Why Is the Administration Using UCPD to Silence Pro-Palestinian Students?

The administration’s recent attempt to suppress an on-campus SJP demonstration using armed UCPD officers fits within a larger pattern of anti-Palestinian bias on the part of the University.

Content warning: This article includes violent imagery and discusses genocide and anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

During this quarter’s #IsraeliMilitaryOffOurCampus campaign, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UChicago has called on members of the University community to boycott former Israeli General Meir Elran’s class on “counter-terrorism,” oppose the presence of the Israeli military on our campus, and demand that the University cut ties with the heavily politicized Israel Institute. Each week, SJP has posted flyers around campus which offer reasons to oppose Elran’s course, providing detailed course critiques and exposés of Elran’s personal and institutional history. And week after week, flyers have been torn down in an attempt to silence Palestinian students and advocates. Despite the fact that the flyers and posters abide by all University posting policies, no steps have been taken by the administration to uphold the integrity of “free speech” on campus. Several reports have been made to the administration detailing specific locations, the number of flyers removed, and even providing photo and video evidence of students suppressing SJP’s right to expression. Unsurprisingly, given its track record of refusing to take institutional action against apartheid regimes or to punish violations of University policy perpetrated by pro-apartheid groups, the UChicago administration has failed to hold anyone accountable for these repeated infractions.

The University escalated its antagonism toward pro-Palestinian voices on February 2, when SJP and dozens of other members of the broader campus community came together to commemorate the lives of the 10 Palestinians massacred in the Jenin refugee camp on January 26, as well as the more than 36 Palestinians who had been killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces by that point in 2023 alone. Since then, this figure has nearly doubled in light of the massacre Israel perpetrated in the city of Nablus on February 22.

Although this commemoration event had been planned and organized by SJP—an RSO that has conducted more than 10 on-campus events and actions in the last year alone without violating any University policy—the administration decided in advance to treat it as a hostile “threat.” Before the peaceful demonstration even began, a group of armed University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officers arrived at Cobb Hall, where the action was scheduled to take place. These officers were the UChicago administration’s first line of defense against the free expression of its own students. Despite having broken no rules and disrupted no campus activities, students were forcibly barred from entering Cobb Hall, a building open to all students, by campus security agents and armed police officers at the behest of University administrators. Without explanation, officers repeatedly stated that particular students were not allowed to enter the building despite their attestations that they were UChicago students. It is a question left open to the reader how administrative officials were able to distinguish between students participating in the commemoration and other students trying to enter the building. The first student denied entry was a visibly Muslim woman wearing hijab. Given UCPD’s notorious history of racial profiling, this too is unsurprising.

Students participating in the commemoration did not give up trying to enter Cobb, even as they were obstructed by officers who acknowledged that they were “under orders” yet did not have any legitimate reason to prevent entry. Eventually, Dean-on-Call Ingrid Sagor was called to justify the order. Without evidence or explanation, Sagor continued to claim that we were not allowed to enter the building, and even asked students to prove themselves by showing IDs, despite the fact that the only people acting contrary to University policy were the University’s own administrators. According to University policy, the role of the dean-on-call is to “work actively to preserve an environment of spirited and open discourse and debate, allowing for the opportunity to have all participants contribute to intellectual exchange and full participation in an event.” Clearly, the community allowed to participate in “intellectual exchange” does not include those grieving Palestinian death and affirming Palestinian life—though it does include professors who represent the Israeli military and treat its ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people as the subject of “security studies” courses.

Eventually, the dean-on-call’s stalling tactics and discriminatory ID requests—which were possibly intended to pinpoint and persecute students involved in the action—failed. Students were finally allowed in, apparently under orders from a senior UCPD officer. As campus security held open an emergency door for armed UCPD officers to enter the building, however, an alarm was set off, which Sagor attempted to use to discourage students from progressing further into the building.

Unfazed by the administration’s scare tactics, student organizers made their way past Sagor to the hallway outside Elran’s classroom, where they lined up against the hallway walls displaying the names and pictures of Palestinians killed in Israel’s recent massacre. SJP leaders reminded students to keep staircases, elevators, and doors clear of blockage and to avoid making noise while classes were still in session. This was in keeping with the careful attitude of all students present toward University policies, as even Sagor admitted in conversations with students after the event. Administrators, officers, and students supportive of Elran, however, did not follow this same standard. After the reading of the names and ages of the martyred Palestinians, participants in the action observed a moment of silence, followed by a short speech about Elran and his class’s contributions to the oppression of the Palestinian people. During this moment of silence, a hostile student tore up SJP’s flyers in front of both UCPD and Sagor. UCPD was caught on camera confirming that they witnessed this destruction of property in front of them, while refusing to implement any disciplinary action against the student. This is not the first time the University has declined to take disciplinary action against anti-Palestinian vandalists in general and this student in particular.

