With tragedy averted, distrust lingers after second Gaza encampment disbands | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

With tragedy averted, distrust lingers after second Gaza encampment disbands

click to enlarge With tragedy averted, distrust lingers after second Gaza encampment disbands
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A protester raises their hands during a standoff with police on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning on June 3, 2024
This week’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment was a different affair than the first occupation near finals week. Instead of scenes of peaceful seminars and talks by local officials, the second such encampment quickly turned into a tense standoff between University of Pittsburgh police and organizers, who faced what they described as a “siege” in a press conference held on Flagstaff Hill.

According to protesters, the proximal cause for the end of the encampment was Pitt Chancellor Joan Gabel’s “profoundly disappointing” decision to call Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro and request support from state law enforcement.

“Joan Gabel wanted to send in state police. She wanted to brutalize us,” an anonymous organizer told assembled media at a press conference held Wednesday. “She wanted to arrest her own students on their own campus.” The protesters said they learned of the call to Pa. troopers during mediation with city and county officials that eventually led to the encampment’s peaceful disbandment.

(By way of full disclosure, I was raised mostly in Kent, Ohio — site of the Kent State shootings where four students were killed by the National Guard during an anti-Vietnam War protest — and have worked as an English instructor at Pitt for the past three semesters. In my mind, it is difficult to separate the presence of state police at an antiwar protest from the potential for deadly violence and personal concern for my students’ welfare.)

At the presser, protesters reiterated their demands for disclosure of Pitt’s investments in Israel, divestment from those investments, and a meeting with Gabel. They described disappointment and frustration with her lack of transparency and described the university’s statements characterizing the encampment as “absurd and defamatory.”

“The reality is that Chancellor Gabel would rather initiate violence than initiate dialogue,” KateLynn Herrera, a junior involved with protests against the ongoing violence in Gaza, told media.

click to enlarge With tragedy averted, distrust lingers after second Gaza encampment disbands
CP Photo: Colin Williams
Student KateLynn Herrera addresses media in the aftermath of the second Gaza encampment
Gabel’s office responded to detailed questions from Pittsburgh City Paper with a brief statement that did not specify the timeline of Pitt's contact with Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). “University officials and our public safety team worked closely and collaboratively with a number of local, regional and state law enforcement and government entities at the onset and throughout the entire demonstration to ensure the University of Pittsburgh and the surrounding community had every level of support necessary to maintain the safety of our community and to bring the demonstration to a conclusion,” senior director of external communications Jared Stonesifer wrote in an email.

However, Gabel had previously alleged antisemitic graffiti and intent to commit arson in a statement sent to the Pitt community. Protestors strongly disputed those assertions.

“We invite the Chancellor to provide any evidence of the claim she has made, but she has yet to do so,” Herrera said. “This is the truth: We established a liberated zone at the Cathedral [of Learning].” Herrera said any alleged activity at the Frick Fine Arts Center had nothing to do with the Cathedral encampment.

While disputing any accusations of vandalism, organizers said they had suffered greatly. Their alleged experiences included the destruction of food and water, blocking of aid from those kept cordoned outside the encampment, and accounts of physical violence.

Valley View Presbyterian Church pastor Chad Collins read several anonymous accounts that described protesters being beaten with batons, thrown down stairs, kicked, and stripped of supplies. One anonymous community member said they were arrested for attempting to bring protesters tampons. Still, per Collins’ description, demonstrators met with violence said their experiences paled in comparison with the ongoing invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces.

Choking up, Collins read along as a protester described cradling their bleeding head inside an encampment tent. “I thought about the children in Rafah, who had been sleeping in tents for months while they try to ignore the sounds of bombs and planes and drones that could kill them at any moment,” the protester wrote. “Everything we do is to save them.”

The protesters claimed Shapiro had supported Gabel’s efforts to forcibly break up the encampment. While the protesters said they had not been in contact with Shapiro or state-level leaders, one anonymous organizer told media they were “not interested in talking to anyone who wants to brutalize students.”

Shapiro’s spokesperson Manuel Bonder said the governor’s office had been in touch with local leaders as the situation on campus grew tense.

“Here in Pennsylvania, we stand against hate — and the Shapiro Administration will not tolerate the proliferation of antisemitism or hate in any form,” Bonder told City Paper. “It is unfortunate that this encampment devolved into documented violence, vandalism, and antisemitic rhetoric — but we believe its quick ending was the appropriate outcome.”

Bonder described the claim that Gabel bypassed local leadership as “false and inflammatory.”

“The Pennsylvania State Police was in close contact with city, university, and county law enforcement monitoring the situation and standing ready to assist if requested by local authorities — as is standard practice,” he said.

PSP described the situation similarly without denying that Gabel had reached out directly. “PSP responds to requests from law enforcement partners when asked,” director of PSP's communications office Adam Reed told CP via email. “PSP had no plans to bypass municipal law enforcement, but stood ready to assist if needed, as requested by the University and the City of Pittsburgh. PSP remains in contact with our local partners to ensure Pennsylvanians’ safety.”

click to enlarge With tragedy averted, distrust lingers after second Gaza encampment disbands
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Police and protesters clash on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning on June 3, 2024
City and county officials didn’t directly comment on their reaction to calls for state police.

“Per our previous statements, our focus was about one thing — finding a way to get everyone home safe that night,” city communications director Maria Montaño told CP while providing links to Mayor Ed Gainey's previous statement on the encampment. “As we received information about escalations and things becoming unstable, the Mayor made the decision to find a way to deescalate the situation in order to avoid anyone getting hurt. We shared information with those involved in order for them to be able to make an informed decision for themselves. The protestors made their decision, and our officers facilitated a peaceful dispersal.”

The county referred CP to a joint statement made with Gainey after the end of the encampment. “Last night, we were able to keep the peace in Oakland, which is my primary responsibility as our county executive,” Sara Innamorato said.

Of their interactions with local leadership, encampment organizers said, “we were able to negotiate a deal with the mayor to provide safe passage for the students who would absolutely have been brutalized at the hands of state police.”

Asked what was next for the groups who organized the protest, an anonymous protester was succinct: “In a word, I think what's next depends on the willingness of the university to reevaluate and reconstitute its bedfellows.”

All protesters involved were keen to stress that their focus remained squarely on the ongoing violence in Palestine.

“This does not begin and end with universities,” student Ilyas Khan told media as the press conference concluded. “This begins and ends in Palestine with freedom and liberation for all. That is all we are standing for. And that is what we have, time and again, joined hands with the community in describing.”

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