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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Dispatches from the First Week of SJP’s Occupation of the Quad

Over the course of a week, a Grey City reporter and protester reflects on Students for Justice in Palestine turning the quad into a space of protest, debate, and organizing
The+donation+of+a+basket+of+oranges+for+SJP+protesters+on+a+table+covered+by+the+Palestinian+flag.+%28Photos+courtesy+of+Hui%29
The donation of a basket of oranges for SJP protesters on a table covered by the Palestinian flag. (Photos courtesy of Hui)

Editor’s note: Kelly X. Hui attended the quad protests and documented them as a protester with Students for Justice in Palestine UChicago and as an organizer with #CareNotCops and UChicago United for Palestine. The identities of protesters and organizers were kept anonymous.

On Monday, October 16, UChicago community members begin to occupy the main quad.

These students are answering a call from the University of Chicago chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to occupy the quad daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., “protesting the unfolding Israeli genocide in Gaza and demanding that the University divest from it.” The call to action came on October 14, one week after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing around 1,200 people, and taking 240 people hostage, according to Israeli officials. Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza, leading United Nations (UN) experts to warn of mass ethnic cleansing and genocide. Since October 7, Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

What does it mean to occupy the quad? Throughout the first week, students turn the quad into a space for protest, a space for organizing, a space for making and sharing food, a space for art, a space to grieve, a space for learning, a space for community-building. Tensions grow over the course of the week. There are charged encounters with counterprotests and incidents in which passersby harass protesters of color. Undeterred, organizers and protesters—many new to the cause, others familiar faces from previous SJP demonstrations—come out to the quad for five hours every day, five days a week, rain or shine, to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

 

Monday, October 16

The occupation of the quad begins quietly. It’s a cloudy, chilly day on the quad, and when the sun occasionally breaks through, it casts a weak, gray light over SJP organizers setting up tables, securing piles of flyers under rocks, and sound-checking megaphones. In the first hour, protesters trickle in wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Arab headdresses that have become symbols of Palestinian resistance. Organizers distribute blank poster paper and markers to eager hands. Protesters make signs and chalk statements on the walking paths in the quad. Some signs read “divest from genocide in Gaza” and “50% of Gaza’s population are children.” Grounds of Being, the Divinity School coffee shop, has provided coffee for participants, and a protester reacts with delight when a graduate student arrives with several large bright orange Home Depot buckets and sticks, courtesy of Graduate Students United, to act as drums during chants. Another protester arrives with a speaker and starts playing music.

Throughout the occupation, speeches and chants occur during 10-minute passing times as students move between classes. In the down time, protesters chalk, converse with each other, speak to the occasional passerby who wants to learn more, or try to get some schoolwork done. (The slow UChicago Wi-Fi is a complaint expressed more than once.)

During the 11:20 a.m. passing time, SJP organizers welcome an organizer who has come to campus from the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an international organization of young Palestinians living in Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora. “What we need is for principled people to stand up for Palestine now,” she declares. “Not in 20 years when it’s too late—now. We are on the right side of history, and we will win.”

The crowd breaks into chants. “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry! Palestine will never die!” Organizers leading chants pass the megaphone among one another. Protesters pick up the Home Depot buckets and establish a drum beat to the chanting. “Justice is our demand! No peace on stolen land!” Students passing by between classes stop to listen. “Brick by brick, wall by wall—apartheid has got to fall!”

Fewer than 10 students supporting Israel have gathered across the quad. One student drapes an Israeli flag over her shoulders. Another approaches where the occupation is taking place and yells, “You are terrorists.” SJP protesters, now a few dozen in number, chant “free, free Palestine” in response.

An organizer with UChicago Against Displacement (UCAD) speaks during the next passing time, connecting the siege on Gaza to students on campus. “The institution we attend has blood on its hands. UChicago has investments in defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the companies that are building the bombs being dropped on Gaza. It’s not just our tax dollars that are funding genocide, it’s our tuition as well. I want no part of it—and that is why I am here today.”

She mentions the murder of six-year-old Palestinian-American boy Wadea Al-Fayoumi in the suburbs of Chicago the day before. “What can we do as people who are here, thousands of miles away from where the genocide is occurring? Say Palestine. Uplift Palestinian voices and accounts of what is happening on the ground right now. Bring your body here, to the quad, every day until the genocide ends.” The growing crowd cheers.

