Photo: PBI-USA visits the encampment at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), May 2, 2024.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports: “Over the last month, protestors have held demonstrations on campuses in the U.S., but this week police became involved in many of them, including at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville Thursday, which led to nine people being arrested.

The article continues: “The protestors are advocating for the university to divest from its assets tied to Israel amid its ongoing war with Hamas. The pro-Palestine groups continue demonstrations on campus heading into the weekend.”

A timeline of the first day of the protest was captured by the student newspaper The Daily Beacon and can be found here. The events leading up to the arrests on the second day are outlined by the student activists here. When 9 activists were arrested on Day 2 for quietly sitting on a university lawn, protestors danced to celebrate the power of 9 activists who were later released, at which point the dancing resumed.

According to the Tennessean, "the humanitarian crisis stemming from the Gaza conflict and the reports of bombings of hospitals and a critical need for food and other supplies for Palestinians has fueled outrage on some U.S. campuses and spurred demands for an end to investment in Israeli companies and amnesty for student protesters," spurring protests at Vanderbilt, the University of Tennessee, and all around the country. 

The aritcle continues: "On March 26, students began demonstrations on Vanderbilt University’s campus to demand the restoration of a blocked student vote that would have prevented student government funds from going to certain businesses that support Israel. The first day came with a sit-in of Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s office, which led to four students being arrested, the expelling of three and the disciplinary action of many more. These demonstrations and protest against the blocking of the vote hit the one month mark on April 26 and they don't seem to be stopping anytime soon."

The University of Tennessee released a statement following the arrests: "Campus leaders worked throughout the day to make protesters aware that their event was violating the policy on the use of outdoor space and their plans for the evening would also violate state law. Campus leaders gave protestors time to speak within their group, then Vice Chancellor for Student Life Frank Cuevas delivered a message to the group personally warning them to disband or the UT Police Department would respond."

The East Tn Stories Network reported: "Thursday May 2, 2024 - Students and allies gathered on the lawn of the UTK College of Law for a "People's School for Gaza" to speak and listen regarding the history of Palestine and its conflict with Israel as well as the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Representatives of both JVP (Jewish Voices for Peace) and the protesters negotiated with university admin, but failed to reach a compromise. Around 9pm, protest leaders announced that, according the admin, anyone remaining on the lawn would be arrested for trespass. Shortly thereafter, four administrators approached the protesters and repeated the message. The majority of protesters crossed the street and continued to support from a distance their nine comrades who remained on the lawn in protest. KPD (Knoxville Police Department) officers arrived in force and quickly arrested the protesters on the lawn. Police then erected a barricade around the lawn as over a hundred students chanted from across the street: "KPD, KKK, IDF, Are all the same!" Arrestees were released later that evening."

Demands of the protestors at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville)

Multiple student groups have come together under the banner "People's School for Gaza" to organize the protests, teach-ins, and cultural activities that have been a part of the student-led demonstrations. The group posted an April 30 list of demands on Instagram, including a call for transparency on investments and donations, for divestment of endowments from corporations directly or indirectly involved in wars or conflicts, cancelation of the study abroad program trip to Israel and rejection of threats to free speech. The third day of protest ended without incident and organizers are planning to continue activities presumably until demands are met.

Campus-based protests in the United States

At Vanderbilt, a private university, Protean Mag reports that on March 26th, 27 students affiliated with the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition occupied the main administration building, Kirkland Hall, before they were forcibly removed by police...Controversially, a reporter from the Nashville Scene was also arrested by the Vanderbilt University Police for trespassing while covering the events inside the building.

According to PBI-USA executive director Amelia Parker (who also serves on the local city council in Knoxville) and visited the student protest on Thursday, May 2, students at the University of Tennessee were engaged in a peaceful protest as captured by local news. Prior to arrest and following, the peaceful demonstration reflected the diverse, student-led, intersectional and human rights-informed efforts shared by PBI alumni below.

Former PBI-Colombia field volunteer Lisa Kunkel visited the Denver students' Palestine Solidarity Camp on the Auraria campus of Metropolitant State University of Denver and University of Colorado Denver and below are some of her observations.

  • Students are leading this without outside "infiltrators" though the broader community often stands in solidarity and has organized actions and protests off campus for months.
  • There is an explicit commitment to "Judaism yes, Zionism no." Organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace and Not in Our Name are present and in leadership in combination with Arab-American and Palestinian-American students, among others.
  • There are anti-racist, queer-friendly spaces that combat ableism and multiple forms of oppression and see the intersectionality with other anti-colonial and anti-imperial fights, ecological catastrophe, and facism in the US and elsewhere.
  • Classes and study continue. If they are inconvenienced at all it's worth remembering there are no universities left standing in Gaza.
  • Antisemitism is dangerous and ugly but it's not what drives these protests. The obvious explanation is often the correct one: it offends young peoples' moral conscience to watch genocide live-streamed and know their government and their universities are complicit. This should give us all hope in otherwise dark times. 

Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh, former executive director of PBI-USA, has been bringing food and supplies to the student encampment at the University of New Mexico Albuquerque as a non-Jewish member of the local Jewish Voices for Peace as well as helping out with teach-ins and other events to support the protest. In a recent post, Katherine shared: "The protests have nothing to do with antisemitism and everything to do with stopping the horrible genocide where Israel has killed more than 40,000 and more once you count those buried under the rubble. It's so amazing to see their organizing and willingness to sacrifice for a better world."

Katherine has also visited the University of Texas Austin campus where her nephew, Ammer Qaddumi, was arrested for criminal trespassing on Wednesday, April 24th along with nearly 60 other protestors demonstrating in support of Palestine and for a ceasefire in Gaza. Video clearly shows that demonstrators were dispersing as police moved in to make arrests. Charges have been dismissed against 46 people arrested at the protest. 

NBC lists protests at 54 campuses throughout the United States.

The Associated Press has reported that in the United States: “Police have arrested hundreds nationwide since detainments at Columbia [University in New York] on April 18.” By April 30, the BBC further noted: “More than 1,000 students [had] been arrested in less than two weeks during these protests.” According to CNN, more than 2,100 people have been arrested on more than 40 of those campuses across 25 states as of May 4, 2024.

Snapshot of the Legal Landscape in the United States

At the University of Tennessee, administrators have leaned on a new state anti-camping law to prevent the erection of student encampments. According to the Knoxville-News Sentinel, "the state camping law, which can result in a felony charge, kicks in at 10 p.m. and lasts until 7 a.m. The law bans "making preparations to sleep," which includes "laying down a sleeping bag, blanket, or other material used for bedding" at any time of the day. The law was enacted by the Tennessee legislature to limit political demonstrations."

According to the Texas Tribune, "government entities and colleges can enact “reasonable time, place, and manner” restrictions or regulations as long as they are applied neutrally and don’t discriminate against particular groups or viewpoints. Some colleges have tried to limit protests to smaller, designated “free speech zones,” but the law has often backed up students peacefully protesting outdoors in open, public areas of campus, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression."

Tennessee also passed the Divisive Concepts law, as part of the anti-DEI movement of states around the country who have passed similar bills. Tennessee is one of eight states to enact what Pen International refers to as educational gag orders by January of 2024. Similar legislation has been introduced in 33 states since 2021. While these laws have had chilling effects on free speech, particularly as it pertains to faculty, in this moment of student protest, students have actually looked to the law for protection of their First Amendment rights, particularly their ability to invite speakers to campus to participate in their protest without notice to the university and to hold events without a permit. In Tennessee's bill, aspects of free speech legislation passed recently in multiple states has been incorporated into Tennessee's Divisive Concepts Law. In a joint submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, PEN America and PEN International write educational gag orders, such as Tennessee's Divisive Concepts Law, erode free speech and mirror global trends among writers at risk.

CNN reports "Journalists tasked with covering violent unrest on college campuses across the US have been arrested and barred access as police moved in to crack down on pro-Palestinian protesters who have set up encampments and barricaded themselves inside buildings." According to Constitutional Law Professor Daniel Pi at the University of New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce School of Law, the "Constitution specifically protects the right to a free press in the First Amendment, and so the government's interference with that needs to be justified by some compelling purpose and narrowly tailored to achieving that purpose."

Professor Pi continued as regards private universities: "Students at Dartmouth or any private school wouldn't have a First Amendment protection, because a private university can restrict whatever speech they want. The First Amendment only applies to state actors."

Campus protests around the world

According to Swing States for Peace as of May 1, 2024, there were 18 countries with school encampments around the world.

PBI-Canada visited the encampment at the University of Ottawa on May 1st where according to the Ottawa Citizen university students are "demanding the University of Ottawa divest from Scotiabank, which has attracted media attention because of its investment in an Israeli arms firm known as Elbit Systems Ltd.”

World Beyond War Canada has noted that the University of Ottawa encampment is one of six currently happening in Canada (the others are at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, McGill University in Montreal, the University of Victoria, Western University in London, and Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo).

Divestment from weapons companies

The Guardian has highlighted that at Columbia “students are demanding the university drop its direct investments in companies doing business in or with Israel, including Amazon and Google, which are part of a $1.2bn cloud-computing contract with Israel’s government; Microsoft, whose services are used by Israel’s ministry of defense and Israeli civil administration; and defense contractors profiting from the war such as Lockheed Martin, which on Tuesday (April 30, 2024) reported its earnings were up 14%.”

That article adds: “Yale University’s Endowment Justice Coalition and student groups at Cornell University, are [also] pushing administrators to drop investments in weapons manufacturers specifically.”

The United Nations comments

On April 30, Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, commented: “We are troubled by a series of heavy-handed steps taken to disperse and dismantle protests across university campuses in the United States of America. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society, particularly when there is a sharp disagreement on major issues, as there are in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.”

Peace Brigades International supports the demand for an immediate ceasefire and continues to call “on the international community to suspend the supply of arms to Israel and the armed groups involved in the conflict.”

We continue to follow this. Thanks to PBI-Canada for the contributing information.