Palestine solidarity group occupies lawn of Fraser Hall at KU; group issues demands to university administration

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

An area in front of KU's Fraser Hall is occupied by a Palestine solidarity group on May 1, 2024.

Updated at 4:04 p.m. Wednesday, May 1:

A crowd of nearly 100 supporters of Palestine occupied the lawn in front of KU’s Fraser Hall on Wednesday, saying there “will be no business as usual on our campus until there is justice in Palestine.”

The group yelled chants, including “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” and “Israel, Biden, you cannot hide, we charge you with genocide,” and “Israel bombs, U.S. pays, how many kids did you kill today?”

Campus activity around the site, however, largely was undisturbed. At least one uniformed KU police officer stood several yards away from the outer edge of the protest area, and students and other university community members were traversing to and from class as normal.

A spokeswoman for the organizing group — the University of Kansas Students for Justice in Palestine — left largely undefined what was meant by the statement that there would be “no business as usual” on the campus.

When asked whether the group planned to follow the lead of groups at other universities that have occupied campus buildings or otherwise made travel on university campuses difficult, the spokeswoman didn’t provide specifics about the group’s plans.

“We are here with our four demands, and we will be here until our demands are met,” said the spokeswoman, who identified herself only as Jen.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

An area in front of KU’s Fraser Hall is occupied by a Palestine solidarity group on May 1, 2024.

The group is demanding that the University of Kansas financially divest from organizations that profit from or financially support “the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine and the genocide of its people.” It also is demanding more financial transparency from the university; a commitment to demilitarization of the KU campus by severing or reducing KU’s ties to the U.S. military or police forces; and amnesty for people who are exercising their First Amendment rights by “fighting for an end to genocide.”

Several tents were on the ground of the protest site, but they weren’t pitched. The spokeswoman said university officials told the group a new policy had been implemented that prohibited pitching tents on the campus.

A spokeswoman with KU confirmed the university has had a policy in place since February that generally prohibits camping on the Lawrence campus. That policy gives the provost’s office the ability to approve events that involve camping, but the policy says events should not be approved if the event would “be detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of event participants or the campus community,” or if the event would “disrupt other university activities or damage university property.”

As of about 4 p.m., the university had not made any statements about the demands made by the KU Students for Justice in Palestine.

KU is in the final days of its spring semester. The last day of classes is Thursday, with finals week beginning on Monday. KU’s general commencement ceremony is scheduled for May 12. Other universities, including Columbia, UCLA, North Carolina, USC and others, have canceled classes or graduation ceremonies as concerns about security grew on those campuses.

Organizers of the KU event, in its press release announcing it, did warn participants that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable at the event.

“We will not tolerate any form of discrimination, including antisemitism, Islamophobia, antiblackness, transphobia, xenophobia or homophobia in our encampment,” the group said via press release.

Protests have been occurring at many university campuses across the country since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched attacks from Gaza into Israel, killing more than 1,400 people. In retaliation, Israel has been waging ferocious war in Gaza, with the Associated Press reporting more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Gaza territory’s Health Ministry. The ministry’s toll doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it has said women and children make up the majority of the dead. Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because the militants fight in dense, residential areas, the AP has reported.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

An unidentified person leads a chant at a Palestine solidarity event on the University of Kansas campus on May 1, 2024.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Participants in a Palestine solidarity event sit on the lawn of Fraser Hall at the University of Kansas on May 1, 2024.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A sign hangs at a Palestine solidarity event on the University of Kansas campus on May 1, 2024.

Wednesday’s Palestine solidarity event marked a new level of activism regarding the issue on the KU campus. Previously, the highest-profile statement had come on Oct. 20 from the executive board of the labor union representing graduate teaching assistants at KU. That group condemned the existence of the state of Israel as part of a broader letter of solidarity for Palestine, and a spokesperson for the union board declined to condemn Hamas’ attacks, saying “we are saying violence begets violence. If your existence is violent from the get-go and you are born into an open-air prison, that situation is going to result in violence.”

By that evening, the KU administration issued a statement saying “we strongly disagree,” with such statements, while also saying the group was exercising its rights under the First Amendment.

Wednesday’s protest marks a new stage in that the group of Palestine supporters is making specific demands from the university. On Wednesday, the spokeswoman for the group provided a few details of specific actions that organizers want the university to take.

She mentioned divesting in companies such as Boeing, which supplies aircraft and other systems that support the Israeli military. While KU itself may not own shares in Boeing, the billion-dollar-plus KU Endowment Association may well own shares in Boeing and other similar companies.

The demand that KU commit to a strategy of demilitarization of the KU campus could have much broader implications, if KU leaders were to adopt it. KU receives millions of dollars directly from the Department of Defense that funds everything from research for military technology to foreign language training for military officers. Unlike the financial divestiture demand, where KU theoretically could sell its shares in one company and reinvest in a separate company without Israeli ties, the loss of research funding would result in lower revenues for the university in total.

The issue also arises at a time when KU is making big bets to expand its presence in the military and national defense realms. In April, KU won a long-sought $22 million federal appropriation to build a national security research center on KU’s west campus, with research ranging from cybersecurity to radar technology to artificial intelligence.

The group’s demand for demilitarization also extended to ties the university has with police departments, according to a press release from the group. KU is the largest trainer of law enforcement agencies in Kansas, and has plans to significantly expand its training center in Hutchinson.

When asked about specific actions the group wanted KU to take on the demilitarization front — ranging from eliminating military ROTC programs on campus to rejecting Department of Defense funding — the spokeswoman for the group said she didn’t have specific details to share on those issues.

In a brief interview with the Journal-World, the spokeswoman also offered a few messages the group hopes to send to the major players in the Gaza conflict. When asked what the group’s message was to the U.S. government, she said it was to stop funding genocide, cut ties with the “Zionist government of Israel and to stop funding the military aid that goes to Israel to directly bomb and kill innocent civilians.”

When asked about the group’s message to the Israeli government, she initially said simply: “F(expletive) you,” but then added, “as a Palestinian, we will return one day. Palestine will be free.”

When asked about the group’s message to Hamas, she questioned why anyone would expect the group to send a message to Hamas. “Bringing up Hamas has nothing to do with this matter right now,” she said. “This has been a thing that has been occurring in Palestine before Oct. 7. KU has had ties with Israel before Oct. 7 … This is bigger than Hamas.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Participants in a Palestine solidarity event draw chalk messages on a sidewalk at the University of Kansas on May 1, 2024.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A KU police officer and a small group of other university officials stand near the edge of Palestine solidarity event on the KU campus on May 1, 2024.

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