When the hammer came down at UVA

Seven years after allowing neo-Nazis to march on its campus, a storied university crushed students who were protesting genocide

The students at the University of Virginia were late to the Gaza solidarity movement now cresting across the country. The few dozen protesters didn’t set up their camp until Tuesday, April 30 — the same night police in New York smashed the protest at Columbia University, in the NYPD’s trademark brutal fashion. The UVA protesters intentionally avoided the Lawn, an iconic space that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and, more importantly, the site of the university’s upcoming commencement exercises). Instead, they put their sleeping mats on a patch of grass west of the Rotunda. This also put them a few yards from the statue of the building’s architect — and the university’s founder — Thomas Jefferson.

They didn’t make it five days. On Saturday morning, May 4, police began a series of scripted escalations. Within hours, those escalations culminated in a set piece of wanton state violence, in which heavily armored state and local police — phalanxes of police who, by my estimate, outnumbered the protesters at least three to one — bodyslammed, pointed guns at, and blasted mace into the eyes of unarmed protesters. They arrested at least 25 people and destroyed the encampment before driving thousands of onlookers from campus and the surrounding community onto the adjoining streets. I was there. What follows is my reflection.

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The first thing to note is the protest’s scenic backdrop. The Gaza encampment wasn’t the first demonstration held around UVA’s Rotunda, intentionally or by default. Modeled by Jefferson as a kind of red-brick American rendition of Vitruvius’s Pantheon in Rome, he intended the white-domed edifice at the heart of his “Grounds” to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason” — the replacement of hereditary monarchy with liberal and democratic forms of authority, and all the internal contradictions inherent in that bargain. (For starters, the Rotunda, along with the rest of Jefferson’s “Academical Village” was built by enslaved laborers, whose bodies were bought by the university for that purpose.)

Albemarle County police preparing to raid the encampment on May 4, 2024. All photos by Jamelle Bouie.

One of the most famous of the Rotunda-area protests was 1970’s “May Days,” when thousands of Virginia undergrads shut down the university to protest the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, the killings of antiwar protesters by the National Guard at Kent State, and the university’s recently-de jure-then-de-facto racial segregation. A marker commemorating a precursor event, 1969’s smaller “Coat and Tie Rebellion,” was erected two years ago next to the patch where the encampment stood, as part of larger a post-George Floyd effort to remind views, as UVA President Jim Ryan said at the time, “that each of us has the potential to enact lasting change.”

More recently, and more squarely on the minds of community members, was the neo-Nazi tiki torch rally ahead of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally. In that case, the university made a studied case of inaction, with then-President Teresa Sullivan affirming “the public’s right to access open spaces, including the rights of the marchers who assembled on our Grounds last night,” as well as their “First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.” The fact that the white supremacists openly threatened, harrassed, and intimidated students on the Lawn — and the fact that they were almost all outsiders to the community — didn’t prompt police to declare an “unlawful assembly.” It wasn’t until the Nazis started beating and macing a small group of antiracist counter-protesters that the relative handful of police on hand intervened; and even then, they arrested just one marcher.

Hard as it may be to accept (it is for me!), most current students had only a vague idea of what happened in Charlottesville in 2017; the youngest were only eleven years old at the time. But the difference between the police and the university’s indifference to the Nazis in 2017 and their unhinged aggression toward the pro-Palestine and antiwar protesters was front of my mind on Saturday, as I know it was for others, if not the police themselves.

It always takes at least two parties to escalate. But this escalation was blatantly driven by university police. Administrators had told the campers that setting up tents was a red line. For the first nights that was not an issue; the weather was cool and dry, and the youngsters were happy to sleep under the trees and stars. On Friday though, rain was in the forecast. Further, the administration had just high-handedly rejected the protesters’ demands: that UVA must disclose all its investments, that it divest from “institutions materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s genocide, apartheid, and occupation of Palestine,” that it end relationships with Israeli universities, and that it promise not to suspend or otherwise academically discipline students for taking part in the protest. Whether as a guard against the weather, a willful provocation, or both, on Friday night, the tents went up.

