Protesters, school leaders, and VCU students share what they saw when police ended pro-Palestinian protest

Posted at 6:48 PM, Apr 30, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-30 18:51:00-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Thirteen people were arrested in connection to Monday night’s pro-Palestine protest and encampment outside the main library on VCU's campus in Richmond.

VCU Police, Richmond Police, and Virginia State Police broke up the protest after the group refused to disperse.

The university and protest organizers gave conflicting accounts of the chaotic evening and how events unraveled throughout the day and into the night.

What VCU Students Saw

"It was just so like crazy. I felt like everybody was like bees kind of like going in every crazy way," VCU sophomore Charlize Bjanes said about the moments, around 8:45 p.m., when police moved in to break up the protest.

Earlier on Monday, a crowd started to gather outside the library to, among other things, protest the war in Gaza, call for a ceasefire, and for the university to disclose and divest investments, if any, tied to Israel.

Reporters with The Commonwealth Times, the VCU school newspaper, were on site throughout the day and into the night.

They said as the structures were being built inside what protesters called the "Liberated Zone for Gaza," school administration told students those tents and structures were in violation of policy and those protesters were now trespassing on campus.

WATCH structures being set-up at a protest on the VCU campus

Campsites set-up on campus at VCU Gaza rally

"[The early part of the protest] ended about 5:30 p.m. and immediately after that speech happened, is when they all sort of started to shift that way," Andrew Kerley, a student journalist with The Commonwealth Times, said.

They added some students were told around 7:30 p.m. police would be coming.

Officers arrived around 8:30 p.m., and advanced on protesters around 8:45 p.m.

"They started like moving into this area. All of the students were gathered here together with the barricades. And then it just escalated from there when they moved on the students," Sarah Hagen, with The Commonwealth Times, said.

Here's What VCU Says

VCU said encampments are prohibited under school policies and gave “four mass warnings” to people who did not leave, according to a statement from the university.

They added Richmond Police then declared an unlawful assembly.

That's when they said those who didn’t leave the encampment “threw objects and used chemical spray on officers.”

They added officers used pepper spray on the crowd but did not use other chemical agents like tear gas.

Of the 13 people arrested Monday night, six were VCU students, according to the university.

Protest Leader Sereen Haddad Adds Her Perspective

Protest organizer Sereen Haddad, who said she was injured by police, said the gathering was peaceful throughout the day.

She said the arrival of police escalated tensions.

"There's no excuse for what happened," Haddad said. "Students were getting hit, students were getting arrested. People were getting hit with shields, getting thrown on the ground. Arms twisted."

Haddad said while protesters were told they were in violation of VCU policy, she said no warnings were given to disperse or that police would engage with protesters.

She said while they expected something like that could happen, because of what’s happened on other college campuses, the response from police was unwarranted — even if bottles were thrown at officers.

VCU President Michael Rao: 'A Challenging Time for Universities'

In a statement following the protest and the police action, VCU President Michael Rao said the university supported free speech but also needed to balance school safety.

"VCU upholds and protects free speech. On Monday, individuals set up encampment structures that impacted campus operations, safety and violated our Reservation and Use of Space policy University staff and police respectfully and repeatedly asked individuals to comply with policies throughout the day. After the tents and structures went up, officers provided four mass warnings to individuals who chose not to leave the encampment," the statement read, in part. "VCU will enforce its directive that prohibits encampments, including the installation of structures and stockpiling items that could be used to build a structure or aid an encampment. This will be done to comply with our policies and to support allowing students, faculty and staff to complete the semester successfully. This is a challenging time for universities across the country, and VCU has resources available to help our community."

Haddad said she and others involved felt the opposite.

"If they are going to condone [police action], and not give a place where there are students involved, regardless of any sort of policy was violated, they cannot claim they claim they care about the safety of their students at all," she said.

Jewish Community Watches Protests

Some members of Richmond’s Jewish community watching protests take place at home and around the country have left some Jewish students feeling unsafe.

"When you’re actively saying things like from the river to the sea or globalize the intifada, those are direct anti-Semitic threats against Jewish students and we are seeing that over and over on college campuses and it has to stop," Daniel Staffenberg, with the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said.

Haddad said her group had no concrete plans of future protests.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.



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