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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

Protests at UNC Asheville spark chancellor and university police intervention


Since May 2, University of North Carolina at Asheville students continue to protest the war in Israel on the quad in collaboration with university groups nationwide.

“Our main goal right now is solidarity with the students around the country who have the resources to set up larger encampments and heavier resistance. We are building community between students, faculty and wider community members in Asheville. We are learning about the cause and talking to each other while holding discussions and teach-ins and sharing food,” said Ash Pilo, a 21-year-old graduating senior. 

Pilo is a co-organizer, media liaison for the protest and UNCA student studying sociology and psychology. 

“We are standing outside. Peacefully. Quietly. Letting them know our stance on the university being invested in Israel,” Pilo said. “We want transparency about university investments and we want to make our voices heard about our feelings about the genocide in Palestine.”

On the first day of the protest, the university held a faculty senate meeting in the Laurel Forum, in which the chancellor was present, where protesters stood outside of the windows with signs.

“We do not have the details of everything they are discussing but we do know they are discussing the anti-DEI policies that have been affecting the North Carolina system at large,” Pilo said.  

On April 17, The University of North Carolina Board of Governors Committee unanimously voted to repeal UNC’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program, eliminating DEI programs and goals across the UNC system. 

“We also believe one of the items on their docket today is the university fellows program because the last cohort of university fellows has not yet been converted to tenure track,” Pilo said.

The University Fellowships for Faculty Diversity program was adopted in 2020 as part of the Racial Justice Roadmap. Its mission was to increase the number of diverse faculty members on staff. 

Faculty were sent outside to ask the protesters about their demands at various points during the meeting. 

According to Blu Buchanan, a UNCA sociology professor, in an email with the subject line “My Potential Arrest,” which was sent to all of their current students, the protesters demand divestment of the UNC system from Israel, transparency in funding, a ceasefire resolution, and cutting ties with Israeli universities while instead establishing ties with Gazan universities. 

“I wanted y’all to know I may be arrested tonight by campus police. They have decided to enforce a rule where I had to provide my documents to be on the quad. I have chosen not to comply. If I am arrested, I’m doing so because I care about y’all. About your futures as democratic citizens, and as those who are faced with increasing state violence,” Buchanan said. 

University police have not arrested any demonstrators at this time. 

“At UNC Asheville, students and employees enjoy the freedom to express their opinions, engage in discussion and debate, or otherwise express themselves. However, it’s important to note that this freedom is subject to the university’s policies, which are primarily designed to ensure safety and prevent disruption of campus activities,” said UNCA Chancellor Kimberly Van Noort. 

Van Noort sent out three official responses regarding the protest throughout the weekend. 

“On multiple occasions, University staff notified the demonstrators of policy violations that required remedy or the demonstration would be required to end,” Van Noort said. 

Michael Strysick, the chief university communication and marketing officer, said reasonable guidelines exist for campus visitors who follow the best practices of sister institutions in the UNC system. Finals week calls for extra attention so exams are not disrupted. 

“As the chancellor mentioned in her Monday email message, the university experienced disruption on Sunday afternoon due to use of campus space by non-university users. Based on a concern of further potential disruption, the university acted, as permitted under university policy, to make sure our community members could use the space amid exam week,” Strysick said. 

Strysick said the chancellor meets with members of senior staff, university police and the emergency management council regularly for advice on the situation.

“These conversations complement the ongoing and extensive planning and detailed protocols in place to manage conflicts and incidents, which includes considerations for external involvement and so-called public users of our spaces,” Strycisk said.

Strysick said policies are enacted to ensure students’ free expression on campus while protecting the safety of students and enforcing policies that prohibit disruption of university operations is paramount. 

“Beyond the assurance Chancellor van Noort provided in her recent message that “university operations will concur as planned and without disruption,” I can attest that meetings are ongoing to discuss how to have a wonderful celebration for our graduating seniors that is free of disruption, which will not be tolerated for this milestone ceremony,” Strysick said.

Van Noort said the university was informed via a media report that the group intended to stay overnight on the quad, also known as Abu Yahia Square, which the encampment group renamed for a recently deceased Gazan scholar and activist. 

“We do not intend to stay overnight as a large group, however it is a public campus and people can be on this campus as they wish. So we will be coming back every morning for as many days as possible,” Pilo said. 

Lee Robinson, a 21-year-old graduating senior studying printmaking, said there were plans to “cowboy camp” with tarps so they did not violate the tent policy and that the space use policy is vague.

“The ‘on multiple occasions’ thing refers to us trying to create shelters in the pouring rain on the quad. We had a temporary canopy thing that wasn’t staked down so we could keep our devices dry and still have media interviews. Admin told us that was against policy, so we used rope and tarps to create canopies using the tree we were near and the chairs on the quad. Admin had us disassemble those too,” Robinson said. 

According to the space use policy, the chancellor has ultimate authority to administer the policy, including all decisions about space use and the implementation of time, place and manner restrictions.

“After 4 p.m., following an approved campus event, an altercation between demonstrators on the Quad and counter-protesters required immediate university staff intervention to ensure everyone’s safety and prevent continued disruption to normal campus operations,” Van Noort said.

