May 7, 2024 - News

UPenn protests near boiling point ahead of commencement

A pro-Palestinian protest encampment at the University of Pennsylvania

Student protesters continue to occupy the University of Pennsylvania's College Green. Photo: Mike D'Onofrio/Axios

University of Pennsylvania's top official is losing patience with pro-Palestinian protesters more than a week after they set up an encampment on campus.

Why it matters: Like many across the country, the university administration is under pressure to balance students' rights to assemble with protecting the safety of students who say the demonstrations or counter-protests have made them feel unsafe.

The big picture: The tensions have led some administrations to crack down on protesters, spanning from arrests and suspensions to class and commencement cancellations.

  • So far, Penn interim president J. Larry Jameson is calling for the end of the encampment and focusing on de-escalation as he weighs taking more aggressive measures.
  • "Every day the encampment exists, the campus is less safe," Jameson wrote in a statement Monday.

What they're saying: Exactly two weeks before commencement, Jameson said the university is concerned protesters occupying the encampment "are seeking a confrontation."

  • "We have heard reports of circulating documents with instructions for escalating a protest, including through building occupations and violence," Jameson wrote.
  • The encampment, he maintained, is in violation of university policies and stoking fear among some on campus, especially Jewish students.

Meanwhile, protest organizers are demanding that university officials commit to negotiations without the threat of arrests or dismantling the camp, per a statement.

  • "We strongly refute your implication that our encampment poses a threat to members of the Penn community," protesters wrote in response to Jameson's statement, calling it a "nonviolent gathering."
  • They added: "Our art events, family meals and educational programming have been interrupted by aggressive counter protestors physically assaulting members of the encampment, spraying hazardous chemicals, and threatening large crowds of children and families with weapons."

Catch up quick: Penn protesters are refusing to end the encampment until their demands are met, which include the university divesting from businesses that have financial ties to Israel and those supporting the war in Gaza.

  • At least two people have been detained in the area since the encampment began, including a man who entered College Green wearing a knife holster and a pro-Israel T-shirt, the Daily Pennsylvanian reports.
  • Jameson pledged Monday to continue to maintain the school's "enhanced security presence" and to "adjust our response as conditions warrant."

What to watch: Penn's main commencement is planned for May 20.

  • It remains to be seen if university administrators change or cancel the ceremony.
  • Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio didn't return Axios' request for comment about the upcoming ceremony.
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