Student Newsroom

Protest for Palestine at UIUC leads to one arrest; negotiations reach peaceful resolution


Protesters at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gathered on Friday, April 26, to demand the campus divest from companies with ties to Israel. Farrah Anderson/Illinois Student Newsroom

UPDATED at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 28.

A long day of protests at the Alma Mater in Urbana ended late Friday night, after pro-Palestinian students and officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reached a peaceful resolution.

Earlier in the day, U of I police arrested two people protesting in support of Palestine at an encampment built on the Urbana-Champaign campus. 

After the arrest, police officers completely dismantled the encampment that had been built near the Alma Mater. But by mid-afternoon, protesters regrouped and an even larger crowd — more than 300 — continued to call for UIUC to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Dozens of police officers from Champaign, Urbana and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office arrived on the scene on Friday afternoon. The gathering led to street closures and the shuttering of the Illini Union building on campus where negotiations with protesters began late Friday. The escalating demonstrations on campus also led Christie Clinic Illinois Race Weekend officials to announce that the Friday night 5K was canceled. 

By late Friday night, demonstrators agreed to immediately dismantle the encampment built by the Alma Mater and relocate to the public access space west of Gregory Avenue and north of Oregon Street, according to an email from U of I Chancellor Robert Jones.

Protesters will be allowed to remain there until the conclusion of a meeting with U of I administrators that had already been scheduled for Monday afternoon. Jones said the temporary relocation to that space will help limit disruptions to campus operations.

He added: “We have reached a very clear understanding with the participants that we will take immediate action to disperse the group if their activities present any new safety risks or violations of state or local law.”

But by Sunday afternoon, protesters had already begun gathering once more on the Main Quad — not at the location designated during negotiations – to continue demonstrating. Organizers contest Jones’ account of the negotiation process and say they never agreed to relocate to the designated site and continue demonstrations there.

Students at universities across the U.S. have built similar camps in support of Palestine and calling for their universities to divest from investments with ties to Israel. The camps are usually marked by groups of tents and days-long protests. 

Police have broken up camps and arrested students at several universities over the past few days. 

Friday morning protests led to one organizer’s arrest

Students started building the camp outside the Alma Mater statue at the corner of Green St. and Wright St. at 5 a.m. Friday. Organizers said U of I police officers arrived around 6 a.m.

Campus officials confirmed that one activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation was arrested at 8:22 a.m. Champaign County Jail records show the man arrested was George Vassilatos.

According to accounts from fellow organizers, a group of protesters had linked arms in a circle around the encampment, and police tore away one of the organizers. Videos taken by protesters and shared with IPM News show Vassilatos was dragged by police across the ground. 

Videos also show police took the organizers’ tents and broke down the encampment. 

“We are here, and we are students, we pay our tuition to be here. And we don't appreciate that the same organization taking that money and funding genocide of our own people,” said one Palestinian student, who asked not to be named citing concerns for their safety after the arrest. 

In a statement, UIUC officials say protesters were informed that they were violating campus policy.

“Officials gave them 30 minutes to remove the structures but after 45 minutes, the group had not removed all the structures, so the university staff moved in to remove them,” said UIPD Spokesperson Pat Wade in an email. “Several demonstrators actively attempted to prevent staff from their work, and one of those demonstrators was arrested.”

According to Wade, the university does not allow camping tents to be set up on campus property. One person was arrested, Wade said, because they interfered with the removal of the tents. 

“The preliminary charges are mob action, resisting arrest and trespassing for… interfering with the removal of structures after receiving multiple warnings and for resisting officers,” Wade wrote in an email. “The State’s Attorney will decide on formal charges.” 

The State's Attorney’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

UIUC spokesperson Robin Kaler said in a statement that the university respects the rights of freedom of speech and expression and remains committed to providing a safe environment for all.

“However, we do not allow camping tents to be set up on campus property. When unauthorized items are placed on campus property, we inform those who place them of our policy and instruct them to remove the items pursuant with negotiated timelines,” Kaler said. “If our request is ignored, university staff will remove the items. Anyone who interferes with that removal is subject to consequences, including arrest when criminal laws are violated.”

For UIUC students, Kaler said, immediate interim suspension is also a possible outcome.

“Demonstrators who do not violate university policies are allowed to remain on public space as long as they continue to abide by university policies and state and federal laws,” she said.

Protesters want UIUC to divest from companies with ties to the Israeli military

The Champaign-Urbana Muslim Action Committee (C-U MAC) is an organization that has been involved in the mobilization of activism for Palestine in the community. C-U MAC member Bara Saadah — a physician and UIUC alum — said the group often gets asked: Why should the University of Illinois care about the events in Israel and Gaza?

