and spreading racism and islamophobia on campus through its harmful rhetoric and defense of bigoted students” and “that Brandeis reinstate [Brandeis SJP], and end the repression of pro-Palestine voices on campus.”

The protest was scheduled to begin around 3:30 p.m., but began slightly behind schedule. Speakers included Palestinian students, a granddaughter of Brandeis’ founders, Brandeis alumni and more. The speakers used a megaphone to project their voice across the Great Lawn, claiming that Brandeis is supporting genocide, Hillel is a racist organizion and Arab students are bullied, ostrasized and harassed on campus and more. Throughout the protest, there were chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Intifada, intifada,” “Long live Palestine,” “fuck Ron [a reference to Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz]” and “fuck Brandeis.” Some also held banners and a megaphone. The Hoot observed this protest from the beginning, and saw that it was peaceful at this point, with about 50-70 protestors present.

Brandeis Police were present at the protest beginning at around 3:15 p.m., but a larger squadron of officers appeared around 4:30 p.m. This brought the total police presence up to about 25 officers. Video footage obtained by The Hoot also shows the presence of officers from what The Hoot believes to be a private security firm called “Provident Response.” These officers were wearing neon vests and appeared to be working in tandem with police officers throughout the event. Waltham police were also present, and according to an announcement on their Facebook page were called to the university at 3:30 p.m.. The announcement stated that “On November 10, 2023, at approximately 3:30 p.m., Brandeis University Police requested the assistance of the Waltham Police after a demonstration on their campus became unruly. The Brandeis University Police issued multiple dispersal orders. Several participants refused to cooperate and seven (7) arrests were made by Brandeis University Police for charges including Disorderly Conduct, Unlawful Assembly, and Assault & Battery on a Police Officer. No major injuries occured as a result of these arrests.”

A few things are of note in this announcement. Firstly, Waltham Police say that they were called to the scene at 3:30 due to protestors being unruly. However, the protest was scheduled to begin at 3:30 and didn’t truly begin until about 3:40, according to an interview The Hoot conducted with a student who was present at the protest. In an email sent to The Hoot, Brandeis Interim Senior Vice President of Communications Julie Jette said that “Waltham police were not called until after campus police made four requests for the crowd to disperse – I’m not sure why it said 3:30 in the statement from Waltham; it may have been that whoever wrote it up was simply looking at the time that the demonstration had been advertised to start.” Additionally, according to interviews that The Hoot conducted with students who were arrested, the majority of the protestors were unable to hear the police’s orders to disperse.

According to Waltham Police’s statement and Jette’s email, several orders were given to the crowd to disperse. At about 4:30 p.m., a black SUV, piloted by a Waltham police officer, drove onto the Great Lawn and asked the protestors once again to disperse. The vehicle then drove further onto the Great Lawn, and police officers closed their formation, pushing protestors further back on the Great Lawn and up onto the steps of the Shapiro Campus Center.

At this point, approximately half of the protestors had left, and the remaining half began walking across the lawn towards Spingold Theater as police officers followed. According to The Hoot’s reporters and video footage obtained by The Hoot, police officers then rushed through the crowd and violently tackled protestors. These videos show students crying out for help as police officers grabbed students’ banners and threw several protestors to the ground for arrest. The Hoot also saw some arrestees with multiple police officers on top of them. Videos obtained by The Hoot show police officers kneeling on students. The Hoot also saw police officers weave through the crowd to tackle specific protestors, indicating that these arrests may have been targeted. This sentiment was echoed in interviews The Hoot conducted after the fact. According to interviews The Hoot conducted with arrested students, one arrestee was sexually assaulted by a police officer who groped their genitals. Another student recalled being choked by a police officer and being unable to breathe before another protestor “saved [their] life” by knocking away two of the four police officers that were holding them to the ground.

