Featured photo: A group of students, faculty and staff protesting against the war in Gaza set up an encampment at Wake Forest University last week. (Photo by Gale Melcher)

Last week, dozens of students, professors and staff congregated on the lawn of Manchester Plaza at Wake Forest University, demanding that university administration divest from companies with ties to Israel. Wake Forest University is the latest institute of higher education to feel the wave of campus encampments led by students. In the last month, more than 2,000 protesters have been arrested at universities across the country.

In Gaza, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks in the country’s war against Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that invaded Israel on Oct. 7 and killed more than 1,200 people.

The pro-Palestinian encampment was started by the student organization Free Palestine WFU on Tuesday afternoon. Throughout the course of three days, protesters demanded that the university disclose their investments with companies that support Israel as well as cut fiscal ties with those companies.

Around 100 US colleges have reported gifts from or contracts with Israel totaling $375 million over the past two decades, according to Time magazine’s analysis of the Dept. of Education’s college foreign gift reporting database

By Friday morning around 6 a.m., the protesters had been forced to leave by university officials and law enforcement. The university sent a 6:22 a.m. email notifying students that the protesters had been told to “immediately disperse” and that the plaza was clear. Protest materials were gone by 8 a.m. per the university’s student newspaper, the Old Gold & Black. The Free Palestine WFU student organization released multiple statements with varying estimates on how many law enforcement members were present; from “over 30+” to “40-50.” No arrests have been made, protesters confirmed on Tuesday afternoon.

Wake Forest University’s May 3 email notifying students that the protesters had been told to “immediately disperse” and that the plaza was clear. (photo by the Old Gold & Black)

WFU’s response to the student encampment falls in line with universities across the country that have utilized law enforcement presence to disperse pro-Palestinian protests. But WFU has also negotiated with their students, akin to agreements to peacefully end encampment protests reached by institutions such as the University of Minnesota, Brown University and Northwestern University.

The protests emerged just a few weeks shy of WFU’s commencement. The university is still set to hold their events May 17-20.

A view of the encampment on Manchester Plaza on Thursday evening. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Tuesday-Wednesday: Setting up camp, making demands 

The protesters initially set up camp on Tuesday evening outside Wait Chapel on Hearn Plaza.

Per the university, administrators informed students that “erecting tents and remaining overnight was inconsistent with the intended and approved use of the space and violated health and safety policies.” However, the students were allowed to continue their demonstration “in an area designated by the university for free expression with appropriate displays, which may include signage and unoccupied tents without an encampment.”

The group of protesters moved to Manchester Plaza on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, a list of the group’s demands was signed by Associate Vice President for Campus Life Matt Clifford, Provost Michele Gillespie and Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion José Villalba. The demands include weekly meetings with the university, meetings with CEOs, the removal of the on-campus Starbucks and more. Protesters agreed that they would not set up more than five tents and would not sleep in the tents.

WFU did not respond to TCB’s request for comment as to whether the university intends to honor the signed contract.

In a video taken late Wednesday evening, shared with TCB by the Old Gold & Black, someone can be heard shouting at people in the encampment: “I’ll knock your f****t ass out!” and “I can whoop your ass! Fight me f****t!”

In a video taken late Wednesday evening, shared with TCB by the Old Gold & Black, someone can be heard shouting at people in the encampment: “I’ll knock your f****t ass out!” and “I can whoop your ass! Fight me f****t!” (video courtesy of the Old Gold & Black)

A WFU student who identified themself as Robin said that a group of “Zionist” and “white supremacist” students harassed the group on Wednesday night, calling them racist and homophobic slurs. 

“We’re severely outnumbered by white students on this campus, and a majority of this group of Free Palestine is Brown, Black, Muslim, queer and trans,” Robin added.

Thursday: Encampment grows, spray-painted messages

On Thursday, the protest group added multiple canopies to their encampment, in addition to the tents they already had set up. That afternoon, Free Palestine WFU’s Instagram account posted a video with the words: “WAKE FOREST ADMIN IS THREATENING TO REMOVE US BECAUSE WE SET UP CANOPIES THAT THEY ARE DEFINING AS TENTS. IT IS HOT OUTSIDE. STUDENTS ARE PASSING OUT FROM THE HEAT. WE NEED THE REFUGE. THIS IS DEFINED BY THE UN AS A TORTURE TACTIC. WE ARE SLEEP DEPRIVED AND HOT. IS THIS HOW WAKE FOREST CARES FOR STUDENT SAFETY?”

