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Pro-Palestine groups camp out overnight, dispute UIUC officials’ account of protest negotiations

At 5 p.m. on Sunday, protesters gathered near Foellinger Auditorium, linked arms in a circle and set up about a dozen tents in the middle.

At 5 p.m. on Sunday, protesters gathered near Foellinger Auditorium, linked arms in a circle and set up about a dozen tents in the middle. Emily Hays/IPM News

UPDATED at 11:30 a.m on Monday, April 29.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators camped out overnight on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They want the campus to divest from companies with ties to Israel’s military.

The move has led to the cancellation of a meeting that had been planned with UIUC administrators Monday.

The new gathering resumed Sunday after a long day of protests Friday, which resulted in two arrests and reached a peaceful resolution with campus officials before midnight. The two parties had agreed to tear down the encampment by the Alma Mater and relocate to a public access space near the UIUC Spurlock Museum in Urbana, according to a statement from Chancellor Robert Jones.

But that claim is disputed by some organizers. Crowds gathered Sunday on the Main Quad — not at the location designated during negotiations — to continue demonstrating.

“We did not agree to any negotiations,” said one UIUC student organizer, who says she was in the room for the negotiations Friday night. She requested anonymity for safety reasons. “We essentially said that we may do that; we may take it into consideration. And then the admin released a massmail after that saying that we did comply, which was completely false.

“The negotiations did not feel equal. Admin were consistently talking down to us. There was even a point where they said that we either have to comply or face mass arrest.”

The organizer added that Spurlock is not a good location for their demonstration because it’s far away from the main campus where students have the opportunity to learn about their movement.

“It is them [campus administrators] silencing our voices… This is just a tactic from the school to ensure that nobody sees our movement,” she said. The Main Quad “is better because we are in the middle of… campus. People who are uneducated about what’s going on will be able to learn from our movement.”

In a statement on its social media page, Students for Justice in Palestine UIUC said: “The University believes that it can push us out to the edge of campus and silence our voices. Although we may feel discomfort throughout this time of protest, we know this discomfort is not an ounce of what Palestinians on the ground, especially Gazans, endure around the clock. We must continue to mobilize and continue to speak out against injustice. We truly believe that we cannot do that at the proposed location of Spurlock and have decided to mobilize at the Foellinger side of the quad.”

The statement lists the group’s demands: divest from weapon manufacturers and institutions; disclose all financial assets, including investments, endowments and other holdings; seize all ties with “genocidal corporations”; and grant amnesty to all student protesters.

Those involved in negotiations with UIUC administrators include SJP, Black Students for Revolution, Faculty for Justice in Palestine, and some graduate students who support Palestine, according to SJP UIUC.

IPM News reached out to UIUC officials for comment. UIUC spokesperson Robin Kaler did not offer comment on the student organizer’s dispute of Chancellor Jones’ account of the negotiations. 

By mid-afternoon Sunday, the Illini Union and Foellinger Auditorium doors were locked. Signs on the doors said events that had been scheduled to take place have been relocated to other buildings.

At 5 p.m., protesters gathered near Foellinger Auditorium, linked arms and set up about a dozen tents in the middle.

At around 6 p.m. Sunday, an organizer announced on a loudspeaker to the crowd of at least 100 people gathered on the Main Quad that negotiations with campus officials had started up again.

UIUC officials say tents aren’t allowed; protesters say they’re both necessary and symbolic

In a massmail sent on Sunday at 8:16 p.m., Chancellor Jones said demonstrators setting up tents and structures are in violation of campus rules and policies that are meant to keep the campus community safe. 

“They have been told that violations of our rules or of state or local laws are subject to consequences including arrest, and for university students, interim suspension,” Jones wrote. “[University of Illinois System] President [Timothy] Killeen and I offered to meet directly with representatives of the group this evening to discuss their questions and concerns if they would remove the tents and structures. This offer was refused.”

But the tents are necessary for safety — and are also symbolic, according to the student organizer who spoke to IPM on the condition of anonymity. Students plan to camp out until their demands are met, she said, because they want to send a message to the UIUC administration.

“Nobody here wants to be encamping,” she said. “We are not here to disturb the peace of the university. We’re here to make sure our demands are met to make sure that the school divests from the Israeli occupation.”

The tents also represent solidarity with people in Gaza, “who are consistently being bombed,” she said. 

