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Northwestern University students set up pro-Palestine tent encampment on campus

Crowd grows at pro-Palestine protest, tent encampment at Northwestern
Crowd grows at pro-Palestine protest, tent encampment at Northwestern 03:10

EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) -- Dozens of Northwestern University students on Thursday joined the pro-Palestine protests sweeping college campuses across the country.

A group of Northwestern students set up a tent encampment Thursday morning in Deering Meadow on the university's campus in Evanston. Deering Meadow is an open space known for being a site for informal gatherings and rallies.

The demonstrations continued Friday morning. 

Protesters also posted a sign reading "Free Gaza Liberated Zone." Pro-Palestinian protesters at college campuses across the country have described similar encampments as "liberated zones."

"We created this community all across the U.S. of college students who are fighting for what they believe is right," a student said.

Organizers with the Northwestern chapters of Educators for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Student Liberation Union accused the university of censoring pro-Palestinian speech on campus.

"The ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide of the people of Gaza has made Palestinians victims of what is one of the most brutal war crimes in modern history. Because of this, Northwestern students, faculty, and staff are putting their bodies, education, and jobs on the line to stand with the Palestinian people," the groups said in a statement. "Northwestern students report the administration is curtailing free speech. The school is intimidating both students and educators who speak out against Israeli apartheid and occupation. The student liberation encampment will create a safe space for those who want to show their support of the Palestinian people."

Several protesters were wearing Keffiyehs – traditional Arab headdresses – and others were waving Palestinian flags. Many protesters also wore masks or bandanas covering their faces.

Organizers of the Northwestern protest said they plan to occupy the area until Northwestern divests itself from companies that support Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza, and vows to protect their free speech rights on campus.

The students are also calling on Northwestern to divest from its partnerships and programs with Israel, such as the Israel Innovation Project. The university has several programs with Israel, including exchanges, visiting scholars, and study abroad programs. Northwestern also partners with academic institutions in Israel. 

"What we push for right here is just like, we value all forms of life, and we really push for, you know, prioritization of the people that are starving to death; the people that are really in harm's way," a student said. "We have hospitals being bombed. We have schools being bombed."

The protest began around 7 a.m. After police tried to take down some of the tents, protesters linked arms and formed a ring around the encampment around 9:30 a.m., and kept the human chain in place for hours afterward. No arrests have been reported.

Northwestern University students set up a tent encampment in support of Palestine and formed a ring around the tents after police ordered them taken down. The protesters are demanding Northwestern divest itself from companies that support Israel, amid the ongoing war in Gaza. CBS

Organizers said an online petition listing their demands has collected more than 1,500 signatures so far. In the resolution, students said, "American academic institutions have become hostile spaces for anti-war, anti-apartheid, and pro-Palestine speech."

"Northwestern University is no exception, curtailing speech and intimidating students and educators. We call on President Schill to condemn the targeted harassment of students and the disproportionate censorship of pro-Palestine speech, to affirm and protect student civil liberties, and to build a safe environment for intellectual and political expression," the petition states.

Northwestern officials said the tent encampment is prohibited by university policies. 

University President Michael Schill sent a letter to students on Thursday morning, announcing an "interim addendum" to the Northwestern code of conduct, effective immediately, banning the installation of tents or other temporary structures on Northwestern property, except for school-approved events. 

In his letter, Schill wrote that recent protests in Evanston related to the war in Gaza have interfered with classes. He also cited "chalkings, flyers, banners and chants that many have found hateful, intimidating, offensive and difficult to avoid."

"The goal of this addendum is to balance the right to peacefully demonstrate with our goal to protect our community, to avoid disruptions to instruction and to ensure University operations can continue unabated," Schill wrote. "Any violation of the rules contained in this document or in our policies could lead to disciplinary actions such as suspension or expulsion, and possibly criminal sanctions."

The student code of conduct had already required advance approval for the use of any sound amplification devices, including bullhorns, on Northwestern property. In some cases, permits might be required from the City of Evanston.

