Students chalk up the Compass to support Palestine

VCU students write pro-Palestine messages in chalk on the steps of the library. Photo by Victor Romanko.

Jack Glagola, News Editor

Hisham Vohra, Contributing Writer

“Free Palestine!” “All Eyes on Rafah” and “Boycott Starbucks” read chalk messages written on the Compass twice a week by VCU students. 

Passing students heading to and from classes stop by the library stairs to scrawl a supportive message on the concrete, drawing pictures of the Starbucks logo with an “X” over it and Palestinian flags. Those with backgrounds in other countries also draw their respective flags to show international support.

VCU Facilities Management removes authorized chalk daily, according to an email statement from Brian McNeill, the director of public relations for the Monroe Park Campus. 

VCU’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national organization, organizes the “chalking” every Monday and Wednesday afternoon. They began writing chalk messages in late October, shortly after the Israel-Hamas war began, according to Kenza Zitouni, a first-year sociology student and co-founder of the SJP VCU chapter.

“It all started out of an initiative to get people engaged in other ways besides chanting at our walkouts,” Zitouni said. “We just want to add a fun, creative outlet for people to have to express themselves.”

Zitouni said the administration has given the organization some backlash and it’s been a “learning curve” figuring out what is and what isn’t allowed. They said the university administration held a hearing with the organization’s staff to clear the air.

“We try to make it clear in our signage — no brick, no walls and nothing under the overhang because that’s what our violation was for,” Zitouni said.

Zitouni disapproves of VCU washing off the chalk because it is an extension of students’ voices but said they keep an “open mindset” about it since for SJP chapters across the country, academic overstepping is “nothing new.”

“We just reframe it as an opportunity to have a blank canvas every Monday and Wednesday,” Zitouni said.

Zitouni described an incident where people wrote pro-Israel messages using SJP’s chalk. VCU washed both sets of messages off the next morning.

“We’re glad that they’re keeping it fair. Everybody’s getting power-washed respectively,” Zitouni said.

Citing the Reservation and Use of Space policy for VCU, director of public relations Brian McNeill stated “chalk may be used on exterior sidewalks or walkways, made of concrete or asphalt, which are exposed to the elements (not below roofs or other overhangs).”

Only non-permanent sidewalk chalk is permitted, and it may not be used on “brick, slate, other stone surfaces, buildings or other structures of any kind,” according to the policy.

Some groups feel this policy infringes on their right to free speech. RVA Healthcare Workers for Palestine, a group formed by medical students at VCU, has questioned VCU’s top rating for free speech from the nonprofit organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. On RVAHCW’s Instagram, they have voiced concerns about the removal of chalk and the removal of Palestine vigil postings on the medical campus.

Tatyana Thompson, a second-year anthropology student, said she often participates in SJP events such as the Sunday marches and weekly chalk drawing in the Compass.

“I think it’s a good way to spread a message to the campus,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she’s been involved with SJP since its founding last October and hopes people continue to show up to their events.

“I don’t want to say the passion has slowed for this, but I think that since it’s still ongoing that everyone is kind of feeling helpless in a way,” Thompson said. “I think people need to keep showing up because it’s not like the Palestinians in Gaza have a break from this at all.”

Austin Martir, a second-year education student who is also Jewish, said he also goes to every SJP event he can “unless it happens to fall during Sabbath.” He writes his messages in Yiddish and he believes as a Jew it is important to “get the word out” to represent Judaism.

“This occupation of Palestine has nothing to do with Judaism,” Martir said. “Judaism tells us we cannot steal and we cannot kill. Zionism says ‘you’re perfectly allowed to kill and steal as long as you’re doing it to Palestinians.’”

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