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The Daily Tar Heel

Students, faculty and community members protest for Palestine throughout school year

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Protestors at the march through campus on April 28, 2024 wave flags to celebrate the Palestinian cause.

While the recent pro-Palestine protests are fresh on the mind of the UNC student body, organized demonstrations about the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza have occurred through UNC Students for Justice in Palestine and other community groups across the academic year, spanning about eight months.

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UNC students and community members supporting Palestine stood on the steps of Wilson Library during a protest organized by Students for Justice in Palestine on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Students hosted a sit-in on the steps of South Building at the end of October, reading and posting their demands which remain the same today with additions. The open letter to the University's executive administration demanded that UNC divest from all contracts and products with Israel or Israel-supporting companies and create a divestment commission to work with the campus community. It also demanded that the long-term assets of the University of North Carolina System are made transparent to the UNC community, aligning investments with socially responsible standards.

SJP continued to host sit-ins, marches, “die-ins” and other protests from November until the end of March, when students and community members called for the University to meet their previously stated demands.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education opened a Title VI investigation at UNC after complaints that the University was involved in discrimination against Jewish students. The complaint surrounded two events in October and November 2023 that involved a roundtable discussion and comments an assistant professor made during a class. After the investigation began, UNC Media Relations said  that they were aware of the complaints and would fully comply with the inquiry.

After early arrests of pro-Palestine student protesters at Columbia University, SJP held a one-day Gaza Solidarity Encampment on April 19 when the University asked them to leave. They returned on April 26 to form the Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment and were on the quad until the morning of April 30, when UNC Police swept the encampment and detained over two dozen students.

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A mattress lies on the edge of the encampment as protesters march through campus on April 29, 2024.

That same day, following a scheduled vigil for Palestine involving SJP, UNC Faculty for Justice in Palestine and community speakers, the crowd surrounded and pushed over barricades placed around Polk Place, where the solidarity encampment had been previously located.

Protesters surrounded the flagpole, removing the U.S. flag and replacing it with the Palestinian flag. Police officers – led by interim Chancellor Lee Roberts and UNC Police Chief Brian James – forcefully entered the crowd with a folded U.S. flag. Roberts took pictures as he restrung the flag while police used pepper spray multiple times to disperse the crowd.

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Police shout at protestors to back away from the flag pole on Tuesday, April 30.

As Roberts made his way back into South Building, he briefly spoke to media about the situation, saying that the flag would remain up as long as he was chancellor.

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Interum Chancellor Lee Roberts approaches the quad with officers on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

“The flag represents all of us,” Roberts said. “To take down that flag and put up another flag, no matter what flag it is, that’s antithetical to who we are, what this University stands for [and] what we have done for 229 years.”

The next day, the University began installing metal fences that were about 8 feet tall surrounding where the encampment was previously set up on the Quad. Large surveillance cameras were also set up around the Quad — formally known as Polk Place — with some located inside the fencing. 

When asked for comment about the fencing, UNC Media Relations referred the Daily Tar Heel to a campus email and frequently asked questions page sent to the UNC community via email on May 3. The page stated that the University put up temporary fencing to preserve the landscape and deter protesters from engaging in dangerous behavior.

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A UNC senior gets his photo taken in front of the fencing that surrounds the American flag on Polk Place at UNC-Chapel Hill on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

Kevin Best, the senior director of Media Relations, said that the fencing was provided by the UNC System Office in an email to The DTH.

After April 30, heightened police presence remained at the University, specifically around the Quad, throughout SJP events before the end of the spring semester, even after the organization was suspended by UNC Administration.

At a May 5 rally and march in solidarity with Palestine, an attendee read a statement on behalf of one of the students who was arrested on April 30, and had spent four days in the encampment at Polk Place.

“Four officers pinned me to the ground and handcuffed me so tightly that my wrists were swollen for days afterwards,” the student wrote in a description of their arrest.

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A protestor holds up a sign at a rally in support of Palestine at the Peace and Justice Plaza in Chapel Hill on Sunday, May 5, 2024.

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According to an SJP Instagram post, Palestine Legal —a group that, according to its website, represents people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestine — filed a Title VI claim against UNC for anti-Palestinian discrimination on April 4. 

SJP said in the post that the claim included examples like providing resources to Israeli but not Palestinian students, ignoring harassment threats, racist rhetoric from UNC Trustees as well as disciplinary double standards.

In a separate Instagram post on May 8, SJP announced that they were notified May 5 that the U.S. Department of Education would open an investigation into the University.

Best stated in an email to the Daily Tar Heel that the University was aware of the complaint filed on behalf of Palestinian students.

"We will cooperate fully with any requests for information from OCR and remain committed to promoting a safe and equitable environment to all members of the Carolina community that is free from harassment and discrimination," he wrote.

On May 11, the day of UNC's spring Commencement ceremony, pro-Palestine protestors held another ceremony that morning to commemorate suspended seniors who were involved in the Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment. 

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A pro-Palestine protester leads a chant at "The People's Gradutation" on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

Other demonstrations occurred throughout the day, including setting up a temporary encampment outside the Bell Tower, and pouring red paint and placing red handprints on the steps and exterior of South Building. 

At the University's Commencement ceremony, several graduating students left the field of Kenan Stadium in protest while Roberts was giving his charge to students. Students walked toward the stage holding two Palestinian flags and were quickly escorted out by the police. 

The University has not responded to UNC SJP's demands at the time of publication.

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