Van Noort said out of caution staff did walkthroughs of the buildings outside of the quad to ensure outside users of the quad were not approaching students who were studying for exams. 

“We chanted at each other, and campus police and admin stood like 10 yards away. That was the “immediate intervention,” Robinson said. 

Van Noort said staff found three non-university-affiliated individuals hiding inside Rhoades Robinson Hall, which was already locked for the night. 

The individuals who university police found in Rhoades Robinson were students. Tess Parker, Jocelyn Shutak and a student who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons said they were sitting and talking. 

“I was located in a public study space in Rhoades Robinson with two other students. The building was open when we entered and we were not asked if we were students nor to show a student ID, only that the buildings were being locked for the night and they let us leave,” Parker said. 

Shutak said only she and Parker were involved in the protest. The other student is a friend of Parker’s whom they ran into and decided to sit and chat with them. 

“We were keeping an eye on the quad situation from a distance so we could get video if anything started going sideways. Two UNCA police officers showed up and said we had to leave the building which we complied with,” Shutak said. “We were sitting in the glass atrium in plain view.”

Van Noort said the demonstrators were prompted to leave because using the quad after 11 p.m. is not permitted because it is unsuitable for overnight use. 

The space use policy does not explicitly state there can be no overnight use of the quad. Still, it does say the use of any university space must be appropriate for the size, design and purpose of the space.

“The email says the safety concerns were prudent because of bear activity, but folks had no trouble with the bears at all. Personally I’d take the bears over admin or campus police any day of the week,” Robinson said. 

Van Noort said when asked to see student IDs, nearly all the demonstrators refused to comply, with some verbally challenging the university’s ability to enforce its own policies and then threatening arrest if the protestors did not disburse. 

On Monday, Van Noort released an email addressing the demonstrators’ demands. 

“With respect to divestment, UNC Asheville endowments are managed by the UNC Management Corporation, along with other UNC System university endowments. We do not have direct control over the portfolio,” Van Noort said. 

Strysick said assets are not managed by the university but are managed by the UNC Management Company, a nonprofit providing investment management services to the UNC system.

According to the Citizen Times, in June 2019, the UNC Asheville Board of Trustees made state history by becoming the first UNC university to divest a portion of the $50 million endowment from fossil fuels and shift $5 million to Walden Asset Management, which manages the investment of environmental, social and governance (ESG). 

“We’re also not sure what misinformation she’s referring to. UNCA divested from fossil fuels in 2019, so they definitely have some control over the financial portfolio,” Robinson said. “The investment material isn’t public, but there’s a lot of campus material about how proud they are to have Bank of America as a sponsor.”

Belle Davis, a 23-year-old creative writing student, said the group wants UNCA to end its partnership with Bank of America and is looking for transparency and divestment from the companies supporting the Israeli Defence Force. 

“One of the biggest goals is to educate people about what is going on in Palestine. About different perspectives. About the realities of the war and especially since the American media is dumbing a lot of the stuff down,” Davis said. 

Davis said the writing on the sidewalk is primarily names of Palestinian women and children killed since the Hamas attacks in Oct. 

“I am a human who is against genocide. I don’t need a personal connection to know it is wrong to kill people. To know it is a war crime to engage in collective punishment and to restrict food and water. I am a human who cares about human rights,” Pilo said. 

Pilo said they did not expect resistance from the university, given that they are peacefully protesting using their First Amendment rights to speak out in a public area.

“We have every legal right to be here. We are doing nothing illegal and thus we do not expect police resistance but we are not afraid of them. We feel confident,” Pilo said. “It is not anti semetic to be anti genocide. We have many jewish students here with us today. We also have members of the community group, The Jewish Voice for Peace.”

Jennifer Harr, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Corn Bread and Roses Community Counseling for queer and neurodivergent individuals, said she thinks we can all agree that whatever is going on right now is not okay.

“After I got back from birthright I became pretty anti zionist but if I brought it up to any family member including my father, I was like anti semitic,” Harr said. “You can be jewish and not zionist.”

Birthright is a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish adults ages 18-26. 

“Knowing what we were taught and what we experienced through the holocaust and through all of our major genocides that we have dealt with, knowing we are then turning around and doing it to someone else. My brain shuts down. I can’t fathom it,” Harr said. “In Judaism we do follow the old testament so there is that idea of an eye for an eye but this is a little too far for me. We should not be doing this.”

Harr said the education from anti-zionists coming through is hugely informative, and how she learned about the concept initially was behind closed doors.

“Gen-Z is one of my favorite generations because as a millennial myself I just see Gen-Z pushing boundaries way more than we did,” Harr said. 

Kitt Crabtree, a 21-year-old biology and sociology student, said the stuff they are doing is important, but the reason they are doing it is more important than themselves. 

“Palestinians are human beings just like us. We are all people who deserve to love and live freely and happily in our homes with our families and that is something that no one or no occupation or state should be able to take away from somebody,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said their ultimate goal is to end the genocide of Palestinians and for all people to live freely and safely in their homes. 

“The most important thing to do right now is help boycott divestment and sanctions efforts,” Crabtree said. “It is a very easy way to put your money where your politics are.”


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