Despite multiple attempts by University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and other UVA leaders to explain why they chose to for forcefully clear a pro-Palestinian encampment on Grounds, many UVA students and faculty remain convinced that university leaders acted inappropriately.

The days since the May 4 clearing have been marked by debates among UVA administrators, students and professors regarding Ryan's decision to use police force, as well as different retellings of the events that transpired.

Most recently, the university’s Faculty Senate passed a motion calling for an external review of the events leading up to the May 4 encampment clearing.

Senators’ positions on the events ranged from inquisitive to scathing. Eric Ramirez-Weaver, Faculty Senator and associate professor in the Medieval Studies program, proposed an unsuccessful motion to denounce the events of the encampment clearing. He said that the motion would not condemn any individuals involved in the decision-making process, but send the message that the Faculty Senate did not support the use of violence on grounds against an unarmed group of peaceful protesters.

“I think that the way to approach it is to merely say that this is what happened, and exclusively to say that we as members of the faculty senate won’t stand for this happening on our Grounds, and we stand alongside those who have been hurt,” said Ramirez-Weaver.

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Dexter Auction collaborated with the Cavalier Daily to report this story. The student journalists of the independent, nonprofit news organization at the University of Virginia have been reporting on the protests and got first-hand accounts of many of the facts you read here.

Other senators were less convinced that the university had acted inappropriately. But most agreed that an external review was necessary.

The Faculty Senate is a group of elected and appointed professors tasked with representing university faculty and advising the President and the Board of Visitors. While the Senate’s motion does not bind the UVA to take any action, university Spokesperson Bethanie Glover, said “university leaders agree that a review should be conducted and are evaluating next steps.”

Glover did not share further details about the potential review, including whether it will be conducted externally from UVA and what timeline it will follow.

Ryan and other administrators attended the Faculty Senate meeting. While some Senators asked them questions about their decisions, others gave statements decrying the administration’s decision to use state police force to clear the encampment. Some also expressed confusion with the explanations administrators gave in the days after.

A line of officers in heavy gear, including weapons, masks, helmets with face shielfd and guns on a law with a brick walkway and leafy trees behind them.
After days of peaceful student protest, UVA president said ‘it became necessary to rely on assistance from the Virginia State Police' to clear an encampment. What followed was a joint operation between multiple police agencies to clear tents, remove protesters and, ultimately, push the large crowd that grew off campus. Credit: Angilee Shah/Dexter Auction

More than 50 officers from Virginia State Police and other local police departments cleared the encampment May 4. After a tense standoff between police and protesters lasting more than two hours, state troopers in riot gear formed a line around it and an officer with a megaphone instructed all protesters to clear the area or be arrested for unlawful assembly. The protesters refused to move. Shortly before 3 p.m., the university declared the encampment an unlawful assembly, and state police raised their shields and began to march on the roughly three dozen protesters who remained there.

In a series of coordinated waves, officers used riot shields and pepper spray to force protesters out of the area. As they advanced, officers dismantled tents and pushed multiple protesters to the ground, restraining some using zip-ties. Officers detained a total of 27 people, including 12 students, according to UVA Chief Operating Officer Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis. Charges against many of those arrested, including multiple people charged with trespassing and one charged with attempted assault, have since been dropped.

As officers continued to press the crowd in the direction of university Avenue, the police perimeter separating onlookers from protesters became less clear. Some folks in the crowd used bottled water to flush the eyes of those who had been pepper sprayed. Some onlookers on a nearby hill cheered in support of the clearing, while others yelled at officers in disapproval. The crowd ultimately dispersed after police pushed protesters and onlookers to university Avenue, which was closed to traffic for at least part of the day.

Ryan has offered numerous explanations for why he decided to clear the encampment. At the virtual town hall he and other university leaders held on May 7 to answer questions, he said that administrators decided to clear the encampment after protesters refused to take down their tents, despite being informed that the tents were a violation of university policy.

YouTube video
A virtual town hall held by UVA President Jim Ryan and his leadership team where they answer questions about their decision to forcefully clear a pro-Palestine protest from Grounds.

“Individuals in the demonstration were given multiple opportunities on Saturday to comply with university and police directives, first to take down the tents, and then to clear and leave the area, and they refused to do so,” Ryan said.

He also addressed the apparent confusion about the order to remove the tents. At some point, protesters and the faculty liasing for them found a document on the university's Environmental Health and Safety website that exempted recreational tents from prohibited structures.

The document was wrong, Ryan said. The policy that linked to the document with the exemption banned the use of tents without permits entirely. He said someone in the university administration removed the exemption from the document the morning of May 4 to address that inconsistency.

“Someone on our team — and I'm not sure that this was the right judgment — at 9:30 or so on Saturday, decided to remove that so that those rules were consistent with policy,” Ryan said. “But there's no doubt that law enforcement have the ability, and exercise that ability, to prohibit tents. And I don't think there was any confusion among the protesters about whether tents were allowed either.”

