Northwestern students set up pro-Palestinian encampment as university changes protest policy

Hundreds of Northwestern students joined nationwide protests against Israel’s war in Gaza on Thursday, prompting school administrators to abruptly change campus policies and ban tents or other temporary structures in common areas.

Northwestern President Michael Schill informed students of the policy change in an email sent just after 9 a.m. By that time, a small encampment had been erected in Deering Meadow, a popular common area on the Evanston campus.

“The goal of this addendum is to balance the right to peacefully demonstrate with our goal to protect our community, to avoid disruptions to instruction and to ensure University operations can continue unabated,” Schill said in the email.

Students in violation of the new policy risk suspension, expulsion or criminal charges, according to a statement posted on the university’s website.

School administrators, however, have done very little to enforce the rule since the announcement. Campus officials spent much of Thursday negotiating with the demonstrators, hammering out guidelines that would allow for free speech while preventing the kind of protests that have roiled universities across the country.

“The University is in active discussions with the demonstrators to ensure the safety of members of the Northwestern community while also providing a space for free expression,” Jon Yates, vice president for global marketing and communications at Northwestern University, said in an email to the Tribune.

The outcome of negotiations between the students and staff was unclear Thursday evening.

Protest encampments have popped up in the past week at nearly two dozen college campuses across the country, including Harvard, Brown, the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin. New York’s Columbia University became the epicenter of the large, and at times violent, movement in recent days, as demonstrators clashed with police and administrators announced classes on the main campus would be held remotely for the rest of the semester.

Similar turmoil threatened to envelop Northwestern early Thursday morning as campus law enforcement officials warned students to take down their tents or be cited for breaking school policy. At one point, demonstrators formed a human chain to prevent police officers from entering the encampment.

According to students, police tried to disperse the crowd by saying they needed a “reservation” to demonstrate on the quad and use a bullhorn, as outlined in the new policy.

Miriam Adesiji, a junior at Northwestern from Columbus, Ohio, said she woke up at 7 a.m. to frantic texts from her friends who were worried about police infringing on the protest. She said she didn’t know how the rest of the day was going to go.

“It’s a scary time. There’s a lot of unknown,” she said.

As a Black student, she said she believed it was important to show up to support.

“We would not be on this campus without protests just like this,” she said.

Several tents were removed from Deering Meadow before 9 a.m., according to Schill’s email. Students, however, erected them again without recourse.

No citations had been issued as of Thursday afternoon, a campus spokesman said. Police also had left the meadow, opting instead to monitor the protest from nearby buildings.

Within a few hours of the president’s email, more than a dozen flimsy camping tents stood in the middle of the university’s flagship campus in Evanston. A canopy sat in the middle, with a table full of food under it and several grills nearby.

“Northwestern students, faculty and staff are putting their bodies, education and jobs on the line to stand with the Palestinian people,” organizers wrote in a statement circulated before the protest.

Students linked arms to form a barricade around the tents as uniformed Northwestern University police officers stood a few yards back, watching students chant “Free, free, Palestine” and other pro-Palestinian messages.

Outside a fence separating the encampment from the sidewalk, sophomore Jeremy Berkun stopped with two of his friends to watch the scene.

Berkun, a Jewish student, said he was disappointed in the dialogue on campus between students.

“It’s clear that the university and the student body is very, very against Israel at the moment,” he said. “And I just wish that there was a little bit more dialogue amongst the Jewish students here who feel very connected to that land and to the nation that has kept us safe.”

Behind Berkun, a rabbi consoled a girl in tears.

In a statement shared on social media, Northwestern Hillel, the university’s Jewish center, said the encampment reflected “a disturbing and quickly escalating trend of anti-semitic rhetoric and actions both nationally and on our own campus.”

The university’s South Asian Student Association said on Instagram the group was moving the location of a Saturday Holi celebration, originally scheduled to be held on Deering Meadow, to support the encampment protest.

Northwestern demonstrators also are asking the university administration to publicly disclose where the university invests its money and to withdraw its money from any funds profiting off of the war. As a private institution, the university is not required to provide detailed financial statements.

“We pay $100,000 here to go here and that’s $100,000 that could be going straight to God knows where and the university does not disclose that information, which is just unacceptable,” said a Northwestern undergraduate student, who was a lead organizer for Thursday’s protest. She declined to disclose her name to the Tribune for fear of retribution from the university.

Loyola University students made similar transparency demands at a protest Thursday afternoon at the Rogers Park campus, as roughly four dozen demonstrators sat scattered across the college’s main lawn. Campus security watched the sit-in from a distance, but did not attempt to stop it.

The protesters, among other things, called on Loyola to reinstate a student representative to its board of trustees so students can access the school’s financial portfolios and understand whether it has invested money with companies that profit from war.

Bree Sorensen, a social work doctoral candidate, said she does not spend much time on campus at Loyola, but she works with college students, who inspired her to support the pro-Palestine gathering.

“I’m trying to hold myself accountable,” Sorensen, 36, said of joining the sit-in with her intern from her practice.

The Northwestern encampment was mostly peaceful after police backed up, allowing the tents to stay on the quad. The gathering was subdued enough throughout the afternoon for some students to take naps in the tents as demonstrators beat snare drums and waved Palestinian flags.

Paper signs were taped to the fence surrounding the protest.

“Free Gaza Liberated Zone,” read one. “All eyes on Gaza,” read another.

By Thursday evening, the crowd had swelled by a few hundred. The encampment was marked by the Muslim call to prayer, traffic noise, laughter, birdsong and a burst of applause as a mariachi band joined the crowd.

Less than 30 minutes later, protestors surrounded at least one counter-protester who had been shouting at the group and began chanting, “Racists, go home,” forming a human wall around them as the mariachi performance continued in the background.

As night fell and more demonstrators arrived on the lawn, they gathered on blankets and erected more tents while speakers addressed the crowd and people lined up for dinner.

One organizer sang the four questions, traditionally recited by the youngest child during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which began Monday night. A small table containing a seder plate and candlesticks stood near the front of the protest gathering.