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Distinct vibes at IU Indianapolis pro-Palestinian protest

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Thursday, May 23, 2024   

By Claire Rafford for Mirror Indy.
Broadcast version by Joe Ulery for Indiana News Service reporting for the Mirror Indy-Free Press Indiana-Public News Service Collaboration

If you turn onto Michigan Street along IUPUI’s campus, you’ll have to crane your neck to spot the cluster of students who’ve built a pro-Palestinian encampment under the business building.

At Indiana University’s flagship campus in Bloomington, by contrast, more than 50 people were arrested in late April after the Indiana State Police and IU Police Department broke up an encampment in a prominent spot on campus. Similarly, four Purdue students are facing discipline for their role in a 12-day encampment, and 17 peaceful pro-Palestinian protestors were arrested at the University of Notre Dame.

Such confrontations have become familiar in many campuses in the U.S., where college students are protesting the war in Gaza and demanding that their universities cut financial ties with Israel. As of May 13, the New York Times reported that more than 2,800 people have been arrested or detained at college campuses across the country.

But in Indianapolis, where students have been camping out since April 26 to protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza, there hasn’t been so much as a standoff.

No police officers — campus or otherwise — have tried to remove their encampments or asked them to leave. For the first few days, organizer Layth Abdulbari told Mirror Indy, he wasn’t sure whether the administration even knew the campers were there. 

In interviews with nine students, staff and activists, Mirror Indy asked why the extent of the protests — and the response from the university and law enforcement — have been different in this city’s largest and perhaps highest profile university. They say the campus attracts a far different student population than other universities, including students from working-class backgrounds and older adults returning to higher education to train for new careers. 

These students may feel just as strongly as their peers at other colleges, but for a variety of reasons aren’t in a position to risk retribution by escalating protests. The university’s response also has been more measured, many said, which could be related to a desire to avoid a repeat of the backlash from the arrests in Bloomington.

“We have students who work, we have students who take care of families,” said Tijen Demirel-Pegg, a professor of political science at IUPUI. “They don’t have time to actually sit in an encampment. That’s the demographics of IUPUI and it’s just a major difference between Bloomington or Columbia or UCLA.”

Students say they’re inspired that their campus has organized to be a part of the national movement. Maram Nada, a junior, said that Indianapolis’ demonstration shows the overall peaceful nature of the student movement.

“Nobody’s screaming, nobody’s yelling out antisemitic slurs,” she said. “We’re all just sitting, eating, hanging out, just maintaining a presence.”

IUPUI and activism 

IUPUI is the only one of Indianapolis’ six colleges or universities to set up a pro-Palestinian encampment. 

In a statement on social media, Butler’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter and Muslim Student Association said that they supported the campus protests and urged people to pay attention to the war in Gaza.

“The role of student activists only becomes more important as the plight of the Palestinian people continues,” the statement said. “There are no universities left in Gaza, so we must use our student voices to advocate for the Palestinian liberation narrative.”

Despite IUPUI having the only encampment in the city, the differences between the Bloomington and Indianapolis protests in both scope and response are striking.

For one, IUPUI professor John Kaufman-McKivigan posited, IUPUI’s encampment is not centrally located. 

Students have built the IUPUI “Liberated Zone” in a space called Democracy Plaza. Like Dunn Meadow at Bloomington, the plaza has long been a designated space for free expression. 

Dunn Meadow, along with Hamilton Hall at Columbia and Dickson Plaza at UCLA, are centrally located areas that people need to pass through to get to class, grab food or go to their dorms. Unlike Dunn, the plaza is out of the way of many gathering places on campus, tucked underneath the Kelley School of Business. 

Indianapolis and Bloomington’s campuses are also vastly different in size and scope. IUPUI has around 24,000 students, while IU Bloomington has around 48,000. Though some IUPUI undergraduate students live on campus, a far greater percentage live in off-campus apartments or commute to campus.

In addition, IUPUI has a different student body than IU’s flagship campus. IUPUI has more students older than age 25 and more students that take classes part time, according to federal education data. And while there are older people engaged in the antiwar movement, younger, full-time students often have more flexibility in how they can protest and when. 

Different views of the protests

Students have other theories for why IUPUI hasn’t faced the same kind of backlash as in Bloomington. Law student Michael Linge proposed that IU President Pamela Whitten doesn’t want to disrupt the generally calm atmosphere on Indianapolis’ campus. 

Linge said he sees a “hesitancy of university administration to get on the front page of CNN again, because they’re already facing a lot of lawsuits.”

