Student protesters call for removal of VCU president Michael Rao: 'Shame on this institution!'

Posted at 5:08 PM, May 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 20:01:37-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some students involved in Monday's pro-Palestine protest at VCU in Richmond shared their voices again Thursday, this time about the way they were treated by their school.

They also shared a new list of demands that included the removal of VCU president Michael Rao.

"I raised my voice on Monday and was physically silenced and blinded by this university. Shame on this institution!" a VCU student named Zahra said at the Thursday press conference.

Zahra was one of several students who spoke and shared the voices of others who participated in Monday's protest.

Watch the full press conference video

Pro-Palestinian protesters share experiences after police broke up encampment at VCU

Several hours into Monday's all-day pro-Palenstine protest on campus, VCU sent text alerts to the university community Monday night to warn of a violent protest on campus and urged students to stay indoors.

Speakers Thursday described it as a peaceful protest against the war in Gaza and the university's ties with Israel. They said it was the arrival of police -- including VCU, Richmond, and Virginia State Police, that escalated tensions. They said the use of force to break up the protest was unwarranted.

"We condemn VCU and its decision to call and allow such violence on its own students," Zahra said.

Protesters had gathered on the lawn outside the library all day. Early in the evening, an encampment was established.

In a statement Tuesday, the school and President Michael Rao said while they support free speech the encampment violated school policies.

It added officers gave four mass warnings to people who didn't leave the encampment. Some of those who did not leave threw water bottles and chemical agents at officers, the university said.

VCU said its officers deployed pepper spray to disperse the crowd and arrested 13 people, including six students.

What happened at VCU? Protesters, school leaders, and students explain.

Student speakers said school staff did not attempt to speak with them once police were on-scene nor warn them that force would be used against them.

"Administrative policy is being utilized as a weapon and a tool to enact force, not just against free speech, but upon the bodies of the people that walk this campus," a student
protester named Selma said.

The speakers then reiterated their calls associated with the protest including the school to disclose and divest investments that support Israel and a call for a ceasefire.

They've since added demands to drop charges against the 13 people who were arrested and the removal of Rao from office.

The students said they remained focused on the reason behind the protest and will recover and reorganize.

"Take all that energy, put it into change, and implement," protest organizer Sereena Haddad said. "We're all here standing together, and we will not rest until all of it is done."

CBS 6 reached out to the university for comment on the students' demands and a spokesperson for VCU mostly referred back to their statement issued on Tuesday (which can be read in this article).

They did confirm that following the protests, the university made changes to its policies surrounding public gatherings — including lowering the number of people required to be together for a gathering to be declared a Major Event from 150 to 50. A Major Event designation carries more requirements such as advanced notice and approval from the university.

"VCU is committed to upholding and protecting free speech -- we support avenues for peaceful expression, and there have been peaceful rallies for months. VCU policy does not allow encampments and individuals were told that repeatedly throughout the day on Monday," the spokesperson said. "The change was made with safety in mind."

The Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office said it would review every case and handle it based on the law and evidence.

Twelve of the 13 people arrested Monday have arraignment hearings on Friday.

CLICK HERE TO share your voice on the matter with the CBS 6 Newsroom.

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