UGA faculty call for reversing suspensions of arrested student protesters

UPDATE (5/8/24): The number of faculty signatures is now up to 241.

At least 219 UGA faculty members have signed an open letter of support for nine students who were arrested Monday while protesting what they view as Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.

These students, who were arrested for trespassing on UGA campus, say they received emails informing them of their suspensions after they were released from jail. They say they were not given adequate time to explain their side of the story before the suspensions were finalized, despite due process being required by UGA policy.

The students were barred from campus, including the residence and dining halls. Some of these students were just days away from graduation.

UGA professors Janet Frick, Rumya Putcha, Sujata Iyengar and Miriam Jacobson co-wrote the letter which they sent to President Jere Morehead, the UGA Office of Student Conduct and other UGA administrators.

“We understand the university administration was within its rights to request police presence and intervention and to enforce the campus free speech policy, but we believe the decision of the Office of Student Conduct to immediately suspend students and bar them from campus property was unwarranted and antithetical to our educational mission,” they wrote.

UGA administration issued a statement on Thursday saying that the students had violated the university’s freedom of expression policy by bringing tents to camp on university grounds. The university “has not permitted encampments on campus since the early 1990s. And the protesters knew it,” administrators wrote. “Make no mistake: These individuals chose to be arrested, and they chose to resist arrest.”

Protesters have a different perspective on these events. Isabelle Philip, one of the suspended students, told APN that protesters did not intend to be arrested that morning. She said they wanted to get the attention of university administration to discuss their demands as they had been trying to do for months. Instead of negotiating with protesters, the administration chose to use police violence to disrupt their encampment while protesters refused to back down.

Students for Justice in Palestine rally
UGA Students for Justice in Palestine rallied outside city hall on Friday.

Student demands: Solidarity, protection, disclosure and divestment

Hundreds of students and community members rallied outside city hall on Friday in support of the suspended students and in opposition to the genocide they believe is taking place in Gaza. Zeena Mohamed, one of the nine who was suspended, addressed the assembled crowd to list the protesters’ demands.

“They didn’t arrest us for an ambiguous school violation, they arrested us because we have actual demands,” she said. “We demand solidarity, we demand protection, we demand disclosure and we demand divestment.”

Solidarity

Protesters are calling on the university to issue a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people, who have been enduring extremely dire living conditions for months. According to the United Nations, Israel has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7 and damaged or destroyed at least 370,000 homes in the area.

If the destruction stopped today, the UN estimates that it would take until at least sixteen years to rebuild.

More than 80% of the schools and universities in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged, leading some UN experts to believe that Israel may have deliberately targeted them in a “scholasticide.” 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 97 journalists have been killed in the region since October 7, far more than in any other conflict around the globe in recent years. 92 of the deceased journalists were Palestinian, three were Lebanese and two were Israeli. The vast majority of these journalists were killed by Israel.

Human Rights Watch believes that Israel may be deliberately starving the people of Gaza as a weapon of war. 

Amnesty International has accused Israel of defying the International Court of Justice by failing to allow adequate aid shipments into occupied Gazan territory. Making matters worse, aid workers themselves are often targets of Israeli attack, despite informing the Israeli military of their location.

“UGA administration has ignored or actively participated in Israel’s genocide in Palestine for seven months,” Mohamed said.

Protection

Mohamed also called on UGA to “institute university policies enshrining protection for pro-Palestinian speech.” She also wants protection for Muslim and Arab students from “racist violence, doxing and other threats.”

Many protesters wear face masks at these rallies even when held outdoors where the threat of COVID-19 is fairly low. Presumably, this is to hide their identities from those who may wish them harm. After the rally, protesters repeatedly warned each other to leave in pairs as a safety precaution.

Disclosure and divestment

The protesters’ main demand is for the university to disclose and divest from whatever investments it may have in Israeli companies, US arms manufacturers and other institutions that benefit from the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

Similar demands have been echoed by activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for decades. While this movement is often criticized as antisemitic, activists believe that divestment can help put pressure on Israel to end its occupation and allow for Palestinian self-determination.

UGA does not appear likely to meet any of these demands anytime soon. Protesters would need to continue applying an increasing amount of pressure to make any progress, but student ranks will surely diminish in coming weeks as summer vacation begins. 

The suspended protesters may not be allowed to attend UGA graduation, which is scheduled for May 10. Despite this setback to their academic careers, protesters don’t want their personal struggles to be the focus.

“The support [from the community] is amazing…but it’s not about us,” Philip told the assembled crowd on Friday. “The story is the genocide in Gaza. The story is 40,000 dead. The story is that US institutions fear our power so much that they send the violence of the state in to squash us. But they won’t, because we know, whatever they throw at us it is nothing compared to what we are fighting for.”

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