Campus Gaza protests: Here’s what’s happening in Philly, N.J. and Delaware

Here’s the local view of the national outpouring of college students speaking out against America’s involvement in the Israel-Hamas war.

Penn Student Encampment with signs

Penn Students makeship camp site, protesting and demanding that the university of Pennsylvania divest all of its investments in the “Israeli apartheid state” (Carmen Russell Sluchansky/ WHYY News)

Campus Gaza protests: What to know

More than 2,000 protesters have been arrested on college campuses nationwide for setting up encampments and rallying against the U.S.’s stance on the war in Gaza.

Last week, large gatherings and new encampments sprouted across the Philadelphia area, New Jersey and Delaware.

Here’s what’s going on at campuses around the region:

University of Pennsylvania

Students at Philadelphia’s Ivy League school started a Gaza Solidarity Encampment at the College Greens following a multi-university march across the city, which included students from Temple and Drexel.

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On Tuesday, a Penn spokesperson confirmed the University is checking the IDs of people at the encampment and several student disciplinary cases had been opened.

“We have clearly communicated to the protestors in the encampment that they are in violation of the University’s policies,” a spokesperson said. “Any faculty and staff violations will follow the relevant disciplinary processes. These actions, while unfortunate, are necessary.”

The university’s interim president, J. Larry Jameson, ordered students to disband the encampment after a campus statue was vandalized. Signs were posted around the encampment, saying it violates city code, which prohibits tents from being erected without a permit, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to make a blanket statement about whether he would prosecute any encampment protesters who might be arrested.

“When people commit crimes and there’s probable cause and the arrest is lawful, we prosecute crimes,” he said. “But I’m not going to opine … in an advisory way about what may happen.”

Krasner said his office takes free speech rights seriously, as well as “the importance of academic institutions being able to function and educate.”

“But we have all heard of a very long history in this country of local government claiming that everything that was done in the name of free speech was a crime, and we have certainly seen the benefits that have come from nonviolent, peaceful efforts to achieve social change,” Krasner said.

The student activists have said that they will stay put until their demands for the university to cut financial ties with Israel are met. The university already shut down the local chapter of Students Against the Occupation.

A university spokesperson said that, “after many efforts to engage the protesters, the Interim President and Provost met with several student and faculty protestors Saturday night to hear their concerns. They reiterated to the protestors the importance of complying with Penn’s policies, which are designed to support open expression, while ensuring the safety of all on our campus.”

On Thursday, Penn asked the Philadelphia Police Department for immediate help to disband the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported. The PPD declined.

Penn has not fared well during the recent tension at universities related to the war in Gaza. Their last president, Liz Magill, resigned after a poorly received Congressional appearance.

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College students have also set up an encampment occupying Parrish Lawn with a few dozen tents. Like at Penn, students there are also demanding that the university divest from Israel.

Unlike Penn, however, college officials have said they respect the students’ right to assemble. “In keeping with the College’s long standing values around peaceful protest and free expression, we have not interfered with the encampment,” Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch said in a statement to the student paper. In January, University President Val Smith emailed the community that “Peaceful protest and dissent are an important part of the College’s history.”

But the group Swarthmore Students for Justice in Palestine claimed in an Instagram post on Monday morning that college personnel dismantled part of the encampment. The video shows a wooden frame structure emblazoned with a Palestinian flag being loaded onto a flatbed truck.

College spokesperson Cara Anderson said the structure was originally built for a class project at an approved location and later moved to the encampment. She said college officials repeatedly asked students to disassemble the structure over safety concerns, before college staff did so Monday.

“It should be noted that we have not made any attempt to disband the encampment or infringe on students’ ability to protest peacefully,” Anderson said. “Our primary concern is the health and safety of the entire community — including the protestors — and we must act in that interest when necessary.”

Princeton University

Students at Princeton started to set up an encampment despite warnings from the school’s Department of Safety. Students, faculty and staff have been calling on the university to divest its investments from firms profiting from the Israel-Hamas war. Two graduate students — Achinthya Sivalingam and Hassan Sayed — were arrested. They face disciplinary action and barred from campus last week. Hundreds of Princeton students had joined the nationwide walkouts in October.

On Monday night, 13 people were arrested while participating in a protest. The protesters had occupied Clio Hall, which the university president called “unacceptable” and a serious breach of the university’s code of conduct. Those arrested were issued summonses for trespassing and barred from campus. Those who are Princeton students also face university discipline, which could include suspension or expulsion.

An encampment set up at Princeton University
An encampment set up at Princeton University. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Rutgers University

On Thursday, protest organizers agreed to voluntarily disband their encampment ahead of a deadline imposed by Rutgers, saying that some of their demands of the university had been met, reported.

The student body had previously voted that Rutgers should divest from companies involved in the Israel-Hamas war.

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Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway is opposed to the move, but the divestment request from the student Endowment Justice Collective is under review.

University of Delaware

Students have participated in a number of protests, including a walkout, “die-in” and a march to the Biden School for Public Policy that attracted 300 students. Recently, the Delaware House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

Haverford College

Students at Haverford College in Delaware County set up a “Liberation Encampment.” They put up banners reading “Liberated Zone” and “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” The encampment was designed to coincide with the schools board of managers meeting.

John McKnight, dean of Haverford College, told Haverford student journalists that the encampment “falls within policy in terms of freedom of expression, as long as it’s not presenting any safety risk to anyone, like blocking entrances or exits or denying access to where people need to move about.”

Bryn Mawr College

An encampment has also emerged at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college near Haverford. On Saturday, students gathered outside the planned annual noard of trustees pre-meeting breakfast.

When students were told that the Board of Trustees meeting was moved online, students changed the words to a traditional college chant and shouted, “Anassa Kata, Kalo Kale, how many kids did you kill today?” the student-run paper reported. They then set up an encampment in solidarity with Palestine.

Temple University and Drexel University

Students at Temple University and Drexel University were among the hundreds that participated in the protest and march last Thursday. However, neither university has experienced an encampment or consistent long-term protest activity.

Students at Villanova University rally in solidarity with Palestinians on the school’s campus
Students at Villanova University rally in solidarity with Palestinians on the school’s campus on April 30, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Villanova University

A group of protestors gathered at Villanova University on Tuesday, organized by the group, Villanova Students for Justice in Palestine. They demanded the university follow their values of Truth, Unity and Love, and call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

“It is an absolute travesty that an institution that claims to exemplify Catholic social teachings like Villanova has chosen to remain this silent regarding this issue,” student organizer Akintade Asalu said to applause and cheers from the crowd. 

Asalu also pointed out Villanova issued a statement in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and Russia when the war started two years ago, and there has not been a statement about the conflict in Gaza.

In response, a university spokesperson said the school sent a message last October, praying for those impacted by the horrific acts of violence in Israel and Gaza, and that the university’s Christmas message this year also offered prayers of peace for all humanity.

The protestors heard speeches from organizers and supportive faculty members, and called the offices of local politicians, like U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and Mary Gay Scanlon, as well as their representatives in their home states, and ended by planting Palestinian flags on the lawn in front of an iconic campus sculpture called “the Oreo,”

The organizers made it clear from the start that this would be a peaceful protest, and a few staff members from Villanova’s Department of Public Safety stood by to observe. A spokesperson for the university said the administration spoke with student leaders of the group last week about the responsibilities of students to demonstrate peacefully.

The student organizers said they will continue their activism over the summer.

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