OXFORD — Police disbanded a pro-Palestinian student protest at the University of Mississippi less than an hour after it officially started when counter-protesters threw a water bottle and other items at the protest, prompting the protesters to respond in kind with water.

When police removed the pro-Palestinian students from the Quad, a grassy area behind the library, the largely white male students roared.

“Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, good bye,” the counter-protesters chanted. 

The confrontation was in reaction to a largely peaceful protest held by a group called UMiss for Palestine that called on the university to divest from companies tied to Israel, a common demand at student protests across the country in the wake of the Israel-Hamas War. The university has said it doesn’t have any direct investment in Israeli-based companies, and that no arrests were made or injuries reported. Nationally, about 2,000 arrests have been made, according to AP.

Protesters at the University of Mississippi in Oxford on May 1. 2024,call on Ole Miss to divest any interest in busiesses doing business with Israel and for free Gaza, which has been under attack by Israeli forces since the deadly Hamas raid on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Many of the roughly 60 protesters wore masks, chanting “free, free Palestine” and “disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.” 

But they were vastly outnumbered by more than 200 counter-protesters, who drowned them out with shouts of “fuck Joe Biden,” “who’s your daddy,” “USA” and “we can’t hear you.” Some of the counter-protesters shouted racist remarks, such as “hit the showers” and “your nose is huge.”

The campus in north Mississippi had seen two gatherings last fall after the Oct. 7 attacks — a vigil organized by Hillel, a Jewish organization, and a rally for humanitarian aid for Palestinians — but multiple students on both sides said Thursday’s protest was the tensest they had seen. Ole Miss, a largely white university, has few Palestinian and Jewish students.

It was the first pro-Palestine protest at a Mississippi university since students at Columbia University set up an encampment about two weeks ago.

The sheer novelty seemed to draw some of the counter-protesters who came from Fraternity Row, a few blocks away from the Quad.

“Um, we were gonna go to the pool, but then we heard this was gonna happen so we were like fuck that, we’re gonna come over here and counter-protest it,” said Trevor Lahey, a 21-year-old business major, who said he came out with his fraternity brothers, though he wouldn’t say which one. 

Though the pro-Palestinian students have a right to free speech, Lahey added, he thought they were taking it too far. 

“I don’t care that much, I just don’t want them to encamp on my school,” Lahey said. “It looks ugly. I’m paying for them to be there.” 

The Pro-Palestinian protesters were not setting up camp. They wouldn’t speak to a reporter beyond a statement they had prepared, but Mississippi Today couldn’t obtain it by press time.  

Earlier in the day, Gov. Tate Reeves said he was aware of the protest and that campus, city, county and state law enforcement were “being deployed and coordinated.” 

“Peaceful protests are allowed and protected – no matter how outrageous those protesters views (sic) may seem to some of us,” he wrote. “But unlawful behavior will not be tolerated. It will be dealt with accordingly. Law and order will be maintained!”

Police at the University of Mississippi in Oxford on May 1. 2024, put up barriers to protect pro-Palistinian protestors from a crowd of hostile counter protesters. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

University police had initially erected metal barricades separating the student protesters from the Phi Mu Fountain, but the counter-protesters began to congregate behind the library. Just steps separated the two camps, with a handful of officers standing between them.

The situation began to escalate when a student in hot pink athleisure exchanged words with a student protester wearing a keffiyeh. The student protester charged at her, but others held her back. 

Then a half-eaten sandwich was thrown at the protesters, prompting the police to hem them in with the barricades. 

It’s pointless to protest in the U.S., said a 21-year-old student who only gave his name as Dillon. The student protesters could better support Palestine by going “over there,” he said, adding he thought it was a “stupid war” that he doesn’t support.  

But he still decided to join the counter-protesters, Dillon said.

“I just wanted to see it for myself,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of something. I love my country. I love them, too. I just don’t think what they’re supporting is right, in my opinion.”

“They shouldn’t be throwing shit, in my opinion,” he added, referring to both sides. 