In total, seven arrests were made during this protest. Three of the arrestees were Brandeis students. Several videos of these arrests, and the protest as a whole, were posted on social media. According to these videos, and eyewitnesses that The Hoot spoke to, police officers were extremely violent with students. One protester who was arrested had their head repeatedly slammed into the ground by police officers. The arrested students that The Hoot spoke to had visible marks on their hands from extremely tight handcuffs, several days after their initial arrest. One student who was interviewed by The Hoot said that they were forced to remove their pants in their jail cell, and both arrested students that The Hoot spoke to mentioned that the police van that transported them to the Waltham Police station performed several brake checks along the way, jostling the arrestees and forcing them to slam into each other.

Following the protest, The Hoot reached out to Brandeis’ Office of Communications to learn more about Brandeis’ actions. Specifically, The Hoot asked what Brandeis’ administration has to say about the videos that are on social media of police officers being violent towards student protestors, if/why Brandeis hired a private security firm to attend this event and how the administration feels that the day’s actions fit in with the university’s mission, among other questions. Although The Hoot did receive responses to some of its questions, the office’s Interim Senior Vice President, Julie Jette, didn’t answer others. Jette referred The Hoot to a message previously emailed to students by University President Liebowitz and then said that she “[doesn’t] have any additional information for [The Hoot].”

After the protest, Liebowitz sent an email to students noting that Brandeis “encourages a diversity of views, and we aspire to create a forum where these views can be freely discussed. At the same time, our administration’s top priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of our community. This means that we must provide an environment without harassment and intimidation in order to support free expression. This also means that there is a level of responsibility that comes with free speech that was not exercised by many of the protestors yesterday, as the demonstration devolved into the invocation of hate speech. Ultimately, seven people were arrested, the majority of whom were unaffiliated with Brandeis. As part of the university’s standard protocols and procedures, we are reviewing what exactly took place during–and in response to–the protests, so that we can best keep our community members safe. … While we strongly support the free exchange of ideas, we do not condone hate, the incitement of violence, threats, or harassment, of any kind. Our free speech principles apply to all of our students, no matter their background, their perspectives, or their beliefs. Attacks against any background or belief system are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Fierke and Vice President for Student Affairs Andrea Dine sent an email later that day to the Brandeis community, in which they wrote “This afternoon, a protest occurred on Brandeis’ campus. Brandeis has made it clear that language that is intended to threaten or harass is a violation of campus policy, and that we will not allow individuals who are not affiliated with Brandeis to congregate on campus so we may focus our resources on making sure that our students, faculty, and staff can assemble together safely. The demonstration proceeded without interruption until protesters–including individuals unaffiliated with Brandeis–began using threatening language that has been explicitly described as hate speech; including ‘From the river to the sea’ and ‘intifada, intifada.’ After that occurred, an administrator warned the speakers that if they continued to use that language the demonstration would be dispersed. These chants continued. … As a result, University police made four announcements that the demonstrators needed to leave. Demonstrators did not disperse, and a speaker urged them to remain. As some protesters refused to leave, six individuals were arrested. Criminal charges include assault and battery on a police officer, disorderly conduct, and trespassing. A seventh individual was arrested for trespassing earlier in the afternoon. … We know that this is a tense, complicated, and stressful time at Brandeis and colleges across the country. We support open dialogue about the difficult issues involved in the war between Israel and Hamas. But today’s demonstration did not encourage thoughtful dialogue–instead it created an atmosphere of intimidation, which is antithetical to a learning environment. In the days to come, we will be sharing opportunities for our community members to reflect and engage respectfully with one another.”

Following the protest, each of the arrested protestors pled not guilty during their arraignment on Monday, Nov. 13. As mentioned in Waltham Police’s statement, charges against the protestors included disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly and assault and battery on a police officer.

The Hoot interviewed two of the arrested students and one more student who was involved in Friday’s events. Those interviews can be found in separate articles in this edition of The Hoot. The Hoot’s coverage of the vigil that preceded the protest, and the silent walkout that followed it can also be found in separate articles.

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