U. of C. police clear protest encampment early Tuesday, days after president announces intention to intervene

U. of C. police clear protest encampment early Tuesday, days after president announces intention to intervene

After the University of Chicago police cleared a pro-Palestine protest encampment in a brief early morning raid, the main quad was calm Tuesday afternoon with almost no trace of the student activists who had occupied it hours before.

Rain fell Tuesday morning as students and faculty walked to class, passing through the South Side campus dotted with discolored grass, marking the empty spaces where tents had been set up nine days ago.

“The quietness (of the quad) is deafening,” said Jeffrey Sun, a U. of C. student. “And it’s interesting because I think maybe four or five weeks ago, before the encampment, I would have been very happy on the quad, but it’s something where once you know what it could be, you can’t look at it again in a different light.”

Around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, about 50 UCPD officers began dismantling the encampment — knocking down tents and posters, and removing barriers set up by students who had anticipated the raid after the university said it was prepared to “intervene” to remove the protestors from the school’s main quad days earlier.

There had been no arrests in the police action, according to the school’s President Paul Alivisatos, but, “where appropriate, disciplinary action will proceed.”

U. of C. faculty members gather to support pro-Palestinian student protesters

“There were areas where we were able to achieve common ground, but ultimately a number of the intractable and inflexible aspects of their demands were fundamentally incompatible with the university’s principled dedication to institutional neutrality,” he said in a statement.

For around a week, there was little to no police intervention at Chicago-area campuses, even as schools across the country sent in law enforcement to douse pro-Palestine demonstrations, leading to more than 2,400 arrests nationwide. That changed Saturday, however, when Chicago police arrested nearly 70 protesters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Loop. In rarer instances, schools including Northwestern University, struck ​​agreements with protest leaders to restrict the disruption to campus life and upcoming commencement ceremonies.

After receiving several inquiries about UCPD’s intention to clear its student encampment, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office said in a statement that it reached out to U. of C. leadership to reiterate serious safety and operational concerns about this plan. The Cook County sheriff’s office helped with traffic control, but not the raid itself, a spokesperson said.

“CPD raised operational concerns and expressed an unwillingness to participate in a pre-dawn clearing,” the statement from Ronnie Reese said. “Mayor Johnson and the Johnson administration continue to be committed to free speech and safety on all of Chicago’s college campuses.”

A CPD spokesperson declined to share details on the discussions between the school’s police and the city’s police.

This response comes after the Saturday arrests at the Art Institute drew condemnation from many of Johnson’s allies, including seven progressive aldermen who signed a letter Sunday saying the scene at SAIC shouldn’t be repeated.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability received a complaint of excessive force by at least one CPD officer, and a spokesperson said the agency is now working to determine if it will investigate the complaint or if it will be handled by CPD’s bureau of internal affairs. Organizers said they suffered “brutal treatment” from officers, including being thrown on the ground.

Johnson declined to say Tuesday whether he supported the weekend arrests. The mayor’s deputy mayor of safety, Garien Gatewood, had unsuccessfully tried to broker an agreement with the students and school to move to another location before police cleared the encampment.

SAIC President Elissa Tenny said in a statement that the school won’t pursue any academic sanctions against the students who participated in the protest.

“We will continue to allow peaceful demonstrations, but given the escalations we’ve seen in the protests over time, we wish to notify the school community that those who engage in future activities that jeopardize the safety of our community or the public, or disrupt academic operations, will be subject to disciplinary action,” Tenny said.

As the death toll in Gaza mounted, hundreds of students across Chicago have demanded their schools disclose their investments and divest from those with ties to Israel and weapons manufacturers. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israel launched its bombardment of Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, where the group killed some 1,200 people and took 250 hostages. President Joe Biden last week 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.

U. of C. is known for its commitment to free speech, which experts have said is generally known as one of the best in the county. Dean of Students Michelle Rasmussen said in a Tuesday statement that the school’s policies, including those concerning free expression, apply to everyone. Some professors and students had also pushed the school to remove the encampment.

“Protesters have had numerous opportunities to share their views during this encampment, and they may do so now, under the same rules that apply to others,” Rasmussen said. “While we anticipate further protests, we will not allow such activity to indefinitely disrupt the functioning or safety of the university.”

