Police attack dismantles UPenn encampment

Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker claimed she wanted the Encampment for Palestine, on the University of Pennsylvania campus since April 25, to “end peacefully.” But at 5:30 a.m. on May 10, city and university police gave sleeping participants just two minutes notice before they began arresting them and tearing down tents and other structures. Trash compactors were quickly brought in to destroy tents, personal belongings, and on-hand supplies.

Workers solidarity with UPenn encampment march in Philadelphia, May 8, 2024. (WW Photo: Joe Piette)

As a result, the image of over 100 police in riot gear forcefully dragging away and arresting 33 peaceful protesters at UPenn came just 48 hours after a separate instance of Philadelphia police brutality. On May 8, cops rounded up impoverished unhoused people sleeping on the sidewalks in the Kensington section of the city, destroying their tents and belongings.

The Philadelphia Police Department has a history of brutality, including violent assaults on participants in protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. A class action lawsuit responding to those assaults cost the city over $9 million in 2023. Other lawsuits stemming from police actions around that time are still pending.  

Students demand divestment, disclosure and amnesty

Established in the spirit of over 100 other encampments at colleges and universities since the first at Columbia University on April 17, the UPenn encampment demanded divestment of the Ivy League school’s $20.7 billion endowment from companies doing business with Israel or providing military support. 

UPenn directly invests $31 million annually in Israel, and students wanted to know who specifically received it and how it was being used. Encampment participants demanded an end to UPenn’s continued support for Ghost Robotics, which manufactures armed robotic dogs Israel is using in northern Gaza.

A third demand involved establishing amnesty for encampment participants and other students protesting the university’s support for Israel. On May 9, the university placed six students on mandatory leave of absence for participating in the encampment. One, an international student, was evicted from on-campus housing, leaving them unhoused.

The university had negotiated with students three times and talks appeared to be making progress prior to May 9, when, according to an encampment spokesperson, “Things went from, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you maybe several demands,’ to ‘We’re not going to give you anything.’” (Inquirer.com, May 9)

Gov. Shapiro’s pro-Zionist role  

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a staunch supporter of Israel, appears to have been a key influence behind the police raid. Speaking at a public event May 9, Shapiro called for disbanding the encampment, claiming the situation was unstable and out of control, and that “more laws have been broken.” While not specifying which laws were broken, Shapiro specifically cited a major rally of workers and union members in support of the encampment as the “turning point.” (Inquirer.com, May 9).

In the days leading up to the raid, Pennsylvania political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal addressed the encampment on May 3. On May 5, several hundred people, including families with children, participated in a mass Passover seder at the encampment, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. On May 6, Marc Lamont Hill, an activist professor and journalist with Al Jazeera, delivered an impassioned talk to encampment participants encouraging them to keep up their struggle.

Then, on May 8, over 300 workers held a militant march to the UPenn campus behind a banner that read: “Which side are you on? Workers united for Palestine.” The coalition of workers — unionized, in the process of unionizing, and otherwise dealing with oppression from bosses, including UPenn — was fully in solidarity with the movement to stop the U.S./Israeli genocide in Gaza. This march appears to have been the final straw for the pro-Zionist governor.

‘Proud and strong at our site of resistance’

Workers World spoke with encampment participant Nada Anusi, one of the students arrested May 10, who said: “On Friday morning, at about 5:30 am, we were woken from our sleep by the police with only two minutes left to gather our things and leave. While we anticipated a raid, especially in the early morning when community support and publicity there would be minimal, we did not want to leave the camp we built.

“The Ben Franklin statue [on UPenn Campus Green] became a site of resistance for students and campers. We all stood proud and strong as we watched hundreds of police storm the campus with wooden batons and riot gear. We knew what we were up against, and we were ready to face it, but the disproportionality of over 100 cops to 33 protesters was a disgusting view from the top of Ben Franklin.”

Anusi explained: “We were pulled off the statue by the cops, held tightly, zip tied and warned not to resist. Some of us were thrown onto the ground and dragged away, with bruised and dislocated shoulders. I was double-cuffed, patted down three times, shoved around, and violated in many ways. Despite that, the most upsetting part was watching UPenn police and the Philadelphia Police Department work together with the administration to take an entire encampment and shove it down a compactor.

“So much that was built, and from scratch, was destroyed. It was very wasteful. Very disturbing and an eerie reflection of what goes on at other encampments. For a minute, I imagined what it was like to be in Occupied Palestine and watch my family home get demolished with all the memories and life I put into it still there. It is not exactly comparable. I have a home to go to.  But this was a place for me, as a Palestinian, to truly feel in community with those struggling alongside me.  

Anusi concluded: “I participated in this encampment because I reached a point where my entire life is re-centered around Gaza. I live and breathe for Palestine and if that means I have to make all the noise in the world and continue to build while they destroy, then so be it. It is the least I can do. As an academic, the university serves as a proxy for my class struggle, for this anti-colonial struggle. More than 40,000 [people] martyred with all [their] universities destroyed, and it is about time we recognize our privilege in the belly of the beast and continue our global uprising.”

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