That day, a protester spray-painted the letters “BLM” on one of the magnolia trees near the encampment. A Palestinian flag was also spray-painted on the sidewalk, according to a protester. Reportedly, a message in chalk on the sidewalk read, “From the river to the sea,” a phrase commonly used by pro-Palestinian protesters. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that the words “F*** Israel” had been spotted as well.

At 5:20 p.m., WFU’s President Susan Wente sent out an email suspending the use of chalk on sidewalks for the rest of the academic year after reports of “vile, antisemitic language” being written in chalk.

“The university has also received reports of racist, anti-Black, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and homophobic speech,” Wente wrote. “Expressions of hatred directed toward an individual or group are completely antithetical to our values and are abhorrent and unacceptable.”

Wente stated that any existing chalking would be removed and that any students using chalk would be “subject to conduct action.”

Three directors of the university’s Jewish Studies program responded with a statement defending the phrase “from the river to the sea,” writing that defining the phrase as inherently antisemitic “evacuates the meaning of antisemitism, making the world more dangerous for Jews.”

A statement from members of the university’s Jewish Studies program. (screenshot from the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at WFU Barry Trachtenberg’s Instagram account)

When university staff made attempts to chemically remove the spray-painted flag on Thursday evening, protesters laid down on top of it. In a video obtained by TCB, Associate Dean Jim Settle can be heard saying, “If they wanna get sprayed, that’s their choice.”

“So you just authorized the use of chemicals against students?” a protester yells.

When TCB arrived on campus at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, students had formed a circle on a tarp covering the flag, using umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. The setup blocked off the usage of that section of the sidewalk bisecting the quad; in order to cross the lawn, passersby had to walk on the grass around the group. 

Protesters spray-painted a Palestinian flag on the school’s sidewalk. When the university called in a company to chemically remove the paint, protesters refused to move from the spot. In a video taken by protesters, Associate Dean Jim Settle can be heard saying, “If they wanna get sprayed, that’s their choice.” (video taken by an anonymous protester)

What does university policy say about protest?

According to the WFU’s code of conduct, the university asserts that “free speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of a university as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight.” The statement goes on to say that WFU is “committed” to providing all students the right to “openly dissent and to speak, write, listen, challenge, protest, and learn.” 

However, these rights have “limitations.” Students have an “obligation” to maintain an “atmosphere conducive to scholarly pursuits and to respect the rights of all individuals, including the right to be free of harassment or other behavior that diminishes a person’s or group’s dignity.” Exercising these rights can’t “disrupt or obstruct the functions of the university or imminently threaten such disruption or obstruction.” Prohibited behavior also includes the “destruction or defacement of property or grounds” and “disorderly conduct” that “unreasonably interferes with the ability of others to sleep, study, or participate in the activities of the university.” 

Disruptive conduct is defined by WFU as preventing or substantially impeding the “normal operations of the university,” such as lectures, meetings, interviews, ceremonies and public events, or “blocks the legitimate activities of any person on the campus or in any university building or facility” or “violates other policies in the code of conduct.”

Thursday: Heightened tensions

Free Palestine WFU set up a table of literature on the lawn near protesters’ tents, and chalk messages covered the sidewalk. Words displayed nearby read, “If you are neutral, you are complicit.”

Several students stood around the area, many wearing “Bring Them Home” dog tags, referencing the more than 240 hostages taken on Oct. 7 by Hamas. Members of Free Palestine WFU sweepingly labeled these students as “Zionists.” 

Several university faculty and staff members volunteered to watch over the pro-Palestinian protesters in shifts in an effort to keep students safe. One faculty member tried to prevent a student from pouring water out on the chalk messages, while another confronted students for taking videos of the huddled group. 

One student said that they were bothered by the group’s presence on their campus, to which a faculty member replied that the student could go back to their room.

TCB attempted to obtain statements from Provost Gillespie and Associate Vice President Clifford, as well as Guy Mount — a faculty member watching over the pro-Palestinian group — but was denied interviews by them or their representatives. The reason repeated throughout the evening was that they were focused on the safety of the students.

“Disclose! Divest! Until you do we will not rest!” protesters yelled.

Thursday: PVC pipe video leads to alarm among students

On Thursday evening, a student carrying a PVC pipe passed through the quad causing alarm and concern amongst some protesters. As seen on video taken by a protester and obtained by TCB, the student walks across the quad and appears to be looking around while on a phone call until they reach another student and hug them. This is where the phone footage ends. In the video, the student does not interact with any other students on the lawn while they search for the other student. The protester taking the video can be heard repeatedly yelling, “Excuse me, we need an administrator right now!” No other protesters appear to be panicked by the presence of the student, save for the protester filming.

