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UNC Charlotte Encampment Raid Stirs Free Speech Debate on Campus

Hundreds rallied in support of student organizers in Uptown last weekend

a photo of a person chanting protests while holding a Palestinian flag with protesters in the background
Protesters marched through Uptown on May 11 after student organizers were kicked out of their encampment on UNC Charlotte’s campus. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Throughout history, college campuses have been a breeding ground for political and anti-war protests. The protests against the Vietnam War, South African apartheid and in support of the Central American Peace and Solidarity movement on college campuses have directed divestment, boycott and sanction movements that led to US policy change. 

For Tina Shull, director of public history at UNC Charlotte, the recent wave of protests against Israel’s military actions in Palestine is a chance to see history playing out in real-time. 

“I think that’s the most beautiful thing about this moment and about this movement is that students are pointing to and drawing upon a longer history of student-led activism critiquing not only US politics but the impacts of US foreign policy and war,” she said.

And yet, Shull struggled with the decision to use her name while speaking to Queen City Nerve for this story about a growing protest movement at her university.

Citing fear of retaliation against faculty who come out in support of students’ right to protest following a recent crackdown on student-led protest encampments at UNC Charlotte and across the country, Shull emphasized that she would speak on the record only as an individual citizen and not as a representative of the university. 

Shull was one of more than 160 faculty members who signed an open letter to UNC Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber on Monday, May 6, hours after Gaber signed off on police action against a student protest encampment that had been set up on UNC Charlotte’s campus in April.

Since April 22nd, student organizers have demanded the university and UNC system as a whole “disclose, divest, defend and declare” — disclose institutional expenditures, divest from companies and projects with ties to Israel and declare the military actions occurring in Gaza a genocide.

On April 29, student protesters set up a Gaza solidarity encampment in the quad outside of the College of Health and Human Services and Cato College of Education on campus. The students were met with continuous efforts to counteract or shut down the site by administration and counter-protestors.

“The school has responded by constant threats of arrest and suspension if we do not comply with their arbitrary rules,” a student representative told Queen City Nerve. 

a photo of student protesters at the UNCC encampment
Students and supporters gather at the UNC Charlotte encampment before it was raided. (Courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace)

On May 1, sprinklers were turned on for nearly six hours at the original site of the encampment, flooding the area and forcing organizers to move elsewhere on campus. 

Organizers relocated the encampment to the quad in front of the Fretwell and Cato buildings, where they were met with counter-protestors including some with right-wing student organization Turning Point US, who set up American flags around the encampment. 

Then, with little warning, campus police raided and broke down the encampment in the early morning hours of May 6.

Shull said she believed the university’s strategic timing in taking down the camp in the early morning hours on the day before a march was scheduled to occur on campus was the extension of a long-cultivated culture of fear and retaliation that aimed to intimidate any student or faculty member who considered getting involved in the protest. 

Campus police raid encampment

Student representatives from the solidarity encampment met with university administration to present their demands on May 5. 

In a six page packet, administration provided answers to an incomplete copy of the student’s demands they had obtained before the meeting, barring students from voicing their latest individual demands, according to a spokesperson from the encampment and UNC Charlotte graduate who was present at the meeting.

According to the spokesperson, who did not wish to identify themself for fear of retribution, university leadership claimed during the meeting that they had no interest in shutting the encampment down.

At 6:20 a.m. the next morning, the 14th day of the student-led protest, campus police aided by CMPD raided and disassembled the encampment, leading to the arrest of one student.

According to a post from the encampment’s official Instagram feed (@unccencampment), authorities gave the students two verbal warnings within three minutes before starting the raid.

a portrait of marchers in Uptown, Charlotte
Marchers during the May 11 rally in Uptown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“Many students and community members did not have enough time to gather their things before they were forced to leave or face the threat of arrest,” the post read. “One student was detained and the rest were forced to disperse.”

The university’s student-run newspaper Niner Times published two videos and additional photos that showed around 20 campus police officers dismantling tents and supplies and one student being taken away with their hands zip-tied behind their back.

Gaber announced the removal of the encampment in a university-wide email sent after the raid on May 7.

“What began as peaceful protesting has transitioned over the past several days to intentionally and repeatedly violating University policy, despite repeated warnings by our Demonstration Activity Resource Team and other University personnel,” the email stated.

“Violations were highlighted verbally and in writing, and exhaustive efforts were made to encourage protestors to exercise their right to free speech in a manner that respects the rights of those not protesting to do their work and pursue their education.”

Those efforts included seven pages of what the encampment spokesperson described as “arbitrary policies denoting that everything we have been doing was a violation of policy, which we [had] not received before.” 

That warning was given to protesters at 9 a.m. on May 6. Organizers believe it came in response to a rally they had planned on campus for May 7. 

“It really seems like the [switch was flipped] yesterday after our meeting,” the spokesperson said during the May 7 rally. “So [the raid] genuinely caught us completely off guard because it was disclosed to us that that was not the option they would be taking.”

A list of demands and daily itinerary at the UNC Charlotte encampment before it was raided. (Photo by Annie Keough)

Gaber said the protesters’ tents, fencing, displays and other structures violated University Policy 601.6, Scheduling University Facilities, and University Policy 601.9, Sales, Solicitations, Distribution of Materials and Campus Displays.

