‘Who do you serve?’: Police raze pro-Palestine encampment at VCU, students outraged 

A VCU Police officer shoots pepper spray at student and protest organizer Sereen Haddad outside Cabell Library on Monday, April 29. Riot police clashed with students holding a pro-Palestine encampment. Photo by Andrew Kerley.

Andrew Kerley, Audience Editor

Sarah Hagen, Contributing Writer

Jack Glagola, News Editor

Thailon Wilson, Sports Editor

Pro-Palestine VCU students protested what they called the ongoing genocide in Gaza on Monday, April 29, by building an encampment on campus. The protest began with song and dance and ended with pepper spray, smoke bombs and 13 arrests by police.

The incident comes amid a wave of pro-Palestinian protests and consequential arrests on college campuses across the country. In Virginia, at least 94 protesters in total have been arrested at Virginia Tech and the University of Mary Washington over the last week. Students started peaceful protests at the University of Virginia and Christopher Newport University on Tuesday, April 30, and at James Madison University on Wednesday, May 1, according to reports by multiple Virginia newspapers.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said on Sunday, April 28, the state would permit peaceful protests, but not encampments, according to a previous report by the Virginia Mercury.

Timeline of the April 29 events

The protest began at approximately 8 a.m. when organizers claimed the green space next to James Branch Cabell Library as their “liberated zone for Gaza,” laying out blankets and holding chants.

The “liberated zone,” organized by multiple student groups, was complete with stations for food, toiletries, medicine and even piles of pro-Palestine and abolitionist pamphlet literature stacked up on a wall — much of it donated by people passing by. Students sprawled out on the grass to make art, play their instruments and do their homework.

The food station inside protesters’ ‘liberated zone.’ Photo by Andrew Kerley.

That afternoon, associate vice president of VCU public relations Michael Porter stated in an email to The Commonwealth Times that VCU was committed to upholding and protecting free speech, health and safety while maintaining campus operations.

Protesters held rallies multiple times throughout the day during which they chanted in support of Palestine. Knowing many students were arrested for similar activities on other campuses, organizers held a bail fund training at 4 p.m. and required students to fill out forms with their emergency contact information.

Over 300 protesters gathered to rally at 5 p.m. when Sereen Haddad, a Palestinian student and frequent protest organizer, declared they would not be leaving until their demands were met by VCU. The demands were:

  1. To disclose all institutional expenditure including, but not limited to direct and indirect investments, endowments, stocks, bonds and hedge funds.
  2. To divest from all companies and partnerships that support or otherwise profit off the colonization and genocide of the Palestinian people. This includes full divestment from financial investments, the complete boycotting of Israeli institutions, the termination of relationships with companies active in this apartheid and the refusal of any donations from institutions that support the occupation.
  3. To defend pro-Palestinian speech and activism on VCU’s campuses, and to support and protect the rights of  Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students as well as comrades who have been targeted, harassed and repressed for expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people.
  4. To declare support for a permanent and immediate ceasefire and an immediate end to the occupation, colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as well as the condemnation of the United States’ complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.
Sereen Haddad announces protesters will not leave the encampment until their demands are met. Photo by Andrew Kerley.

Protesters formed an encampment immediately after Haddad’s speech, setting up tents, linking arms and briefly holding up wooden pallets to form a wall around the green space. VCU’s vice president of student affairs Aaron Hart then informed multiple students that they were now illegally trespassing and in violation of VCU’s Reservation and Use of Space Policy.

The policy states major events are instances other than academic course programs or curriculums approved by the provost, which have an attendance of over 150 people. All major events require advance notice and permission from the university.

Students continued to flood into the encampment through the evening to sing, dance and chant. Rumors that police would arrive began circulating around 7:30 p.m. Officers in riot gear were spotted in the area as early as 6:50 p.m. In response, protesters re-formed the barricade and put on masks to protect their identities and their faces from impending chemical irritants.

Over 50 state, city and campus police officers arrived in riot gear at approximately 8:30 p.m. At approximately 8:40 p.m., police announced to protesters over a bullhorn they violated policy and could be arrested for trespassing — though many students reported they could not hear it.

Police form a riot line on North Cathedral Place. Photo by Jack Glagola.

Riot officers advanced on the crowd at 8:42 p.m., four minutes before a VCU alert calling the situation a “violent protest” was sent out. The Richmond Police Department also declared the gathering to be an “unlawful assembly.”

Students threw water bottles — among other objects — at the approaching police riot line. Officers retaliated by using various chemical irritants including pepper spray, smoke grenades and CS spray — an ingredient of tear gas.  Inside sources say police used CS spray – also similar to tear gas, although VCU Police stated only pepper spray was used.

Officers provided four mass warnings to protestors who did not leave the encampment after tents and structures went up, according to a statement released by VCU the following morning.

Haddad said in an interview the following day that protesters received no warning that things would escalate.

“We were dancing, we were singing,” Haddad said. “The only thing we were told was that the tents were a violation of policy.”

As campus-wide sirens went off, many students reported they could not go in or out of some campus buildings, including Cabell Library, Cary Street Gym and Shafer Court Dining Center.

Police continued to move in on the protester barricade for over an hour, tearing down tents as they went. Students could be heard chanting “Who do you serve?” “Who do you protect?” and “Peaceful protest!” as they pushed back against officers’ riot shields.

Multiple protesters were thrown to the ground by police and detained in zip-tie handcuffs — many of whom reported injuries including black eyes, cuts, bruises and sprained wrists and shoulders. Haddad said one officer pinned her to the ground and pressed his knee against her neck. 13 individuals — six of whom were students — were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, according to a statement VCU released the following morning.

