Pro-Palestinian protesters take down U.S. flag replace it with Palestine flag on UNC quad

Wednesday, May 1, 2024
6 arrests, classes canceled at UNC after Palestinian protest clash
Pro-Palestine protesters at UNC removed an American flag and replaced it with the Palestine flag hours after protesters were arrested at the quad.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Pro-Palestinian protesters removed the American flag from UNC's quad on Tuesday afternoon and replaced it with the Palestinian one in what was the latest disruptive incident on campus.

Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts responded by personally walking out to the quad and helping to restore the U.S. flag to its prominent position on campus to chants from supporters of "USA. - USA."

However, not long after the U.S. flag had been restored, a decision was made to take it back down. This time it was folded into its traditional triangle shape and taken away for safekeeping.

The flag pole on UNC's quad was then left empty and many of the protesters who had gathered around the area dispersed.

UNC announced on Tuesday afternoon that classes were canceled and "non-mandatory operations" were suspended for the day.

All of this came after a clash between protesters and law enforcement officers in the same area earlier Tuesday.

About 5:30 a.m., protesters were warned they had to vacate by 6 a.m. or face possible arrest and other consequences. UNC officials previously told protesters that pitching tents on campus violated university policy.

In a statement released Tuesday by Roberts and Provost Clemen before police began removing protesters, they said if protesters fail to vacate the area, it could result in consequences. This includes possible arrest, suspension from campus, and expulsion from the university, which may prevent students from graduating.

The university confirmed that 36 protesters were detained Tuesday morning after failing to abide by the order to disperse from Polk Place. Thirty were cited for trespassing and released on-site, including 10 UNC-Chapel Hill students and 20 people not affiliated with the university.

After arrests began, protesters attempted to block UNC Police vehicles by standing in front of them and throwing items at officers.

Six of them were arrested and were transferred by the Orange County Sheriff's Office to the detention center. They were charged with trespassing and later released on a written promise to appear. Three of the protesters arrested are UNC-Chapel Hill students and the other three are not affiliated with the school.

The encampment in Polk Place was cleared in 45 minutes.

After the area was cleared, UNC officials said protesters attempted to enter South Building. They refused to comply with requests from facilities and UNC police.

One Duke student who was detained described her arrest.

"(The police) were very violent, very rough," she said. "I'm not a big person, and I had two grown men grab me very viciously ... it was not kindly done."

According to the student, she was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for trespassing.

In the statement from Roberts and Clemens, it read:

"For the last several months, we have spoken regularly and respectfully with the demonstrators on our campus, consistently supporting their right to assemble and express their views. We have also clearly communicated the University's long-standing policies on the use of shared public spaces. We have been clear that students and community members can assemble and make their voices heard, but University policies must be followed.

During events in recent weeks, the student demonstrators abided by our policies. That changed Sunday evening when protesters - including outside activists -- backtracked on their commitment to comply with these policies, including trespassing into classroom buildings overnight. This group has now made it clear they will no longer even consider our requests to abide by University policies and have ended our attempts at constructive dialogue.

We must consider the safety of all of our students, faculty and staff, as well as visitors to this campus. Our students are preparing for final exams and end-of-year activities, including graduation, and we will continue to promote an educational environment where they can do so safely and without disruption."

Civil discourse amid tension

As day turned to night on the campus, a group of people - protesters and non-protesters alike - gathered around the bare flagpole after a local man, Glenn Benton, walked onto the quad with his own flag with intentions to raise it. Benton stood and conversed with protesters and other students for more than an hour - all peaceful - before campus police and maintenance staff reappeared with a full-size flag. That flag was then raised to cheers from students, and chants from protesters.

The dialogue that took place in that time once tensions cooled is the type of conversation students said they want to see more of.

The dialogue that took place in that time once tensions cooled is the type of conversation students said they want to see more of.

"Everybody's going to defend their own home at the end of the day, right? You're going to defend one side, I'm gonna defend one side. But until we come together in one conversation, we're not going to understand where both sides come from," said Eliam Mussie, a junior.

Mussie, along with students Jack Marino and Diego Fleury-Mendible, were three of the students who found themselves in the middle of those chaotic scenes near the flagpole on Tuesday afternoon. They said the experience, while hectic, was a net positive.

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity and ability to protest. I come from Venezuela, so I think a lot of times people take that for granted," said Fleury-Mendible, a junior.

Their decision to gather near the flagpole put the three in a vulnerable position, as protesters clashed with law enforcement - and a wild scene unfolded as the American flag was taken down, and the Palestinian flag was raised. Marino told ABC11 that it's been easy to avoid the protests so far, but he wanted to hear his fellow students out.

"It's easy to ignore it, but I wanted to be here because I didn't want to ignore it. I wanted to learn," said Marino, a freshman.

ABC11 asked protesters whether they planned to return with tents after Tuesday morning's arrests, but they declined to comment. The university did not immediately respond to ABC11's questions about how they plan to address any protesters should they reappear and did not address an Alamance County Sheriff's Office armored vehicle that appeared on campus Tuesday evening.

On Monday, ABC11 spoke with Orange County District Attorney Jeff Nieman about the potential legal fallout from the intensifying protests.

"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 said protesters would be prosecuted by his office - should they find the law was fairly and appropriately applied in the course of arrests.

"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."