An organizer leads protesters through more chants during the next passing time. “Hey Israel, what do you say? How many kids did you kill today?” (According to the World Health Organization Director-General, a child is killed on average in Gaza every 10 minutes.) “Hey Israel, what do you say? How many homes did you bomb today?” (According to the Gazan government, over 181,000 housing units have been damaged, with over 20,000 destroyed completely since October 7. This amounts to nearly half of all homes in Gaza that have been bombed, said a Gazan interior ministry spokesman.)

Around 2:30 p.m., a supporter drops by with pizza for the protesters. ​​As protesters begin to pack up, a few SJP organizers engage in conversation with the Israel supporters from earlier. Watching these conversations take place, one protester says, “I’m so impressed with the wisdom, patience, and compassion with which I’ve seen folks have very real conversations with Zionists, where they so intelligently and calmly respond to Zionist talking points.”

By the end of the day, “free Palestine” has been written in chalk in multiple languages—Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, and French, to name a few—which a protester points out highlights the multiethnic, multicultural coalition brought together through shared solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

 

Tuesday, October 17

Since SJP packed up Monday afternoon, a few other demonstrations have made their way through the quad: a fraternity-led vigil “condemning terror and antisemitism” early Monday evening and an anti-abortion installation in a corner of the quad with messages in chalk up and down the sidewalks.

For folks at the SJP occupation, the second day begins a little slower than the first. Shortly after 10 a.m., a few organizers set up the tables just north of the center of the quad, where the bulk of the protesters will stay for the rest of the week between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Two organizers position wide, black lawn chairs at the base of a tree and stand on top of them. From the trees, they hang a banner featuring a Nelson Mandela quote: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Banner featuring a Nelson Mandela quote hung up at the SJP quad occupation. (Photos courtesy of Hui)

Someone has brought a box of KN95 masks to protect protesters both from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and from doxxing and harassment, which has for years been a problem for Palestinian students and allies. Just the week before at Harvard University, a billboard truck drove through campus displaying the names and photos of students affiliated with student organizations that signed onto a Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee condemning Israel. Protesters on the UChicago quad are thrilled at the variety in mask colors:  baby pink, forest green, one that matches a protester’s red keffiyeh.

Callie Maidhof, an anthropologist and Global Studies professor who studies settler colonialism, arrives ahead of the 10:50 a.m. passing time. By this time, the crowd has grown to several dozen. In a speech, Maidhof, a self-identified Jewish American, describes an inherent complicity she feels in the siege on Gaza. “A genocide is being perpetuated in my name,” she says. “A genocide is being perpetuated with my tax dollars. And as an employee of the University of Chicago, I work for an institution with investments in the state perpetuating that genocide. I teach students whose tuition feeds it.”

Maidhof connects the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza to the 1948 Nakba—the Arabic word for catastrophe—in which at least 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by the Israeli military. Today, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 1.5 million Gazans have been displaced since October 7.  Even before the past month, human rights organizations and activists have often referred to Gaza as the “largest open-air prison in the world.”

Maidhof ends her speeches to cheers from the crowd. A series of chants follows, emphasizing the interconnectedness of global struggle: “From Palestine to the Philippines, stop the U.S. war machine!” “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime!” “From Palestine to Mexico, these border walls have got to go!”

As chants continue during the next passing time, around 12:30 p.m., a somber moment falls over the crowd. An SJP organizer’s voice chokes up as he announces the bombing of Al-Ahli hospital, where many displaced Gazans were seeking refuge and medical treatment from Israeli bombardment. According to Palestinian officials, the strike killed close to 500. Organizers call for a moment of silence. Grief-stricken, several protesters begin crying. Many embrace each other for comfort. Others don’t seem to know what to do with their hands. Some begin to channel their grief and outrage into chalking. One message on the sidewalk reads: “Never forget Oct. 17: Israel killed 500 in a Gaza hospital.”

The source of the strike is still contested. The Gaza Health Ministry blames an Israeli strike. US intelligence forces and the Israeli military blame a misfired rocket from militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has denied these claims. Israeli airstrikes have targeted several Gazan hospitals since October 17. The Israeli military says it is targeting Hamas in tunnels under these hospitals.

A protester shows a friend a video of children in the hospital the day before it was bombed. “They teach us life,” she says, tears in her eyes, watching the montage of Gazan youth cleaning up trash, holding hands, and playing games. She’s referencing Palestinian-Canadian poet Rafeef Ziadah’s poem “We teach life, sir.”