School officials also noted that the overnight action, done when fewer protesters were in the encampment, was “carefully planned to minimize the need for arrests and reduce the impact on others on campus and in nearby neighborhoods.” The encampment has occupied the main quad since April 29.

Eman Abdelhadi, a Palestinian professor, said UCPD waited until the camp was at its most vulnerable before moving in.

“The point of the raid was terror,” Abdelhadi said. “They waited for those kids to fall asleep and then they pulled tents from under them while they were sleeping.”

U. of C. alum and writing instructor Avi Waldman said when she and other faculty and students came out to the site shortly after dawn to stand their ground, UCPD had already sealed off the entrances leading to the quad and wouldn’t let anyone through.

“They sealed it off in order to destroy the encampment and the students that were already inside were obviously very shaken,” Waldman said.

Organizers had spent much of the night preparing for an anticipated police incursion, the second night in a row the expectation of clearance had circulated among those camping out beneath the gothic buildings that ring the main quad.

Police had brought printed “final notices” to occupants of the encampment, which were later ripped and strewn at protesters’ feet when they locked arms against a barricade and a line of UCPD officers outside a side entrance to the quad on South Ellis Avenue later Tuesday morning.

Several dozen protesters faced university police and chanted, “We are the encampment! We are the encampment!” along with other slogans calling on the university to disclose and drop its financial ties to Israel.

Some protesters screamed insults directly into officers’ faces. “How does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?” they asked. “Shame on you!”

As the chants got louder, police put up a yellow plastic barrier.

Uday Jain, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the committee on social thought at the University of Chicago, said it’s gutting to see that kind of reaction to an anti-war movement centered on peace.

“We know this to be a beautiful, principled act of protest and we wanted it to continue and for the university to consider the reasonable demands the student negotiators were asking for,” Jain said. “This was a very cowardly action by a university leadership that doesn’t want to confront its role in enabling Israel’s genocide on Palestinians in Gaza.”

Meanwhile, at DePaul University, the pro-Palestinian encampment — which went up a week ago — remained intact Tuesday evening, making it the last one left in Chicago. By 3 p.m., the rain had slowed to a drizzle and students started to peek out of the dozens of tents that line the quad.

After police intervention at other schools, Simran Bains, a senior student and one of the organizers, said protestors are “hoping for the best, but we are prepared for the worst.” She said they are willing to get arrested if that’s what it takes for their demands to be taken seriously.

“I can’t pretend like things are normal, while other people are suffering,” she said. “I think that if the university could just acknowledge that and understand why we were asking for what we’re asking for, we wouldn’t have to put our education and our futures on the line.”

DePaul President Robert Manuel said in a Monday statement that there’s a need for a “timely resolution” to the encampment. He said organizers have lived up to the values of “nonviolence and inclusion,” but that the protest has attracted those who don’t share the same principles, “putting our community at risk.” He noted the increased Chicago police presence needed Sunday as tensions flared between the encampment and pro-Israeli counterprotesters.

“​​It was evident that the protest had become a magnet for others outside our community with nefarious intent,” Manuel said.

Manuel also released the school’s response to some of the encampment’s demands. Among other responses, it said they are “aligned with the call for a mutually agreed upon cease fire.” But it refused to offer “blanket amnesty” for everyone involved in the encampment.

Henna Ayesh, a sophomore, said it still feels like administrators aren’t “really listening to what we have to say.”

“They keep saying they support us and they’re here for us, then their emails are saying otherwise,” she said.

At U. of C., students and faculty reckoning with the raid said it’s necessary to note that while the encampment was taken down, Israeli troops seized control of Gaza’s vital Rafah border crossing on Tuesday. Jain said the closure poses a potential collapse of humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

Sun, who was walking along an empty quad Tuesday afternoon, said it’s inevitable that protests at U. of C. will spark again in the near future. The activist community on campus made up of students and faculty will trek forward, he said.

“This might be hyperbole, but there’s nothing more we need to do than care,” Sun said. “When we see something wrong, whether it’s the bombing of homes, hospitals and schools and the deprivation of food and water in Palestine, or the mass incarceration of people in the United States, we will do everything we can to stop it, even if it’s just speaking about it. All of us who have left the encampment have seen how powerful we were.”

Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan and Sam Charles contributed.