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Police arrest over 100 at Washington University protest decrying Gaza attacks, limits on speech

St. Louis County Police arrest a protestor on Saturday, April 27, 2024, at Washington University. Protestors marched through campus and set up an encampment in response to the university's ties to Boeing, the supplier of many weapons to Israel used in the Gaza war.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Kelly Merrill, Jill Stein's Deputy Campaign Director, is thrown to the grounds and arrested on Saturday at Washington University. Protesters marched through campus and set up an encampment in response to the university's ties to Boeing, which supplies weapons to Israel.

Updated at 12:20 p.m. April 29 with comments from Jewish community members.

Hundreds of Washington University campus community members and local activists demanded the private university stop investing in Boeing during a Saturday protest because it supplies weapons to Israel.

They also called for an end to the yearslong war in Gaza where in recent months, thousands have died in Israeli bombardments following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas fighters.

Photojournalist Eric Lee discusses this story on 'St. Louis on the Air'

"End the siege on Gaza now,” the group chanted while marching around the campus before setting up an encampment at the school’s Tisch Park. “Stop the killing. Stop the slaughter. Gaza must have food and water."

Police from across the region responded to the demonstration and about five hours later declared it an unlawful gathering. After protesters set up camp in violation of university policy, campus police told them they had to leave. Law enforcement officers arrested more than 100 people who refused orders to leave campus, including 23 Wash U students and four school employees, according to university officials.

All will be charged with trespassing. Some will be charged with resisting arrest and assault, Wash U officials said in a statement.

“We are firmly committed to free expression and allow ample opportunity for voices to be heard on our campus,” university officials said in the statement. “However, we expect everyone to respect our policies and we will take swift action to enforce them to their fullest extent.”

Jill Stein, a Green Party presidential hopeful in town for a campaign event, was briefly detained and released.

Students at St. Louis-area universities have called on their administrations to cut ties with Boeing for months because of the company's ties to Israel. “We are calling on the university to divest from genocide,” said Penelope Thaman, a sophomore who was part of the protest.

The demonstration at Washington University is part of a wave of demonstrations on college campuses across the United States, some of which have been met with forceful police responses to control crowds.

In St. Louis, students and activists expressed outrage at the school’s response to an April 13 pro-Palestinian gathering on campus where police arrested 12 protesters and gave them summonses to appear in court. Wash U officials suspended three students on the grounds they disrupted an on-campus event.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march in response to the university's ties to Boeing, the supplier of many weapons to Israel used in the Gaza war, on Saturday, April 27, 2024, at Washington University.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march on Saturday at Washington University.

Freedom of expression

More than 130 students, faculty and staff signed a letter to Washington University leaders last this week criticizing the university for allegedly infringing on students' freedom of speech.

“No matter where one stands on the ongoing violence against Gaza or whether Boeing is a good associate for the university, one should be concerned that the attacks on freedom of speech and academic freedom have increased significantly in our country and on this campus,” the letter’s authors wrote.

Michael Allen, a senior lecturer of architecture at the school, echoed the letter’s sentiment, while emphasizing Wash U students are attempting to share their beliefs and that they should be allowed to do so — despite what their viewpoint may be.

“As faculty, I feel obligated to stand for freedom of expression on campus,” he said. ”We love our students, and we want to see them enjoy their right to free speech on this campus.”

At Saturday’s protest, students said they were frustrated with administrators who don’t appear to be interested in what students are trying to tell people about the attacks in Gaza and the plight of Palestinians. The arrests and suspensions after the earlier protests made that clear, students said.

“The fact that it has happened before proves that the administration is not really interested in listening to student voices about any of these concerns,” said Max Franks, a Wash U junior, during the protest. “The administration is interested in protecting its image and its bottom line. So if we hope to achieve anything, those are the things that we need to interfere with.”

Some Jewish students at Washington University said the protest was scary.

Charlie Weingarten, a sophomore who’s involved with both Wash U’s Hillel and Chabad, called some of the chants she heard Saturday antisemitic. They included “from the river to the sea.” The meaning of the refrain is disputed by Palestinians and supporters of Israel.

“It’s straight up hate speech,” Weingarten said.

She added she understands the fear that protesters must have felt during the police crackdown, but supports the decision to have police on campus.

“I don’t agree with some of the tactics that they used,” said Weingarten, who watched the protest from campus. “But the presence and being there and the university shutting this down — and making it very clear that behavior like this will not be allowed on our campus — I think is incredibly important.”

Jordan Kadosh, director of the Anti-Defamation League Heartland chapter, shared similar concerns and said in a Saturday night statement he was dismayed to see protesters use terms like “intifada.”

The Arabic term, which means “shaking off," refers to two periods in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. For many Palestinians, the term represents solidarity with the uprising against Israeli control. Some Jews, however, say the word encourages violence and terrorism against their people.

“A call for intifada is a call for violent terrorism that targets civilians,” he wrote. “Protests that use these terms don’t alleviate suffering not bring about lasting peace in a global or local setting.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.
Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Eric Lee is a photojournalist at St. Louis Public Radio.