A protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the University of Virginia is approaching its third consecutive day, with no sign of stopping.

UVA students will be allowed to continue on-campus demonstrations protesting U.S. involvement in the ongoing conflict between Israeli military forces and Hamas militants in Gaza as long as no university policies are broken, said David Hawkins-Jacinto, executive director of strategic communications at the UVA Division of Student Affairs.

The day's long protest was one of two that began this week. A separate protest organized by UVA Apartheid Divest Coalition, brough more than a hundred students and Charlottesville community members on and around the UVA Lawn on Wednesday to protest U.S. involvement in the ongoing conflict between Israeli military forces and Hamas militants in Gaza. These students joined others nationwide in calling for their schools to divest from companies affiliated with Israeli military forces or the state of Israel in an attempt to pressure the U.S. and Israeli governments into reducing military action in Gaza. The date of the demonstration at UVA, May 1, was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of UVA’s 1970 ‘May Day’ demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war.

Nearly 35,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed in the conflict since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

While the demonstration on the Lawn ended as scheduled at 5 p.m. Wednesday, dozens of students not affiliated with any particular student group have been continuously occupying a nearby outdoor space next to the UVA Chapel since Tuesday evening.

A number of demonstrators at both locations declined when asked if they would like to comment on why they chose to participate in the protests. A flyer listing protest safety tips appeared to be widely distributed amongst the demonstrators, and included “do not talk to the press” alongside “hydrate, use sun protection, don’t go hungry.”

“A lot of people have been wanting to come out and show solidarity and support to the Palestinian people,” said one demonstrator who asked to remain anonymous because he was worried that his involvement in the demonstrations would jeopardize his ongoing bid for U.S. citizenship. “At the end of the day, the investments that UVA has are, in a way, our responsibility as well. We as students see it as something tangible that we can influence. So for us, it’s about creating a culture and a community at UVA that shows administration that students' voices matter in this regard.”

The demonstrations on Wednesday were peaceful. At times demonstrators chanted and held signs, but there were also quieter periods during which most protesters sought shade under the trees dotting UVA’s grounds. An event featuring a jazz ensemble was concurrently taking place on the other end of the Lawn, and occasionally it was possible to hear the music from where the protesters were gathered beneath the UVA Rotunda. In the early afternoon a group of about 20 students gathered to face in the direction of Mecca and pray; other protesters formed a circle around the praying students.

“It's not easy for anyone on either side. There is a lived Jewish experience that has faced discrimination. But at the same time, I don't think that justifies what's going on in Gaza right now,” said Kaia Salem, a third-year student observing the protests. “The reality is that the Israeli government does not treat Palestinians well.”

The ongoing, overnight protest will be allowed to remain as long as UVA policies are not broken, Hawkins-Jacinto said. That would set a “bad precedent” for the next student protest to take place on UVA’s grounds, he added. These policies include not erecting any structures or creating holes in the ground, or attaching signs or other objects to trees.

“Freedom of expression is part of the student experience,” Hawkins-Jacinto said. “This has been an exemplary protest.”

Around 2 p.m., a conversation took place between a group of demonstrators, UVA Police Chief Tim Longo, UVA Vice President Kenyon R. Bonner, and other UVA administrators. Hawkins-Jacinto said that the goal of the conversation was to discuss, among other issues, a sign that demonstrators had attached to a “two-hundred year old tree.”

Dozens of people gather in the shade of a large tree, many have chairs and coolers. On the tree truck is a sign that reads: "up up with liberation, down down with occupation."
UVA Police and officials quickly told protesters to remove a sign that read, “up up with liberation, down down with occupation,” from the truck of a “200 year old tree.” Not attaching signs to trees, buildings or other objects is one of the policies student protesters must follow to be allowed to remain in the continuous demonstration. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Hawkins-Jacinto emphasized that the university hoped to maintain as minimal a police presence as necessary.

Hawkins-Jacinto said that the university had coordinated its response to the demonstrations with the UVA Police, Albemarle County Police, and the Virginia State Fusion Center. The center's website states that it is “a collaborative effort of state and federal agencies working in conjunction with local partners to share resources, expertise, and/or information to better identify, detect, prevent, and respond to terrorist and criminal activity utilizing an all crimes/all hazards approach.”

About a dozen students took part in a counterprotest early Wednesday afternoon in another UVA outdoor space across the street from the pro-Palestinian demonstration. Some students at the counterprotest wore Israeli and American flags as capes.

Ahava Freeman, a counterprotester and fourth year undergraduate with personal connections to people in Israel, said that while she has always felt safe as a Jewish student at UVA, she has been frustrated by the tendency of what she calls “Instagram activism” to over-simplify the ongoing conflict.

“I've noticed a lot of people only start caring once it became popular to start caring about the movement on either side,” said Freeman. “No matter what you believe, what side you're on, saying that the conflict is simple is, in my opinion, just wrong, and is not a good way of looking at the world because there's no such thing as a simple conflict.”

An Instagram account that appeared to be associated with the continuous protest listed a number of demands in a Thursday news release, including for UVA Investment Management Company to disclose all investments, for the university to divest from “all weapons manufacturers aiding in the genocide of Palestinians,” for UVA to “end all financial and academic ties with Israeli institutions,” and to assure students engaging in protest that they will not face disciplinary action. The release requested a response from UVA administration by noon on Friday, May 3.

An end time for that continuous demonstration has not been publicly announced.

I was born at the old Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Ave. and attended Charlottesville City Schools for 13 years, then spent five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I moved back to Charlottesville in 2020, where I currently work full-time as a biologist while reporting as an independent journalist. My writing focuses on the intersection of policy, community, and science. Reach me by email at margaretellenmanto [at] gmail [dot] com.