Brandeis students walk out to protest police violence
Multiple arrests at a pro-Palestine rally on Nov. 10 left students in shock.
On Monday, Nov. 13, nearly 200 students walked out of their classes at 11:30 a.m. to gather for a silent sit-in on the Great Lawn.
The walkout was organized by a group of students via a virtual discussion space and announced on the Instagram account @deisvspoliceviolence. The students gathered in response to the unexpected display of police force that took place during the “Rally for Palestine” organized by the Revolutionary Student Organization on Friday, Nov. 10. According to a report by the Boston Globe, seven people — three students and four individuals unaffiliated with the Brandeis community — were arrested. All seven protestors pleaded not guilty to their charges on Monday morning, according to a report by CBS News Boston.
In an interview with the Justice on Nov. 13, two of the students involved in organizing the walkout shared that the group of organizers consisted of a diverse array of community members who shared “the horror we felt watching students get brutalized on campus,” yet represented a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions about the larger Israel-Hamas war.
The organizers announced the walkout to the Instagram account via a Nov. 12 post titled “Silent Walkout Against Police Violence.” The initial post also outlined safety and etiquette guidelines, which included not engaging with police, following all dispersal orders, wearing face coverings and nondescript clothing, and attending with other people.
The two students involved in organizing highlighted the centrality of the group’s four demands to the message of the walkout, which are also outlined in the Nov. 12 post.
The first demand calls on Brandeis administration to issue an “apology for Brandeis police’s violence towards peaceful protestors … as well as the calling in of non-Brandeis affiliated police forces to promote violence against students.”
In an 11-minute long video of the Nov. 10 protest taken by a Brandeis student that was widely circulated on social media, police officers can be seen pinning a protester to the ground and kneeling on their back. Excerpts of the video have since been circulated and reposted on many other accounts, including @muslimjusticeleague, which called on its followers to gather at the Waltham District Court Monday morning to support the individuals that were arrested on Friday.
The second demand calls on Brandeis to cease its use of the local Waltham Police Department and private security groups to “police student protests” on campus. According to an article by WHDH, Brandeis police called the Waltham Police Department for help on Friday after demonstrations “became unruly” around 3:30 p.m., the start of the protest. The videos circulated on social media also depict individuals in yellow jackets bearing a “Provident Response” insignia engaging with the protestors — the insignias of Providence Response Insight Group, a Waltham-based LLC that provides private security services.
The third demand involves dropping all charges placed on the seven individuals arrested, and that Brandeis refrains from bringing disciplinary action against student demonstrators.
The fourth demand calls for Brandeis to “stop construing language as hate speech when it is not” and refers to recent reports put out by the American Civil Liberties Union and Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression about what constitutes protected speech on college campuses.
In its Nov. 2 article, the ACLU warns that “blanket calls to investigate every chapter of a pro-Palestinian student group for ‘material support to terrorists’ — without even an attempt to cite evidence — are unwarranted and dangerous,” and cautions universities against “conflating the suppression of speech with the façade of safety.”
This call for caution came a few days before Brandeis’ decision to derecognize its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. In his email to the Brandeis community on Nov. 8, President Liebowitz wrote that the University made this decision because “SJP openly supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and its call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people.”
In response to Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine’s derecognition, FIRE sent a letter to Liebowitz expressing its “deep disappointment” about the decision. The letter points out that Brandeis is a signatory to the Chicago Statement, which FIRE describes as a “gold-standard free speech policy statement” that was created by the University of Chicago’s Committee on the Freedom of Expression.
The University of Chicago itself is yet another institution where tensions have run high: On Nov. 9, the University of Chicago Police Department arrested 13 protestors engaged in a sit-in protest organized by UChicago United for Palestine in Rosenwald Hall, the university’s admissions office.
Furthermore, FIRE argued in its letter that Brandeis’ duty to protect free speech is more than just a moral obligation, but a legal duty – it cites the precedent set by the 2017 case Doe v. Western New England University, in which the court ruled that the “relationship between a student and a university is contractual in nature, the terms of which are contained in the student handbook and other college materials,” which includes Brandeis’ policy statement on free speech and free expression.
Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky reminded the Brandeis community in his Nov. 10 email following Friday’s protest that while the University is dedicated to ensuring free speech, the policy statement permits the University to “restrict expression … that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment,” and further stated that the language used by protesters on Nov. 10 “created an atmosphere of intimidation, which is antithetical to a learning environment.”
Around 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 13, students began filing down towards the Great Lawn from various parts of campus. As they made their way to the Great Lawn, organizers handed out sheets of paper that explained the events of Nov. 10 and the historical context of blank paper protests on one side, which instructed students to hold the papers with the blank side facing out.
The “blank paper” tactic was most recently popularized in protests against China’s zero-COVID policy and free speech restrictions in 2022, but has also been adopted in protests in Hong Kong and Russia, according to an article by Time magazine. A Nov. 12 post to the @deisvspoliceviolence Instagram account states that this protest tactic allows activists to get “their messages across without written or spoken words.”
“We continue [the blank paper protest] … in support of those who cannot speak for themselves, in defiance of those who would silence us, and as a demonstration of the student body’s continued pursuit of [j]ustice and [t]ruth – even unto its innermost parts,” the post reads.
The two student organizers also discussed their perceptions of a larger issue of students’ fear to discuss current events in the public realm, and the role last Friday’s events have played in creating such an environment of silence. “In order to have a university where free expression is guaranteed, this kind of violence cannot occur,” the first organizer stated. “The culture of fear that exists now is really unacceptable.”
“Brandeis prides itself on being an institution that is a space for social justice advocacy. That is how they present themselves, that is how they advertise themselves,” the other organizer stated. “This feels like they’re drifting far away from those roots.”
Most students took a seat on the Great Lawn facing the Shapiro Campus Center, with the eventual crowd spanning the length of the building and stretching as far back as the sidewalk and walkways leading up to the Great Lawn. Some staff, faculty members, and students gathered on the walkways as well, and a few administrators sat or stood in front of the crowd on the steps by Einstein Bros.’ Bagels, looking out onto the crowd of students. The majority of protesters assembled by 11:50 am.
There was a notable lack of visible police presence in the immediate vicinity of the silent protest, something the organizers worry sends a dangerous message about what kind of speech is tolerated or policed on campus. The two student organizers stated that there was a police presence on campus towards the beginning of the protest, but that the police did not gather around the area of the sit-in “largely because we were being silent.”
The student organizers suggest this lack of surveillance raises concerns for future protests that are not silent and the likelihood that they may meet the same response as the Nov. 10 protest. “We should not have to be silent to be safe,” one of the student organizers said. “We should be able to express ourselves fully without being worried of physical repercussions from police officers.”
Moreover, the organizers also shared their concerns that the administration would use the demonstration as an example of students’ ability to exercise their right to free speech on campus, but without responding to their demands. “My biggest fear about this walkout is that [President Liebowitz] or someone from higher administration will praise it and say how good of a thing it is, and then answer none of our demands,” said one of the student organizers. “We really want our demands to be heard. We want to be clear that we are deeply dissatisfied with the behavior of upper administration — deeply troubled at the culture of fear and silence that they’ve created.”
The other organizer agreed. “Ultimately, the administration is responsible for the violence, arrests, and criminalization of their students on Friday, and they have not addressed that. They need to be held accountable for their culpability for what happened on Friday.”
In an email to the Brandeis community on Nov. 11, Liebowitz acknowledged the arrests and stated that the University is “reviewing what exactly took place during – and in response to – the protests, so that we can best keep our community members safe.”
Members of administration that were present at the Nov. 13 sit-in include the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Shoulson, Assistant Dean of Students Carissa Durfee, and Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Shelby Harris. All three declined to provide a comment to the Justice as of press time.
The sit-in lasted around an hour and a half, with students sitting silently until they were given the signal to disperse around 1 p.m.
Ultimately, the student organizers say they are looking for clearer communication and decisive action: “We are looking for accountability,” one of the student organizers stated. “We want a direct response that will guarantee no further police violence against students.”