“Even in so much death, they teach us life,” the protester concludes.

At 1:50 p.m., comparative human development professor Eman Abdelhadi, a Palestinian American, arrives to give a speech. “People out there, for whom [Palestinian] humanity is an enormous inconvenience, have CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and the New York Times. But on our side, we have the truth,” Abdelhadi says. Since November 9, approximately 600 journalists have signed an open letter that criticizes “Western media coverage of Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians.”

The speech draws in a larger crowd, who offer cries of affirmation. “Palestinians will one day, in our lifetimes, be able to live dignified lives on our land,” Abdelhadi promises. “We—Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists—will all live as equals on that land one day. And any one of us will be able to drive from Jerusalem to Gaza, just to have a picnic by the sea.”

 

Wednesday, October 18

It’s a sunny day on the quad. Maroons for Israel, advertising a gathering in support of Israel for the next day, have set up a table with Israeli flags on the south side of the quad. Grounds of Being has closed for the day in solidarity with the SJP occupation. A protester has drawn the shape of Palestine in chalk in purple, orange, pink, and yellow colors on the path through the central quad. Around noon, someone drops off a bag of oranges and a pitcher of hot water. Another protester has replenished the chalk supply. Another brings donuts, and the donuts bring bees.

During a lull in activity on the quad, protesters march to stand beneath Cobb Gate, facing Regenstein Library. They stand to each side, carving a path for people walking through. Holding a sign that reads “from Palestine to the South Side, UChicago funds displacement,” Yaa Angie, an organizer from local grassroots community group Not Me We, gives a speech that elicits the most energetic responses yet. She connects the Palestinian struggle to liberation movements across the globe, declaring, “You have a right to resist these white supremacist projects!”

A passerby interrupts Yaa’s speech, asking, “What do you think ‘from the river to the sea’ means?” The meaning of the popular protest phrase is debated. For some, it has antisemitic connotations, especially after its adoption by Hamas. The organizer has a different view: “It means that Palestine needs to be free.” Chants of “free, free Palestine” drown out the passerby. At a faculty panel and public discussion held in Swift Hall on Thursday, October 19, Abdelhadi argued that these chants describe “a democratic nation in historic Palestine that gives equal rights to all of the residents of the land and allows for the right of Palestinian refugees to return.” From Abdelhadi’s point of view, neither chant is a call to remove Jewish Israelis from the land. Editors Note: (According to the Anti-Defamation League, “from the river to the sea” is an antisemitic slogan that calls for the removal of Jews from the land.)

Onlookers continue to engage with protesters throughout the day, and students of color are often the most criticized. As a Black protester writes “Black Lives for Free Palestine” in chalk on a path in the center of the quad, a white passerby walks through, spits between the C and the K, and scuffs the chalk with their shoe. As another Black protester writes “none of us are free until we’re all free” nearby, a different white passerby yells at them, accusing them of “standing for terrorism.” Organizers begin to consider safety contingencies to protect the more vulnerable participants in the occupation, particularly as they start planning an upcoming rally.

A protester writing with chalk on the quad circle. (Photos courtesy of Hui)

Noting the relationship between major U.S. metropolitan law enforcement agencies like the Chicago Police Department and the Israeli Defense Forces, an organizer from #CareNotCops (CNC) argues that “the very tactics used to over-police, brutalize, and surveil Black and Brown folks all over our city are used to kill and oppress Palestinians in Gaza.”

An SJP organizer implores: “What are you gonna do? Let it happen? Sit idly as your tax dollars and tuition support genocide?” The crowd is silent for a few seconds before shouting yells of “no,” “hell no,” and “that ain’t right.” Another SJP organizer reads from “We Are All Palestinians,” a statement penned by the Birzeit University Union, a group of professors and students in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Later in the day, organizers from SJP, CNC, UCAD, and other student groups huddle together, sitting with crossed legs on the grass, planning a strike and rally on campus on Friday afternoon. Some make graphics; others draft a letter to University administrators demanding divestment. As the occupation winds down for the day, organizers brainstorm a larger action to close out the week.