A protester recorded a video of a student carrying a PVC pipe through the quad on Thursday night, spurring alarm among other protesters. In an interview with TCB, the student with the pipe emphasized that he was not there to threaten or harm anyone. (Video taken by an anonymous protester)

In an interview, the student, who did not want to be named, said that he was at the gym when he got a text from his sister who was at Manchester Plaza, saying that she needed a hug. The student’s sister, who also did not wish to be named, was neither a protestor nor a counterprotester. TCB has confirmed the identities of both students. 

The student headed to the plaza, bringing his workout backpack and PVC pipe that he uses to stretch out his shoulders. These pipes are commonly used for this purpose by athletes. The student confirmed that he was on the phone with his sister while looking for her. 

After finding his sister at the university’s picnic table tent on the lawn, the student told TCB he was approached by two school staff members. The student said that he set his pipe down, and after giving his student ID to the staff members and explaining what had happened to campus police, the pipe was returned to him and he went back to his dorm. The student has not been contacted by administration regarding the incident, the sister confirmed on a phone call to TCB on Monday. The student emphasized to TCB that he was not there to threaten or harm anyone.

In an interview with TCB on Monday, the organizer who took the video said that students have said they “definitely feel unsafe around someone who brought a four foot long PVC pipe to an unarmed protest.”

TCB witnessed at least two observers on Thursday claiming that the student was there to harm others because he was holding the pipe, as well as expressing doubt over administration’s explanation that the student was simply coming from the gym. However, no evidence of alleged threats or threatening action by the student was captured in the video footage or was witnessed by TCB.

The video of the student, which was originally posted on Free Palestine WFU’s Instagram account, is no longer available. The organizer told TCB that Free Palestine WFU plans on doing a “mass release” of footage.

Protesters demanded the resignation of Jim Settle on Thursday evening. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Thursday-Friday: Students meet with administrators

At 9:49 p.m., protesters began chanting “Free, free Palestine.” Shortly afterwards, WFU leadership including Associate Vice President Clifford, along with pro-Palestinian organizers, faculty and staff, formed a circle on the lawn to talk. 

Throughout the night, the group repeatedly dispersed and re-congregated to negotiate into the late hours of the night. When TCB left around midnight on Thursday, they had formed another circle for discussion.

In a press release sent out on Friday evening, the group outlined their experience of events.

The group alleged that they saw a drone pass over the encampment multiple times at 3:48 a.m. on Friday, and claimed that Provost Michele Gillespie “assured” them that neither the university nor the Winston-Salem Police Department were responsible for the drones. By this time, Free Palestine WFU says that 10 students, eight faculty members and seven administrators were present.

Free Palestine WFU stated that Clifford returned to the encampment at 4:45 a.m. with a prepared document, informing protesters that they needed to leave immediately. One student refused and began “dancing and declaring that [they] would not be leaving the encampment,” according to the group’s statement.

Friday morning: The encampment is cleared

In their press release, Free Palestine WFU alleges that shortly after Clifford ordered them to leave around 4:45 a.m., campus staff arrived with “6-7 pickup trucks and several dumpsters” and joined campus police. The university did not respond to questions about this claim.

Per reporting from the Old Gold & Black, members of the Wake Forest Police Department, Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office were present during the removal process, and no arrests were made. 

In an Instagram live video started around 5:20 a.m. by Barry Trachtenberg, the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at WFU, Clifford can be heard asking students for their IDs so that he can “know who folks are.” When Trachtenberg, an encampment observer, asked Clifford if students would face conduct charges, Clifford did not give a clear answer.

In a Tuesday morning email to TCB, WFU’s media team stated that the “small number of students remaining on Manchester Plaza the morning of May 3 were informed that the demonstration was in violation of agreed-upon terms and violated university policy by failing to comply with the directions of university officials.” The email did not answer TCB’s questions about specific allegations made by Free Palestine WFU.

The university’s code of conduct outlines prohibited behaviors, including “failure to comply with the directions of university or other officials.” WFU defines this as the “disregard for, or refusal to comply with the directives of university officials, any law enforcement officer or officers, or other first responder or responders during the performance of their duties and/or failure to identify oneself to these persons when requested to do so. Such conduct may include, but is not limited to, the failure to provide proper ID and uncooperative, abusive, or threatening behavior.”

When protesters did not give Clifford their IDs, he asked them for their school emails, and some protesters gave their names and emails to Clifford.

Once students had cleared the area, law enforcement “pulled onto the lawn to prevent people from gathering at the encampment site,” the group claimed in the press release. Protesters also claimed that the group was “assured” by Gillespie throughout the night that “police had not been called, and would not be called, so that students would not be arrested.”

