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Officials, orgs respond to Virginia-wide protest arrests

Sereen Haddad stands and other protesters clash with police on Monday, April 29, 2024 at VCU in Richmond. (Photo by Shaban Athuman, VPM News)
Sereen Haddad stands and other protesters clash with police on Monday, April 29, 2024 at VCU in Richmond. (Photo by Shaban Athuman, VPM News)

More than 100 protesters gathered at dusk Tuesday in Richmond’s Abner Clay Park.

People took turns standing on a picnic table to address the pro-Palestine gathering. Those speaking to the crowd, who were mostly seated in the grass, touched on topics like healing and self-care.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

Several spoke about how to weather aggression from law enforcement, and one led protesters in song. Most also mentioned standing against U.S. support for Israel's military and called for the disclosure of how Virginia Commonwealth University invests its money following  13 arrests during a similar gathering at the school’s library a day before.

Earlier on Tuesday, politicians reacted largely along party lines to recent antiwar protests at three Virginia public colleges — as well as law enforcement’s response.

While Republicans have denounced the protesters at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and the University of Mary Washington, Democrats’ statements have varied from condemning law enforcement’s use of force, to qualified statements, to silence.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin  posted from his state-run social media that Virginia had seen students and nonstudent protesters “obstruct and disrupt student life and endanger public safety.”

“After repeated warnings and refusal to disperse, law enforcement must protect Virginians,” he wrote. “My administration will continue to fully support campus, local and state law enforcement and university leadership to keep our campuses safe.”

Youngkin’s campaign account called the pro-Palestine protests “ antisemitic.” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County  called the protesters antisemitic “agitators.”

Gilbert also referred to the protest slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as “genocidal” — a legal term the International Court of Justice  has not ruled applies to Israel’s actions in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks.

The slogan itself, in reference to land  from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, has been simultaneously called a rallying cry adopted by supporters of statehood for Palestine — and anti-Israel or antisemitic rhetoric suggesting the destruction of Israel. ( NPRthe Associated Press and  Forward all have explanations regarding its historical and more recent political connotations.)

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears questioned whether the protests were funded or manufactured, a move  reminiscent of repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories that Jewish billionaire George Soros funded the protests.

While the Democratic Party of Virginia has not issued a statement as of Tuesday night,  Virginia Young Democrats issued statements condemning police actions Monday. The Southwest Virginia Young Democrats even  issued a call to collect bail funds for the 80-plus protesters arrested at Virginia Tech.

General Assembly legislators also varied in their remarks following the arrest of 13 people at  Monday’s protest at VCU. Four Democratic delegates and one state senator — representing Arlington, Fairfax County, Fredericksburg, Suffolk and Woodbridge —  issued a joint statement asking universities to change their approach to dealing with the protests.

In the letter, Dels. Rozia Henson, Adele McClure, Joshua Cole and Nadarius Clark, as well as state Sen. Saddam Salim “urge colleges and universities that have arrested their own students for participating in constitutionally protected protesting to de-escalate tensions, reconsider their actions, and critically re-engage their own student bodies.”

A pro-Palestine encampment at the University of Mary Washington, in Cole’s district, was dismantled over the weekend.  The Fredericksburg Free Press reported that 12 people — including nine students — were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine did not say whether the use of force was appropriate during press appearances Tuesday.

“My hope is that the college presidents and administrations will be communicating with each other and try to show them appropriate restraint,” said Warner. “But again, when the law is broken, there needs to be consequences.”

Warner said he spoke with VCU officials Tuesday morning, but didn’t elaborate.

Kaine, who is  running for re-election this fall, also didn’t take a stance on the violence.

“What's the difference between dialogue, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, and disruption that is intimidation or harassment?” Kaine asked. “There's no simple tests that define that, but that's what university presidents are grappling with.”

Locally, at least one elected official in Richmond condemned police violence.

“Last night, law enforcement made the decision to escalate an otherwise peaceful demonstration on VCU’s campus by violently confronting unarmed protesters and deploying chemical agents. This level of response was wholly uncalled for,” wrote City Councilor Andreas Addison,  who is currently running for mayor.

The Progressive Jewish Student Union, recently founded at VCU,  issued a statement Tuesday condemning the university and police actions, and standing in solidarity with pro-Palestine protesters.

“At PJSU, we hold space for anyone affected by the extreme displays of violence perpetrated by the university,” the statement said. “We are sending peace and love to those who are processing amidst the international struggle for Palestinian liberation. … It is our Jewish values that teach us to improve our world and support peace and liberation for all people.”