Dozens of people gather in the shade of a large tree. Attached to the tree is a sign that reads, "up up with liberation, down down with occupation."
Students protesting U.S. involvement in the war in Gaza filled a grassy area near the University of Virginia chapel on May 1 in an ongoing, overnight demonstration. The protest began Tuesday, April 30 and showed no signs of stopping. Kori Price/Dexter Auction Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Several faculty members who were at the scene told Dexter Auction that the decision to act with such force appeared to be a massive escalation.

Protesters had actively refused to remove tents from the site, despite multiple instructions from police to do so. But they were not dangerous, said Ramirez-Weaver, who proposed the unsuccessful motion to condemn the events.

“[An external review] doesn’t begin to call to task the inadequate use of force, the aggressive use of force and what I think is unequivocally — and I don’t find it problematic at all [to say] — an asymmetric display of excessive force against our students,” Ramirez-Weaver said.

Ryan disagreed.

He and other UVA leaders felt that the situation at the encampment was escalating Saturday morning and that it could get out of hand, he said at the virtual town hall. They listed several reasons. One was that protesters actively resisted UVA Police' initial attempts to remove their tents.

“The exercise of peaceful civil disobedience by people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi has a long and honorable tradition,” Ryan said. “But the key is that it is peaceful. So part of what we were thinking with the students was they were going to engage in civil disobedience and when the university police showed up they would voluntarily get arrested. That’s what we thought would happen. And it didn’t.”

Instead, when UVA Police entered the camp to try and take down tents, the protesters locked arms and held out umbrellas to physically block officers from getting to their tents. The line was not stationary. As officers tried to get around them they moved quickly in unison to block their way.

Timothy Longo, associate vice president for safety and security and chief of the university Police Department, said that protesters used those umbrellas “in an aggressive manner.”

At some point during the encounter, an officer said one of the protesters tried to assault him. The protester was quickly arrested, the officers retreated, and Ryan decided to call in Virginia State Troopers.

This moment was caught on video by the Cavalier Daily.

YouTube video

That moment was a tipping point, Ryan said. But he also said other things factored into his decision. One was that four men dressed in black, wearing helmets and carrying large backpacks were seen at the encampment. Ryan said that law enforcement identified two of them as having participated in violent acts elsewhere in Virginia, although officials will not say who they are or give any other information about their previous activities.

The other issue was that the protesters were using social media to try and encourage more people to come to the protest. Ryan said he feared that the encampment would grow in size, bringing more tents and more potentially dangerous individuals along with it — and this motivated him to clear the demonstration.

“I know many have and will continue to question our decisions, and I will always second guess myself — it’s impossible not to,” Ryan said. “These were very hard calls — excruciatingly hard — but we tried to make the best decisions we could under very difficult and volatile conditions. And we made those decisions with an eye toward the safety of our entire community.”

Following Ryan's town hall, many students and faculty maintain that the university’s decision to use force was unjustified. Some UVA faculty who were present at the encampment before and during the police clearing hosted a virtual event Thursday titled “An Honest Town Hall,” where speakers presented their own timeline of Saturday’s events and answered questions from attendees.

Levi Vonk, assistant professor in the university’s Global Studies program and one of the faculty town hall organizers, was present at the encampment as a faculty liaison. He said that he and many other faculty members boycotted the Ryan's virtual town hall, largely because administrators did not explain how the audience questions they answered were selected, which motivated them to host their own.

“We didn't feel like [the university’s event] was in the spirit of a town hall. A town hall is a democratic space where everyone in the community can come together and hash out a problem, voice their concerns and try to address them,” Vonk said. “That’s not what this was. It was a university broadcast.”

Speakers at the faculty town hall challenged multiple claims that UVA administrators made about the events of Saturday, including Longo’s assertion that protesters wielded umbrellas aggressively around UVA Police officers. Associate Professor of History Fahad Bishara, who was also present at the encampment as a faculty liaison, said protesters used umbrellas not as weapons, but to protect themselves.

“They were not meant to be an offensive weapon at all,” Bishara said. “Given that the protesters were ultimately pepper sprayed, one might understand why an umbrella might be a useful device.”

Faculty speakers challenged Ryan’s claim that four men with helmets and large backpacks were present at the encampment. Multiple faculty said that they did not see any protesters who fit that description. Assistant Professor of English Laura Goldblatt, who was also present at the encampment as a faculty liaison, said Longo never mentioned these men in the multiple conversations she and other faculty had with him Saturday, despite the dangers he claimed they posed.

“I should say that on Friday evening especially, there were many, many children around playing tag and having a good time,” Goldblatt said. “That would have been a moment to say, ‘these children are at risk.’ And there was no mention of that.”