The encampment was completely destroyed by 9:40 p.m., with most protesters being pushed to the sidelines. “If you leave, we will leave,” students shouted at the police riot wall. Hundreds of students watched the scene play out from the compass and through the windows of Cabell Library.

Students watch police and protesters clash from inside Cabell Library. Photo by Jack Glagola.

VCU released a statement at 9:43 p.m. saying the gathering violated several university policies.

“VCU respectfully and repeatedly provided opportunities for those individuals involved — many of whom were not students — to collect their belongings and leave,” the statement reads. “Those who did not leave were subject to arrest for trespassing.”

By 10 p.m., protest organizers urged students to remain calm and hold their line around the green space. Some individuals threw more objects at police, which organizers repeatedly asked them not to do and to protest peacefully.

Haddad urged protesters to leave through a megaphone at 10:13 p.m.

“We have to remember why we came here in the first place,” Haddad said. “It was to build an encampment in solidarity with the Palestinian people. If you would like to continue that, not to cause chaos, but to be a part of a movement, then you need to leave now and we will rebuild in the morning.”

The area was clear by 11:50 p.m., according to a VCU alert.

Protesters did not rebuild the encampment the following day

The Cabell Library green space was completely cleared and cleaned as early as 9 a.m. the following morning. Chalk drawings and messages were also removed.

Some students and protesters returned to the area but did not set up an encampment. Gabe Willis, VCU’s associate vice president and dean of student advocacy, handed out flyers detailing a new directive regarding VCU’s reservation of space policy.

The new directive stated that events with an attendance of more than 50 people, instead of the original 150, will be considered major events, and that wearing a mask for the purpose of concealing one’s identity would not be permitted. If students failed to comply with university official’s requests for identification, they would be subject to disciplinary action or arrest.

Organizers directed students to leave the area because they were nervous about the growing police presence.

When asked if they planned to rebuild the encampment, Haddad said the organizers’ priority was to keep students safe. She said the movement would not stop despite the reaction from police, which she described as unnecessary and violent.

An eye-blackened Sereen Haddad addresses the press the following morning on Tuesday, April 30. Photo by Andrew Kerley.

Haddad — who said over 100 members of her family have been killed since Oct. 7 — added that the situation in Gaza is not getting better. Israel’s war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people — two-thirds of whom were women and children, according to the Associated Press.

“We are outraged,” Haddad said. “We have a lot of passion in our hearts for this movement, and the fight is not going to end.”

Students, faculty, lawmakers and Rao had mixed reactions

President Michael Rao released a statement the following morning stating individuals violated VCU policy by setting up structures on a campus lawn and remarked on the “complexities” the university faces when it comes to free speech.

“I deeply appreciate those who peacefully expressed their views and the efforts of our staff during this time,” Rao stated.

The heads of multiple VCU schools and departments sent emails to students and created an open letter condemning the university for deploying police on peaceful protesters. Some of the faculty on the list include the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics Chair Rebecca Segal, School of World Studies Director Amy Rector, Department of English Chair Les Harrison and Department of African American Studies Chair Shawn Utsey.

VCU Student Government Association, VCU NAACP and other student organizations have released Instagram statements in support of the protestors and condemning the police response.

Gov. Youngkin weighed in on the social platform X and condemned student protesters for refusing to disperse.

“My administration will continue to fully support campus, local and state law enforcement and university leadership to keep our campuses safe,” Youngkin stated.

Attorney General Jason Miyares released a video statement on X condemning pro-Palestine protests on Virginia campuses.

“For those cowards that assaulted our officers, we will use every resource to track you down,” Miyares said. “We will find you, and we will make sure there’s consequences to your actions.”

A growing list of Virginia lawmakers and politicians have spoken out in support of the student protesters, including U.S. House Rep. Jennifer McClellan, who represents Richmond; 1st District city councilman Andreas Addison; state Senators Saddam Salim, D-Fairfax and Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond; and Delegates Rozia Henson Jr., D-Woodbridge, Adele McClure, D-Arlington, Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, Nadarius Clark, D-Suffolk and Rae Cousins, D-Richmond.

“Excessive force towards students who are protesting non-violently is unacceptable,” Cousins stated on X. “The right to assemble peacefully is a hallmark of our democracy, which we must protect.”

5th District City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch reposted Cousins’ statement on X.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called protesters “anti-Semitic” in a post on X.

“Barricades and assaults on police are not merely innocent, non-violent protests,” Gilbert stated.

One second-year student, who preferred to remain anonymous, was pepper sprayed in their eyes. They said they feel betrayed by the university, which says its goal is to keep students safe.

“I love this campus, I love Richmond,” the anonymous student said. “Now I don’t feel safe going back there.”

Another anonymous second-year student said they were “very anxious” when they found out police were coming to shut down the protest, and that the “unnecessary” use of force tarnished their view of the university.

A third anonymous second-year student said they felt VCU’s communications about activism on campus seem more about the university’s opinion on the matter, rather than students’ opinions or concerns for their safety.

“It was weird to see a part of campus I walk through every day turn into what seemed to be a war zone,” the anonymous student said.

Editor’s Note: The Commonwealth Times has made the editorial decision to obscure the names and faces of some students to protect them from harassment.

Correction: A previous version of this article said police used CS spray – an ingredient of tear gas – on student protesters. Richmond Police Department stated they did not use CS spray, but OC fogger, which can induce similar effects. Inside sources say police use CS spray. VCU Police stated only pepper spray was used.

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