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Encampment ends peacefully despite police presence, students reach deal with administration

Rutgers' four-day encampment related to divestment and the support of Arab and Muslim students on campus has come to an end after University officials informed the public that law enforcement would remove individuals if the encampment was not disbanded by 4 p.m. – Photo by The Daily Targum

On Thursday, the Rutgers community received three emails from various Rutgers administrators painting the events preceding, during and ending the four-day divestment-related encampment at Voorhees Mall on the College Avenue campus.

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, students received an email from Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor Francine Conway delaying all exams and academic events on the College Avenue campus before noon, the first decision of its kind at the University.

Her email cited an "anticipated escalation" of protest activities, likely related to a post that was shared and later deleted on the Students for Justice in Palestine at Rutgers—New Brunswick's (SJP) Instagram page titled "F*ck Finals, Free Falasteen" the day before.

The post announced an emergency protest scheduled for 7 a.m. on Thursday. It provided an email template for students to use requesting their professors cancel exams in solidarity with students in Gaza and for Rutgers students who cannot feel a sense of normalcy in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

A later email from both Conway and University President Jonathan Holloway indicated that the post and the scheduled rally would violate the University's policy regarding disruptions cited in a previous message from Conway.

"We were disappointed to learn that overnight, Students for Justice in Palestine called for a significant rally on the Voorhees Mall, coinciding with the beginning of the exam period, specifically intended to disrupt finals for our students," Holloway and Conway's Thursday afternoon email read. "Buildings surrounding Voorhees Mall are the site of hundreds of exams during the finals period, and students are rightly concerned about their ability to take exams in this environment."

Their email stated that 28 exams for approximately 1,000 students in the surrounding area were affected. The disruption "forced" the University to postpone further finals until noon that day. Final exams were rescheduled and relocated, according to the email.

Their email concluded by demanding demonstrators leave the area or face the police presence that was actively on site. They had approximately two hours to vacate and remove their tents, banners, tarps and belongings or be arrested for trespassing.

State police and law enforcement in riot gear were also on standby in downtown New Brunswick at the Rutgers Public Safety Building on George Street. The group had more than a dozen vehicles and was armed with riot shields, batons and zip-tie handcuffs for potential incitement of violence and mass arrests.

Their gear mirrored the equipment police used at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles to forcefully break up protests and make mass arrests. 

The Rutgers University Police Department's (RUPD) response did not mimic these events. This gear was not used at the Rutgers encampment, and only the RUPD was present at Voorhees Mall throughout the demonstration.

Less than a dozen officers were present at the scene, and RUPD had approximately seven vehicles outside the Mall's lawn.

Several events, including the Zimmerli Art Museum's SparkNight event on the College Avenue campus for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month, were canceled on Thursday due to the increased activity on campus.

The group peacefully began dispersing around 4 p.m. but was met with counter-protesters waving a U.S. flag, chanting "U.S.A" and singing the national anthem. Encampment demonstrators who were packing their belongings then chanted "Free Palestine" in response and formed a small circle away from the counter-protesters to act as a barrier.

Despite the presence of two opposing groups, the encampment's dispersal was peaceful and concluded with event organizers stating that 8 of their 10 demands for the administration were met. The area was completely cleared of people and belongings by approximately 5:45 p.m.

Minutes later, Conway issued an email outlining areas of agreement between the students and administration. The Advisory Council for Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Life and the Chancellor's office will follow the agreement as long as no other disruptions occur and University policy is followed.

The agreement that Conway's office intends to follow states that Rutgers will:

  1. Accept at least 10 displaced Gazans to finish their studies at Rutgers

  2. Plan to create an Arab Cultural Center by the beginning of the Fall 2024 semester

  3. Establish a greater scholarly partnership with Birzeit University in the West Bank

  4. Name "Palestine" and "Palestinians" in all University communications, rather than calling the area the "Middle East" or "Gaza region" in reference to "Israeli aggressions in Palestine"

  5. Develop training and hire senior administrators to combat anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism for administrators and staff

  6. Create a Department of Middle East Studies and hire faculty

  7. Display flags of Palestinian, Kurdish, Kashmiri and other disputed territories on Rutgers campuses

  8. Grant full amnesty to all faculty, staff, student organizations and students for participating in the demonstrations and encampment over the past week.

Faculty will not be fired or face reduced compensation, and students will not be reprimanded unless they have violated University policy.

One of two requests that are still in contention pertains to divestment from businesses that support the State of Israel and its continued killing and bombardment of Gaza and Palestinians. The request was received by the administration, and further review is currently underway. 

The other request, which appears to be denied, is the termination of Rutgers' partnership with Tel Aviv University and the HELIX Innovation Hub. In response, the University stated, "Agreements with global partners are a matter of scholarly inquiry."

At the protest and encampment, faculty, graduate and administrative union leaders were present but declined when asked for comment on the demonstration. Bystanders surrounding the event also declined questions about the unfolding situation.

Some students have reacted to the end of the encampment, with the Students Supporting Israel at Rutgers University—New Brunswick hosting an event that celebrates the closure of what it called the "Pro-Hamas encampment." The group has previously been outspoken against many of the demonstrations done on campus.

The same evening, Holloway released another statement with the subject line "A Note of Appreciation." He thanked the people who worked to end the protest and wished students good luck on their exams and final projects. His message was comparatively short and lacked any details about the event or agreement as Conway's did.

"While there is much work to do, and conversations will be ongoing, I remain convinced that our community's strength lies in our compassion, commitment to intellectual inquiry and ability to unite across differences. Together, we can serve as a model for our community, nation and the world," Conway's Thursday evening email read.

Themes of community and remaining progress also emerged in the closing speeches led by encampment organizers, who reminded the public of the strength of numbers and validated their frustrations. In their remarks, an organizer issued a call for future action.

"I hear you, and I see you, and I understand … your feelings of being upset," the spokesperson said. "I hope you can understand why the decision was made. If we don't get what we want, I'll see you back here next time."

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