In addition to the faculty town hall, dozens of faculty members have signed statements decrying the university’s response to the encampment, including groups of professors from the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Education and Human Development. According to a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by Molly Conger, student organizations, groups of faculty and individual professors have cumulatively written more than 60 statements and open letters condemning UVA's response to the encampment.

In a statement signed by more than 40 faculty members as of the time of publication, professors in the Department of History said that the use of “militarized police” to clear the encampment violated the university’s commitment to free inquiry and expression.

Police officer lead a person in a t-shirt, hands tied behind his back, dow a stairwell, while others look on.
Officers detained a total of 27 people, including 12 students in a multi-agency police action against a pro-Palestine protest encampment. Angilee Shah/Dexter Auction Credit: Courtesy of Adrienne Dent

“The drastic move to end a peaceful protest with militarized police, rather than reason, put a swift end to any form of deliberation, debate, and democratic process,” the statement read. “It violated our commitment as an educational institution to seek understanding and discourage mindless compliance.”

Associate Professor of History Erik Linstrum, one of the statement’s signatories, said the letter also calls for the UVA to provide more information about why they decided to clear the encampment using the level of force that they did. Linstrum said that while he could not speak on behalf of other signatories, he found the explanations given by administrators at May 7’s town hall troubling. In particular, he said that he did not support Ryan’s explanation that fears of the encampment expanding motivated the him to take police action.

“That’s not how the First Amendment works. You don’t get to break up protests because you think they might get bigger,” Linstrum said. “The last part of the letter is pressing for more answers, more transparency [and] more accountability, and I think we’ve not had nearly enough of that yet.”

In addition to issuing group statements, a small number of faculty critical of the administration’s actions also stepped down from their positions on university-run task forces and committees. Oludamini Ogunnaike, assistant professor of African Religious Thought and Democracy, resigned from the university’s Religion, Diversity and Belonging task force Sunday. The university created the task force, which comprises students, professors and university administrators, with the goal of ensuring that the university is welcoming to people of all faiths and cultures. In his resignation statement, Ogunnaike said that while he believes the task force has done good work dealing with issues of religious discrimination at the university, the administration’s use of police force Saturday went against the task force’s mission.

However, not all faculty statements have criticized the administration. More than 50 professors from the UVA School of Law signed on to a letter addressed to the university’s Faculty Senate, released May 10 expressing their support for Ryan.

“We, members of the Law School faculty, write to express our strong support for President Jim Ryan,” the letter begins. “While some of us may have different views on the police response to clearing the protest encampment on Grounds on Saturday, May 4, we all agree that President Ryan and his leadership team made the decision to intervene with the best interests of the university, the student and the wider UVA community in mind.”

The letter went on to say that Ryan, himself a UVA Law alumnus, is a friend to many in the Law School. It said that Ryan has successfully led the university through multiple difficult events, including the Nov. 13, 2022 shooting that killed three UVA students and the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017.

In addition to discourse among faculty, dozens of student organizations have also published statements decrying the university’s clearing of the encampment Saturday.

The statements are some of the only public responses from UVA students. Many of the student protesters have declined to speak with media since the protest began. Dexter Auction reached out to dozens of students online who had posted about being at the protest when it was cleared, and in person on the campus. Only two responded, but neither of them wished to be named.

Pro-Palestine protesters face off against Virgnia State troopers on Saturday, May 4. Angilee Shah/Dexter Auction

In a joint statement authored May 5, nine Contracted Independent Organizations on Grounds, including Muslims United, Black Student Alliance and Asian Student Union, wrote that the university’s decision to deploy state police in riot gear violated students’ rights to free speech and neglected student safety.

“There is no room for such injustice and suppression at our university,” the statement read. “May 4th’s events have shown a blatant disregard for the rights of students to express dissent.”

Among the numerous student statements was a letter signed by residents of 45 of the university’s 54 Lawn rooms. These rooms are located in the Academical Village, which comprises the buildings Jefferson designed for the university’s original campus and includes the Rotunda. Lawn rooms are reserved for students in their final year of undergraduate study, and are intended to recognize unselfish service to the university and Charlottesville communities.

In the letter, Lawn residents condemned the arrest of student protesters and demanded that the university administration return those arrested to Grounds without threat of punishment. One signatory, who requested to remain anonymous, said that the university should hold themselves accountable for brutalizing students in a place where they are meant to be safe.

“There were so many ways this could have been deescalated, and the University just chose the most violent path,” the Lawn resident said. “I hope that they can act in ways in the future to try and earn back the trust of students, but they definitely do not have it right now.”

Tamica Jean-Charles and Angilee Shah contributed to this report.

Finn Trainer is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, and is the news editor of the nonprofit, independent student newspaper The Cavalier Daily. He is pursuing a double Bachelor of Arts degree in History and English.