“The U of I has investments in a lot of companies that are contributing to human rights violations in Palestine and against the Palestinians and are actually contributing to the genocide,” Saadah said. “By taking my tuition money, investing it… just so that you can produce a nicer thing or take a nicer bonus home, is something we at C-U MAC stand strongly against.”

In a statement, C-U MAC said the group stands in solidarity with the students' efforts on campus.

“As students and faculty mobilize to demand that universities acknowledge the ongoing atrocities against Palestinians and commit to ending ties with oppressive entities, we insist the university protect their right to protest and not use systematic efforts to stifle their voices,” the statement reads.

A student organizer at the U of I for Students for Justice in Palestine, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said the local group answered the national call to demand divestment by coordinating campouts as a form of protest.

"We are trying to gain the attention of the admin, and pressuring the admin in this way seems to be the most effective,” she said. “ We've tried different avenues. We've tried protesting and other different ways, and this is just a new form of protest that we've decided might be more effective."

She said SJP wants the U of I to disclose all financial assets publicly, divest from companies that support the occupation of Palestine, end collaborations with Israeli institutions, and offer amnesty to all student protesters.

After being dispersed, a new crowd gathered Friday night

At around 3 p.m. Friday, protesters gathered once again at the alma mater. The crowd grew to at least 200 people shortly after. 

People gathered around in a circle, and some could be seen building tents in the middle of the gathering. Others standing on the outside of the group were seen kneeling and praying.

University police attempted to tear down the encampment but were blocked by protesters.

UIPD spokesperson said in an email: “As earlier, officers attempted to enter the assembly to remove the tents with no intention of making arrests unless demonstrators violated criminal law. Demonstrators were combative with officers attempting to reach the tents, and officers retreated. Additional law enforcement agencies have since been assembled. Demonstrators have been informed that the assembly is unlawful and have been instructed to disperse.”

Dozens of police officers from Champaign, Urbana and the Champaign County Sheriff’s office arrived on the scene by 4:45 p.m. 

Some officers held cans of pepper spray, including Champaign Police Officer Sebestik. He and other officers declined to answer questions from IPM reporters but did engage with protesters who wanted to know why they were there.

“We’re here because we were called here to help out,” Sebestik said.

A second protester was arrested Friday night — Chris Zelle, according to Champaign County jail records. 

UIPD spokesperson Patrick Wade said the arrest occurred at 8:38 p.m. and “the individual is alleged to have grabbed an officer's wrist and blocked her path so she could not retreat. He was arrested for aggravated battery to a police officer, mob action and trespassing. He is not a student.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois released an open letter to universities on Thursday urging them to use restraint during protests and not to equate criticism or support of Israel’s war in Gaza with antisemitism or anti-Muslim sentiment.

Universities should use “maximum caution” before using their campus police force on protesters, said Ed Yohnka, ACLU of Illinois director of communications.

“Anything that smacks of riot gear or militarized-looking equipment is troubling, in terms of the signal that it sends. Escalation only begets more escalation,” Yohnka said. 

“There are lots of questions about what principle is being defended on the part of the university to clear students who are engaged in this protest, and whether anything that is happening is dangerous.” 

Yohnka said universities do have wide powers to enforce policies on their campus with law enforcement. 

“The reality is a system has grown up where universities have their own police on campus, and administrators can make the determination about what to prioritize,” he said.

Counter-protesters gather with Israeli flags

In a statement, the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation said they appreciated campus police and the U of I administration for their responsiveness during the protests, and for addressing the needs of the campus Jewish community. 

About a dozen counter-protesters with Israeli flags also gathered at the protest Friday. 

“Events like these make us feel ostracized and make us feel unwelcome. When you cheer stuff like, ‘Zionist, get off our campus,’ it creates a hostile environment,” said Omer Israel, vice president of Illini Students Supporting Israel.

Israel said he does not consider criticizing Israel antisemitic; but calling for the end of Israel is. 

After the counter-protesters arrived, protesters could be heard chanting, “Zionists have got to go.” Other chants focused on supporting Palestine and criticizing the police presence.

Not all Jewish students who’ve attended recent protests support the Zionist perspective; some have marched and shown support for the Palestinian cause.

UC Jews for Ceasefire also attended Friday’s protest. The group held a Shabbat service, passing out pamphlets with Hebrew texts related to the weekly day of rest. The pamphlet also includes quotes like “As we wash each others’ hands, we honor our waters and ALL water protectors, from Gaza to the Galilee…” 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.