On Saturday morning, two things happened. The first was that UVA police informed the protesters that the six or so tents they had put up were against university policy because the students did not have a permit. The second was that faculty who’d been monitoring the site to protect the students did the slightest bit of research and learned that recreational tents were explicitly exempted from the policy. (Some pointed out that similar tents had also been erected down the street by the beach volleyball court without incident.) Sometime in the next two hours or so, the university quietly removed the sentence granting that exemption from its website.

The arrests started soon after. At some point, according to an open letter from UVA President Jim Ryan, “UPD’s attempts to resolve the situation were met with physical confrontation and attempted assault.” I emailed Ryan and UVA security chief Tim Longo to ask for more details on Saturday; neither replied. The best guess anyone can come up with is that it was a reference to the protesters linking arms and trying to prevent the first arrest, of a local art gallery director; the only violence in a student newspaper video is the police dragging him out by his heels. In President Ryan’s estimation, however, it “became necessary to rely on assistance from the Virginia State Police.” Those police came heavily armored and armed.

Alerts went out to the UVA community, warning them to avoid the area of the Rotunda because of “police activity.” Students from elsewhere on campus, who were in the midst of finals — many of whom had been unaware the encampment protest was even happening until then — immediately headed over to see what was going on. So did a lot of other people.

There is a huge element of theater in any protest. Everyone, from police to the anarchists, puts on their costumes, gathers their props, and says their lines. That it is a theater with real consequences — theater in which people sometimes die — only heightens the effect. For the hundreds — I’d estimate possibly thousands — of us in attendance, by being cordoned off from the center of the action by Charlottesville police, we became an audience, and acted accordingly.

Many people filmed the action. Some chimed in with the protesters, chanting “Free Palestine!” “Up up with liberation / down down with occupation,” and so on. Others heckled the police: “Shame on you!” “Why are you in riot gear?” Most powerfully to my ear: “35,000 people dead / You’re arresting kids instead.” A few brave souls crossed the police line to join the small line of protesters who were, in effect, volunteering to be arrested.

There were also a large number of counter-protesters. Some were adamantly pro-Israel, holding Israeli and American flags (or combinations of the two), and hollering at the protesters that they were terrorists. (One student insisted he’d heard the protesters chanting the takbīr, “Allāhu ʾakbar,” which he called, “a terrorist chant.” I responded that it’s a common Arabic phrase, that simply means “God is Great,” and that in any case I hadn’t heard the protesters saying it. He responded, matter of factly, “Well in America it’s considered a terrorist thing.” He then went back to screaming for the protesters’ arrest. I hadn’t heard talk like that since the years after 9/11, an era that began before he was most likely born.)

Others didn’t seem to have any politics at all other than undirected bloodlust. After the performative warnings expired and a line of riot police began to advance, a group near me started chanting “De-fense! De-fense!” and “Go Blue!” as if they were down the street at Scott Stadium. Some of the frat boys whooped as the riot police maced protesters, cheered bodyslams like the cops were Braun Strowman, and mocked a protester’s weight as police carried them to be zip-tied and processed. The laughs sometimes turned to coughs as the clouds of mace wafted into the crowd. But the irritation in their throats just made it funnier to them, somehow.

At one point, the frat boys, the amateur police enthusiasts, and the hardcore Israel stans all merged into a chant of "Arrest them! Arrest them! Arrest them!” I looked up from the melee to see the chant coming from people waving Israeli flags on the hillside; chants for violence coming from the same hillside where, seven years earlier, neo-Nazis had marched with torches and chanted, with equal fury, “Jews will not replace us.” Except this time, they were the counter-protesters, and excitedly waving Stars of David.

