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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Over 24 hours, 19 protesters at Penn taken into custody after attempting to seize building

    Within a frenzied 24-hour period, 19 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested Friday after attempting to occupy a building on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and hundreds of others on Saturday set up a protest encampment in the heart of nearby Drexel University.

    The attempted takeover of the Penn building and the new Drexel encampment are the latest in an escalating series of campus demonstrations against the war in Gaza, roiling colleges throughout the region.

    Six of the 19 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested Friday night were Penn students, the school said Saturday. Twelve were issued citations, for failure to disperse and failure to follow police commands, then later released. Seven remained in custody awaiting felony charges as of Saturday, including one for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

    The brief encampment inside Fisher-Bennett Hall came a week after Philadelphia and campus police disbanded another that lasted about two weeks and led to 33 arrests.

    The encampment at Drexel capped a march from Center City to University City to commemorate the mass expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 “Nakba.” A group of protesters began setting up tents on Drexel’s Academic Quadrangle, near 33rd and Market Streets. About 6:45 p.m., hundreds of protesters descended on the college green and locked arms in a circle while demonstrators erected more than a dozen tents. Lawn chairs and tables were also arranged to create a barrier around the crowd.

    As has been the cry at encampment protests from the neighboring Penn campus, the crowd directed chants toward Drexel leaders to “disclose and divest” from any military-related spending.

    Earlier Saturday, Penn officials painted a picture of plans by Friday night’s protesters for an apparent prolonged takeover.

    Once Fisher-Bennett Hall was cleared, the university said, Penn police found lock-picking tools and homemade metal shields fashioned from oil drums. Exit doors had been secured with zip ties and barbed wire, and barricaded with metal chairs and desks. Windows were covered with newspaper and cardboard, and bicycle racks and metal chairs were found blocking outside entrances, the school said.

    “Penn remains focused on maintaining the safety and security of our campus,” the university said in a statement on Saturday.

    The new, short-lived encampment came as Penn marks alumni weekend, and with the main university graduation ceremony scheduled for Monday at Franklin Field.

    At about 8 p.m. Friday, members of the Penn Gaza Solidarity Encampment announced the new installation. Police acted within the hour, and by 9:20 p.m. there were reports that people were in custody. At that point other groups began spilling into nearby streets.

    Encampment organizers said they had renamed Fisher-Bennett Hall the Refaat Alareer Hall in memory of the Palestinian poet and professor who was killed in an airstrike in Northern Gaza in December.

    Pro-Palestinian faculty and students held protests on campus and erected an encampment on the College Green in late April. Since the launch of that encampment, organizers have demanded that school administrators disclose the university’s investments (Penn, a private university, does not disclose its investments), divest from Israel, and defend pro-Palestinian protesters and scholars.

    Protesters and counter-protesters clashed over the next two weeks, while Penn faced criticism from all sides. Some blamed the school for not dismantling the encampment while others chastised the university for not supporting student demonstrators and their right to free speech.

    University police, backed by city police, ultimately moved early on the morning of May 10 and dismantled the encampment, arresting 33 people, nine of them students. School administrators cited “threatening, loud, and discriminatory speech and behavior,” an expansion of the encampment, and vandalism as reasons. Gov. Josh Shapiro had called for the dismantling of the encampment.

    Organizers of the new Penn encampment Friday said it was a direct response to how the Penn administration reacted to their past negotiation attempts and the College Green encampment.

    “They refused to negotiate in good faith, lording threats of arrest and discipline over students and training the Penn police in ‘civil disorder’ tactics while still actively meeting with the negotiations team,” a statement from Penn Gaza Solidarity said.

    Philadelphia police referred questions about the Friday night demonstration to Penn.

    Elsewhere, commencement exercises at Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges, which had pro-Palestinian encampments earlier this semester, were held Saturday without incident.

    At Haverford, there were a few handmade banners and shouts that lasted briefly, a spokesperson said, but commencement was not interrupted. Haverford’s encampment lasted a short time and came down voluntarily last month when students decided to join the encampment at Bryn Mawr College.

    At Bryn Mawr, the 25-tent encampment that was on Merion Green also came down voluntarily in recent days. ”But the People’s College for the Liberation of Palestine lives on,” the group wrote on Instagram on Thursday. “We will continue to work with and pressure administration in the coming semesters to meet our goals and do our part toward a free Palestine.”

    The college on Monday announced it was relocating commencement from its traditional Merion Green location to Applebee Field next to Cambrian Row on the western end of campus because of the encampment.

    The situation at Penn and other campuses loomed heavily over a protest Saturday in Center City.

    Amid steady rain, hundreds marched to University City to commemorate the 1948 “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes during the war that followed Israel’s founding.

    Leading the crowd in a chant that reiterated demands to university leaders — “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” — activist Gabriel Bryant said the shutdown of the encampments only added fuel to the pro-Palestinian movement.

    ”All it did was bring everybody stronger into the movement,” he said through a megaphone outside City Hall. “All they did was bring us together into a lifelong encampment toward liberation.”

    Hani White, 45, and her family are protest regulars from South Philly. When she considers the situation unraveling on campus, she looks at her two teenage boys by her side at the rally, wearing keffiyehs and holding a homemade sign with a Palestinian flag. White supports the divestment and disclosure campaign because she wants to send her boys to a school that is transparent about how it spends her tuition dollars.

    ”My kids are going to go to college one day,” said White, who is originally from Indonesia. “I don’t want to pay tuition to a company that is going to promote war.”

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