Philly Police Clear Penn’s Pro-Palestinian Encampment

Police take protesters into custody at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA (The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) — Police began moving in early Friday morning to dismantle the 16-day old pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia police dressed in riot gear with zip ties and shields stood alongside Penn police as dozens of protesters chanted with their arms linked around the base of the university’s iconic Benjamin Franklin statue. City police had arrested a few dozen protesters as of 6:40 a.m., said Deputy Police Commissioner Frank Vanore.

The move comes less than 24 hours after Gov. Josh Shapiro called on Penn to remove the encampment.

Penn did not immediately respond for comment.

“Over the last 24 hours … the situation has gotten even more unstable and out of control,” Shapiro said Thursday. “More rules have been violated, more laws have been broken. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Penn also received a petition last week with more than 3,000 signatures from faculty, students and others calling on the university to take the encampment down. Others have urged the university not to use force.

The protesters, who have remained peaceful, are part of a national movement on U.S. college campuses calling for universities to disclose their funding sources and divest their endowments from Israel-linked entities.

At Penn, protesters are also calling on the university to provide amnesty for pro-Palestinian students facing discipline over past protests. Penn has so far placed at least six students on leave and evicted one of them, an international student, from campus housing for participating in the encampment.

Members of Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine were outside the encampment area Friday morning as police told protesters to leave and began arresting people. “One word, abhorrent,” said Dagmawi Woubshet, an associate professor of English, who is a member of the group. He said faculty members would be assisting students who have been arrested. “We can’t get in,” he said at 6:45 a.m. “All the entrances are blocked.”

Amy Offner, an associate professor of history and president of the Penn chapter of American Association of University Professors, called the move to arrest members of the Penn community “cowardly and appalling,” asserting that the faculty and students were engaged in nonviolent antiwar protest.

“We condemn the university administration, we demand the immediate release of all our students and colleagues, and we demand the reversal of all discipline and charges against students who have been the victim of the university administration’s own violation of its Guidelines on Open Expression,” she said in a statement.

But others in the Penn community were supportive of the move.

Benjamin Abella, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, wishes Penn had acted earlier to dismantle the encampment but also said he “respected the fact that this is a delicate situation.”

Abella was one of the leaders of the petition that called on Penn to remove the encampment. He and others delivered the petition to Penn president J. Larry Jameson last week.

“It’s sad that it came to this,” he said. “Ultimately, the administration and the police acted professionally and calmly and certainly did the right thing.”

“What makes me sad is that so many in our Penn community were willing to conflate free speech with inappropriate protest that violated Penn policies, disrupted university business and caused enormous distress to many and glorified both hate speech and violence.”

He does not expect this will be the end of tensions on campus over Israel and the war in Gaza.

“Unfortunately, I think there is much more work to be done,” he said.

Escalating tensions between protesters and the Penn administration, the encampment had expanded Wednesday night as a large crowd gathered and the Benjamin Franklin statue was again defaced. On the statue’s forehead, protesters drew an inverted red triangle, which has meanings as a reference to a Palestinian flag and the target markers used in Hamas’ tactical videos. The triangle appeared to have been washed off of Franklin’s forehead by Thursday morning.

But on Friday morning, two small red triangles appeared at the statue’s base, with the words “intifada until victory” and a Palestinian flag was hung around the statue’s neck.

In recent days, others colleges, including Columbia, have used police to forcefully remove pro-Palestinian encampments. Also early Friday morning, police in riot gear removed an encampment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Boston Globe reported. More than 2,900 protesters have been arrested across 100 campuses nationwide, according to The Intercept.

Earlier this week, there was a unified front among city leaders — including Mayor Cherelle L. Parker, Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, and District Attorney Larry Krasner — that the encampment in its current form should not be disbanded using force, and that Penn should resolve the matter peacefully.

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