WFU’s media team stated to TCB that the university “requested assistance from the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to minimize the risk to students, both those directly involved and bystanders, and to avoid further disruption to the academic mission, final exams and planned campus activities.”

“In accordance with university policy, all reports of misconduct are taken seriously and will be carefully reviewed,” the email from the university said.

Protesters on Thursday evening. (photo by Gale Melcher)

What has the response from students, professors and administration been like?

Some educators like Mir Yarfitz, an associate professor of history at WFU, told TCB that they are outraged over the university’s actions. 

“I am appalled at the disgusting and cynical moral calculus that was made to balance out what I’m sure is tremendous pressure from parents and donors and alumni,” Yarfitz told TCB. Yarfitz, an encampment observer, suspects that WFU “chose that time because they wanted everyone to be exhausted.”

At 6:22 a.m. on Friday, an email sent from the university’s Office of Communications and External Relations to the general student body stated that the students’ demonstration was in “violation of agreed-upon terms and violated university policy.”

According to the email, the protesters failed to comply “with the directions of university officials” and were “notified that they would be subject to interim suspension should they fail to follow instructions to immediately disperse.” 

The statement adds that the action was taken to “minimize the risk to students, both those directly involved and bystanders, and to avoid further disruption to the academic mission, final exams and planned campus activities.”

An interim policy outlined in the email designates parameters for “acceptable demonstrations” through May 21: At a “designated area” of Poteat Field, between 8 a.m.-8 p.m. and sound or amplification devices and “tents or other structures” are not allowed.

On Friday, Free Palestine WFU posted a statement on Instagram, demanding that WFU remove its Hillel Israel Fellow program. According to WFU’s Jewish Life website, fellows in the program “share personal experiences of modern Israel” with students. The current fellow, Amit Melchior, served for three years in the Israeli Defense Forces as a special forces combat medic and squad commander. 

In their Friday statement, Free Palestine WFU asserted that “the Israeli government and its agents, especially those who have served in the occupation’s army, have no place on our campus and make students feel unsafe.” The group is also urging WFU to end its study-abroad programs in Israel.

In the days after the protests, some personal information of those involved has been leaked online, otherwise known as “doxxing.” According to one organizer who reached out to TCB via email, the name of one of the protesters was posted on Fizz, a social media app used by college students. The post has since been removed but the protester was reached out to by a victim support advocate with the university’s police department. The email shared advice with the student about staying safe on and off campus, and advised them to call the police if anything seems suspicious.

A senior at WFU and protester called C, said on Friday that they were “scared, traumatized, extremely tired and sleep-deprived” after the protest.

“The entire four years that I’ve been here, I’ve always known that this was not a place that would ever be safe for me,” they said. “But the past four days have demonstrated that so much more clearly than any other interaction that I’ve ever had.”

“I am glad that my time here will be done soon,” C added.

To learn more about what happened at Wake Forest University’s encampment, read the Old Gold & Black’s extensive coverage here and on their X (formerly Twitter) account.

Full list of protesters’ demands signed by university leadership:

  • We the university commit to weekly meetings with Students Fighting for a Free Palestine that continue at least through Fall 2024.
  • Students Fighting for Free Palestine have a scheduled meeting with John Wise, Vice President of Hospitality and Auxiliary Services, Wednesday, May 1, 2 p.m., Wellbeing Center A330.
  • Students Fighting for Free Palestine have a scheduled meeting with Jim Dunn, CEO of Verger Capital Management, Wednesday, May 1, 4 p.m., Wellbeing Center A330.
  • Starbucks will no longer be on campus after Wake Forest’s Commencement and the replacement will not fund Israel’s occupation.
  • Students may continue their protest with four tents (plus one in reserve) on Manchester Plaza B. Students have agreed to express themselves in accordance with university policy, and will not sleep in the tents and will not use amplified sounds after 10 pm nightly. Campus security may be present for safety reasons, and will only interact with the students through a designated third party. Students will continue to access the food, beverages and first aid supplies they have already accumulated.
  • We the university commit to arranging a meeting between the Students Fighting for Free Palestine and the current WF Student Trustee Ritt Culbreath and the incoming WF Student Trustee Stella Ross.
  • President Wente will hold a meeting with the student organizers this academic term (before 5/10/24). The university will schedule the meeting once the tents on Hearn Plaza are down and other meetings have appropriately concluded.
A list of demands made by Free Palestine WFU was signed by Matt Clifford, Michele Gillespie and Jose Villalba on Wednesday. (photo by Gale Melcher)

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