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Credit: Ethan Young

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors held a press conference on Zoom at 1 p.m. today condemning the arrests of 33 members of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment this morning and the suppression of "nonviolent anti-war protest."

The press conference featured several speakers, beginning with AAUP-Penn president Amy Offner, who read out a previously published statement from the organization condemning the administration's decision to arrest encampment participants this morning. Offner then introduced a series of Penn faculty members to speak, starting with professor of Arabic literature Huda Fakhreddine and professor of philosophy Sukaina Hirji, who spoke on behalf of Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine.

Fakhreddine described the encampment as an opportunity for Penn to “do better” and “redeem itself from shameful behavior,” which she said has been ongoing since the University's "attack" on pro-Palestinian voices during the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in September.

“This is day 216 of the genocide against the Palestinians,” she said. “216 days of scholasticide — all of the universities and schools in Gaza have been leveled to the ground. More than 35,000 people murdered.”

She called on the University to respond to the encampment’s demands, and she and Hirji added that there would be a rally by the Love Statue at 3 p.m. hosted by Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine. 

Hirji referenced the “long tradition of campus protests” that students learn about in class.

“The point of protest is to challenge norms and standards of justice, and that often involves moments of civil disobedience,” Hirji said. “So it is inherently reactionary to expect that protests are never disruptive or uncomfortable in any way, and that they don't make any kinds of meaningful demands.

Hirji added that it has been difficult to have open conversations about Gaza on Penn's campus.

“Seeing hundreds of cops in riot gear arrest students and faculty sends to me, and to my students and to all of us, a very clear message about what conversations are and are not allowed on Penn's campus going forward,” they said. “The point of a university is to make space for conversations that challenge the status quo, and I think we’ve all collectively failed in that mission today."

Professor at Graduate School of Education Ed Brockenbrough spoke next, criticizing the University’s portrayal of the encampment.

Brockenbrough said he went to see the encampment on Wednesday in response to the University’s allegations that it was violent. He witnessed students participate in a teach-in, anti-doxxing workshop and educational programming related to the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Characterizations of encampments as violent depend on invisible lines that erase the beautiful and pedagogical nature of the space,” he said. “This was an educational space in which students played a lead role in creating the curriculum and operating as teachers.”

Brockenbrough added that democracies “desperately need educational spaces that surface the issues that divide us” and “invite speakers with expertise in multiple perspectives.”

He called on the University to “think more productively” in their responses to spaces like the student encampment in the future.

Presidential Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and AAUP-Penn member Sarah Jackson agreed, denouncing the administration’s messaging during the encampment and the University's decision to disband it this morning.

“Much of the administration’s messaging about the encampment that we’ve received over the past several weeks has discounted the lived experiences of faculty, students, and staff who live and work on campus every day,” Jackson said.

She added that the encampment has been a lively space for “education, debate, community, and politics” and denounced the administration’s messaging as “veering dangerously towards propaganda.”

“As we saw this morning, ultimately, the role of that messaging was to serve as cover to legitimize the calling the police on campus and other draconian measures,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that it was shocking that the administration would risk the encampment’s safety as done this morning, especially after the “global uprising against police brutality” that occurred four years ago.

She concluded by stating that Penn has a “world-class faculty,” and recalled several student protesters inviting faculty to the Gaza Solidarity Encampment because they are “genuinely trying to learn.”

“These young people have learned not only from us at the University level, but since grade school, about peace activism, from activism against the development of the atom bomb to activism against invasion of Iraq after 9/11, and it is a deep violation of educational principles to now penalize students for taking these ideas that they have learned independently and applying them to their own lives,” she said.

Professor of social work at the School of Social Policy & Practice Amy Hillier said that the Penn administration has “consistently mischaracterized the nature of the encampment.”

Hillier, who said she visited the encampment regularly over the past two weeks, described having “beautiful conversations” with protesters and praised the “ethics of care” present in the posted guidelines for encampment members.

“What I saw was not disruptive to the operations for the University,” she said, adding that the only time she felt unsafe was due to the actions of counterprotesters.

Hillier then referenced the images of police arresting students Friday morning.

“Those images stand in stark contrast to what I witnessed at the encampment on Wednesday,” she said. “Love, learning, courage, and an invitation to a more just world.”

AAUP-Penn and PFJP member Karen Redrobe spoke about Penn community members’ obligation to “protect academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas” in higher education. She mentioned the ways in which 1930s fascist governments would target free speech and creative expression and the artists and scholars who studied them.

“Our democracy requires universities to make space for the open expression and contestation of ideas, as part of the collective and research-based quest in the service of truth,” Redrobe said.

She said that as a teacher, she had no choice but to resist Penn’s attempts to “dismantle the integrity of our classrooms," calling on Penn to honor all protections guaranteed by Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression.

AAUP-Penn Executive Committee member and lecturer in Arabic Radwa El Barouni was the final speaker, criticizing the University’s “violent clearing” of the encampment.

“This was not the only way to deal with this,” she said, comparing Penn’s response to other universities’ “good faith” negotiations with student protesters.

El Barouni also emphasized the importance of the University consulting with students and faculty to make decisions that directly affect their education and wellbeing.

“Amidst all the discussions and statements made by administration, we forget that at the heart of an educational institution, the two most important parties are students and faculty who teach and research,” she said. “That over the past two months, these two most important parties have constantly been ignored, emotionally abused, their rights have been taken violated — is just to me unfathomable.”