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'They grabbed me by the ponytail': Community members reflect on April 30 police response

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Police yank protesters to the ground on the Quad on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators and observers at the Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment the morning of April 30, and later that day at Polk Place, said that police engaged in violent actions toward them and other community members.

UNC System police detained 36 students and community members, six of whom were arrested, that morning who were a part of the solidarity encampment. In an Instagram post, UNC Students for Justice in Palestine wrote that those arrested at the encampment were subjected to “brutal police violence” and that other protesters experienced “militarized” cops kneeling on their necks and inflicting several injuries, including dislocated shoulders and concussions.

Hundreds of students and community members gathered around the Quad that afternoon to show their support for the detained and arrested demonstrators and protest in solidarity with Palestine. SJP, Graduate Students for Liberation in Palestine and Faculty for Justice in Palestine hosted a silent vigil on the steps of Wilson Library followed by speeches and chants on the steps of South Building. Protesters then marched to Polk Place, surrounding and pushing over barricades set up that morning. 

Demonstrators removed the U.S. flag and replaced it with the Palestinian flag, followed by interim Chancellor Lee Roberts walking towards the flagpole with a group of 30-40 police officers in tow. Officers pulled at demonstrators to disentangle their linked arms and remove them from around the flagpole.

Rushil Umaretiya, a rising sophomore at UNC who said he was observing the the demonstration, said that the sight of Roberts leading the group of police down to the protesters was frightening.

“That image still hasn't sort of left my mind,” Umaretiya said.

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UNC Police move the barricade as they walk toward the flagpole on Polk Place on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

Those present observed officers using pepper spray and physical force against protestors, raising safety concerns for students on campus. 

Umaretiya, who said he is asthmatic, said he was pepper sprayed on his lips, triggering breathing difficulties for around 30 minutes. 

Since the protest at Polk Place, Sylvie Tuder, a doctoral candidate at the University, said they still have not been able to return to the area. 

"I have trauma from being assaulted, like I was physically harmed," Tuder said.

Tuder said that while at the event, they were punched in the head by one of the officers, resulting in a concussion. They also said that the police strained a ligament in their left knee.

“Still, today, I can’t walk properly,” Tuder said.

Tuder said that before Roberts deployed University police, the encampment was a beautiful display of hope and community care. They said that the way Roberts militarized the campus was disturbing, and that it was a disregard for both student safety and Palestinian life.

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UNC police drag students away to clear the pathway for the police carts in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. The carts contain students who have been arrested for trespassing on campus grounds due to the solidarity encampment.

One of the protesters that surrounded the flagpole, who asked to remain anonymous, said that replacing the U.S. flag with the Palestinian flag was symbolic of taking back the land of Palestine. They also said that they were one of the people targeted when law enforcement approached the flagpole.

“They grabbed me by the ponytail, and wrenched me away while my fellow protesters tried to keep me safe,” they said.

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UNC police remove protesters from the flag pole on Tuesday, April 30.

They also witnessed law enforcement throw a barricade at a fellow protester in a wheelchair, knocking them over.

“It kind of was very chaotic,” they said.

Amy Johnson, the vice chancellor for Student Affairs, sent a message to the UNC student body on May 1 about the actions of the University the previous day. She said that UNC demonstrated their commitment to education, safety, well-being and preserving a safe learning environment on campus. 

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In a Board of Trustees meeting on May 13, members said that more funding for University Police was necessary, amending the proposed budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year to reallocate the $2.3 million from diversity, equity and inclusion services to public safety. 

Some community members said they disagreed with the University’s decisions to use a heavy police presence on campus during and after the protests and increase the police budget. 

The anonymous protester said that it was heartbreaking to see the direction the administration took, and criticized the University’s change in budget. They also said that other students shared their lack of support, saying that they all wanted to see a world where everyone would feel safe.

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Students link arms around the flagpole in Polk Place on April 30, 2024.

“They don't have our support in actions like [police actions and budget shifts] because increasing cop presence on our campus is not increasing safety on our campus,” they said.

After pro-Palestine protesters were removed from the flagpole and authorities took down the Palestinian flag, counter-protesters surrounded the area to hold up the U.S. flag attached to the flagpole as others held up their own Israeli flags. 

Umaretiya said that he saw no conflict between the police and the counter-protesters that afternoon. He saw some of the counter-protestors smiling, saying that they had huge grins on their faces. 

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Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts shakes hands with counter-protesters on Tuesday, April 30 after raising the USA flag at Polk Place and taking down the Palestine flag.

In an interview with Fox News on May 2, recent UNC graduate Isaac Maleh, one of the counter-protesters who helped hold up the U.S. flag, said he was proud of the administration for shutting down the demonstration immediately.

Dan Stompel, a rising senior at the University and one of the counter-protesters who held up the U.S. flag, said in a different interview with Fox News on May 2, that he would die for the flag and that if the protesters got any closer to the flag, that counter-protesters would “start throwing hands.”

“[They want to] bring their own twisted ideology into every orifice of this country. Don’t let them do that. Take a stand, be a man,” Stompel said.

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A UNC employee and counter-protester yells and holds the Israeli flag while students keep the U.S. flag from hitting the ground on Tuesday, April 30.

The Daily Tar Heel was unable to obtain comment from both Maleh and Stompel.

Tuder said that their friends were put in headlocks by counter-protesters who to Tuder's knowledge were not punished.

When asked for details about if any counter-protesters were punished for observed violent actions against pro-Palestine protesters, UNC Media Relations said that they could not share any information about those incidents due to federal privacy laws that prevent disclosure about specific conduct cases.

"I'd like to be able to [speak about the student disciplinary process] because we want to be transparent, but there is a federal law, the FERPA statute, that prevents us from saying much of anything," Roberts said in a June 3 interview with WUNC North Carolina Public Radio.

In a May 3 Instagram post, SJP wrote that 13 protesters had been suspended. 

In the interview with WUNC, Roberts said that the only people who got arrested at the encampment were the ones who “wanted to get arrested."

“All you had to do was walk away,” he said.

Roberts also said that deploying police from campuses across the UNC System was a good thing.

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Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts stands among officers in the Quad on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

When speaking about the general presence of law enforcement on UNC’s campus, Tuder said that they had concerns for their peers who are a part of marginalized communities. 

“I still feel pain in my knee, my body reminding me that this is what people who are supposed to have my best interests in mind are capable of,” Tuder said.

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