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Administrators and faculty paint conflicting pictures of May 4 encampment clearing

Jim Ryan and other University leaders held a virtual town hall Tuesday, prompting some faculty to organize “An Honest Town Hall” in response

In addition to giving statements, administrators answered selected questions submitted by those who attended the virtual town hall via Zoom.
In addition to giving statements, administrators answered selected questions submitted by those who attended the virtual town hall via Zoom.

At a University-run virtual town hall Tuesday and an independently organized faculty-led town hall Thursday, administrators and faculty presented differing accounts of the events of May 4, when police forcibly cleared a pro-Palestine encampment near the University Chapel. The details contested between the town halls included the clarity of the University’s tent policy, aggressiveness of protesters, provision of medical treatment and the presence of suspicious individuals at the encampment.

University President Jim Ryan and other University administrators held a public, virtual town hall Tuesday to provide further information about the forced clearing of a tent encampment which had formed outside of the University Chapel. At the town hall, senior University leadership gave statements and answered questions submitted by viewers. Other leaders who spoke alongside Ryan included Timothy Longo, chief of the University Police Department and vice president for security and safety, Kenyon Bonner, vice president and chief student affairs officer, Vice President and Provost Ian Baucom and Jennifer Wagner Davis, chief operating officer and executive vice president. 

Two days after the University administration’s town hall, some faculty who had been present at the encampment on or before May 4’s events hosted a virtual event of their own, titled “Eyewitness Perspectives on May 4, 2024: An Honest Town Hall.” At the event, speakers outlined their own timeline of the events leading up to and on May 4, parts of which conflicted with the University’s retelling, and fielded questions from attendees. 

Levi Vonk, assistant professor in the University’s Global Studies program and one of the faculty town hall organizers, was present at the encampment as a faculty liaison — a faculty member on scene to correspond with police and University administrators. He said that he and many other faculty members boycotted the University’s virtual town hall, largely because administrators did not explain how the audience questions they answered were selected.

“[The University’s town hall] was an advertisement constructed by the administration to whitewash the deep violence that occurred on Saturday,” Vonk said. “Many [faculty] boycotted that town hall in protest and organized our own alternative town hall that we felt created a much more open space and a chance for real dialogue and discussion.”

One topic the University and faculty-led town halls presented conflicting narratives on was the level of clarity surrounding the University’s tent policy. Student, faculty and community members first formed the encampment April 30 and had largely abided by University policy restricting the erection of tents, use of megaphones and placing of signage until the evening of May 3, when some protesters began putting up tents shortly before it began to rain. At that point, Longo asked protesters to remove the tents, stating that they violated University policy. 

At the University administration-led town hall, Ryan said that the actual policy surrounding tent restrictions was not changed the morning of May 4, as some University community members had claimed.

Ryan said that University policy prohibits tents whenever there is an “incident or occurrence” — which includes demonstrations and protests — and that the document from the University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety which included an exemption for recreational tents conflicted with the actual University policy. Faculty liaisons had pointed out this exemption when Longo asked protesters to take down the tents. 

According to Ryan, someone in the University administration decided to remove this exemption from the document at approximately 9:30 a.m. May 4 so that EHS’s rules were consistent with University policy. Ryan said that he was not certain if this was the right judgment to make considering the timing but said that protesters understood that tents were prohibited. 

According to speakers at the faculty town hall, however, it was not clear whether University policy made an exemption for recreational tents. Walter Heinecke, a faculty liaison at the encampment and an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development, said that he showed Longo the document with the exemption the morning of May 4 and that he read in subsequent press reports that the administration changed the tent policy that same morning.

“It was clear to me … that there was a lot of confusion about that policy and what was the actual policy,” Heinecke said. “You can’t change policies without getting faculty input into the policy change process, so I’m not quite sure how a policy could be changed on the fly … it was definitely just unclear to the folks in the encampment [what] was the actual policy.”

Speakers at the faculty-led town hall also challenged the idea that protesters were behaving aggressively toward officers who approached the encampment. At Tuesday’s town hall, Longo said that University and Charlottesville Police Department officers entered the encampment to issue no trespass orders — notifications that protesters did not have a legal right to be on University property — and make arrests if necessary. 

Longo said that when officers did so, protesters wielded umbrellas “in an aggressive manner,” striking one officer. This incident led a captain on the scene to determine that officers without protective gear were at risk of injury should they attempt to engage with protesters further, prompting the University to call in Virginia State Police, according to Longo.

“My fear was that if active resistance would continue to escalate, it would be met with reasonable force to overcome that resistance, and the potential for escalating force was possible,” Longo said. 

Conversely, Assoc. history Prof. Fahad Bishara said that protesters did not use umbrellas aggressively towards officers, but instead used them to protect themselves, which he said was understandable given that police ultimately deployed pepper spray on the protestors. He said that as far as he can tell, the incident Longo cited of an officer being struck with an umbrella was the only moment when an umbrella came into contact with a police officer.

“The umbrellas, we need to point out, were used as shields… [it was] not meant to be an offensive weapon at all,” Bishara said.

In addition to protesters’ allegedly aggressive use of umbrellas, Ryan said at Tuesday’s town hall that four men who had participated in violent protests in the past were present at the encampment. According to Ryan, their presence motivated administrators to try and get the demonstrators to remove the tents before protesters set up more and additional “outsiders” joined the encampment. 

At the faculty-led town hall, however, Heinecke said that this fear of the encampment expanding was unfounded, as he had not seen the encampment show any signs of growth between Friday and Saturday. Additionally, Heinecke — who had spent several days at the encampment — said that Longo never raised the issue of any dangerous individuals during his multiple conversations with faculty liaisons.

“I would have expected [Longo] to come to me and say … ‘there’s these [four men]...and these are the ones that we were worried about,” Heinecke said. “He didn’t approach me about that. I didn’t even hear about [the four men] on Friday or Saturday.”

While many of the conflicting details about the events of May 4 centered around the leadup to the encampment clearing, speakers at the faculty and administrative town halls also presented different retellings of how those pepper-sprayed by police were treated. 

At the University-run town hall, Longo said that persons pepper sprayed by police received on-site medical treatment. At the faculty town hall, however, Assoc. Nursing Prof. Kathryn Laughon said she did not see any kind of organized first aid response from the University. According to Laughon, the only people assisting those pepper sprayed were students and community members.

 “The idea that all individuals who were impacted by pepper spray were rendered medical aid, it just wasn’t what I observed at all,” Laughon said. “That’s not what happened.”

Conversations regarding what occurred May 4 have continued in the days following the town halls. The University’s Faculty Senate passed a motion at a meeting Friday calling for an external review of the events leading up to and on May 4. Ryan and other University administrators also attended this meeting, where they answered questions from those in attendance. 

According to a post on X by Molly Conger, student organizations, groups of faculty and individual professors have cumulatively written more than 60 statements and open letters condemning the University’s response to the encampment.

Among the numerous student statements was a letter signed by residents of 45 of the University’s 54 Lawn rooms, which are reserved for students in their final year of undergraduate study and intended to recognize unselfish service to the University and Charlottesville communities. In the letter, Lawn residents condemned the arrest of student protesters and demanded that the University administration return those arrested to Grounds without threat of punishment.

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