Students at the University of Pittsburgh are staging a multi-day demonstration in support of Palestinians, a protest mirroring campus movements erupting nationwide that have led to hundreds of student and protester arrests. 

At least 50 students, faculty and community members had gathered on a portion of the lawn outside the Cathedral of Learning by early Tuesday afternoon, at one point leading chants of “free, free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The students are going to avoid arrests and comply with any university orders to leave, said organizer and recent Pitt graduate Samuel Weiner. 

The protest is planned to last through noon on Friday. It was organized by a collective of students that have posted under the name “Pitt Divest from Apartheid,” according to a press release and Instagram post about the demonstration. The organizers are demanding the “full disclosure of all university investments in the Israeli apartheid regime.”

“What’s happening in Gaza is nothing short of soul-crushing. And the fact that universities here in the United States have decided that war is more valuable to them than the education of their students, is also soul-crushing,” said Ilyas Khan, a student at Carnegie Mellon University who attended the protest.

“Today is a test for Pitt to say, ‘Do you as an institution care more about your student body than war?’” Khan said.

A small number of pro-Israel students also assembled nearby but did not directly engage the protesters.

“I think that everyone deserves human rights. I think the problem that I have is, I lived in Israel for probably over a year, and it just hurts me to see the antisemitism going around other universities,” said student Alexa Jakubowitz, who stood on the sidewalk adjoining the lawn where the pro-Palestine students were protesting.

People on a campus tour walk past an encampment for Palestine outside the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

The organizers are also calling for Pitt’s “full material divestment” from any entities associated with Israel, as well as “an acknowledgement of genocide” in Gaza from the administration. PublicSource has asked the university to detail any financial ties to Israel and respond to the demands. The university did not respond directly to those questions.

Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer wrote in a statement that the university “affirms the rights of community members to engage in peaceful and orderly demonstrations.”

The protest was sparked by others nationwide and “developed as a need to divest from apartheid and genocide and war-profiteering,” Weiner said. “We’ve had talks with university admin, specifically in the investment office, that have gone nowhere. So we’re out here in solidarity with the Palestinians that are being genocided to say that we’re willing to risk stuff if we need to.”

“We’re not here to cause any disruption. We, as students, know the university can suspend you,” he continued. “For me, it’s extremely small compared to, you know, no universities in [Gaza] remain standing.”

For much of the morning, the protesters were quietly mingling, many sitting with laptops open as finals week loomed. They sat on yoga mats and blankets, and brought cardboard boxes of chips, dozens of water bottles and books on mutual aid and caste structures, among other items. There was at least one tarp that appeared to be for a tent, although it had not been constructed. 

The protest began at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, according to an Instagram post. Protesters initially gathered inside the Cathedral of Learning but moved outside partially because administrators were saying they couldn’t put signs up in certain areas and because of the expected crowd size, Weiner said.

Students hand out books and crafts during a demonstration supporting Palestine on Pitt’s campus in Oakland. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

Students at Columbia University in New York are entering their seventh day of protest, continuing their demonstration after more than 100 were arrested last week. The university’s president announced Tuesday that classes will be held virtually for the rest of the semester as tensions rise on campus. More than 150 people were arrested at New York University on Monday night in a similar protest. 

Today at Pitt, at least 10 campus and city police officers stood at a distance from the protesters, including the university police chief, who was in plain clothing. Around noon, rumblings began among the protesters that the university would be requiring them to leave. 

Sam Schmidt, a local activist and former Allegheny County Council candidate, attended the protest as a legal observer to ensure students’ free speech rights were upheld. Schmidt said administrators told students that the protest was advertised as a campus event and therefore could only be held on the lawn for four hours. At that time, the protest was approaching its sixth hour. 

“We haven’t seen anything in writing, and they’re unable to cite anything,” Schmidt said. While noting it was beyond their purview to tell students how to protest, they added, “I would hope that the university, if they choose to discipline students internally or prosecute them for crimes, that they are able to cite this stuff in writing.”

Student supporters of Palestine gather outside the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

Shortly after, one organizer took a microphone and told the crowd that they do not recommend that demonstrators engage in actions that could lead to arrests. However, if protesters do — presumably by continuing to occupy the lawn — the organizer said that “the maximum charge that you will be charged for is a misdemeanor. Anything else is a complete stretch.” 

“If any individual arrests happen, what is going to occur is that you will be taken to a holding cell for a couple of hours and then you will be released. Anything besides that is incredibly unlikely,” the organizer said.

Stonesifer said in the statement that Pitt administrators communicated with demonstrators “multiple times over the course of several hours” and requested that they move to another location. The administrators shared information on demonstrators’ rights and responsibilities during those conversations, he said, adding that the demonstration was not a registered event and “was taking place in an area that is not designated as an event space.”

The demonstrators moved to nearby Schenley Plaza around 4:30 p.m., with city police officers supporting the campus police in relocating the group, according to the university. No arrests were made.

Earlier in the afternoon, two people held flags for Israel and played music from a loudspeaker on the sidewalk adjoining the lawn where students were camped. About five community members and students stood beside them. Apart from the music, they largely did not engage directly with the pro-Palestine demonstrators. 

Cardboard signs criticize Israel’s military conduct in Gaza at the site of a campus protest led by pro-Palestine student groups. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

Among the people on the sidewalk were Misha Trosman and Jakubowitz, both students at Pitt. Trosman said he does not take issue with the students peacefully protesting but does not want “to let this get to the scale where Jewish students feel unsafe on their own campus.” 

“I’ve seen what’s happening at Columbia and Yale and other schools around the country. And these protests start off small, and they turn into chants that state ‘death to Israel,’ swastikas being drawn,” Trosman said. “I want them to understand that we are here, we’re not going anywhere. We have the right to exist as much as they do.”

Jakubowitz said she would not describe herself as a counter-protester and added that “there are extremists on both sides” of the national discourse around the war in Gaza. She thinks the university should recognize both Israeli and Palestinian casualties and punish speech on campus that is intended to harm students on either side.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include University of Pittsburgh input after initial publication.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.