As a Palestinian student speaking at the commemoration said, “Sometimes to be Palestinian means we are in a state of constant mourning. It means that even in burial, we may not find peace.” The commemoration itself took a total of 10 minutes between the passing periods of classes, in keeping with University policy and so as not to disturb ongoing classes.

After leaving the building, Sagor once again approached the student leaders, this time in a more aggressive and condescending tone. When a student remarked that the anti-abortion and homophobic protests frequently held outside of the Regenstein Library are never met with police presence, while Black and brown students rallying behind Palestine are treated as security threats, Sagor attempted to gaslight the action’s participants, claiming that she had been present for those protests as well and supports causes similar to theirs. Unsurprisingly, Sagor failed to supply any examples of protests organized by established RSOs that, despite being conducted in perfect conformity with University policy, have been met with comparable UCPD presence, denials of entry, or intimidation tactics. Instead, and without any apparent irony or embarrassment, she asserted that SJP had created the appearance of a “threat” by gathering outside Cobb Hall with a small microphone, some pastries, and two carriers of coffee (generously supplied to the organizers by Grounds of Being). After student leaders pointed out that her supposed sympathy for or impartiality toward SJP was a lie, given her coordination with armed police and refusal to admit students into Cobb Hall, she stormed into the building and declined to converse further.

Remarkably, the administration’s antagonism toward SJP and gross violations of University protocol continued even after the protest had ended. One integral component of the protest had been chalking on the sidewalk outside Cobb Hall, in keeping with the University’s policy that chalking is allowed “on campus sidewalks or walkways that can be easily washed away by rain and that will not cause lasting or permanent damage.” Barely one hour after the action had ended, however, University maintenance personnel were sent to wash the sidewalks of SJP’s messaging. At around the same time, a student who had participated in the demonstration returned to Cobb Hall to retrieve a bag he had forgotten in the building. Without explanation, Sagor denied the student entry to the building unless he first displayed his ID. After explaining to Sagor that he had left his bag in Cobb Hall, Sagor informed the student that he would be permitted to retrieve it only under the accompaniment of one or more armed UCPD officers. Feeling uncomfortable and threatened by this baseless demand, the student opted to go home instead. These blatantly discriminatory and anti–free speech acts show how far the administration is willing to go in suppressing SJP’s message while catering to the prejudices and demands of Zionist students.

When called out for their history of indifference to attacks on groups like SJP and other majority–BIPOC student organizations on campus, the University often cites the Kalven Report. In addition, in its student code of conduct, the University asserts that:

The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function, a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within the university but also with the larger society. At the University of Chicago, freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal of the pursuit of knowledge. Such freedom comes with a responsibility to welcome and promote this freedom for all, even in disagreement or opposition.

Ultimately, the administration’s disregard of its own policies and the police response to peaceful, rule-following student demonstrators this month reveals that its support for free speech extends only as far as its own political interests. We call on the administration to apologize for the inappropriate actions of UCPD and the administration at this commemoration, which included obstructing students from entering Cobb Hall without basis, silencing Palestinian students and supporters through the erasure of SJP chalking, and refusing to take action against students caught destroying SJP flyers. A reaffirmed commitment to the free expression of SJP both in an explicit statement and in practice is essential.

The SJP campaign against Elran’s course and the Israel Institute more generally has revealed that the UChicago administration is more committed to platforming and protecting the free speech of apartheid military personnel than that of its own students. In the words of a student who recently voiced support for our campaign, then, we turn the question back to the administration and ask:

“Does the University’s commitment to free expression justify its partnership with the Israel Institute today? I hope University administrators share my appreciation [for] Students for Justice in Palestine for raising this important question. To scrutinize the presence of military officials in the classroom and critique euphemistic military, security, and ethnic nationalist discourses exemplifies the principles of rigorous and open scholarly inquiry which the University claims to hold dear. I urge the University to be transparent about the details of its partnership with the Israel Institute and similar organizations from any country, in particular the U.S.”


Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago is UChicago’s chapter of a nationwide network of students dedicated to supporting Palestinians in their struggle for liberation, especially by raising awareness about and organizing against the Zionist occupation and colonization of Palestinian land and people.