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State Press reporter describes the scene at the ASU pro-Palestine protest encampment

Students on college campuses around the country are clashing with law enforcement and their administrations as protests over the war in Gaza continue. It started at Columbia University in New York, where police in riot gear were called to disperse an encampment earlier this month. Now there are protesters camped out on campuses from Texas to USC to right here in Arizona.

An encampment has been set up at the University of Arizona this week, and over the weekend dozens of students were arrested at ASU after refusing to leave an encampment set up on Old Main, the historic center of the university.

Their demand? For the university to divest from companies tied to Israel. That was made illegal for government contractors under an anti-BDS law passed by the Legislature in 2019.

Seventy-two students were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing after multiple warnings to leave.

The university released a statement saying it supports free speech, but its “first priority is to create a safe and secure environment that supports teaching and learning.” The statement also said only 15 of those arrested were ASU students. About 80% were not.

State Press reporter Sophia Ramirez covered the protests and joined The Show to talk more about it.

Full conversation

SOPHIA RAMIREZ: So the encampment showed up around 8 a.m., pretty early in the morning. There was an initial four arrests made that morning as they were establishing the encampment. Video was later found of, I believe, the ASU police chief slicing tents open. There were tents in the middle of the encampment, along with a lot of food supplies.

When I arrived, the protesters were linking arms around the center of the protest, and the message that they seemed to want to convey is they want ASU to divest all investments in Israeli-backed corporations.

They also want the reinstatement of a club at ASU, MECHA at ASU, which was removed from campus for a controversial Instagram post. As well as they want to get across a general message of ceasefire now.

LAUREN GILGER: And obviously we’re seeing protests like this with similar demands play out on college campuses around the country right now. Tell us a little bit about what protesters had to say to you when you were there that day. I mean, why did they say they wanted to do this and that this was this important to them?

RAMIREZ: So actually, very few protesters wanted to speak to me individually. I can’t say that I blame them. I know that protests across the country tend to get maligned with statements that they did not directly say. So I understand their hesitancy in not speaking to me directly.

But I did talk to one of the organizers, and she mostly just repeated the overall message of the protest, that they are there to call for an immediate ceasefire on a global scale, but also in a more local scale to get ASU to remove its investments from Israeli ties.

GILGER: So police gave an 11 p.m. deadline to clear out this encampment after it began to grow that day. Tell us a little bit about how big it became and the lead up to these arrests.

RAMIREZ: So we came back to the protest around 10: 30 at night because we knew that the 11 (p.m.) deadline was approaching. Earlier in the day, we saw about 400 people. When we arrived not long before the arrests, there were maybe not the full 400, but there were still a significant number of people. We estimated about 300, 350.

When we arrived not long after 10:30, police started to get a megaphone and restate that they were supposed to leave by 11 p.m. And after that point, the protest somewhat split into two groups.

There was one group that had linked arms and were right in the center of the encampment with pieces of the encampment sort of surrounding them. And then there was a group that was closer to the edge of University (Drive) on the sidewalk and also part of Alumni Lawn closest to University because that was the exit that they were supposed to take when leaving. So they were a little closer to the exit.

As the police started to make their announcements, they didn’t start making arrests till almost close to midnight, so there was a pretty long lead up. And during that time we just saw chanting, we saw drumming, we saw yelling. But we didn’t much action besides that until the state troopers arrived and they made a line with their backs to Old Main and started pushing this line forward to remove pieces of the encampment and start arresting people.

GILGER: Last thing I want to ask you about is what’s happened since then. These arrests happened over the weekend. The encampment, I think, has been cleared out, and the area around Old Main has been blocked off it sounds like. What’s it look like right now?

RAMIREZ: Right now it looks like a big patch of grass with barricades around it, these metal frame barricades. There’s also security guards there, private security guards. So yeah, no one has access to that area. Although parts of Old Main are open, and people are taking photos still on the steps of Old Main.

GILGER: Like graduation photos, right?

RAMIREZ: Yeah.

GILGER: This was on Old Main, kind of the center of campus. And we’re preparing for graduation ceremonies coming up here, right? Put it into context for us in the broader sense of the college. This is coming at an important moment.

RAMIREZ: Absolutely. For starters, ASU really values Old Main. We didn’t know this until it became relevant, but there is an almost 24/7 livestream of the front of Old Main available online, hosted by ASU. Some of our reporters who weren’t on the scene were using it to keep track of us.

Old Main is critically important ASU. That’s absolutely why it was chosen as a protest location.

GILGER: And graduation is coming up soon. Do we know if further protests are planned, like we’re seeing pop up at other universities and students refusing to move in time for graduation?

RAMIREZ: Not to my knowledge. I haven’t seen any announcements of a new encampment or a new protest. There is a new Instagram page made for the encampments, although I don’t believe as of right now that it’s posted anything new about a specific date or a specific protest.

GILGER: OK, so something I’m sure we’re watching for. Last question for you, Sophia, before I let you go this morning. Tell us a little bit about the broader context here in terms of the war in Gaza and the way that that seems to have really struck a chord with college students today.

Do you hear about this a lot? Is this something people are talking about a lot? Why do people in this generation seem to really have latched on to this issue?

RAMIREZ: I don’t know if I could give a specific reason other than that from the people that I’ve talked to, they just really care. I spoke with some of the organizers, and even when other issues are brought up, for example, like American abortion laws or other issues, there’s always a parallel to be drawn between what American people might be facing and what people in Gaza might be facing.

So from the people that I’ve talked to, I think it’s just generally a deep empathy and a deep care for what’s going on in Gaza. And then from there, it’s not hard to see that they want to take specific actions in their home state and their college to improve their lives.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.