83.2 F
New York
Friday, May 24, 2024

What we know about how UVa’s narrative differs from eyewitness accounts of May 4

LawWhat we know about how UVa's narrative differs from eyewitness accounts of May 4

University of Virginia officials have cited a number of justifications for their decision to have state police wearing tactical gear break up a small encampment of anti-war protesters on May 4, arresting 27 people and deploying pepper-spray into a crowd of students, faculty and members of the public.

But witnesses and video footage raise questions about the claims made by President Jim Ryan, UVa Police Chief Tim Longo and other top officials.

Calling in state police “was a very hard decision,” Ryan said on Tuesday during a widely criticized “virtual town hall.” “But we felt like we didn’t have a safer option at that point, given the circumstances of an ever-growing crowd and defiant protesters who were continually calling for others to join them.”

While the troopers did not begin their march into the encampment until the afternoon of May 4, by which time hundreds had gathered to watch the spectacle unfold, it was a series of events the evening of May 3 and the morning of May 4 that led Ryan and Longo to determine that deploying state troopers on Grounds was the best option.

People are also reading…


University of Virginia President Jim Ryan speaks during a Board of Visitors meeting in the Rotunda on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Among their provided explanations: protesters’ refusal to take down tents, four mysterious individuals who UVa said posed a threat to the community joining the encampment, protesters using umbrellas “in an aggressive manner” and Longo himself feeling fearful upon approaching the group.

It all culminated in a single decision that many in the university community and surrounding Charlottesville have said has broken their trust in Ryan and his administration.

This is what UVa administration says happened in those crucial hours, and what the UVa community says didn’t.

Unpermitted tents and ‘men in black’

By May 3, the demonstration protesting Israel’s monthslong war in the Palestinian territory of Gaza had remained peaceful for four consecutive days.

Protesters had spent those four days, singing, chanting, blowing bubbles, painting signs and discussing the war on a small patch of grass near the University Chapel just off the school’s central Lawn.

So said the university after the group held a Shabbat dinner, and even after a large crowd, including children, gathered the evening of May 3 for a vigil commemorating the estimated 34,000 Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children, since the war began on Oct. 7.

With rain in the forecast, tents begin to go up around 7:20 p.m. It was not the first time.

Protesters had erected tents on April 30, but voluntarily took them down after the university requested. Longo said he hoped they would do so again.

The group did not speak directly to administration or media during the week. Instead, they used faculty members, working on the scene in shifts, as liaisons. As rain approached the night of May 3, Longo told liaisons that while the protesters were welcome to stay, the tents had to go.

“Would you like us to communicate that this can stay here as long as there’s no more tents?” a liaison asked Longo, according to a video presented by the faculty who organized an “honest town hall” after Ryan’s “virtual town hall” this past week.

“We might go there. Let me go someplace else first,” Longo responded. “What if three canopy tents were allowed to remain and personal pop tents come down?”

Faculty considers this evidence that there was still confusion and “gray areas” about UVa’s tent policy.

“You have my word, this is not a ploy to bring everybody off Grounds and we’ll take the property. We just want the tents to come down. That’s all. And everyone can stay where they are. It’s just that simple,” Longo said.

During the administration’s town hall, Ryan recognized that tents were needed if protesters were to stay dry. He added that Kenyon Bonner, UVa’s chief student affairs officer, offered to stay at the site so protesters could go home, get dry, and return in the morning.

The group refused, choosing to stay in their tents. By nightfall, the university estimates the number of tents had grown from six to 22.

Earlier that evening, Assistant Police Chief Chris Easton “had inquired as to the availability of state resources in the event we would need them,” Longo said at the administration’s town hall. “That inquiry in fact resulted in their response.”

But based on his observations, the presence of children “and the absence of an imminent threat of harm, I made a deliberate and conscious decision to stand down all law enforcement intervention,” Longo said.

Outside agitators

What Longo found more troubling than the tents was the arrival of four men dressed in black and wearing helmets. The university says the “outside agitators” joined the encampment on May 3.

Longo said law enforcement identified the four as people “who had been associated with previous historical events that occurred in our community that resulted in violence.”

At that point, the encampment became a safety and security concern, according to Ryan.

“Especially when the four men came in on Friday night. So it wasn’t just about enforcing what might seem like a silly bureaucratic policy,” Ryan said, referring to the university’s stance on tents. “It was about a safety risk.”

The university has not yet provided any additional information on the “outside agitators,” including how they were identified, why they were considered safety risks and whether they were among those arrested.

Multiple people who were at the encampment told The Daily Progress they didn’t know who the university was referring to. They maintain that most of the people in the encampment were students.