As I said, this juxtaposition was not lost on the crowd. One guy got a chant of “Where were you in 2017!” going at the police, which lasted a few rounds. But given that the answer for most people was “in middle school,” or at least, “not in Charlottesville,” it soon petered out. The next hour or so went more slowly, as mist turned into a steadier rain. Most onlookers lost interest. Some, including faculty, stayed to gawk and ponder what had just happened, as the police slowly pushed us onto University Avenue. At one point, a new protester I’d never seen before showed up with a bullhorn, announcing the students should go to President Ryan’s house to protest him. But there was no appetite. At 5 p.m., a final dispersal order was delivered, and the remaining holdouts went their separate ways, the crowd atomizing into individuals, making their way to their Saturday night plans.

It’s worth noting here that the alleged tent rule violation was key. I spent parts of three days in and around the encampment. At no point did I see, and no one to my knowledge has alleged, that the students blocked any pathways or were even particularly disruptive. (Two different campers complained to me at various points that they weren’t being disruptive enough; this was supposed to be a protest after all.) On Friday night before the rain, I’d joined a group of Jewish protesters welcoming Shabbat, then hung around until after midnight. The camp was quiet; the loudest noise in the area was from a party from the adjacent rooms on a 19th-century dorm row known as the West Range.

In other words, there was no reason for the police to storm and dismantle the camp except under the orders of the university and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin — orders justified on the basis of the phantom rule change. (The same underhanded process, along with a similarly last-second policy change, was used to justify the raid on the encampment at Indiana University last week.) As a public university, UVA’s grounds are both public property and accessible at the pleasure of the university’s administration and police. If they had chosen to ban the Nazis from marching in 2017, they could have done so. Instead, they decided to not only raid an encampment of students protesting an ongoing genocide, but to do so with overwhelming force and performative violence.

A few reasons for the difference come to mind. One is that we are in the midst of a full-blown nationwide moral panic, a panic that is hitting hardest at the level of university presidents, who keep dropping like flies on the accusation that they “aren’t doing enough” to “stop antisemitism.” You might think that actual neo-Nazis, who literally chanted “Jews will not replace us” might have been more of an antisemitic threat. But that was 2017, when “free speech” meant humoring the far right. This is 2024, when “stopping antisemitism” means not protecting Jews but rather stopping condemnation of the State of Israel, and more to the point unblinking U.S. support for the State of Israel and its slaughter of Palestinians. (Which is how you get spectacles like the police claiming to “protect Jewish students” by slamming a 65-year-old Jewish professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth to the ground.)

UVA’s President Ryan — who is reportedly being considered to replace the banished Claudine Gay at Harvard — saw the jackboot tactics at Columbia and the negotiations-based approach at places like Brown and Northwestern, and made his choice.

But the other thing is the specific power of both of the respective protests’ core demands. The Nazis just wanted to hurt already marginalized people. The Gaza solidarity protesters had a more threatening aim, as far as a university administration is concerned: to disclose and divest. UVA has an estimated $13.6 billion endowment. That is the fifth largest among public universities and the twentieth largest overall. Any university president’s actual job in the 21st Century is to maintain and grow that endowment. If a ragtag bunch of leftist students can, armed with nothing more than youthful energy and a handful of cheap camping tents, force the university’s investment management company to not only disclose how it makes its money but pressure them to sell off assets in “institutions materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s genocide, apartheid, and occupation of Palestine” — institutions that could potentially include Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and other arms manufacturers based in Virginia — then where would it end?

What if the endowment underperformed even more than it did in 2023? What if it hurt those companies’ bottom lines? What could that do to Glenn Youngkin’s political prospects or Jim Ryan’s career? If 35,000 lives in Gaza — and countless more tonight in Rafah — can be sacrificed on the altar of such profits and egos, then what chance did a small group of unarmed student and community activists have? Whether that is the message that college presidents, governors, and ultimately the president of the United States want to impart to the rising generation of Americans, it is coming through loud and clear. How that generation reacts and adjusts to that message may define life in this country for years to come.

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