That’s when a counter-protester threw a water bottle. The student protesters threw something back, and soon, food-related items were volleying across the barricade. 

In an attempt to de-escalate, the police began to escort the protesters away. The counter-protesters cheered and started running after them, which some police and staff with the University of Mississippi First Amendment Support Team tried to prevent, leading one student to shout, “I’m not walking with them, I’m just walking this way!” 

“Nobody fucking cares, shut up!” a white female protester yelled as she swatted him with a plastic bag of takeout. 

“Assault!” The counter-protesters shouted. 

A police officer in a vest pulled her aside. Her mouth trembled, and she initially refused to give her full name. A legal observer with the Mississippi Center for Justice slipped her his card. 

“I’m trying to let you go,” the officer said, exasperated. “But I’m going to annotate that this happened. If you don’t want to cooperate, I’ll just take you to jail.” 

Police warned other students for their behavior. On Chapel Lane, where the student protesters waited to go inside the School of Applied Science, four officers escorted two Black students to their cars as the counter-protesters jeered. 

A plainclothes officer told the crowd to get back. 

“I’m doing the same thing they’re doing — I have freedom of speech,” one student said to him. 

“Absolutely, 100%, but you can’t come up to them,” the officer said.

Inside the School of Applied Sciences, the pro-Palestinian protesters holed up in a classroom. They comforted each other, made a plan to leave campus and accounted for all their sashes and flags. Through windows covered in white vinyl, the visages of counter-protesters could be seen. 

“Y’all did beautifully,” said one student, who didn’t give a name, as students clapped for each other. “I’m so happy.”

Near tears, a student named Jana, whose family is from Palestine, thanked the group.

“Hey guys, I know that what just happened was really intimidating, and it was a little scary, but I just want to say I’m so proud of you guys,” she said. “This wasn’t going to happen in Oxford without all of you guys. Palestine was being heard. And I just want to thank you guys so much. I know that was such a big risk, but this is the most that people have ever thought for us, so don’t give up. I know that was really hard, but we need to keep fighting. This was just the start of it, okay?”

Jana grew up in Southaven, but her dad was born in a refugee camp in Jericho, in the Palestinian West Bank. She said her family still knows people in Gaza.

The idea that her university could be investing in companies connected to Israel is personal, she said. Along with other students, she’s tried to investigate Ole Miss’s ties to military defense contractors like Raytheon, and it’s something she plans to look into more. 

“Our university endowment has no direct investment in Israeli-based companies, the university offers no study abroad opportunities to Israel, and the university has no formal agreements with defense contractors,” Jacob Batte, the university’s media relations director, wrote in an email. 

Jana said she was surprised at how many students came out, considering many of them aren’t affected by the conflict. 

“I don’t even know if they were just against us, or if they were there to just like, get a good laugh,” she said. 

The police helped the protesters get to a bus that would take them to their cars. The counter-protesters started barking at the students, and as a student gave them a middle-finger, one of them shouted “at least it’s not a plane this time,” a possible reference to the Sept. 11 attacks.

As the crowd died down, three Black friends in the parking lots said they wished it would’ve been possible for the two groups to have a dialogue. They didn’t know much about the conflict and would like to learn more. 

But the counter-protesters made that impossible, they said. 

“They just conformed to the larger group,” Hannah Brock, a 21-year-old social work major observed. 

Both sides should’ve had representatives debate, they added. 

“It wasn’t equal, like—” said Victoria Fox, a 21-year-old criminal justice major.

“They were just throwing out insults,” 21-year-old Carlesis Ferguson said about the counter-protesters. “You couldn’t even hear (the Pro-Palestinian students) and it was their protest.” 

In the Circle, the former home of the campus’s Confederate monument and where the protest was slated to be held before the university convinced students to move it, Chancellor Glenn Boyce spoke at a ceremony for JROTC students. The mood was calm, as if the protest hadn’t happened.

“I’m humbled to be here with you today,” Boyce said. “Once again you represent this university’s legacy at its absolute finest.”

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.