UNC, Duke, NCSU students continue campus pro-Palestinian protest in Chapel Hill

Tuesday, April 30, 2024
Orange County DA prepared to prosecute if situation arises
"People who are protesting absolutely have a right to voice their concerns and make their protest. But the other people on the campus have their right to go to class, to be taught by their teachers."

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Monday marked the fourth day of the pro-Palestinian protest at UNC-Chapel Hill.

More protesters, including NC State University and Duke University students, joined UNC to form the "Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment." They called on their schools to divest from any company connected to Israel.

"We as students pay tuition money toward our university," one UNC student participating in the demonstration said. "The investments that are going toward the occupation (are) our money too."

UNC student Rokaya Aqrabawi wrote a plaque on Monday that reads "I hurt for my brothers and sisters in Palestine. My heart is Palestinian."

"I want them to hear us. Even though we're in a different country, I want them to know that we are thinking about them as we're here in the encampment at Chapel Hill," Aqrabawi said.

The encampment continued on Monday despite the erected tents violating the university's policies.

"I've never seen this crowd so packed," Jacob Ginn said. "We have hundreds now here, and people are in it for the long haul. We will stay until we have the demands met."

"The idea is just to show how many people in the Triangle care and unite," Duke student Zella Hanson said.

ABC11 reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday and had not heard back specifically about the tents. However, UNC-Chapel Hill said the commencement will proceed as planned and UNC Police will be in attendance for safety and security.

Orange County DA will prosecute if cases meet standard

On Monday, ABC11 spoke with Orange County District Attorney Jeff Nieman about the potential legal fallout from the intensifying protests. At issue is what's protected as First Amendment speech - and the right to protest - vs. the rights of universities such as UNC to exercise control over protesters.

"People who are protesting absolutely have a right to voice their concerns and make their protest. But the other people on the campus have their right to go to class, to be taught by their teachers."

"We talk about this all the time, the First Amendment is not 100% unlimited," said Nieman.

However, Nieman added that if protesters remain peaceful, don't damage property and importantly, don't infringe on the rights of other students - then they're largely protected.

"People who are protesting absolutely have a right to voice their concerns and make their protest," said Nieman. "But the other people on the campus have their right to go to class, to be taught by their teachers."

After UNC officials told protesters that pitching tents on campus violated university policy, Nieman says it remained to be seen if campus policy such as the one cited Friday could be grounds to legally break up a peaceful protest.

"That is where we could get into sort of a higher level debate that actually could find its way into the courtroom where we're debating whether or not the policy being enforced is a reasonable infringement on First Amendment rights," he said.

Nieman did say that protesters would be prosecuted by his office - should they find the law was fairly and appropriately applied in the course of any potential arrests that are made.

"I have heard that there are some offices that have made sort of more categorical statements that they just aren't interested in prosecuting protest-related offenses," he said. "And that's just not our view of it. We would look at a case-by-case basis. And if it meets that standard, then we would go forward with a prosecution."

Nieman said he hoped the protests remained peaceful and that no arrests were necessary. He also urged protesters to remain respectful of police, citing Monday's tragedy in Charlotte.

Protests nationwide

What started at Columbia has turned into a nationwide showdown between students and administrators over anti-war protests and the limits of free speech.

In the past 10 days, hundreds of students have been arrested, suspended, put on probation, and, in rare cases, expelled from colleges including Yale University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota.

Columbia student Maryam Alwan figured the worst was over after New York City police in riot gear arrested her and other protesters on the school's campus, loaded them onto buses and held them in custody for hours.

But the next evening, the college junior received an email from the university. Alwan and other students were being suspended after their arrests at the " Gaza Solidarity Encampment," a tactic colleges across the country have deployed to calm growing campus protests against the Israel-Hamas war.

The students' plight has become a central part of protests, with students and many faculty demanding their amnesty. At issue is whether universities and law enforcement will clear the charges and withhold other consequences, or whether the suspensions and legal records will follow students into their adult lives.

SEE ALSO | Demonstrations roil US campuses ahead of graduations as protesters spar over Gaza conflict

Terms of the suspensions vary from campus to campus. At Columbia and its affiliated Barnard College for women, Alwan and dozens more were arrested on April 18 and promptly barred from campus and classes, unable to attend in-person or virtually, and banned from dining halls.

Barnard also evicted those suspended from campus housing, according to interviews with students and reporting from the Columbia Spectator campus newspaper, which obtained internal campus documents.

Questions about their academic futures remain. Will they be allowed to take final exams? What about financial aid? Graduation? Columbia says outcomes will be decided at disciplinary hearings, but Alwan says she has not been given a date.

"This feels very dystopian," said Alwan, a comparative literature and society major.

College administrators have struggled to balance free speech and inclusivity.

Some demonstrations have included hate speech, antisemitic threats or support for Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7, sparking a war in Gaza that has left more than 34,000 dead. A UCLA official reported incidents of violence between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators Sunday.

May commencement ceremonies also add pressure to clear demonstrations.

University officials say arrests and suspensions are a last resort, and that they give ample warnings beforehand to clear protest areas.

Columbia's graduation is set to be hosted May 15, but the encampment remains in place as of Monday, the last day of classes.

RELATED | NC native Keith Siegel seen in newly released Hamas video that appears to show 2 hostages

One of the hostages is American citizen Keith Siegel.

SEE ALSO | Hamas to consider ceasefire-hostage release proposal; Israeli sources say could avert Rafah invasion

The Associated Press contributed to this report.