AMHERST — A rally and march in support of Palestinians on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst as part of a nationwide protest on college campuses across the country Wednesday drew about 500 students, some of whom were later arrested for occupying the administration building.
“As a US citizen, as a university student, we have a moral obligation to speak on the horrors that we’re witnessing,” said Arsema Kifle, a junior sociology major, who participated in the sit-in.
Many held signs adorned with the red, green, white, and black of the Palestinian flag. Chants of “Long live the intifada,” “Free, free Palestine,” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” resounded through the crowd.
They demanded UMass Amherst cut all ties with defense contractor Raytheon, one of the state’s largest employers, and instead support jobs aimed at demilitarization. They called on Chancellor Javier Reyes to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and to publicly support Palestinian, Arab, Jewish, and Muslim students.
In a statement, UMass Amherst said it recognized the students’ rights to protest but said their demands do not align with the university’s policies.
“UMass Amherst recognizes the right of students to demonstrate on university premises, which is consistent with the university’s commitment to free speech and the advocacy of opinions and ideas protected under the First Amendment,” the statement said, in part. “The protestors’ specific demands do not align with the university’s publicly stated positions and policies.”
UMass Amherst later said an undisclosed number of students were arrested on criminal trespassing charges after receiving “multiple verbal warnings” to leave the Whitmore administration building by 6 p.m.
The protest at the state’s flagship university was among several held at public and private colleges Wednesday in Massachusetts as part of nationwide walkouts and rallies at campuses to support Palestinians and protest Israel’s ongoing bombardment and blockade of Gaza.
The demonstrations were also held at Harvard Divinity School, Smith College, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Tufts University.
Dissenters, a national antiwar group, said via Facebook that students from more than 100 campuses across North America were to participate in Wednesday’s action.
The advocacy group Mass Peace Action said in a statement that the demonstration at Smith was part of the national Students for Justice in Palestine group’s call for “students and workers to walk out on Wednesday at 1:40 p.m. in support of Palestine.”
The statement said demonstrators were to meet at College Hall at 2 p.m. and walk to the Northampton offices of L3Harris, a tech firm and defense contractor headquartered in Florida.
The activists said they’re demanding that Smith “stop investing” in L3Harris and that they “don’t welcome weapon manufacturers that make millions from wars.”
Neither Smith nor L3 Harris immediately returned emails seeking comment Wednesday.
In Cambridge, demonstrators gathered at noon outside Harvard Divinity School to call for an immediate cease-fire and press the university to “publicly recognize the ongoing genocide of Palestinians” in Gaza, activists said.
Reached for comment Wednesday, a Divinity School spokesperson referred a reporter to a communique sent by Interim Dean David Holland to the school community on Monday.
Holland wrote in part that “anti-Arab, anti-Israeli, and anti-Palestinian harassments” are wholly unacceptable on campus “as are Antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
More than 5,000 people have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been running out of food, water, and medicine since Israel sealed off the territory following the attack.
At Tufts, activists gathered around 2:30 p.m. outside Olin Hall. About 200 students left classes to join the action, which was also met by a smaller group of pro-Israel counterprotesters.
Among the speakers at the rally, was one student who said that they were “angry and heartbroken and we will not stop until our demands are met.” The activists also chanted that the administration was “supporting genocide.”
A counter-demonstrator, Tufts graduate student Matt Zager, said that a friend of his was killed in the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7.
Whether “they realize it or not, these people support the murder of my friend,” Zager said.
Reached for comment, Tufts spokesperson Patrick Collins said the university has “condemned SJP’s previous statements praising the Hamas attacks, and the university has always opposed the BDS [boycott, divest, sanction Israel] movement.”
Protesters from the Boston University SJP chapter gathered with other activist groups at 5 p.m. for a demonstration in Copley Square, where they assembled near the Dartmouth Street entrance to the Boston Public Library.
A crowd of hundreds chanted, “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! The occupation has got to go,” to the beat of a drum. Others chanted, “We will speak. We will rise. We will stand for Palestine.” The crowd spilled onto the sidewalks and streets near the BPL.
One speaker at the rally called for the total liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Another called upon colleges and universities to make a “clear moral stance” against genocide.
At UMass Boston, around 150 demonstrators rallied across the street from the campus center to hear speeches and join chants before marching around the Dorchester campus.
Taqwa Aboelela, a first-year student, said that as an Arab, joining the demonstration was the least she could do to show solidarity with Palestine.
”What’s been happening has been happening for years,” Aboelela said. “Once Palestine decides to do something, the whole world turns against them.”
One speaker at the rally, who identified himself as a Jewish sociology major named Max, said he’s proud of his faith but sharply criticized Israel’s actions.
“We need to include the root causes and reframe the narrative and that might seem like basic stuff to people in the audience,” another speaker said. “I hope it is. But unfortunately living in the propaganda capitalist imperialist center of the world, basic 101 is radical.”
UMass Boston didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
At UMass Amherst, around 500 students gathered at 2 p.m. in front of the Student Union before marching to the Whitmore administration building, where the sit-in lasted for several hours.
Students implored Reyes, the chancellor, to condemn Israel’s actions in the war now in its third week.
“UMass already condemned Hamas. Where’s the condemnation for Israel’s massacre?” said SJP co-president Ruya Hazeyen, a political science and Middle Eastern studies major.
Micah Schmerling, a junior Judaic studies major who has family in Israel, was conflicted about attending the walkout. ”My anticolonial, anti-imperial viewpoints kind of won over and I deeply care about people and I wanted to just kind of show up and be supportive as best I could,” Schmerling said.
Campus police kept a discreet distance from the student protesters. But when students did not leave the building by 6 p.m., some were arrested.
Around 6:20, an Amherst Police Department van and two cruisers parked in front of the side entrance. By 6:35, five students in zip-tie handcuffs were escorted out of the building and into the van and taken to the UMass Police Department. About 30 minutes later the van returned, taking in five more people.
“The arrests were based on the refusal by those arrested to comply with a lawful order by UMass Police to leave the building,” the statement said.
Kifle, who earlier said students were prepared to “sit in until our demands have been met,” said students would not be deterred by the arrests. Protesters plan to return to the administration building around 2 p.m. Thursday to resume the sit-in, she said.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.