“And all they have is their tents to protect them. So we have to do what we can to make sure that we put pressure on the university [to] divest from Israeli companies that are flooding money into killing more than 35,000 people, continuing on today, and is still being bombed as we speak. And our school is still complicit in that genocide.”

Al Jazeera reports Israel’s war in Gaza has killed 34,454 people since October 7. The death toll from Hamas’ attack on Israel stands at 1,139 from that day.

Jones said UIUC classes and activities are expected to continue as usual Monday.

Some Jewish students feel unwelcome; others join pro-Palestine protests

Jewish students at UIUC have been out on the Quad as well. 

A handful of counter-protesters with Israeli flags stood near the encampment briefly on Sunday, and about a dozen visited the protest on Friday. Some said the pro-Palestine protests make them feel unwelcome

The Illini Chabad’s Student Board posted on Facebook that the group “would like to render our unwavering support for all of our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. We stand firmly behind Israel’s right to exist and hope for a peaceful solution.” 

Other Jewish students are protesting for justice in Palestine as an expression of their faith. They say the demonstrators have been very welcoming. Around sunset Sunday, two dozen Jewish students and supporters held a service for Passover, while Muslim students prayed nearby. 

Jewish undergraduate student Emily Glenn participated in the Passover Seder. Glenn is the membership director for LGBTJew, a subgroup within the Illini Hillel.

“I’m not an expert on geopolitical issues in the Middle East, right? But what I’m seeing is videos of atrocities and videos of mothers who are sobbing after finding the corpse of their dead kids or their dead husbands,” Glenn said. “And I think to myself, what if that were my family? What if those were my relatives overseas? I couldn’t stand that. So that’s why I’m here.”

Fellow UIUC student Evan led the Seder. He requested his last name be left out because of safety concerns. He is a member of Jews for Palestine UIUC.

“By there being a visible Jewish presence here, we remind people that Israel and Judaism are not synonymous,” Evan said. “There are Jewish people that are against the genocide and support the liberation of Gaza and Palestine.”

Encampment on Main Quad leads to cancellation of meeting with UIUC officials

Sunday’s protests are a continuation of demonstrations that began Friday, April 26.

That day, UIPD officers arrested two people protesting in support of Palestine at an encampment built near the Alma Mater. 

After the first arrest, police officers completely dismantled the encampment. 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. Police were reassigned from the Friday night Christie Clinic 5K, which led Christie Clinic Illinois Race Weekend officials to cancel the 5K.. 

By late Friday night, after negotiations with university officials, demonstrators dismantled the encampment. The group is allowed to set up tents in the public access space west of Gregory Avenue and north of Oregon Street, according to an email from UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones, and can remain there until the conclusion of a meeting with UIUC administrators that had already been scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The temporary relocation to that space will help limit disruptions to campus operations, Jones said.

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 regrouped and set up a new encampment on the Main Quad to continue demonstrating.

That has resulted in the cancellation of a meeting that had been scheduled for Monday with students and Vice Chancellors Danita Brown Young and Sean Garrick with Executive Vice Provost Bill Bernhard, said UIUC spokesperson Robin Kaler in an email Monday morning.

That meeting “was on the condition that demonstrators would be able to protest as long as there are no laws and university policies being violated,” Kaler wrote. “They refused to remove unauthorized tents that violated university policy, and that led to the decision to cancel the meeting.”

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 hundreds of college students in recent days.

Arraignments scheduled for arrested protesters this week

The two people arrested during protests near the Alma Mater are expected to be arraigned this week.

George Vassilatos was arrested Friday morning. According to accounts from fellow organizers, a group of protesters had linked arms in a circle around the encampment early Friday morning, and police tore away one of the organizers. Videos taken by protesters and shared with IPM News show Vassilatos, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, was dragged by police across the ground.

Vassilatos’ preliminary charges included mob action, trespassing and resisting arrest. He was arrested Friday and released Saturday. His arraignment has been scheduled for Wednesday morning.

A second protester was arrested Friday night — Chris Zelle, according to Champaign County jail records. UIPD spokesperson Patrick Wade said “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.”

Public defender Lis Pollock confirmed that arraignments for both arrests have been scheduled for this week, but Pollock said that current charges for both protestors are unknown. 

Organizers said they’re planning demonstrations at both arraignments to show their support for the protestors.