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: May 04, 2024

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):University of Virginia

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 4, 2024, Virginia state police forcibly arrested 25 protesters, including 12 students and four employees, who were participating in a peaceful pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Virginia (UVA).

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 30, a group of students established an encampment for Gaza on the lawn outside the UVA’s chapel to protest Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and to demand that the administration disclose its investments and divest from companies that profit from Israeli military action. The encampment was peaceful, with students and faculty reading together, sharing food, and chanting. UVA President Jim Ryan and University Police Chief Timothy Longo stated that the group could stay on the lawn as long as they did not sleep there and remained peaceful.

Initially, students set up tents, but took them down after being informed that tents were prohibited on campus without approval from UVA’s administration. Upon further analysis, the students and faculty supporters realized that the policy that the UVA administration had referenced included a link to a guidance document stating that “recreational tents for camping are exempt” from the approval requirement. Therefore, on May 3, in the face of forecasted heavy rains, the students once again set up tents. The university stated that the tents could remain overnight because of the forecasted rain and the presence of children who had joined their families at the protest.

Early on the morning of May 4, UVA’s administration edited the guidance document and removed the clause exempting recreational tents from the approval. When asked about it later, a university spokesperson stated that the guidance document had been updated to reflect official policy.

Later that same morning, the university and local police officers told the students several times they needed to disperse and remove the tents because they were violating university policy. When they refused to disperse, President Ryan called state police, announcing that “due to the demonstrators’ increasing resistance and refusal to… promptly leav[e] the designated area, additional resources from Virginia State Police were requested to assist with enforcing the declaration of an unlawful assembly around 2:45 p.m.”

Around 2:30 p.m., police began to move in on the encampment. Video footage shows riot gear clad police using shields to push against a line of students holding umbrellas in front of them as shields. One student was pushed forward, causing a commotion, resulting in police firing chemical irritants on the students.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forcible arrests of apparently peaceful student protesters by police. 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.