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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators accuse Pitt of undermining protests

A person who claimed to be a protester at the encampment this week answers questions along with another person who claimed to be a protester who was talking to media through a Bluetooth speaker. Neither wanted to be identified.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
A person who claimed to be a protester at the encampment this week answers questions along with another person who claimed to be a protester who was talking to media through a Bluetooth speaker. Neither wanted to be identified.

Leaders of a pro-Palestinian protest have accused University of Pittsburgh administrators of mischaracterizing their movement to undermine its message. And they say the administration and state officials were quietly planning the forcible removal of protesters by state police early Tuesday morning.

Pitt Chancellor Joan Gabel "claimed that none of us are students and that we have no affiliation with the university,” Katelynn Herrera, a junior at Pitt, said during a news conference Wednesday at Schenley Park. That and other claims made by the university about the protest’s intentions, she said, “are false and were a clear attempt to delegitimize us and our demands.”

The university and Gov. Josh Shapiro denied having a plan to oust protesters, with a Shapiro spokesman saying the protest had “devolved into documented violence, vandalism, and antisemitic rhetoric,” before it ended early Tuesday morning.

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The dispute took root on Sunday, when a group of around 150 to 200 protesters built a “solidarity encampment” near the Cathedral of Learning and released a list of demands for the university, including that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel.

In an open letter to the campus community sent Tuesday, Gabel said “a group of self-proclaimed leaders is … insisting on meetings. None of these leaders are students, and their affiliations are with organizations that also have no connection to the University.”

In response to a query by WESA, the university said Gabel used that characterization because “the only people who identified themselves as leaders to the administration were not students and were not affiliated with the university.”

Gabel’s letter also accused demonstrators of placing unspecified “materials” in a Cathedral doorway “with what appeared to be the intent to ignite those materials.” She said the nearby Frick Fine Arts Building had been vandalized “with antisemitic graffiti.”

The university did not respond to a request about evidence that protesters sought to start a fire, nor to a query about what the graffiti said. The school did say four windows were broken at the Frick Fine Arts Building near the protest.

Herrera said that wasn’t part of their protest: “Our encampment remains at the Cathedral and only the Cathedral lawn,” she said. “[A]ny actions taken off the lawn were in no way affiliated with our encampment.”

In any case, tensions were escalating by Monday evening. Videos on social media showed protesters and police beginning to clash, and several protesters say they suffered minor injuries during the confrontations.

City and county officials met with the protesters late Monday night “as we received information about the increased instability of the encampment,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said in a statement.

The protesters say they were told by the Gainey administration that state police were planning to intervene even more forcefully. The protesters ended up dispersing early Tuesday morning.

“We were able to negotiate a deal with the mayor to provide safe passage for the students," who protesters feared would have been "brutalized at the hands of state police,” said one activist, who called into the Wednesday news conference through a Bluetooth speaker held aloft by a companion wearing a mask and sunglasses. Both said they wanted to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety from police.

The Gainey administration did not respond directly to queries from WESA about the protesters’ characterization of events. Spokesperson Maria Montano said, “Our focus was about one thing — finding a way to get everyone home safe that night. “

Both the university, whose own police were active at the protest site, and Shapiro’s office said they partnered with local law enforcement agencies.

"University officials and our public safety team worked closely and collaboratively with a number of local, regional and state law enforcement and government entities … throughout the entire demonstration,” Pitt’s statement said.

“Contrary to [protesters’] false and inflammatory characterization, the Pennsylvania State Police was in close contact with city, university, and county law enforcement monitoring the situation and standing ready to assist if requested by local authorities — as is standard practice,” said Shapiro spokesman Manuel Bonder in an emailed statement.

The protesters say they still have not had a direct conversation with Gabel, who Herrera said "has ignored our initiative, seeking to divert us bureaucratically and to invoke police violence upon us whenever we take visible action."

Gabel’s office said they meet with students at the “appropriate time, place and manner,” based on the university's policies.

"We routinely meet with students on a variety of topics and issues, including a recent discussion regarding the University’s investments,” according to the statement. “Any suggestion that members of University administration have refused to meet and engage with students is completely false."

Protest leaders did appear to soften their position on one point: an earlier demand that the university sever ties with Jewish student groups such as Hillel. That demand was particularly contentious for some: Hillel helps students celebrate their Jewish religion and heritage on campus.

“After listening carefully to other Jewish community members, we recognize that in the absence of a current viable alternative, this approach may in fact serve to divide the community,” the group wrote in an emailed statement.

But during the news conference Wednesday afternoon, one activist reiterated that the protesters still believed in the underlying principles of a ban on pro-Zionist groups at the university.

“We do support cutting ties with Zionist organizations such as Hillel and Hubbard, but we are rethinking our language,” he said.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.