Dozens of Penn community members have occupied the Reading Room in Houston Hall for over a week as part of a teach-in supporting the Palestinian cause, with students describing an education space that they have not found elsewhere at the University.
The Freedom School for Palestine began their teach-in on Nov. 14 as a response to Penn’s alleged lack of support for pro-Palestinian students and faculty, according to a press release. The group has outlined three key demands for top University representatives: calling for a ceasefire in Gaza now, protection of freedom of speech at the University, and instituting critical thought on Palestine across campus.
Hilah Kohen, a Ph.D. student in the comparative literature and literary theory program, spoke on behalf of the group and declined to comment on how long the group plans to stay — and whether a meeting of the demands by the University will impact the duration of their stay — due to ongoing conversations with University administrators.
“This action follows a long tradition of activism on Penn’s campus in the form of sit-ins, as it is our right to peaceably demonstrate, and our responsibility to hold our administration accountable,” the press release said, referencing previous sit-ins on campus.
College senior and Freedom School participant Katie Francis said that organizers have coordinated with other groups hosting events in Houston Hall — even briefly moving the demonstration to the second floor lobby of Houston Hall to accommodate a Graduate and Professional Student Assembly event — to avoid unnecessary "confusion" among the student body.
Francis said that while University representatives told those at the Freedom School that they should not reach out to those who had booked spaces for events, the group did so because it shows “that we are willing to work with events, and that we do not want to disrupt students. That is not why we are here.”
A University spokesperson told the DP that Penn administration has been in communication with the participants as they continue their sit-in.
"We always work to balance open expression and university operations," the spokesperson said.
The DP spoke with organizers to better understand their goals and the pushback that students say they have faced from University administrators.
Continued programming and community building
Over the last week, organizers said Freedom School for Palestine has hosted a variety of programming about Palestinian liberation and historical liberation movements, designed to supplement what organizers say has been lacking at the University-wide level.
“All of us are bringing ourselves here as students, instructors, and University and cultural workers,” Kohen said. “For me, as a scholar of literature and Jewish studies, I have never been in an intellectual environment of such caliber and intensity.”
Participants have engaged in various workshops including poetry, song, and art sessions. The group has also offered discussions and academic presentations and lectures led by students and faculty. Multiple vigils have taken place throughout the programming to honor the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza.
The sessions have included programming on a Jewish perspective, such as a Yiddish workshop and a talk titled "Israel’s Genocidal Attack on Gaza: A Critical Jewish Perspective," according to the Freedom School's Instagram. Conversations have also been led by several Israeli-American academics and a rabbi from West Philadelphia.
A Penn sophomore present at the teach-in, who requested anonymity for fear of personal safety, said that this programming has created an educational space that “Penn doesn’t want.”
Throughout the week, organizers have offered opportunities for participants to meet others who are in attendance, eat food that has been provided, or engage with a rotating selection of books from a community-organized library.
Several professors, including professor of History Eve M. Troutt Powell and professor of Political Science Anne Norton, have spoken throughout the program. Powell discussed the Nakba and the history of Palestine after World War II, while Norton gave a talk titled "Islamophobia & Muslim Political Thought.”
“I'm here particularly because Penn has consistently sidelined marginalized communities and silenced us,” another student present at the teach-in, who also requested anonymity due to personal safety, told the DP.
Back and forth with administration
Participants of the Freedom School programming have been in contact with administrators and representatives from the Division of Public Safety since the start of the sit-in on Nov. 14.
Since the first day of the Freedom School, some student demonstrators have remained in Houston Hall overnight after refusing to leave the building once it closed.
On the first night, representatives from the University, including Penn Police Deputy Chief of Investigations Michael Morrin and Senior Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tamara Greenfield King, were present at Houston Hall. Students were initially told by Morrin and King that they must vacate the building or risk being arrested before being told that they could show their PennCards to remain in the building.
Francis told the DP that the police created a “very tense” environment when they approached demonstrators on the first night. Francis said that the police were especially “antagonistic” towards a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild that was present.
“[The police] really targeted the legal observer, who was there to make sure our rights are protected,” Francis said. “That response is really telling.”
Since then, organizers told the DP that administrators have followed a relatively consistent policy. Demonstrators are able to spend the night in Houston Hall as long as they show their PennCard. King and Penn Police told the demonstrators that those who showed their PennCard in order to spend the night at Houston will be referred to the Center for Community Standards and Accountability.
University representatives initially told demonstrators that they would only be able to stay in Houston Hall for one night without risking arrest. According to Kohen, at least as of now, the policy has changed and those who stay for multiple nights will allegedly be referred to CSA each time they spend the night in Houston.
In regards to messaging from University officials, Kohen said “there has been a high level of ambiguity and contradiction in messages that we have received from various parties."
Open expression concerns
Francis and Kohen both said that the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life has not invoked the protections that they say are normally offered to demonstrators under the University’s Open Expression Guidelines for this sit-in.
The guidelines, which were created in 1968 amid student protests surrounding United States involvement in the Vietnam War, are intended to protect free speech within the limitations of University functions at Penn, and take precedence over other University policies.
“In communications directly with [the Freedom School], the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life has made clear that they will not enforce the guidelines and protections of this sit-in action,” Kohen said.
Francis, who is also a Fossil Free Penn organizer and took part in the encampment on College Green last year, described this lack of protection as a “double standard.” They emphasized that this treatment differed from handling of previous FFP protests, including the encampment and a 2016 College Hall sit-in.
“It reflects how much harsher we’re being targeted, even though this has been a wonderful and generative space for learning, growth and community,” Francis said.
Even though the Committee on Open Expression could ultimately decide to grant open expression status retroactively and drop potential CSA charges, this does not do much for international students at the current moment, Kohen said, who “cannot risk entering the CSA process.”