VCU anti-war protest attracts hundreds, ends in 13 arrests

George Copeland Jr. | 5/2/2024, 6 p.m.
Six students at Virginia Commonwealth University were among the 13 people arrested by police Monday evening on VCU’s campus outside …
Virginia Commonwealth University students set up a “Liberated Zone for Palestine” on Monday beside the John Branch Cabell Library. Students and community activists gathered together making signs and expressing their views. Police were deployed to the protest later that evening, making several arrests. Photos by Regina H. Boone/Richmond Free Press

Six students at Virginia Commonwealth University were among the 13 people arrested by police Monday evening on VCU’s campus outside the James Branch Cabell Library during an antiwar, pro-Palestine protest and encampment focused on the ongoing conflict in Gaza, Palestine.

What started with chalk messages on the pathway outside the library in the late afternoon grew across hours as protesters built what they called a “liberation zone” for Gaza, using tents, tarps and other tools on the library’s lawn.

Hundreds gathered, sang, chanted and collaborated in support of Palestenians and against the ongoing military actions by the Israeli government focused on Gaza following an attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct 7.

“This is a liberation zone,” said organizer and VCU student Sereen Haddad. “We are all here because we have heart, we are human and we care about human life.”

The protesters have called on VCU to defend Palestinians on campus, declare their support for a ceasefire in Gaza, condemn the U.S. government’s role in the conflict, and to disclose, divest or end any VCU expenditures and partnerships connected to the Israeli government.

The encampment continued to grow until almost 9 p.m. when VCU, Richmond and Virginia State Police declared the protest an unlawful assembly and ordered protesters to disperse. They then used riot shields and pepper spray to end what had been a peaceful assembly.

All 13 people arrested were charged with unlawful assembly and trespassing, and the six students will face the school’s student conduct discipline.

“Yesterday’s events outside of Cabell Library remind us of the complexities we face as a university committed to free speech, safety and operating our university,” VCU President Michael

Rao said in a Tuesday statement posted on the college’s website. “While our community cherishes the right to peaceful protest, setting up structures on our campus lawn violated our policy.”

“It’s essential to recognize that the vast majority of events at VCU occur without incident. It’s in this spirit of togetherness that I believe our community will move forward.”

Roughly 1,100 Israelis were killed and about 250 people were abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7, and around 9,000 Israelis have been injured in the time since. While the exact number of Palestinians in Gaza impacted by Israel’s military response is unknown and contested by some, the city’s health ministry has reported at least 34,000 deaths and over 77,000 injured since it began.

It was those deaths, injuries and other suffering reported in the months since the conflict began that drew people to the campus protest on Monday.

“I could never sit in my house or just be on social media and see everything and not do anything,” said a junior at VCU who said his name was Xavier. The student said he sees similarities between the treatment of Palestenians, and African-Americans and indigenous communities throughout American history. “There’s families being broken apart, there’s people dying out here and I just think that something needs to be done.

“I’m always for revolution, I’m always for evolution, and I want generations ahead of me to see a change, to see a better world.”

The VCU campus protest was the latest organized in Virginia and across the country in response to the ongoing conflict and toll it has taken on Gaza and the Palestenians.

A protest in Fredericksburg at the University of Mary Washington ended in the arrest of 12 people, including nine students, on Saturday. Over 80 people were arrested at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg the same day protests began at VCU.

Students at the University of Virginia, meanwhile, set up a liberation zone of their own on the lawn of their campus Tuesday, ahead of a larger organizing effort on Wednesday.

Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin weighed in on the VCU protest in a social media post Tuesday evening, reiterating his earlier support of law enforcement in handling campus protests and encampments. Other Republican legislators would echo his remarks in response to the VCU protest.

“After repeated warnings and refusal to disperse, law enforcement must protect Virginians,” Gov. Youngkin said. “My administration will continue to fully support campus, local and state law enforcement and university leadership to keep our campuses safe.”

Other Virginia politicians would also chime in, with several Democratic legislators pushing back against the use of force employed by police against the protesters. This included House Delegates Rae Cousins, Rozia Henson Jr., Joshua Cole and Adele McClure and Virginia Sen. Saddam Azlan Salim.

Former college professor and lieutenant governor candidate Sen. Ghazala Hashmi also weighed in on the protest and the police response, alongside statements from Richmond City Councilmember Katherine Jordan and Richmond School Board member and City Council candidate Kenya Gibson.

“Our academic institutions have a long legacy of cultivating freedom of thought and expression,” Sen. Hashmi stated. “This legacy cannot and must not be overturned in efforts to suppress student voices.”

Congresswoman Jennifer L. McClellan and City Council member and mayoral candidate Andreas Addison criticized the police’s escalation of the situation by using chemical agents.

They drew direct comparisons between the response to the encampment to the police response to protests against police brutality the city saw several years ago following the murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans by police across the country.

“Instead of repeating history by issuing apologies after the fact,” Mr. Addison said, “let’s learn from those lessons by listening and answering calls to action with lasting policy solutions that address the underlying issues at the center of protest.”