SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: April 27, 2024

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Washington University, Saint Louis

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 27, 2024, police arrested around 100 people, including 23 students and four university employees, at a pro-Palestine protest at Washington University (WashU) in Saint Louis.

The arrests took place six months after a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early May 2024, has reportedly killed more than 34,000 Palestinians.

On April 27, several local St. Louis activist groups, including the St. Louis branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and WashU Resist, a student group, organized a large protest to demand that the university administration disclose its investments and divest from companies that profit from Israeli military action, end its study abroad programs in Israel, reverse suspensions of students for participating in a previous protest, and issue a statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The protest initially started off campus, before ending on WashU’s campus in the late afternoon, where they established an encampment with about 10 tents.

Around 4:30pm, the WashU Police Department (WUPD) announced that the protest was an “unlawful assembly” and gave protesters 15 minutes to remove the encampment and disperse, or face arrest. Shortly thereafter, the protesters moved to another location on campus. Around 5:15pm, WUPD again gave the protesters 10 minutes to disperse or risk arrest. Around 7:30pm, WashU and St. Louis Metro Police gave a final warning to disperse and began arresting protesters. In total, the police arrested 100 individuals. One of the arrested individuals included a faculty member from Southern Illinois University, who was hospitalized with multiple broken ribs and a broken hand. Video shows him recording the police arresting other protesters when five officers grabbed him, forcing him to the ground.

After the encampment was cleared, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, the Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration, and the Executive Chancellor for Academic Affairs, sent out a joint email statement about the protest expressing concern that the demonstration “had the potential to get out of control and become dangerous.” It also stated that all of the protesters arrested would be charged with trespassing, and “some may also be charged with resisting arrest and assault, including for injuries to police officers.” The university later reported that, among those arrested were 23 WashU students and at least four employees and that four members of WUPD had been injured during the incident.

Following the protest, the university placed six faculty members on paid leave pending an investigation into their participation in the protest. This included four faculty members who had been arrested on trespassing charges and two who had allegedly helped to set up the encampment and used their university ID cards to allow “unauthorized persons” into campus buildings; both of the latter two faculty members denied this accusation. While under investigation, the faculty members are banned from campus, locked out of “university systems,” and forbidden from speaking with WashU staff and students, even in off-campus settings.

In addition, the university initiated academic disciplinary processes against the arrested students.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forcible arrests of apparently peaceful student protesters by university police, and about a university banning faculty from campus for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. While university authorities have an obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of students and university personnel and should endeavor to prevent disruptions that inappropriately inhibit the functioning of or access to higher education, they must do so consistent with their responsibility to ensure academic freedom and free expression on campus. The punishment of nonviolent student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.