UK students protest in solidarity with Gaza

Published 8:03 pm Wednesday, May 1, 2024

LEXINGTON — After a series of contentious protests at universities across the country, the University of Kentucky became the latest site of pro-Palestinian demonstrations Wednesday.

About 200 students and other community members gathered in front of William T. Young Library, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and making speeches for about two hours before dispersing.

The Solidarity Rally for Gaza was organized by Lex4Palestine, a Lexington group advocating for the freedom of Palestine.

Social media posts encouraged students and other community members to show up with Palestinian flags and keffiyehs, traditional Arab headdresses associated with Palestinian nationalism.

Participants chanted, “Resistance is justified where people are occupied,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “1, 2, 3, 4, we won’t pay for Israel’s war.”

Lex4Palestine made several demands. They want UK to:

  • disclose and divest any financial investments and ties to Israel and U.S. companies “complicit” in the genocide of Palestinians;
  • cease all collaboration with and boycott Israeli academic institutions;
  • honor its academic oath by taking concrete actions to support the rights of Palestinian students and professors;
  • ensure rights to academic freedom and peaceful demonstrations;
  • ban Kentucky State Police and Lexington police from campus “to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff;”
  • have President Eli Capilouto make a statement condemning the Gaza genocide to show support for the Palestinian community on campus; and
  • have open and transparent communication regarding actions taken to meet these demands, including face to face conversations with Capilouto.

Ben Bandy, a Lex4Palestine member, said they feel police are often perpetuators of violence against marginalized people.

How did we get here?

Students across the country have spoken out against Israel in recent months over its killing and forced relocations of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

The escalation in the perennial Israel-Palestine conflict began last October when Palestinian-based Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization, launched a surprise attack on Israel.

The decades-long conflict centers around a territory dispute between Israel and Palestine, including over control of the Gaza Strip. It began after World War II when the United Nations tried to divide Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, and has seen many escalations since.

Since the War on Gaza began, over 34,000 Palestinian in Gaza and over 1,000 Israeli civilians have been killed, according to Al Jazeera. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are experiencing a humanitarian crisis, with a shortage of medical supplies, food and water.

About a week ago, President Joe Biden signed a $95 billion foreign aid package that included $17 billion to Israel and $9 billion for Gaza humanitarian aid. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped shepherd the measure, fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul criticized him for using taxpayer money to fund a foreign war.

Voting against Israel

One of the protest leaders told the crowd how to vote in the upcoming elections.

“We are voting uncommitted in the May election, primary election,” she said. “And then come November, we are then voting not for Biden. We cannot be voting for Biden.”

Bandy explained that votes for Biden are not guaranteed.

“So the method for voting uncommitted is primarily to show politicians in the presidential race that we are not supporting a president who not only enables genocide, but is now enabling escalating police forces for protesters, especially on college campuses,” he said.

Another Lex4Palestine member, Kareem Hassan, said it was a question of the lesser of two evils.

“So it’s just telling people you need to remember you have the option of saying no,” he said.

Free speech on campus

UK’s administrative regulations place time, place and manner restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, in accordance with First Amendment law.

Protests are restricted to the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and speakers cannot block vehicle or pedestrian traffic. There are also limitations on volume and amplified sound equipment to avoid disturbing classes and campus activities, said UK Spokesperson Kristi Willett in a statement.

“When it comes to exercising free speech – protecting it while protecting our community – we treat every group the same, regardless of perspective. We don’t favor one group over another with our policies and protocols and safety is always our top priority,” Willett said.

“As a public university, outdoor spaces on UK’s campus are designated public forums by law, meaning community members may demonstrate in public areas so long as they don’t interrupt classes, prevent access to buildings and infrastructure or pose a direct threat to the safety of others.”

UK Police were on site for safety reasons, as they are for all demonstrations, Willett added.

The protest remained peaceful, and police stayed at a distance throughout.

This is in contrast to some recent protests, including one at Columbia University that ended in police raids and hundreds of arrests.

Protests across the country have elicited concerns of antisemitism, hostility to or prejudice against Jewish people.

However, Hassan said that’s not their intent. The Jewish community knows them, and they have a common enemy—the government—he said.

“There’s a difference between going at a culture or going at a religious identity than going after a political movement,” Hassan said. “Zionism does not have to do with the religion of Judaism.”

Kentucky Hillel, UK’s Jewish student organization, made plans for an alternative study space for Jewish students who didn’t want to be near the library during the protest. It encouraged students to not engage or counter protest.

The Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass released a statement with the Jewish Federations of North America regarding campus protests across the country, stating that anti-Israel and antisemitic protests violate civil rights. The statement did not specifically address UK’s protest, which avoided some of the charged language targeting Jews other protests across the country have employed.

“Anti-Israel and antisemitic protests on too many college campuses have included threats and harassment of Jewish students and faculty,” the statement read. “This behavior is a clear violation of their civil rights and must stop immediately.”

The federations also called for Congress to adopt the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would make clear what actions are antisemitic and should be banned.

Why did protestors come?

Mousa Samaan, who spent 26 years of his life in Palestine, attended the protest. He said he left the occupation, but he remembers constant checkpoints and punishments and still has family that lives close to Gaza.

Jordan, a teacher in the district, said she came to talk the talk.

“I teach my kids every single day about what it means to be civically engaged and really care about things and go out there and talk about things that you care about,” she said. “And so I can’t really teach that in my classroom if I’m not out doing it.”

Another protestor, Razoanul Haque, said the protest was about speaking for everyone with the same voice—”no oppression or occupation in any place.”

To close the protest, Ala Hassan called for intifada, or a revolution. She said they would come back.

“The world has awoken to the atrocities that are happening in Palestine,” she said. “It’s nothing new, but now our eyes are open and they will never be closed again.”