University of Chicago police clear protest encampment early Tuesday, days after president announces intention to intervene

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

Students and faculty walked to class, passing through the South Side campus where discolored grass replaced the tents that were first set up nine days ago.

“The quietness (of the quad) is deafening,” said Jeffrey Sun, an upperclassman at the university. “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.”

About 50 UCPD officers began dismantling tents and makeshift barriers surrounding them around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, protester Christopher Iacovetti said. There were no arrests, according to school officials.

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.

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

Police put up a yellow plastic barrier and the chants got angrier. 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!”

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 university’s main quad.

The encampment has occupied the main quad of the University of Chicago since April 29. It’s one of many other large-scale student protests across the country in demanding the university divest from companies with ties to Israel, including weapons manufacturers supplying arms to Israel’s military amid the mounting death toll in Gaza. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the 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.

On Friday, university president Paul Alivisatos claimed the encampment had produced a “systemic disruption” to daily life and announced the university was prepared to “intervene” hours before protesters had a brief confrontation with a group of fraternity brothers trying to place an American flag near a pole where activists had raised a Palestinian flag.

Alivisatos issued a statement Tuesday morning saying safety concerns had only grown over the past few days as negotiations failed. There had been no arrests in the police action, the statement read, but that discipline against students could be forthcoming.

“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,” Alivisatos said in the statement.

“The University remains a place where dissenting voices have many avenues to express themselves, but we cannot enable an environment where the expression of some dominates and disrupts the healthy functioning of the community for the rest,” he said.

A lawn sits empty after a pro-Palestinian encampment was raided by officers at the University of Chicago early Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)Protesters anticipated a police raid Sunday night and put out a call for activists and organizers to join them on the quad, though their preparations died down around 3 a.m. Monday morning.

After the encampment was cleared, some students gathered on the steps in front of the administration building. Four hours after the tents were removed, they spoke out with their last messages of protest, holding up Palestinian flags and banging on drums.

A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson said early Tuesday morning that the mayor and Chicago police department had been “monitoring the situation.”

Johnson later Tuesday distanced himself and his police department from the overnight raid. The university requested support from CPD to clear the student protest encampment, but city leaders tried to dissuade them from the plan, according to a statement from Johnson spokesperson Ronnie Reese.

In conversations before the raid, CPD “raised operational concerns and expressed an unwillingness to participate in a pre-dawn clearing,” the statement 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.

The mayor and police department’s unwillingness to back the University of Chicago clearing marked a shift from arrests made by CPD officers at a similar School of the Art Institute of Chicago encampment Saturday.

The arrests drew condemnation from many of Johnson’s allies, including seven progressive aldermen who signed a letter Sunday warning the scene at SAIC cannot be repeated itself.

A spokesperson for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability said the agency on Monday received a complaint of excessive force by at least one CPD officer who responded to the SAIC encampment. 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.

Johnson declined to say Wednesday 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.

Meanwhile, at DePaul University, the pro-Palestinian encampment — which went up a week ago — remained intact Tuesday evening. 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.

The school’s 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 counter protesters.

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

Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan and Sam Charles contributed.