A day after disbanding their encampment at the University of Pittsburgh, pro-Palestinian protesters claimed on Wednesday that Chancellor Joan Gabel had sought a stronger police response to the protest than the city had pursued. 

The protesters formed the encampment Sunday evening on the lawn of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, chiefly calling on the university to divest from companies supporting Israel as the war in Gaza continues. Tensions rose between police and the hundreds of protesters as the occupation continued, with protesters attempting to push down police barriers and one officer pushing a student down Cathedral steps

Multiple departments, including city, state and university bureaus, were on the scene throughout the protest.

The organizers dispersed early Tuesday morning after protest leaders reportedly met for hours with Mayor Ed Gainey and County Executive Sara Innamorato. The mayor told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the meeting was “focused solely on how to keep everyone safe” and that the officials had told organizers it was not an endorsement of their demands.

Pitt officials were not present for the talks, said Maria Montaño, Gainey’s communications director, during the mayor’s press conference. She did not provide a reason for their absence.

Organizers with Pitt Apartheid Divest, an unaffiliated campus group, claim the encampment disbanded because Gabel had “bypassed city government to demand that Governor (Josh) Shapiro deploy state troops to forcibly clear the encampment and arrest its members.” The protesters wrote that they narrowly avoided a “violent dispersal.”

Pitt student KateLynn Herrera speaks at the Pitt Apartheid Divest press conference at Flagstaff Hill, in Oakland, on June 5. (Jess Daninhirsch/PublicSource)

“From our negotiations with the mayor’s office, it was made clear to us that Chancellor Gabel refused multiple offers to arrange a conversation with students,” said KateLynn Herrera, a 21-year-old Pitt student, during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. 

Gabel “elected to call the state police on us, and it was the threat of their violent sweep of the camp which forced us to end the encampment,” Herrera said. 

Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said in a statement that university officials “worked closely and collaboratively with a number of local, regional and state law enforcement and government entities” throughout the demonstration. 

He did not respond to emailed questions from PublicSource asking why university officials did not attend the meeting with city and county leaders and whether Gabel had asked the governor to deploy state troops. 

Protestors stand inside an encampment constructed at the University of Pittsburgh and blocked by a line of police on June 3. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Manuel Bonder, the governor’s spokesperson, characterized the organizers’ claims that Pitt “bypassed” the city as “false and inflammatory.” In a written statement, Bonder said “the Pennsylvania State Police was in close contact with city, university, and county law enforcement monitoring the situation and standing ready to assist if requested by local authorities – as is standard practice.”

Bonder added that it is “unfortunate that this encampment devolved into documented violence, vandalism and antisemitic rhetoric.”

A spokesperson for the state police said that department “had no plans to bypass municipal law enforcement, but stood ready to assist if needed, as requested by the university and the City of Pittsburgh.”

Montaño did not directly address PublicSource’s questions about specifics of the mayor’s conversation with encampment organizers. Allegheny County spokesperson Abigail Gardner said the county had no further comment beyond the executive’s remarks at Tuesday’s press conference.

A line of police vehicles with flashing lights is parked along a street beside large buildings on an overcast day.
Pennsylvania State Police cars parked along Fifth Avenue, adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, on the evening of June 2, in Oakland. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Reporters were able to ask questions of two anonymous organizers at Wednesday’s press conference. One of the them — who said they wanted to be anonymous because of “the level of brutalization that the police have come into the encampment with” — said protesters learned through the mayor that Gabel had contacted state police to sweep the encampment.

Gainey and Innamorato provided few details about the content of their discussions with protesters at Tuesday’s press conference. The mayor said the officials gave protesters “information about our efforts to attempt to de-escalate the situation and provided our assessment of what was likely to happen so they could make an informed decision for themselves.”

Pittsburgh’s last mayor, Bill Peduto, faced criticism over his handling of clashes between protesters and police during the Black Lives Matter movement. Police reform was core to Gainey’s successful campaign against him in 2021. During the encampment, the city called in county and state police to assist, but Gainey has said the city’s officers were “deferring” to university police.

Though the resolution was ultimately peaceful, Gainey said the city’s “police would’ve had to do what they would’ve had to do if anybody got hurt, injured or violent, and it became more unstable. But that wasn’t our focus going in.”

Protestors lock arms and yell at police blocking access to an encampment constructed at the University of Pittsburgh on June 3. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

In a campus-wide message Monday, Gabel said Pitt is committed “to free expression and critical inquiry” but “(has) no illusions that the efforts of this group last night are directed toward free expression.” She claimed that the protest’s leaders were not students, a weapon was thrown through a window and a building was defaced with antisemitic graffiti.

The statement from Pitt Apartheid Divest disputed Gabel’s characterization of the protest as antisemitic. Tanisha Long, a community organizer who attended the protests, tweeted that the graffiti in question stated “Free Palestine.” 

Organizers on Wednesday refuted the notion that the protest was not led by students. “The chancellor knows this, as plenty of our names and emails have gone ignored in her inbox and in our attempts to meet with her,” Herrera said. 

Police block access to an encampment constructed at the University of Pittsburgh on June 3, 2024. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

College campuses across the country were embroiled in protests this spring as students constructed similar encampments and demanded that their universities divest from companies supporting Israel. Some universities called in police to break up encampments, and in all, more than 2,600 students had been arrested as of early May, according to The Associated Press. 

Other universities struck deals, at least while protests were happening during the academic year. The University of Minnesota — where Gabel previously served as president before joining Pitt in 2023 —  disclosed $5 million in investments tied to Israel. But as of mid-May, only Evergreen State College, in Washington, had agreed to divest. 

Congressional blowback may have loomed over Pitt’s response. About two weeks ago, at least three university presidents testified in a House committee hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, where lawmakers questioned their responses to the protests on their campuses. And this winter, the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania resigned after their responses in hearings drew backlash.

The organizers of this week’s encampment at Pitt drew criticism for initially demanding that Pitt terminate its partnership with the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, self-described as the “focal point for Jewish campus life.” City Councilor Erika Strassburger, who represents part of Oakland, said in a statement she “unequivocally condemn(s)” the demand.

The organizers wrote in their Wednesday statement that they had relinquished the demand, which they said was “led and endorsed by concerned members of our Jewish community who wish to see it replaced with genuine Jewish community spaces unconnected to a violent state.” 

Pitt Apartheid Divest did not provide specifics on Wednesday on whether they would hold further demonstrations. An anonymous organizer said at the press conference, “We can expect that student dissent over this situation will continue.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with agency responses that arrived after initial publication.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.