 

Thursday, October 19

The weather is chillier, and tensions are higher on the quad today as the UChicago Stands With Israel ralliers gather on the opposite side in the center of the quad. For SJP and its supporters, it is occupation as usual: speeches and chants during passing time and conversations with people who come up to the tables. Rain overnight has washed away all the chalk, so protesters get on their knees, scrabble at nubs of chalk pieces, and begin writing again with renewed vigor. At 11 a.m., organizers begin raising money for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), converting one of the two tables on the quad into the bake sale table, with baked goods brought by members of the community. By the end of the day, they will have raised over $3,000 in aid for the children of Palestine.

Both the SJP occupation and the UChicago Stands with Israel gathering, now with a similar turnout of protesters, have concurrent speeches. Protesters, just a few feet away from each other, turn to face one another. Organizers from both gatherings have cautioned their participants not to engage with each other. During a period of SJP–led chants, a pro-Israel protester walks over—hand outstretched, phone filming—to a hijabi woman holding a sign referencing the Al-Ahli bombing. As she raises the sign to cover her face, he rips it out of her hands, crumpling it and injuring her right hand. Protesters from the SJP occupation move between the two to protect her and de-escalate the situation.

Minutes later, the same pro-Israel protester repeatedly yells “what’s your name” to a brown woman holding a megaphone and leading chants near the center of the quad. A protester with SJP, a man wearing a yarmulke, positions himself between the two. The pro-Israel protester reaches past him and knocks the megaphone out of the woman’s hands. Protesters from both sides move immediately to defuse the situation. The dean-on-call, a University administrator present at most student demonstrations held on campus, comes to the place where the incident occurred and speaks with the pro-Israel crowd. Protesters at the SJP occupation are told by SJP organizers to turn their backs on the UChicago Stands with Israel gathering. They do.

The protester wearing a yarmulke later says that he has been joining the quad occupation in an attempt to “bring visibility to the Jewish anti-Zionist position.” Recounting the incident, he admits, “I was really scared. It didn’t even occur to me that I was doing de-escalation. In my brain, I was just trying to put my body in front of hers.”

The hijabi woman later expresses disappointment with authority figures who did not intervene in time. When she files a report of assault with the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), she is again disappointed by what she perceives as the officers’ lack of concern. She adds that the officer who interviewed her made a joke about not wanting to be there speaking with her.

As the UChicago Stands with Israel gathering comes to a close, participants from each side converse with one another. Tensions seem to have simmered down, but not all protesters feel safe after the clashes between the two protests. After the protests, one Black SJP protester recounted a moment when she chalked “decolonization is not a metaphor” and a group of five to six passersby approached, loudly disparaging the chalk messages and making her uncomfortable. A fellow protester, who is white, put their body in front of the chalking protester to shield her.

Later, a group of students of color reflect on frustrations they’ve encountered on the quad throughout the week. “People who were protesting in solidarity with Israel have actively yelled at us, saying we’re terrorists. And that’s racialized. We’re a group of Black and brown students getting called terrorists,” one protester says, visibly upset. “How is it okay to be calling Muslim students terrorists?”

Another Black protester speaks to the perceived lack of protection for pro-Palestine protesters of color, who say that they receive insufficient and unequal support from the deans-on-call and UCPD compared to the participants in the UChicago Stands for Israel gathering. They express a lack of surprise at the failure to protect students of color, drawing a connection between the Palestinian cause and the struggle for racial justice, on campus and globally. “Who has power? It’s clear that the level of power we have is so different, which we all know as students of color,” one protestors says. Many protesters nod and murmur in agreement. “We realize that people are not standing with us.”

The same protester addresses what she sees as a double standard around accepted behaviors of pro-Palestine protesters who are people of color compared with white counter-protesters. “We can never yell in people’s faces in the same way that they are, and we know that as people of color in this country. And then we’re being told that we don’t understand any of the experiences of oppressed people of the world…it’s so frustrating.”

 

Friday, October 20

As the week comes to a close, spirits are high. Items do not have prices; an organizer behind the baked goods table tells a passerby entranced by an apple tart to “take what you want and pay what you want.” Protesters canvass passersby, reminding them of the rally later in the day.

Organizers continue to make speeches and chant during passing times while also juggling last-minute preparations for the rally planned for 2:30 p.m. Those making press calls celebrate briefly when WBBM-TV, the Chicago CBS affiliate, confirms just after noon that the station will send a press helicopter to the rally. Marshalls, volunteers in neon vests who make sure the crowd is safe and on pace during the march, practice their formation on the grass. One organizer rehearses their speech from their phone, complaining about the spotty Wi-Fi network as their last-minute edits lag. Organizers repeatedly send representatives to talk to the workers at the flu shot clinic that Student Wellness has set up in front of Levi Hall, where the rally is planned to take place. They reach a compromise—the clinic will shift slightly to the south-facing green, and those getting their flu shots will also have a good view of the speakers.

