Penn students remain steadfast despite orders to end encampment: ‘We will stay until our demands are met’

Penn professors have pushed back against the interim president’s order to end the protest, saying they are "deeply disturbed."

Penn Student Encampment 2

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

For the third day, a group of University of Pennsylvania student protesters continued to live in a makeshift camp site, amplifying their demands that the university provide endowment transparency, divest all of its investments in the “Israeli apartheid state” and defend pro-Palestinian protesters and scholars.

“We understand that the Penn endowment is directly invested in Israel and directly contributing to the murder and genocide of Palestinians in Gaza,” Sophia Rosser, a junior at the university, told WHYY News.

University officials could not be reached for comment.

Interim President J. Larry Jameson announced Friday night that students must disband immediately, dubbing the encampment a violation of university rules. Jameson called the vandalization of a statue outside of College Hall with anti-Semitic graffiti  “reprehensible” and said they are investigating it as a hate crime.

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“Unfortunately, blatant violations of University policies and credible reports of harassing and intimidating conduct compel us to protect the safety and security of our campus community,” Jameson wrote.

The university order comes as hundreds of students and professors involved in on-campus protests around the country — including at Columbia University in New York, Northeastern and Emerson Universities in Boston and at Ohio State — are being arrested,

The student protesters at Penn, however, appear undaunted.

“We plan on staying here until our demands are met,” Rosser said.

At the campus’s encampment site, in a small section of Blanche Levy Park not far from a statue of American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, dozens of tents remain clumped together. The area is ringed by signs saying “End the Occupation” and “Penn is complicit in the murder of 33,000 Palestinians.” Students have also erected a makeshift “Refaat Alareer Memorial Library” adorned with photos of Alareer, a Palestinian writer, poet, professor and activist from the Gaza Strip who was killed in an Israeli air strike in December. Alareer’s daughter was killed Friday in similar fashion, along with her husband and 2-month-old son.

On Saturday morning, students were seen milling around the Penn encampment site enjoying boxes of cereal, breakfast bars, Rice Krispies Treats and jugs of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee dropped off by members of the community.

According to Jameson, school officials from “Open Expression, University Life and faculty leadership have engaged with some of the student protesters, with limited access to the broader group.”

Students who talked to WHYY News said that’s not true.

“No member of the administration has come up to student organizers and has tried to talk to us,” explained Sarah, who declined to give her last name and who has been staying overnight in the encampment. “The open expression guidelines state that we have a right to peacefully protest and this email went against that and came as a surprise considering that they hadn’t tried to talk to us first.”

Another student, Eliana Atienza, argued that the person who vandalized the statue was not affiliated with the group.

“He came in, painted the statue, dropped his spray can by the encampment, and then left,” she said. “We have multiple eyewitnesses and it is a shame that President Jameson is conflating a wonderful camp of solidarity and hope with that one act of a person not affiliated.”

Atienza said that the university is using the vandalism incident as an excuse to disrupt the protest. She says that she has been involved in other actions — such as for climate justice — and there has never been an issue.

“My experience as an activist at this campus informs my opinion that there is a clear double standard to what kind of speech and protest is acceptable and not by the university,” she said. “What is not is speech about Gaza, talking about the genocide and actively advocating for speaking about Gaza.”

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The university’s Open Express policy states “The University of Pennsylvania, as a community of scholars, affirms, supports and cherishes the concepts of freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly.”

The elite university has had encampments in the past, as recently as 2022. In the fall of that year, students with Fossil Free Penn camped out demanding the school drop any investments in fossil fuels. Other demands included helping fund affordable housing nearby and supporting the School District of Philadelphia. Students told WHYY then that they felt intimidated by the administration but the encampment continued for 39 days.

On Saturday, Penn faculty pushed back against the interim president’s email. In their response, the Penn Chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote that they were “deeply disturbed” by Jameson’s decision.

“Your statement mischaracterizes the overall nature of an antiwar protest that necessarily involves strong emotions on both sides but has not, to our knowledge, involved any actual violence or threats of violence to individuals on our campus,” the letter reads. “To the contrary, those involved in the demonstration have worked to maintain a nonviolent space of discussion, debate, and even disagreement, in the spirit of an educational environment.”

The professors argued that the protest is in line with Penn’s Open Expression Guidelines, which obviate the requirement for a permit. Like the students, they called the vandalism accusation “unsubstantiated.”

On Oct. 7, 2023, the political and military movement known as Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking around 240 hostages. The incident reignited a decades-long war and prompted the latest Israeli siege on Gaza that has now claimed 35,000 Palestinian lives, including those of civilians, aid workers and journalists.

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