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Escalating Gaza protest at University of Rochester draws differing perspectives

A group of pro-Palestinian protestors on the University of Rochester campus began a sit-in Wednesday morning at Wallis Hall. Students gathered outside on the steps and some students held a sit-in inside the building, which houses the university's administrative offices.
Max Schulte
A group of pro-Palestinian protesters began a sit-in Wednesday morning at Wallis Hall at the University of Rochester, and other students gathered outside, on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. The building houses administrative offices.

UPDATE: A University of Rochester spokesperson said in a statement that the sit-in ended around 6:30 pm Wednesday when students occupying the main floor vacated the space after a series of conversations between protest leaders and administrators. Wallis Hall will re-open on Thursday morning, they said.

The original story continues below:

Call and response chants filled the air outside of the main administration building at the University of Rochester’s River Campus on Wednesday.

Dozens of protesters — mostly students, with a few staff and faculty members — raised flags, banners and handmade signs in front of Wallis Hall while others staged a sit-in inside. The crowd grew to about 100 people by midday.

This comes one week after student protesters began an encampment on campus that started with about 15 tents outside Wilson Commons last Tuesday and has since relocated and now spans the quad outside the Rush Rhees Library.

They were calling for the university to endorse a cease-fire in Gaza; divest from Israeli academic institutions, ending research and study abroad programs; and reverse what they said were university restrictions placed on several student protesters.

Jack Mottley, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, stood by in support of the student protesters. He was one of few people willing to speak to WXXI News.

"The students do have academic freedom ... to state their opinions and state their beliefs and make their demands,” Mottley said. “The administration should be honoring that, and they're not ... and I believe that that's the wrong thing to do.”

This is the first time he’s seen a campus protest of this magnitude in his 37 years at the university.

“I got here just after the South Africa disinvestment marches and other things happened. So I've not seen anything like that,” he said. “There have been some marches, but certainly nothing at this level.”

A group of pro-Palestinian protestors gather on the steps of Wallis Hall at the University of Rochester.
Max Schulte
A group of pro-Palestinian protestors on the University of Rochester campus began a sit-in Wednesday morning at Wallis Hall at the University of Rochester.

In his view, Mottley said, the pro-Palestinian protests have remained free of hate speech and antisemitism.

“Anti-Zionism is not antisemitic,” he said. “I know what's in my heart. I know what's in my mind. And they don't get to tell me what's in my head.”

The university locked Wallis Hall but did not otherwise shut down campus. Classes continued as scheduled.

First-year international relations student Alessio Cristianetti-Walker stopped while walking past the protest. He was with two other student athletes, carrying vases of flowers they said were for a formal.

“I just wanted to see what they're talking about. I haven't been very happy with what I've seen before so far (from student protests on campus),” said Cristianetti-Walker, who is Catholic. “They argue that all they want is peace and protection of civilians. And I find that to be disingenuous.”

To Christianetti-Walker, some chants, like those rallying behind intifada, a Palestinian uprising that started in the late 1980s, are hateful.

He said he’s concerned that he hasn’t seen protesters condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on people in Israel nor call for Hamas to release hostages held in Gaza.

“Zionism is the concept of an Israeli state. If they're asking to end Zionism, that means they're asking for the end of Israel and all the people that live there,” Cristianetti-Walker said. “So I think this movement, I think it's full of hate.”

One of the protesters, third-year pre-med student Leila K., has a different perspective. She is using her last initial out of concern of retaliation and harassment.

“Calling for a ceasefire, first of all, would also mean releasing the hostages,” she said. “If we want to talk about the Israeli hostages in Palestine, we need to talk about the thousands of political prisoners that have been imprisoned by Israel — a lot of them children under the age of 18for years ... who have not had the right to due process.”

A group of pro-Palestinian protestors march past University of Rochester campus saftey officers after students began a sit-in Wednesday morning at Wallis Hall.
Max Schulte
A group of pro-Palestinian protestors march past University of Rochester campus saftey officers after students began a sit-in Wednesday morning at Wallis Hall.

She wore a kaffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf that she said “has a lot of significance culturally, but it's now become a symbol of resistance and a refusal to let our culture be erased.”

Five students who have participated in the protests have received social bans from UR, she said. The bans limit students from entering campus except for classes and dining hall meals.

Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the protest organizers, posted a copy of a letter issuing an interim ban, omitting the addressed student’s name. The letter states that the ban is in relation to student code of conduct violations, such as using sound amplification, flag poles, and holding an unregistered protest on Friday. UR has declined to discuss or confirm specifics about student sanctions and did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday.

In social media posts, the protesters said they would not end the sit-in until their demands are met. In a statement Wednesday evening, the university said, “University officials are continuing to monitor the situation. Regular University operations are continuing, but Wallis Hall is not accessible until further notice. Wilson (Boulevard) also remains closed.”

The university has said it will not commit to academic disinvestment. For Leila K., that is unacceptable. She spoke of the thousands of Palestinians killed in Gaza, the millions displaced, and the growing humanitarian crisis.

“We should not be in support of any institution or any government that commits those atrocities,” she said.

Palestinian health officials have estimated about 35,000 Palestinians have been killed but said they have lost count of the dead buried under rubble and in unmarked graves as the war enters its seventh month. The Israeli government claims to have killed 13,000 Hamas militants.

Almost 1,140 Israelis died in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, as did about 40 Thai workers. At least 8,700 people were injured.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.