A pro-Palestine protester wearing goggles and a keffiyeh faces off with a line of Virginia State Police officers at the University of Virginia, Saturday, May 4, 2024.

Levi Vonk is a professor in the school’s Global Studies department. He served as a liaison for the protesters since the demonstration began on April 30. He was one of the few faculty members who was behind police lines when state troopers marched on the encampment the afternoon of May 4, trying to get them to stop their advance. Vonk was at the vigil the night of May 3 and stayed at the site until 2 a.m. He’s confused by the university’s claim of outside agitators.

“I don’t know who those people were, and frankly, I have no idea if it’s me, because I could fit that description that night. I’m currently wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. I have a bike and a bike helmet,” Vonk told The Daily Progress. “I have no idea who they’re referring to, but there are a lot of students who could fit that description, and it’s baffling to me they would assume they’re outside agitators.”

A graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences, who was not with the protest but had been working alongside faculty liaisons for days, was also confused by the claim.

“I’m not entirely sure who that’d be referring to,” said the student who asked not to be named. “I’m not sure who is being implicated as these sort of shadowy figures.”

Robert Redick, a Charlottesville native, author and fourth-generation UVa graduate, visited protesters in the encampment on May 2. He wonders why state police would be needed to arrest the four people who UVa says posed a security threat.

“There were fifty or more state and county police in riot gear. Why did you need to walk in a phalanx to apprehend four individuals?” Redick asked.

‘It felt like an ambush’

Throughout the week, administration and liaisons had conversations about what would happen if protesters erected tents. Faculty say that what ultimately unfolded on May 4 is not what they’d been told in advance.

“I had a long conversation with Longo on Friday about the procedures that would be used to arrest people and what happened on Saturday wasn’t the same,” Walt Heinecke, a professor who’s taught at UVa for 27 years told The Daily Progress.

Here’s what Heinecke was told on Friday, and what he relayed to students:

If tents went up, students would be told to take them down. If they didn’t, Facilities Management would enter with police and anyone with a tent would be given a no trespassing order. Students could choose whether or not to sign the order. If they did, they would have a certain amount of time to vacate the premises. If they refused, they’d be issued a citation and subject to arrest, but given time before the arrest happened. Facilities Management would ultimately take the tents down.

“That never happened,” said Heinecke.

Heinecke and the graduate student said they believe people in the encampment were aware of the consequences, or at least the consequences that had been spelled out by officials. Faculty say the incident did not unfold in the way administrators had described.

“At no point was anything communicated to faculty about anything near the level of response we saw,” said the graduate student. “Honestly, it felt like an ambush.”

‘Why are you pointing weapons at our students?’

It wasn’t long after 6 a.m. May 4 that Longo came for the tents.

Faculty recalls the university police chief had left the site around 10 p.m. the previous night after speaking to them about the weather forecast. Protesters had made it through another day without escalation and slept through a night of heavy rain and lightning.

In discussing the impending storm with him, Heinecke saw “some pretty reasonable resignation” on Longo’s face.

“I felt like he wasn’t going to go ballistic at that point on the rules he was trying to enforce,” Heinecke said. “Tomorrow would be another day, and I sort of expected the same procedure would happen.”


Police drag anti-war protesters out of an encampment at the University of Virginia, Saturday, May 4, 2024.

When Longo and administrators returned to the soaked patch of grass by the chapel the morning of May 4, they were intent on removing the two dozen tents they found.

Longo spoke to faculty for roughly 45 minutes before he picked up a megaphone and spoke directly to students, issuing a series of warnings that the tents had to go. If they weren’t removed voluntarily, they would be removed by Facilities Management.

The graduate student has video showing a Facilities Management truck on site, but doesn’t recall anyone from Facilities Management making any efforts to remove the tents.

Faculty says that during the morning they’d shown an official university document to administrators. It included a clause saying that recreational tents were exempt from the school’s tent-permitting policy. They asked administration for clarity and showed them images of pop-up tents that had been placed near volleyball courts on Grounds, and which apparently hadn’t drawn any attention from administrators or police.

‘I was in fear’

Around 8:30 a.m., Longo and Easton approached the encampment to begin tent removal. At Tuesday’s town hall, he estimated 45 people were in the group, but video evidence suggests it was closer to a dozen.

With faculty walking behind him, and with the protesters in front of the tents, Longo can be seen trying to walk past the demonstrators. But the protesters shuffle along with him, their umbrellas open, trying to remain between the tents and the police chief.

“The group clustered tightly around the space that I was approaching,” Longo recalled Tuesday.

