Tensions flare between DePaul pro-Palestine encampment and counterprotesters

A group organized by the Chicago Jewish Alliance gathered at Fullerton and Seminary avenues Sunday morning in response to an encampment set up Tuesday at DePaul University to protest the war in Gaza.

Members of Chabad Lincoln Park, Stand With Us, Hillel Metro Chicago and the Jewish Institute for Liberal Voices, among other groups, helped organize the demonstration and said they wanted to help Jewish DePaul students feel safer. The group flew Israeli and American flags.

Doreen Helmer traveled from Northbrook to attend Sunday’s counter-rally. She said it was important to her to travel to Lincoln Park to defend Israel in what she considers to be an increasingly hostile environment.

“It’s sad to see what’s happening in our city,” Helmer said. “They’re allowing these protests to ruin our campus and our neighborhoods. My friends can’t enjoy their neighborhood, they can’t walk their children to school anymore because of this. This is not free speech.”

Helmer said she was driving to the encampment Sunday afternoon flying an Israeli flag from her car when someone jumped on the car and tried to rip the flag off.

Henna Ayesh, an organizer and a media liaison with the DePaul encampment, said she was proud of the way encampment protesters have handled counterprotesters on campus. Leaders have been hosting a “de-escalation training” two to three times a day, she said, to teach them how to interact with counterprotesters.

Members of the encampment locked arms around the quad Sunday morning, facing the counterprotesters and surrounding their tents, while Chicago police formed two lines separating the groups.

Ayesh, who is a Palestinian student, said she is proud of the self-sustaining community she’s seen arise in the encampment. Organizers instructed encampment protesters not to engage with counterprotesters, and they have by and large respected that request, she said.

“I think one of the strongest principles of our community is that we keep each other safe,” Ayesh said. “We’re not relying on police, relying on public safety or on administration to keep us safe. We had counterprotesters throwing rocks and sticks, saying Islamophobic statements, but I’m really proud because we kept ourselves in control.”

Ayesh said there was one instance of confrontation in the encampment Sunday morning when a Palestinian student was hit in the face with a flag by a counterprotester. The student received medical attention, Ayesh said, and is doing well. According to the university, two people received treatment for minor injuries, and no arrests were made.

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By Sunday afternoon, a smaller group of counterprotesters stood across from DePaul’s quad on Fullerton Avenue. Another group gathered on the music lawn at Halsted Street and Fullerton Avenue, with snacks, posters and flags. Cars honked as they drove by, while children holding Israeli flags stood at the entrance to the lawn.

Police moved the encampment protesters inside the quad by Sunday afternoon. Some continued to gather by the entrances and cling to fences, facing the counterprotesters.

Participants also gathered around a large stage in the middle of the encampment, chanting “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” and “Free, free Palestine,” drumming and waving Palestinian flags.

Ayesh said encampment organizers negotiated with DePaul administrators before erecting the encampment and were told the university is invested in companies affiliated with Israel. Ayesh said the group decided to put up tents when administrators said they did not have the power to terminate those investments.

Organizers last spoke with administrators Wednesday, according to Ayesh.

“I think a lot of our demands, like calling for a cease-fire, could’ve been fulfilled the exact same day,” Ayesh said. “But it’s day five, and we haven’t heard anything.”

In a Sunday evening statement, President Robert Manuel said he, Provost Salma Ghanem and Executive Vice President and CFO Sherri Sidler had requested to meet with students from the DePaul Divestment Coalition on Monday.

“We are deeply concerned that today’s events escalated beyond peaceful protest on the Lincoln Park Campus,” Manuel said. “It is our sincerest hope that our dialogue will result in solutions for the university that will allow us to move forward.”

DePaul University sent an alert advising students to avoid the quad and encouraged them to use alternate routes on campus Sunday, according to several students gathered at the camp.

On campus, the atmosphere remained serene. Students played soccer and read outside residence halls and school buildings.

Also on Sunday, encampment organizers from the School of the Art Insititute of Chicago announced that all 68 people arrested at a demonstration Saturday were released Sunday morning.

The encampments are among dozens across Chicago and the nation at colleges, including the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

They started in the past few weeks amid the mounting death toll in Gaza. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Israel launched its war in Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, where the group killed some 1,200 people and took 250 hostages. President Joe Biden on Thursday defended the right to protest but insisted that “order must prevail” at college campuses, as some in Chicago’s Jewish community demanded action at local universities to prevent hate speech.

Chicago Tribune’s Adriana Pérez contributed.