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Save the UC Townhomes protestors demonstrating at Convocation on Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Two students are facing disciplinary action from Penn administrators for allegedly disrupting Convocation last month to protest the eviction of University City Townhomes residents.  

College senior Andrés Gonzalez-Bonillas and second-year Engineering master’s student Ari Bortman received emails on Sept. 16 informing them of the beginning of disciplinary proceedings based on their alleged involvement in the Convocation protest, which took place on Aug. 29. The students told The Daily Pennsylvanian they believe the University is targeting them for disciplinary consequences in an effort to stifle the protests against the impending sale of the UC Townhomes, an affordable housing complex located at 39th and Market streets.

“The reporter, Division of the Vice Provost for University Life, alleges that you interfered unreasonably with the activities of others, namely participants in the 2022 Penn Convocation on College Green, when you shouted and spoke into a bullhorn while speakers were delivering prepared remarks to the audience,” the email sent by the Center for Community Standards and Accountability to Gonzalez-Bonillas reads. 

“The report further alleges that you refused to stop this conduct when asked by campus administrators and that your actions caused an abrupt end to the event before all scheduled programming had been completed," the email continued. VPUL's Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives Michael Elias wrote that he was unable to “comment on details involving student discipline.”

The Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, a group of community members representing the nearly 70 families living in the housing complex, organized the demonstration during the Convocation ceremony to educate the students on Penn’s role in the residents’ displacement. While Penn does not own the UC Townhomes and does not plan to purchase the property, activists — including UC Townhomes residents, Penn students, and faith leaders — believe the University should intervene in the sale due to its role in gentrifying West Philadelphia. 

Bortman said he and Gonzalez-Bonillas believe they are the only two students facing disciplinary action for their alleged involvement in the Convocation disruption of the approximately 100 students involved. 

“The students involved in this matter have been referred to the [Center for] Community Standards and Accountability,” University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “We will not comment further on any pending student disciplinary matters."

The two students said they received the emails within the same hour as those that went out to Fossil Free Penn coordinators, who have been holding an indefinite encampment on College Green calling on Penn to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, stop the eviction of UC Townhomes residents, and make Payments In Lieu of Taxes to the City of Philadelphia’s public schools. FFP coordinators involved in the encampment have also been referred to CSA, Ozio told the DP.

Bortman, a 2022 Engineering graduate, said he believes his involvement in student activism and protest throughout his time as an undergraduate at Penn — including with FFP, Police Free Penn, and Penn Against the Occupation — was a factor in his referral to CSA.

Gonzalez-Bonillas similarly felt singled out due to their involvement in previous on-campus protests during which Penn Police were present.

“I’m a Chicano Latinx activist that's been visible for a lot of actions across campus, and I feel especially singled out in that they report that I put a stop to [Convocation], when there was a community and coalition-led action of expression that was right there,” Gonzalez-Bonillas said.

Gonzalez-Bonillas said they believe the CSA referral is the result of University surveillance of student activists, particularly on social media. Bortman added that students who disrupted President Liz Magill’s speech at Convocation declined to show their PennCards in response to requests from officials, which led him to believe that he and Gonzalez-Bonillas were identified by the University by other means.

Gonzalez-Bonillas received the email from CSA one day after the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes posted a picture of them on Instagram, according to College senior and Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes member Gigi Varlotta.

Both Bortman and Gonzalez-Bonillas said they believe the lack of information around the timeline of the CSA proceedings and what consequences they could face serve to discourage the act of student protest. The letter Gonzalez-Bonillas received instructed him to reach out to case managers in CSA by Sept. 23, but did not provide any further timeline for the proceedings.

“I think that what the new administration is doing in its intimidation of student protesters, they're trying to set a dangerous precedent,” Gonzalez-Bonillas said. “In these actions of expression we're trying to demand something of the University as students, as people in this community, and we're being singled out and and possibly reprimanded for that, as opposed to the University actually listening to our demands and the demands of the surrounding community.”