“These actions are not free speech,” the statement said, “…they disrupt campus operations and pose a threat to campus safety.”

The students and allies at the encampment had taken part in prayer, presentations, encampment meetings and wellness checks, along with two peaceful marches held without incident. Non-participating students roaming campus amid exam week did not seem to experience any major disruptions due to the encampment during Queen City Nerve’s visit.  

Supporting free speech in academia

In a letter shared with protesters on May 6, administration warned that “any disruptive behavior outside of [the] designated location will be considered trespassing and may result in immediate disciplinary action.”

The designated area for “non-march protest activities” is limited to the 49th Acre student tailgate facility, located behind a parking lot on the opposite side of campus. One protester said the relocation was insulting and would have pushed protesters out of sight.

The letter said disciplinary actions may include suspension and expulsion up to criminal charges for students and non-university members. 

Multiple faculty members reached out to Queen City Nerve expressing their concern that the letter served as a warning to them not to get involved in the issue or voice support for student protesters.

Just over a dozen tents were set up at the encampment before it was raided. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte United for Palestine)

In another letter signed by more than 160 faculty members and sent to Gaber after the raid, signers clarified that they did not consider themselves a homogenous group, nor did they all agree politically.

They then wrote, “What we do all agree on is the importance of peaceful demonstration to a functioning democracy and to the ideals and concrete realities of institutions of higher education. In this way, we are opposed to preemptive decisions by university or college administrations to use local or state police forces to evict peaceful demonstrators.

“We acknowledge that universities can limit, through just and transparent methods, reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner of protest and assembly,” the letter continued. “We do not, however, think that a university should ever prevent students, faculty, or staff from gathering or protesting.” 

a photo of protesters holding signs and Palestinian flags as they wait to march in Uptown Charlotte
Pro-Palestine protesters gathering at Romare Bearden Park. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

On the evening that the march was planned, four UNC Charlotte police vehicles were stationed around the location of the former encampment, with the sprinklers on and signs to deter people from entering the lawn. 

During the protest, one student announced they received an email from administration informing them that they had been suspended. The student who had been arrested during the morning raid was once again detained for trespassing after returning to campus grounds. 

Students and community members gathered in front of the Charlotte Arrest Processing center for a press conference on May 8, joined by members of Charlotte United for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace Charlotte, to protest the oppressive stance the university had taken against its student protesters. 

“This was an unnecessarily violent response to a peaceful student-led movement, whose purpose was to educate their peers and the wider community about the genocide in Gaza, and to emphasize the interconnectedness of global justice movements to build solidarity across borders,” UNC Charlotte alumna Noor Sanjak said at the press conference.

Protesters have since called on university administration to drop all charges and overturn all suspensions related to the Gaza solidarity encampment. 

One student turned themselves into Mecklenburg County Jail on May 12 after UNC Charlotte pressed criminal charges against them. The student has since been released.

Support for UNC Charlotte’s encampment group

UNC Charlotte encampment group continues to grow in supporters. Along with the letter of support from faculty, the local Housing Justice Coalition CLT (HJC) has voiced its public support for the student protesters, as has the Working People’s Association. 

“We are steadfast in declaring that the peaceful expression of ideals embodied by the UNCC Gaza solidarity encampment not only remain, but go unmolested by police, security, or any militarized force,” read a statement from HJC. “We implore the UNCC administration to meet with its own students and heed the wishes/demands of UNCC students expressed in the UNCC Student Government Administration Resolution.” 

a photo of a man wearing a keffiyeh at a Free Palestine rally
Marchers during the May 11 rally in Uptown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

About 200 people gathered in Uptown’s Romare Bearden Park on May 11 to show support for Palestine and the local student organizers who had their camp taken down, marching from the park into the center of the city in a show of solidarity. 

Read More: Organizer Jibril Hough Discusses Pro-Palestine Rally in Uptown Charlotte

At the time of this writing, UNC Charlotte administration hasn’t responded to the letter from faculty or calls from protesters to drop charges and reverse suspensions against some of them. 

For their part, the students leading the protests at UNC Charlotte are well aware of their place in history, taking into context all that Shull described about past student movements. 

“We’re here picking up the baton that generations before us passed along,” the encampment’s spokesperson said at the May 7 rally. “It poses an interesting question when UNCC upholds that they maintain a policy of institutional neutrality. I really, genuinely [would] just like to see the culture of this university change.”

With UNC Charlotte’s 2023-2024 classes ended, the student and community-led encampment’s future is tentative, the spokesperson alluded. 

“We are still working on [the next move for us],” the spokesperson said. “Definitely still fighting for our demands here at the university … We’ll see.” 

UPDATE: On May 14, after this story was sent to print for our latest issue, the official UNC Charlotte encampment Instagram page stated in a post that, with the arrested student having been released, all remaining money raised by the group would be donated to Palestinian families who are either trying to evacuate Gaza or rebuild their lives there.

“Thank you to everyone who has contributed, donated and helped with the encampment,” the post read.

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