Pro-Palestine students occupy South Building, demand University action
About an hour into a protest on Friday, one of the organizers for UNC's Students for Justice for Palestine announced to a crowd gathered on the South Building steps that they would occupy the building as a political action. Immediately after, around 40 protesters entered through the door to the main floor before UNC Police blocked the outside entrance.
The protest was part of a national action day named “Shut it Down for Palestine” that called for demonstrations across the nation in support of Palestine. Around 18 other organizations co-sponsored the event, including the UNC Campus Y, UNC Workers Union and the UNC Arab Student Organization.
The event came over a month after the organization hosted a protest against the Israel-Gaza war on the steps of the Wilson Library on Oct. 12, which was met with counter-protesters.
Friday's rallybegan on the steps of Wilson Library at noon where more than 100 masked demonstrators stood chanting phrases like, “Not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes" and raising signs, some reading, “Free Palestine."
At 12:15 p.m., the group announced they would be marching to the South Building to “make sure that the administrationcan hear us.” Protesters holding a banner that read, “UNC has blood on its hands, divest now,” led the group through the Quad.
A few pro-Israel counter-protesters stood at the bottom of the South Building steps holding signs denouncing the militant group Hamas and its holding ofhostages.
For about an hour, community members and students gave speeches as protesters continued to call for UNC to divest in contracts and products that support Israel.
UNC Police Chief Brian James was present for the duration of the protest and was already inside the South Building when protesters entered.
Once inside, the same UNC Students for Justice for Palestine leader who began the demonstration at Wilson Library gave safety announcements, asking protesters not to block fire exits or engage with instigators. They said one of the goals of the occupation was for no protesters to be arrested.
“When I say leave, we will leave. Collectively, we are safest together. We are listening for some very specific vocabulary — we will not leave until we are sure it is time to leave,” they said to the protesters.
Throughout the occupation, protesters chanted and gave speeches. They held moments of silence and read the names of Palestinians killed in the conflict off of long pieces of paper that they held up across the lobby room.
Outside of the South Building, protesters attempted to supply water to the people inside, but police officers would not allow anyone else to enter the building. Protesters yelled “shame” at the officer blocking the door.
“This will haunt you for the rest of your life,” one protester yelled at the officer.
Inside, when faculty walked through the lobby, protesters began chanting, “talk to us.” Approximately 30 minutes into the occupation, UNC Chief of Staff to the Chancellor Christi Hurtentered the lobby with Amy Johnson, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Hurt accepted the open letter from UNC Students for Justice for Palestine listing their demands for the University to “end its support for war crimes and human rights violations in Palestine immediately.”
She said she would be happy to set up a meeting between SJP and UNC administration. An SJP leader asked Hurt to allow water into the building for protesters, and she allowed the delivery after asking James.
Multiple protesters requested that Hurt and the other administrators and officers in the building choose a name off the list of people killed in Palestine to remember. Hurt agreed, but no other faculty responded to the request.
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After the conversation with Hurt, at around 2:10 p.m., the SJP leader announced that they would not leave the building until every single administrator came down and spoke with them.
At 2:39 p.m., James informed the protesters that no other administrators would speak to them. He also said that South Building would close at 5 p.m. He added that the occupation was creating a disturbance to faculty who were trying to work, shutting down regular building operations.
“I can tell you that what we have right now is not safe,” he said.
Around 3:09 p.m., an SJP leader announced that UNC Police told them any protesters going upstairs or to the basement, where the only bathrooms are located, would be escorted out.
At 4:19 p.m. James interrupted the protesters' chants to tell them that the building was closed for the day. He asked all protesters to leave the building by 4:30 p.m. James then told protesters that if they refused to leave, they could be arrested for trespassing and face punishment from the University.
“We do not want to arrest anyone, but at this time we cannot conduct business in the South Building as we haven’t for the last three hours,” James said.
An SJP leader then instructed all protesters to leave. Outside, other demonstrators applauded as they walked down the stairs.
“Our goal today was to do as much as we can without putting our own members in danger, and I think we accomplished that,” he said.