UVM Students Build Solidarity Encampment for Palestine

More than one hundred University of Vermont students took to the university’s central campus on Sunday to form a Palestine solidarity encampment, joining many other campuses nationwide and across the world to force higher education institutions to divest from weapons manufacturers and Israeli investments directly involved in the occupation of Palestine and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. 

The encampment began at 2:00pm with more than a dozen tents, but ballooned over the afternoon and evening. By late Sunday night — despite heavy rains and soggy grass — there were roughly thirty tents on the Andrew Harris Commons, the green space between the Davis Center and Howe Library, with more on the way.

Along with echoing national demands of academic boycotts and divestment of Israeli institutions, UVM students also demand the withdrawal of UVM’s selection for its 2024 commencement speaker: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States Ambassador to the United Nations. In three separate U.N. ceasefire resolutions, Thomas-Greenfield vetoed each of them, and casting the lone ‘no’ vote for two U.N. Security Council resolutions. She also voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution for a humanitarian ceasefire. These actions have enabled the continued genocide of Gaza, in which over 34,000 have been killed by Israeli forces since October 2023. As if her stance wasn’t clear enough from her actions at the U.N., during Thomas-Greenfield’s confirmation hearings in 2021, she called the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS) “unacceptable” and that it “verges on antisemitism.” 

Near a large “Jews in Solidarity with Palestine” banner, one of the first events at the UVM encampment on Sunday was a “Liberation Seder,” held by local Jewish Voice for Peace and SJP members less than a week after the Passover Seder on April 22nd. The Seder is among the most cherished of Jewish rituals, centered on the telling of stories, the breaking of bread, and the celebration of freedom. Hundreds attended the Liberation Seder, according to event organizers.

Soon after students began assembling Sunday afternoon, UVM administrators and police started making a series of ultimatums and deadlines for students to disperse, lest they face potential suspension, citation, and arrest. With students collectively deciding each time to stay put, by around 10:00 pm the administration agreed not to take any actions against students at the encampment before 8:30 am Monday. By that time, the administration insisted that all tents be removed from the green, though students could remain assembled there.

Shortly after word of UVM administration’s concession made it through the crowd, UVM police officers approached some of the campers to restate UVM policy in a manner that some students found contrary to what had just been agreed.

One officer read out a statement, which he claimed he was ordered to do. “You have a right to free expression on this campus so long as you express those rights within UVM policy. The tents are unpermitted temporary structures that have been raised in violation of university policy. If you do not move your tents you will be held accountable for a potential policy violation and excluded from campus. We are going to do our best to identify the owners of the tents. If you own the tent, you will be asked to identify yourself. Students must identify themselves under the code of student conduct. If nobody identifies themselves as the owner of the tent, we will remove it as an abandoned structure. University policy does not allow overnight encampment. You may not camp on the campus between the hours of 8 pm and 8 am without permission. Anyone who stays beyond 8 pm will be asked to identify themselves and be subject to discipline.”

A UVM police officer reads a prepared statement to students.

Through Sunday afternoon and evening, two Burlington City Councilors attended the encampment in support: Joe Kane of Ward 3 and Marek Broderick, whose Ward 8 constituency includes UVM and who himself is a UVM student. Broderick’s role that evening was as part of night watch for the encampment from 2 am to 6 am, keeping an eye out for trouble while the others slept in their tents. “Like all the other encampments around the country, this is students showing up on our campus that we pay for, and this is a matter of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech,” he said. “Any arrests, any suspensions, any forms of intimidation around the country — I condemn that.”

Starting on April 18, when a high-profile Palestine solidarity encampment formed at Columbia University, protests and encampments have emerged across the country, which have led to hundreds of arrests as police have used force to disperse crowds, citing “trespassing” warnings against peaceful protests among students, faculty, staff, and community members. On Saturday, a similar encampment was announced by students at Middlebury College.

“Since Columbia started popping off, there was broad interest from all of campus to join them and link our arms and solidarity,” said James, a student organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). “Anyone who wants to come and support our demands in good faith is welcome. For people who are looking for more educational elements, we’re happy to provide that as well. We’re coming at this struggle from a place of love and compassion, and care for humanity.”

The students at the encampment have made the following demands of the UVM administration:

1. DISCLOSE all financial investments within UVM’s $800 million endowment.

2. DIVEST from all weapon manufacturers, Israeli companies, and companies involved in the occupation of historic Palestine.

3. ACADEMIC BOYCOTT of Israeli institutions.

4. CANCEL Linda Thomas-Greenfield as speaker for UVM’s 2024 commencement and revoke her planned honorary degree from UVM.

5. AMNESTY for all students engaged in protests for Palestinian freedom, and a guarantee of no charges for protestors.

“We have people talking to the administration to figure out what a conversation might look like to implement our demands,” James said. “But as of right now, it’s difficult because the administration seems generally unwilling to talk to us beyond telling us that we’re breaking the rules, or we need to disperse.”

Overnight, several UVM police cars were parked along pathways and access roads around the encampment. There was no visible Burlington Police Department presence on campus.

8:30 am Monday came and went with no action by UVM police or administrators. The encampment not only lasted the night, it grew: as of mid-morning Monday, another dozen tents have been set up. The mood in the encampment was upbeat and energetic, with students talking with each other and passers-by, eating snacks, reading, and creating art.

The solidarity encampment on Monday morning.
Students paint a message, “we will not be complicit in genocide,” on a sheet Monday morning.

The encampment is part of a long line of campus and community action against the genocide of Gaza and the fight for Palestinian liberation. In October, the UVM community protested against the university administration’s cancellation of Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd’s scheduled guest lecture on campus, citing unspecified “safety concerns.” As a report by Seven Days would later reveal, no threats related to the event were made. Students have also played a key role in organizing around ceasefire resolutions and an apartheid-free Burlington ballot initiative, both of which were shot down by the Burlington City Council. 

Palestinian liberation activists in the state have held rallies and marches, walkouts, and successful town ceasefire resolutions. They have targeted actions against members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, local military contractors, businesses and performers with ties to Israel.

The last time students built a protest encampment was in the 1980s, against another apartheid state: South Africa. The shantytown remained up for two months, until the UVM Board of Trustees finally agreed to divest from South African companies.

On a more immediate timescale, today at 1:00 pm, in front of Howe Library and next to the encampment, UVM SJP will be holding a rally against Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s selection as commencement speaker.

Additional reporting by Patrick St. John.

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