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Protesters face off against police on the UVA campus.

Protesters faced off against police on the UVA campus on Saturday, May 4.

Eze Amos/Getty Images

Questions are swirling in the wake of a police crackdown on a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Virginia on Saturday that ended with officers deploying pepper spray and arresting 27 protesters.

In the aftermath, competing versions of events have emerged. They stem from one central question: Why did UVA officials call state police to clear a small group of protesters at a demonstration that many described as peaceful?

Administrators sought to explain their rationale in a virtual Town Hall on Monday, arguing that the protesters’ chants and provocative language—as well as the alleged presence of potentially dangerous individuals unaffiliated with the university—all factored into their decision to call in the Virginia State Police, which responded in riot gear and forcefully cleared the encampment. But video and eyewitness testimony has since cast doubt on the university’s official explanation.

Now, with the community still reeling, faculty are demanding answers. And local media in Charlottesville, where UVA is the largest employer, have challenged the administration’s account and raised questions about the role of President Jim Ryan.

UVA Explains

At Monday’s virtual town hall, Ryan and other senior administrators argued that they had become worried about the growth of the encampment, the alleged presence of four men in tactical gear—two of whom were known to law enforcement for committing violent acts— and accounts of aggression by demonstrators.

Tim Longo, associate Vice President for Safety and Security and Chief of Police, said he was afraid he would be encircled by protesters who he said chanted at him and used umbrellas “aggressively” as he told them to remove tents from the site on Saturday.

“I was in fear when that group surrounded the encampment, opened up the umbrellas and used words such as ‘Fight, win, nothing to lose, at all costs.’ I was afraid, at the time, that myself and the assistant chief and the Student Affairs colleague that was there would be surrounded and that we would be put in a position to have to defend ourselves,” Longo said at the town hall.

Videos that have emerged in the wake of the police crackdown show a calmer scene.

Footage obtained by a Daily Progress reporter and posted to social media show Longo approaching the small group of demonstrators at the encampment, who then begin chanting “Free Palestine.” They also shouted other slogans, including, “We have a duty to fight for Palestine, we have a duty to win,” “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” and “Ceasefire now.”

The morning was soggy, and some protesters were already holding umbrellas when Longo entered the encampment. Videos show them turning their backs to the police chief, umbrellas raised over their heads. Longo appears to observe the scene calmly before walking away. Other videos shared at a faculty town hall on Thursday show a similarly contained scene at the protest.

UVA did not provide video to corroborate Longo’s story about aggression by protesters, as Inside Higher Ed requested.

Longo, however, has argued that he thought the situation was “escalating.” So he returned to the UVA command center to develop a plan to clear the site with the help of outside police forces.

“It wasn’t about the tents, it was about the behavior,” Longo said on Monday.

Officials have never specified who called in the state police, but Ryan, Provost Ian Baucom and other administrators were also in the university command center Saturday.

Over the course of the afternoon, city and county law enforcement and Virginia State Police descended on the scene, making more than two dozen arrests. UVA officials said 12 of the detainees were students, four were employees, three had other ties to UVA and eight had no connection.

“An Honest Town Hall”

Faculty, including those at the encampment— some who were serving as liaisons between demonstrators and administrators—have sharply disputed various claims made by UVA officials. In a virtual meeting dubbed “An Honest Town Hall” on Thursday, faculty accused the police of escalating the situation and officials of mishandling the response to a peaceful protest.

“We want to set the record straight on the events that unfolded,” Tessa Farmer, an associate professor of global studies and anthropology who served as a faculty liaison at the protests, said Thursday.

Video and eyewitness accounts shared at the meeting failed to corroborate Longo’s version of events. Faculty argued that the police response was “extreme” and “unjustified,” a disproportionate show of force against a small group of protesters. While administrators have said the protest was stocked with unknown and “dangerous” individuals, faculty countered that it was composed of students, employees, and local community members. They also questioned why, if there were potentially dangerous individuals in the encampment, people weren’t informed on Friday night, when multiple families with children gathered at the protest site.

“Many of us who were present on Saturday believe that it was the police who rioted and were aggressive, not our students or community members. I believe that it was the police assembly and violent aggression that was unlawful, not that of our students, our faculty, or community members,” Oludamini Ogunnaike, an associate professor of African religious thought and democracy said at Thursday’s meeting. “But I also believe that the reason that they were attacked so violently is not because they set up tents or because they were protesting, but rather because of what they were protesting against, and the way in which this issue has been politicized.”

Faculty also disputed Longo’s claim that protesters exposed to pepper spray were treated at the scene by medical personnel. The Daily Progress—which had a reporter exposed to pepper spray—has reported that many afflicted protesters used water to cleanse their own eyes and were not treated by medical personnel. (A UVA spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed, Longo’s comments referred to “those persons known to law enforcement at the time to be in need of medical treatment, reported an injury to police, or sought medical treatment while in police custody.”)

UVA didn’t answer most questions sent by Inside Higher Ed, referring instead to the town hall.

Where Was Jim Ryan?

As chaos unfolded on Saturday, faculty members noted the president was nowhere to be seen, even though they sent multiple emails asking administrators for help as police moved in.

An editorial in the Daily Progress asked pointedly: Where Is Jim Ryan?

Ryan offered some insights into his actions at Monday's town hall, noting that he and other administrators were monitoring the situation from the command center. Officials have said that the protesters refused to engage with them, also noting that the university was unwilling to meet their demands.

Like protesters on other campuses in recent months, demonstrators at UVA called on the administration to disclose investments in and divest from Israel and/or companies profiting off of the war between Israel and Hamas, end academic partnerships with Israeli institutions and refrain from punishing students and employees who took part in pro-Palestinian advocacy.

But despite calls from faculty to step in at a heated moment, Ryan stood down.

“By the time the police activity was occurring, given the stance of the group, my view was that my presence would inflame the situation rather than de-escalate it,” Ryan said on Monday.

Baucom, the provost, who also received faculty requests to step in, said he did not visit the site because “it felt important to be with Jim, be with the president as his senior leadership team.”

Ryan’s absence during such a heated moment has sparked outrage among faculty but other college presidents have taken a similar approach, choosing not to engage with students as they grapple with how to respond to the rise of encampments. Some presidents have struck deals with students to remove encampments, while others have relied on tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protests.

In the aftermath of the UVA protest, many faculty and students have made clear that they’ve lost faith in the administration, a fact Ryan acknowledged at Monday’s virtual town hall. But as questions persist about UVA’s version of events, officials are sticking to their disputed story—even as they seek to restore confidence.

“My colleagues and I have worked quite hard to build a level of trust with students, faculty, staff and members of the broader Charlottesville community. I’m fully and painfully aware that we lost some of that trust on Saturday, and that it’s very difficult to regain trust. At the same time, as a president, I make decisions that I think are in the best interests of the entire community, not one segment of it,” Ryan said. “And that includes making decisions that others vehemently disagree with.”

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