Following on from the global day of general strike, the rally calls upon students, faculty, staff, and other community members to boycott classes or work in solidarity with Palestinians and attend the rally to demand that University administrators account for their investments in Israel. Organizers have demanded that President Paul Alivisatos, Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen, Executive Director of the Office of International Affairs Nick Seamons, and Provost Katherine Baicker attend a press conference during the rally, though after receiving a letter from Rasmussen the day before that reaffirmed the University’s investments’ neutrality, they are not optimistic about having the administration show up.

Protesters lined up on the quad circle. (Photos courtesy of Hui)

Still, hundreds of protesters, many walking out of class, gather in front of Levi Hall, the administration building, to demand the University divest from Israel. After hearing speeches from SJP, PYM, CNC, and two University professors, protesters take to the streets surrounding the quad and march across the Midway to the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice to protest the namesake’s heavy investments in weapons contractor General Dynamics, which supplies weapons to the Israeli military.

The march takes up an entire block—and at its tail, a Muslim family with two young boys lags behind. The youngest toddles through the streets after his mother, waving a homemade Palestinian flag on a stick. As the crowd rounds the corner to 59th Street along the Midway, his father picks him up onto his shoulders to catch up to the rest of the family. The older boy frantically waves his larger, cloth flag, clearly pleased by the fond smiles and attention he elicits from other rally participants.

Along the route, many participants remark that this rally had the largest turnout for an action they’ve seen at UChicago. Reflecting on the week, one organizer expresses pride that “we have been taking care of each other, checking in with each other, feeding each other, hugging each other. It’s really been a draining yet uplifting space to be in.”

Autumn has finally come to our campus. Protesters on the quad this week have watched the trees change color and shed their leaves. What has stayed consistent, though, is the red, green, black, and white of the Palestinian flags waving between the tree branches, which protesters will pack up and put up again today, tomorrow, and every day, as they say, until the siege on Gaza ends.

Editor’s note: As The Maroon’s long-form and narrative features section, Grey City seeks to produce coverage that gives students a direct voice in reporting. As a separate report, Grey City will soon be publishing a story written by pro-Israel student organizer who has been active in recent campus demonstrations.

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  • P

    Ploni Almoni / Nov 29, 2023 at 1:52 pm

    This piece does not comply with The Maroon’s own Conflict of Interest policy (Bylaws Art VIII Sec 5). Unlike Viewpoints, Grey City does not have any allowed deviations from norms written in the Bylaws, so the intent clearly is for Grey City to be subject to these rules, under which it is not permitted for an RSO member to cover their organization. As an organizer affiliated with two groups covered in the piece, it’s established that the author is a member of them.

    The fact that this article is still up means that the Chicago Maroon Executive Slate and Grey City Editors consider it permissible to waive an ethical conduct policy with an Editor’s note. I cannot imagine any other member of the UChicago community – student, faculty, doctor, lawyer, or other professional – making an analogous claim!

    Reply
    • J

      Jacob Myrene / Dec 1, 2023 at 3:14 pm

      Your agenda is showing. 🙂 Spare us the FAKE outrage. You want to repress speech you disagree with. PATHETIC. I say this as someone without a vested interest in the conflict.

      Reply
  • G

    gary fouse / Nov 29, 2023 at 11:26 am

    The only thing missing here is a moment of silence for the Hamas butchers who slaughtered 1200+ Jews on October 7. This article is beyond disgusting.

    Reply
    • J

      Jacob Myrene / Dec 1, 2023 at 3:17 pm

      Don’t worry—we’re reminded of that daily by the Zionist agents in the media and government.

      Also, pro-tip: your bias would be harder to identify if you weren’t so explicit about it. (“bEyOnd dIsGuStANG.”)

      Reply
      • Q

        quadzee / Feb 21, 2024 at 8:30 pm

        hey brainiac, if the hamas wanted to push back they could have just launched rockets, mortars ans sht like that dude, not beat, rape, slaighter, parade a girl in a pick up like a war trophy. that bs and is vulgar, does sht to make you look like soldiers versus thugs of hypermasculinzed sick men

        Reply