He takes a few steps back from the tents, as protesters stand before him with their umbrellas, some with their backs turned to him. There are several feet between him and the demonstrators. He stands with his hands in his pockets, with Easton to his right holding a megaphone.

The graduate student, who shot the video, is behind and to the right of Longo. Two legal observers, clearly identifiable in their neon green hats, are behind him and to his left. At one point he peers over his left shoulder.

Longo and Easton, as well as the protesters, stand in place as the protesters begin to chant.

“The chants were all pretty familiar,” said the graduate student. “’We have nothing to lose but our chains,’ ‘We have an obligation to love each other,’ ‘We have a duty to fight for Palestine.’”

After an uneventful, 80-second standoff, Longo says something to Easton and the pair calmly walks away as the group chants, “Ceasefire now.” Longo, Easton and an administrator stand on the brick pathway and Longo pulls out his phone.

“To us, it looked like he gave up,” said the graduate student. “He tried to go enforce this thing and students were able to kind of block him from being able to communicate in the way he’s used to. He didn’t know what to do, so he walked away.”

When recalling the incident on Tuesday, Longo said he was scared.

“My immediate fear was that they would encircle myself, the assistant chief and my Student Affairs colleague and so I stepped back,” Longo said.

“I was in fear when that group surrounded that encampment, opened up the umbrellas, used words such as ‘fight,’ ‘win,’ ‘nothing to lose,’ ‘at all costs,’” Longo said. “I was afraid at the time that myself and the deputy 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.”

The graduate student said that in addition to the protesters directly in front of Longo, there were some faculty members behind him filming.

“That’s my assumption of what he means when he says he was encircled. Not that students encircled him but that there were people all around,” the graduate student said.

‘End the protests, clear the area’

On the ground, it appeared any risk of escalation had passed.

“Longo had approached students, told them to take the tents down, they refused. Longo left and things seemed to calm down,” Vonk said. “Basically we were told nothing is going to happen and you can go home so we left.”

Longo had left too. People sat around the encampment eating bagels and chatting. Students wanted to have a meeting at noon.

“It was all pretty chill and relaxed,” Heinecke said.

What they did not know was that back at the university’s “command post,” Longo and others were putting together a plan. He asked for university police and local law enforcement to secure the site, execute no trespass orders and make arrests if necessary.

“We made the decision to end the protests and clear the area. We felt like this is escalating and had the potential to get out of hand,” said Ryan, who UVa says spent May 4 at the command center.

The plan asked that local and some state police create a perimeter around the encampment, using the brick pathway around the wet grass as the police line in an effort to prevent anyone else from entering the site. As word spread of a police presence, a crowd poured in to see what would happen next.


An anti-Israel protest at the University of Virginia enters its fourth day, Friday, May 3, 2024.

“As soon as we left, we got word police were being called back in,” said Vonk, who returned to the site around 10:45 a.m. “By that time police officers had already surrounded the encampment.”

Bethany McGlyn, a PhD candidate in the History Department, had been in and out of the encampment since the night of April 30. By the time she arrived at 11 a.m. May 4, police had it surrounded. She estimated there were 15 students, four faculty liaisons and two legal observers inside.

“By the time it was surrounded, it was a very small group,” McGlyn said, adding she is very confident they were students.

Then university police made an announcement.

“Our intention was to issue a no trespass order and if met with noncompliance to effect a custodial arrest for trespass,” Longo said on Tuesday.

Global Studies professor David Edmunds was there as the police presence grew. He recalls that around 11:30 a.m., there were and would continue to be “several more opportunities to deescalate the situation and to engage meaningfully with the demands of the encampment.”

Nonetheless, “we can all feel tensions rising at this point,” Edmunds said at the faculty town hall on Thursday.

Around noon May 4, university police made two attempts to break up the group. In the first, the protesters stood in a line, linked arms and held open umbrellas in their hands.

“I think we were all scared immediately,” a teaching assistant who had been tutoring undergraduate students in the encampment told The Daily Progress. “None of us planned to resist, but by time police were approaching, I think my body was in shock.”

The TA, who also asked not to be named for fear of retribution, referred to Tuesday’s town hall where administrators spoke of fear.

“It’s enraging to hear that when you look at photos of how large police officers and troopers were in comparison to us. It’s ridiculous to think they were afraid and we weren’t,” said the TA.

She recalls the first approach by police.

“You’re grabbing us and we’re frightened and we’re going to keep everyone we care about in this space here,” she remembers thinking.

She said protesters were “flabbergasted” by the event. Just the night before, faculty and undergraduates passed around an official university document saying that recreational tents were allowed on Grounds. The clause in that document was quietly removed on the morning of May 4, not long before police moved in. Some faculty and students believe the timing was not coincidental.