Northwestern students join nationwide campus protests in support of Palestine 01:44

Another existing university policy also stated Northwestern has "the right to limit demonstrations to specific times and locations if it determines such limitations are necessary to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff or the operations of the University."

The university said campus police and representatives from the school's Student Affairs division were working with protesters to have the tents removed.

"Northwestern is committed to the principles of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to protecting the safety of all members of our community, as well as limiting disruptions to University operations," Northwestern spokesman Jon Yates said.

Officials warned anyone who refuses to remove tents faces the risk of arrest and having their tents removed by police. A few tents were removed by police earlier Thursday, but as of the late afternoon, most were still up.

The university also was prohibiting non-student news media from entering the meadow to cover the protest.

"We are going to be here until Northwestern meets our demands," a student said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters demand that Northwestern divest from Israeli interests 03:07

University students, who asked that their names be withheld, protested what they said was Northwestern's support of Israel.

"Our demands are that that they disclose their investment - because we don't know what are tuition money is funding - that they divest from genocide and from Israel; that they cut ties with Israel; and that they protect student protesters," the student said.

The students spoke to CBS 2 through a metal fence that separates Deering Meadow from the sidewalk.  

"The university simply does not tell us where our funds and tuition dollars are going; where our tuition dollars are going—and that is unacceptable," another student said. "There needs to be more transparency between administration and the student body."

Some residents of the area were impressed by the protesters' message and commitment. Evanston resident Toni Gilpin was holding a protest sign herself.

"We're Evanston residents, and I'm just really thrilled to see this many students out showing their solidarity; their peaceful commitment to protest," said Gilpin, "and I really hope Northwestern listens to them, and divests, and lets them peacefully protest as they are doing."

Students set up pro-Palestinian tent encampment at Northwestern University 02:28

Students said they feel the movement is not antisemitic.

"People often conflate this movement with antisemitism, and I wouldn't agree," a student said. "I think antisemitism is very real and very present in this world, but I don't think it's coming from this movement."

"Anti-Zionism that is not antisemitism," another student said.

The students noted that some of the protesters were Jewish themselves.

"There are a lot of Jewish students in this crowd, and we've been standing in solidarity with Gaza," said a student, "understanding that 'never again' means 'never again for anyone.'"

Smaller groups of students, at times, held the Israeli flag on the edge of the encampment in a counterprotest. Some Jewish students told CBS 2 they feel unsafe on campus, and worry about the effect the protest will have.

One passerby was also seen tearing down some of the protesters' posters.    

Pro-Palestinian protesters say they'll stay in place at Northwestern until needs are met 02:59

Meanwhile, a student who was part of the protest called the notice from the university and Schill threatening, and said demonstrators were being warned of suspension and other disciplinary measures – as has happened at other universities around the country.

"We all got an email from President Schill of the university, and he said in that email that students were potentially going to get arrested, suspended, expelled," the student said, "and these are very bold threats that he told us right off the bat."

Protests have grown heated around the country

Protests on several other college campuses across the country have led to clashes with police, and in some cases complaints of antisemitic behavior by demonstrators.

Boston Police arrested more than 100 protesters at a pro-Palestinian encampment at Emerson College early Thursday morning.  

More than 100 people have been arrested at Columbia University in New York since similar protests began last week.  Columbia University's president cancelled in-person classes Monday in response to the protests and said classes would be hybrid through the end of the semester.

Some Jewish students at Columbia say many of the protesters' chants are antisemitic, and they're concerned about their safety. 

More than 100 protesters were arrested at New York University on Monday, and police said demonstrators threw objects, including bottles, at officers during the arrests.

Police arrested 45 protesters at Yale University on Monday after the demonstrators repeatedly refused to disperse voluntarily.

Police arrested 93 people at University of Southern California after many protesters refused repeated orders to disperse after setting up an encampment on the Los Angeles campus.

Protesters have also spread to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Demonstrators took over the streets of Champaign Thursday night, accusing the university of funding weapons used against Palestinians. U of I protesters also tried entering an administration building.

Other universities that have seen on-campus protests this week included University of California, Berkeley; California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt; the University of Michigan; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and Emerson College.

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