On May 3, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit against IU on behalf of three people, including an IU professor and graduate student, who were banned from campus after being arrested while protesting in Bloomington. 

That’s not to say everyone is entirely happy with the protests. 

Earlier this year, Lainna Cohen, a clinical research coordinator at IU’s medical school, confronted a pro-Palestinian student group — though not the one that organized the encampment — in the campus center. In a heated tone, Cohen, who is Jewish, pushed the student group to call for the release of Israeli hostages, while the group maintained they believe there should be a ceasefire first. That conversation was recorded and later shared on the club’s TikTok, with the students saying they felt harassed.

Unlike in Bloomington, there’s no active organization for undergraduate Jewish students on campus, which Cohen said can make it hard to build a community and sometimes makes her feel isolated. Especially since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, she said she’s felt frustrated by what she feels is a lack of willingness among members of the campus community to have an open dialogue about the Israel-Hamas war.

Cohen stands by what she said in the video, and her overall impression of the IUPUI protests is that they’re peaceful, but now Cohen said she feels singled out when she walks through campus. 

“I don’t think it should fall just on Jews to have that conversation,” she said. “I think that intellectuals in general, anyone who has any real concept of what’s going on in the Middle East, should be engaged in conversation. I don’t see that happening.”

Months after her conversation in the campus center, when the pro-Palestinian encampment popped up at IUPUI, Cohen went to check it out early on. Though she disagreed with the language and messaging from students at the encampment, she said things looked calm when she visited. 

“They are not spewing hatred or anything at the encampment,” she said. 

Administrative response 

The night before pro-Palestinian protesters were scheduled to gather at IU Bloomington, the administration changed a decades-old rule that would have allowed protestors to set up tents in the campus’ free speech zone, according to reporting from the Indiana Daily Student. 

That last-minute rule change enabled police to arrest students, faculty and community members in the days that followed. 

In contrast, it took nearly a week for IU Indianapolis Chancellor Latha Ramchand to publicly acknowledge the protests on Indianapolis’ campus. In a May 2 email to faculty, she acknowledged the rights of students to protest, but expressed that she was concerned about the “outside influence on student groups that is resulting in violence” on universities nationwide. Academics who have studied protests say blaming outsiders for causing protest violence has been used in the past to delegitimize social movements, from the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter. 

The IUPUI encampment is being supported by two local groups — Indiana Resiste and the Central Indiana Democratic Socialists of America — but it’s run by students. 

Ramchand also said in her email that she would be convening a task force of faculty, staff and students to discuss rules and policies for the student encampment. 

The Palestinian Solidarity Committee at IUPUI, which is not a university-recognized student group but is made up of students, released a statement in response to Ramchand’s email. Their statement expressed anger that they were not informed or asked to participate in discussions of how to move forward. They asked the administration for seats on the task force, which includes four students. 

“Any task force discussing or deciding policy or future action regarding movements like ours cannot hope to equitably or justly make decisions without our voice present,” the statement read. 

But in a May 7 meeting of the IUPUI faculty council, Ramchand said the task force would not be addressing the demands of the students who have been protesting. Those asks include that IU cut financial ties with Israel, that Whitten and other top administrators resign and that IU end its partnership with the Crane naval base in Bloomington because of its role in researching and engineering weapons for the U.S. military.

As of 2021, Crane had a research and development agreement with an Israeli weapons company, though it’s unclear whether that partnership is ongoing. 

“It is not going to discuss the requests or the demands of the people that are protesting,” Ramchand said in the meeting. “What it is going to discuss is policy that should help us have a better dialogue with our students.”

‘We’re doing the right thing’

After nearly three weeks, students have settled into a routine in the Liberated Zone. 

Many days, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee will post a daily schedule on social media that includes activities ranging from bracelet and poster-making to teaching sessions. 

“I love the communal living,” said Ilsa Blansette, a law student. “We’re just constantly looking out for each other and making sure everyone’s OK and just being together all the time.”

It hasn’t been all idyllic — students say there have been some who disagree with their antiwar message coming in and confronting them. One morning, campers awoke to maintenance power washing their chalked messages off the walls near the encampment, though the administration later told them it was a mistake.

But for the most part, students said they feel gratified that they’re able to do something — anything — rather than sit on their phones and watch war unfold in Gaza from a distance.

“We’re in the right place,” Linge said. “We’re doing the right thing.”

Claire Rafford wrote this article for Mirror Indy.

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