Demonstrators sit in the shade on the University of Virginia Lawn during an anti-Israel protest, Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

University police were able to wrangle a protestor from the group in their first approach and arrested the individual.

Longo said that when four of his officers approached the group again, they were “met with the use of umbrellas in an aggressive manner.” The university has said people were “swinging objects.”

That’s not how others remember it.

“I saw students holding open umbrellas. I didn’t see them swinging them, throwing them or hitting police with anything else,” McGlyn said.

Heinecke said protesters had their umbrellas out when police approached them.

“And when police start grabbing and pushing and that kind of stuff, there is some attempt to defend yourself,” he said.

Longo said that at least one of the protesters swung their hands in the direction of officers and that one officer was struck.

As a photographer with the Cavalier Daily, fourth-year student Ryan Lanford tried to get a good vantage point near the University Chapel to snap photos of the incident.

“I remember their arms being linked and officers attempting to grab them, and I don’t know if there was pushback to the grabbing,” Lanford told The Daily Progress. “But I don’t remember there being fists thrown or really attempts to body anyone, other than the cops grabbing them and trying to break up their linked arms.”

His friend Margaret Berberian was never part of the protest and was among the many bystanders who watched police approach the group. The undergraduate student remembers protesters linking arms and holding umbrellas, but never swinging them or their hands.

“It struck me as odd, because all the aggression was happening by police, not the protesters,” she told The Daily Progress. “When both arms are linked, they can’t physically jab anything. It would, in fact, be impossible.”

According to Longo, the commanding officer determined that his unit should back off because they were not wearing protective gear and he worried about the risk of injury.

Multiple faculty members say it was around this time they sent messages to Ryan and administrators, asking that they engage with the protesters and deescalate the situation.

“I’m begging you as a faculty member, citizen and fellow human to call off the troops and cops,” a professor wrote to Provost Ian Baucom.

“Our students and colleagues deserve at the very least to be informed what is happening and on whose authority our students and their rights are being attacked,” wrote another.

The administration did not respond.

Fears the encampment would grow

Multiples times on Tuesday, Ryan and Longo mentioned that protesters had made calls on social media for more supplies and more people. They worried that the group would increase in size.

The protesters had regularly put out calls for reinforcements throughout the week, but they largely went unheeded. UVa’s primary pro-Palestine student groups — who had successfully organized large events earlier this year — did not associate with the encampment and never promoted it on their social media pages.

Ryan himself alluded to this on Tuesday.

“I don’t believe there was any connection between those groups and the group protesting by the Chapel,” he said.

This disconnect raised questions about whether the encampment had full buy-in from the school’s anti-war movement, and if it had legitimate attendance problems.


Protesters erect a sign welcoming visitors to the “liberated zone” on University of Virginia Grounds during an anti-Israel protest, Wednesday.

“The number of people kept dwindling,” said the TA.

“People were getting tired. Some people were leaving,” said the graduate student.

According to faculty, liaisons told administrators on the afternoon of May 3 that the demonstration appeared to be shrinking.

But with alleged fears the encampment would grow, and with a large crowd gathering to witness the moment, and with university police unsuccessful in their attempts to take down the tents, university administrators, sitting in a command center at an undisclosed location, made a choice on May 4.

“That’s when the decision was made to call on the state police,” Ryan said.

‘You have to own it’

Shortly after 12:30 p.m., Virginia State Police read out three dispersal orders. Two hours later, a long line of armored troopers began their march on the encampment, with several professors standing before them, pleading with them to not touch their students.

“These are our students,” a video shows one professor saying. His hands are out before him with his palms flat, motioning for the officers to stay calm. “Why are you pointing weapons at our students?”

He was arrested seconds later.

What followed was a scene that will not be easily forgotten. Troopers pushed against the protesters with their riot shields, ripping umbrellas from their hands and tossing them into the air, dousing the group in pepper spray as members of the encampment screamed in fear and pain.

Some students say they were struck in the face by riot shields. The TA has a sprained neck, minor concussion and wrist contusions.

The decision to deploy state police is perhaps the most pivotal one of Ryan’s tenure.

While some applaud it, many students say it exposed them to state violence. Faculty say they watched state police “manhandle” and “brutalize” the young men and women that fill their classrooms.

“Once you make a decision you have to own it, and you face the personal and professional consequences which I appreciate and fully accept,” Ryan said on Tuesday.

Even though his administration has tried to explain itself, members of the university still have questions.

Ryan is accepting responsibility. But so far, the UVa community is not accepting his answers.

Jason Armesto (717) 599-8470


@rmest0 on X

Source link

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles