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University of Arizona faculty sets up ad hoc committee after protest arrests, social media tracking

There have been pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses around the country this spring and late last week, they came to a head at the University of Arizona.

Police shot what appeared to be rubber bullets as protesters threw rocks and water bottles at SWAT vehicles, and it all happened as the university was preparing for graduation festivities. Ellie Wolfe with the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson covered it, and joined The Show.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: So begin with the scene for us last week in Tucson when these protests and police presence on the campus kind of came to a head.

ELLIE WOLFE: Yeah. So this was the second encampment in two weeks. And what happened is initially the campers broke the 10:30 p.m. curfew. President [Robert] Robbins said that they would be arrested without warning. That's not exactly what happened. We think that they kind of took the university by surprise, and so the police presence was actually pretty miniscule even after the 10:30 presence. It was almost a little eerie, honestly.

And then all of a sudden, the police started lining up and speaking in a loudspeaker giving warning, asking for the protesters to leave and they refused. And that's when the police descended with tear gas and pepper ball guns.

GILGER: Two arrests were made. Do we know who they were?

WOLFE: Yeah. So we've been told by the campers that they were two faculty members. This week's encampment was a little bit different because a small group of faculty and staff got together under the name, keeping students safe, kind of in a response to the way that law enforcement officials treated students at the first encampment. And those faculty and staff stood in a line between the police presence and the members of the encampment. To my knowledge from what I saw, the faculty and staff were not being aggressive with the police at all. So it's unclear when those two arrests were made, but we have been told that they are faculty.

GILGER: Faculty. Tell us more about the faculty's response to this. They sent a letter, lots of them, to the president of the university, kind of disagreeing with the way this has all been handled, right.

WOLFE: Yeah. So there was an initial kind of general letter sent, and it had more than 400 signatures early last week, which I'm sure has grown. And then also individual departments have released their own letters kind of condemning President Robbins' response, because the first encampment, there wasn't, you know, there were a lot of police lined up but they weren't doing anything until President Robbins released a statement and then they once again descended on the on the protesters. So the faculty members were very upset and the faculty senate chair is creating an ad hoc committee to investigate the administration's response to this.

GILGER: What has the administration, what has President Robert Robbins said about all of this other than, you know, this sort of zero tolerance policy. He released a pretty lengthy statement after these latest arrests.

WOLFE: So, besides statements, he hasn't said much. He has said that the force used has been, you know, understandable because the protesters, they did start throwing plastic water bottles at police officers. And so according to Robbins that escalated the situation. But the university hasn't given us, they have declined to comment, I should say, on questions about whether the faculty arrested are going to be disciplined and what weapons were used on students. They would not confirm you know, rubber bullets versus pepper balls, or even the presence of tear gas despite police officers at the time saying that they were using chemical munitions.

GILGER: Let me ask you about another story. You, you've been reporting on this front, you obtained internal emails that show that the university administration has been monitoring and saving posts made by students and faculty about certain political topics like Palestine. Tell us more about what those internal emails showed.

WOLFE: Yeah, so it's really interesting when we spoke to the university after we got those emails, they said it's not surveilling, it's monitoring, and that they do it for any time the university is mentioned. However, for political events that they worry could become unsafe, they save those into a box account, which is sort of like a, a Dropbox or a Google Drive. And then they send that information off to the UA police chief and the vice president for safety and all sorts of high-level people.

So what those emails showed us was kind of an intense back and forth between a junior staff member, the director of social media and senior officials about what posts should be saved onto that box. And what we found is that it was a lot of groups where students were of color, for example. The social media director said it was a positive thing that a Black student group on campus was shadow banned on social media so that their posts wouldn't reach a wider audience.

GILGER: What's the response been to this story and, and the fact that that, you know, people may be having their social media monitored in this way?

WOLFE: Yeah, so the response has been pretty interesting, you know, the UA is standing their ground, saying that this is what a lot of other universities do. But student groups are very upset, especially that Black student group where their shadow banning was described as a positive thing. And so it's unclear how people will post moving forward.

I mean, it's worth noting that these two encampments they organized and got people to show up to the encampment by posting on their social media channels, right? So it, it, it is a really valuable tool for these groups. But I imagine that they'll be a little more careful with exactly the language they use knowing that the university is monitoring that.

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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.