Merced County Times Newspaper
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Current students and recent graduates have set up a protest encampment on the grounds of UC Merced.

Protesters set up camp, display signs at UC Merced

 

While the chairs from UC Merced’s graduation were being folded and removed from the lawn, just a few hundred feet away tents were going up.

UC Merced has become the most recent in a series of universities to become the site of student-lead encampments protesting the war in Gaza and university investments that support Israel. Last Sunday an encampment took root in the grassy area of the Wallace Dutra Amphitheater, with the intention of remaining in place until their demands are met by the university. One banner at the camp stated: “From Yokut & Miwuk land to Palestine,” and another read, “From the river to the sea.”

The encampment’s media liaison, Ravneel Chaudhary, spoke to the Times about what they hope to achieve.

“We all have a responsibility to call for ethical spending. It’s like Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ It’s important for us to talk together and to stand in solidarity,” said Chaudhary.

Pro-Palestinian encampments at other universities have experienced varied results. UCLA’s encampment grew to include hundreds of protesters and was declared unlawful and cleared by the university after the situation was deemed unsafe. More than 200 people were arrested by police officers wearing body armor and helmets following two days of upheaval that brought on clashes between the camp inhabitants and pro-Israel counterprotesters. Recently, tents at UC Berkeley and Harvard have come down in a peaceful manner as discussions about demands have opened up between protest leaders and university administrators.

UC Merced protesters have provided a list of demands and say the hope is that the students will remain in place until those demands are met.

The demands from the encampment are displayed in bold letters on a large painted banner outside the camp. It lists ‘end the silence, divest, reinvest, academic boycott, amnesty’ as the encampments objectives.

The protesters set up their camp in time for meetings this week by the UC Board of Regents on the UC Merced campus. It’s the first time the governing body of the 10-campus system has met in Merced. One agenda item the Regents will be considering is item J1, which would limit political statements being allowed on university home pages, and is of concern to the protesters as a potential free speech infringement.

As the encampment settled in, confusion sprouted when the Merced County Sheriff’s Department announced that Lake Yosemite would be closed as a precautionary measure for an unspecified event taking place at UC Merced.

Merced residents had a wide range of reactions over the announcement on the Sheriff Department’s Facebook page. Some took the post to mean that protesters were present at the lake itself, and immediately expressed outrage. Others claimed the closure was an overreaction, or even an attempt by Sheriff Vern Warnke to pit the community against the protesters at the campus.

The protesters say they have yet to face any counter-protesters. There has been a visible increase in police presence on the campus. Campus staff have said it is for the Regents meeting, while some protesters were skeptical, and suggested the police and accompanying barricades on campus are an attempt at intimidation by the university.

“We are peaceful. We as an encampment are gonna stay peaceful, we’re not trying to escalate anything,” said Chaudhary. “At the end of the day our main goal is to focus on Gaza, and what is happening in Palestine. That’s what we’re here for.”

A negotiations team headed by Dean of Students Heather French has met with members of the encampment, in what they say is an attempt to open a dialogue with students and maintain a peaceful atmosphere.

During their meeting on Tuesday, there were concerns expressed by members of the encampment that the negotiation team did not have the necessary decision making power to address their demands, and continually requested that they meet with Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz directly. The negotiation team said such a meeting would not be possible.

Meanwhile, UC spokesperson Alyssa Johansen sent a statement from the university to local media, stating the institution is committed to ensuring that all persons can exercise the constitutionally protected rights of free expression and assembly. According to the statement: “The university also has an obligation to balance these considerations with the responsibilities and rights of all members of the university community.”

In late December, the Merced City Council voted 4-2 to reject a plan to draft a city-sponsored resolution to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. The vote came after hours of intense public comment. Students from UC Merced were among those speaking in support of the resolution and also participating in a demonstration outside City Hall.

Opponents of the proposal on the Council dais said their job is to focus on city issues, not geopolitical conflicts.

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