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Rutgers—Newark encampment update: Competing claims made around police activity

After the disbanding of the pro-Palestinian encampment at Rutgers—Newark on June 9, new allegations against police were raised at the Newark Solidarity Coalition's press conference before Newark City Hall on Wednesday. This story is an update on the article published last week. – Photo by @soma_for_palestine / Instagram

Tensions rose on the final day of the pro-Palestinian encampment at Rutgers—Newark, as a University professor was pushed by a uniformed law enforcement officer on Sunday.

The video was posted on Instagram by the Newark Solidarity Coalition (NSC), a non-University-affiliated group made up of Newark community members and Rutgers—Newark faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Additional reporting has been added to cover the NSC's press conference in front of Newark City Hall on Wednesday, which discussed this incident and other allegations in further detail.

In the video, an individual wearing green pants can be seen stumbling backward from the officer's extended arm at the very beginning of the video.

The person has since been identified as Simeon Marsalis, an alum and assistant professor in the English Department at Rutgers—Newark, who clarified that the officer who allegedly shoved him was from the Newark Police Department (NPD).

"Believe me, I saw it with my own eyes — it was a 9/11 badge and a cop who was excited to show me his badge number," he said in an Instagram story post by the NSC. "That was a Newark P.D. … That was not Rutgers P.D. So, I just want that to also be clear for the record — there were cops not only from the school but also from the city in the encampment."

An Instagram post by the NSC from Sunday morning indicated that the group was given 30 minutes notice to terminate the encampment. At 7:25 a.m., a uniformed law enforcement officer called for participants of the 41-day encampment to disband from its hub at 123 Washington Street within 15 minutes or be prosecuted under violation of state law and University policy, according to an Instagram story post by the NSC.

Later in the same video from the NSC that depicted the push, the person taking the video was blocked off from the area by another uniformed officer.

Behind them was an individual in a neon yellow vest and cap, who was also barred from entry by members of the Rutgers University Police Department (RUPD) and who the video recorder then identified as a legal observer. The video did not show whether the individual was eventually permitted to enter, but the person recording the video began to announce to other protesters that legal observers were not being allowed in and called for legal assistance.

According to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a legal observer is a trained individual, often a law student or legal professional, whose job is to oversee interactions at protests in order to provide a reliable account of events and hold law enforcement accountable. Typically, legal observers also wear identifiable clothing to designate their status.

Since then, the NSC has organized an emergency rally at Newark's Harriet Tubman Square, three blocks away from the original encampment. Linking arms, the protesters walked, chanting, "Disclose, divest — we will not stop, we will not rest."

A message exchange posted to the NSC's Instagram story suggested that law enforcement would allegedly surveil the park to see if the protesters would set up an encampment against city law. The source also claimed that police blocked off the area around 123 Washington Street with officers and barricades.

A University statement from the same day offered a different account. Regarding Sunday's events, the statement claimed that the Newark protesters took down the encampment in accordance with police orders, but did not make reference to any interactions between law enforcement and demonstrators.

It also alleged University policy violations by participants in the Newark encampment over a period of two weeks, including hazardous use of extension cords, vandalism of buildings with graffiti and unpermitted use of University-administered identification cards.

University officials explained in the statement that the provisions of the May 2 agreement with protesters at the Rutgers—New Brunswick encampment applied to Rutgers—Newark as well, but the NSC wrote in an Instagram post that the Newark campus was not consulted in the negotiations, leading to the continued encampment.

"An agreement to discuss divestment is not an agreement to divest," the NSC's post read.

The statement also claimed that encampment members expressed intent to disregard the University's divestment request procedure but did not specify how or exactly when this happened.

An additional allegation in the document accused the Newark encampment organizers of "repeatedly delaying in-person negotiations because members of their designated negotiating team have been elsewhere."

At Wednesday's NSC press conference, Marsalis responded that while the date and time initially suggested in the University's email did not work for the organizers' schedules, the NSC replied the next day with six more dates and times. After receiving no response from the email that the NSC sent Thursday afternoon, Rutgers—Newark Interim Chancellor Jeffrey Robinson announced an order to disband the encampment at 7 a.m. on Sunday.

Marsalis also described the shoving incident in more detail. He claimed he was recording four police officers pin their knees down on a man's back after the legal observer was not allowed into the premises, at which point an NPD officer pushed him.

"When I asked (the officer) not to touch me, he told me to shut up," Marsalis said. "Others of us were touched by Newark P.D., though there was no discernible threat to Rutgers P.D. — just a Black man face down in the dirt being detained by University and city police."

A joint statement by the City of Newark and the Department of Public Safety alleged that the NPD was only in the area for traffic control and had no role in the decampment except to provide "mutual aid for crowd control" when a crowd was noticed around RUPD officers.

In response to the city's claims, Marsalis said protesters never outnumbered police, and RUPD were not surrounded.

Marsalis described another alleged incident on Sunday morning where an officer, whose departmental affiliation was not named, entered a protester's tent to give them their notice to leave. The protester said they felt "violated" by the officer's actions, as he did not notify them or ask them to enter.

The Targum reached out to a University spokesperson for a response to what was said at the press conference and was redirected to the University's original statement.

The University spokesperson also claimed that there were no Rutgers—Newark students at the encampment the morning they were ordered to leave.

The University statement also outlined the University's adherence to the May 2 agreement, addressed some concerns allegedly raised by protesters and established its stance against others.

More specifically, the University clarified that it did not have a suitable role to involve itself in a proposal for Rutgers—Newark to promote a ceasefire resolution in the Newark Municipal Council or in divestment requests at nearby higher education institutions, such as New Jersey Institute of Technology, Essex County College and Seton Hall University.

"As a public institution, Rutgers—Newark — administration, faculty, staff and students — is publicly accountable for abiding by policies that apply across all of Rutgers. That includes the policy on investment … a process grounded in the democratic principles of consensus-building among campus constituencies in order to consider collective action," the statement read. "It has become clear in recent days, unfortunately, that those in the encampment do not plan to abide by that."

Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka (D-N.J.) commented on the situation as well. In a post on the social media platform X, he corroborated the University's claim and added that the NPD was not involved in Sunday's events.

"No investigation, no right to speak. Newark police did not remove students or participate in dismantling the encampment. We, not once, sent police on that campus. An apology is not necessary," Baraka wrote.

The NSC alleged in a now-deleted Instagram post that Baraka's claims were untruthful, which is corroborated by Marsalis's description of the alleged pushing incident. In a previous Instagram story post from Sunday, the NSC showed NPD patrol cars and officers at the intersection of Washington Street and New Street.

This story is developing and will be updated as more information becomes available.

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