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Pro-Palestine encampment at Vassar weighing options after arrests at SUNY New Paltz

Pro-Palestine demonstrators at Vassar College continued discussions with administrators Friday as an encampment slowly grows on campus.

Things were pretty quiet, but tense Friday afternoon at the private college in Poughkeepsie. An encampment of tents and protest signs has been growing outside the main campus building since Tuesday. Student demonstrators Kelly and Azaan, who declined to give their last names, say the group has a total of six demands, but at the top of that list, they want the college to release a full list of its investments and completely divest from Israel in response to the country’s continued bombing in Gaza.

"I think that what we're looking for from Vassar is a commitment to actually voting on divestment, actually proposing it," says Kelly. "Right now, I think the general sentiment is that we've been promised conversations about it, and we're looking for a little bit more of a commitment from them."

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza health officials. Israel began bombing after more than 1,200 Israeli citizens were killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

Encampments in solidarity with Gaza have sprung up at colleges across the country in recent weeks, after students at Columbia University began protesting last month. Dozens of protesters were arrested there earlier this week after a group took over the campus’ Hamilton Hall.

On Thursday, New York State Police responded to SUNY New Paltz to break up an encampment there, after college administrators issued multiple ultimatums for protestors to disperse. More than 130 people were reportedly arrested, including the village’s Democratic Chairman Evan Holland-Shepler.

"The solidarity I saw not only from student leaders, who were the primary people who were there, but also like, gray-haired community members...it was beautiful," he says. "And I watched it get stomped down in my own hometown."

Holland-Shepler blames Thursday night’s disorder on the presence of police — including state police, campus police, and officers from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office — and the congregation of a mass of onlookers.

The encampment protesters, he says, had agreed to sit down and lock arms, but one by one, they were forcibly removed by police, loaded into vans, and driven to jail for processing.

"What did this accomplish?" he asks. "I guarantee you [students] are going to feel less faith in their university. To me, it expended so much time, so many resources, and traumatized so many young people in a formative time for nothing."

Holland-Shepler says he was charged with a violation of trespassing.

Numerous officials, including New York Governor Kathy Hochul, have voiced support for efforts to clear encampments, saying they are restricting campus functions and the rights of other students.

In a statement, New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers says he finds the use of force at SUNY New Paltz “profoundly upsetting,” but that he also wished the protesters’ messaging had been more discerning, calling for immediate policy changes by Israel rather than calling for “intifada,” or rebellion against Israel, and using phrases like “by any means necessary.”

Rogers adds: “Calling for violence and the destruction of Israel creates a hostile climate on campus and in our community. We should be calling for alternatives to Hamas and to Netanyahu’s far-right administration; we need empowered Palestinians who seek peace and stability in the region and Israeli leaders who steadfastly believe in a two state solution or other pathways toward mutual understanding, recognition, and representation, so to bring an enduring peace."
Friday afternoon at Vassar College, there was little chanting as students huddled in the center of the encampment and appeared to discuss their next move. A spokesman for the college says senior administrators met with student leaders earlier in the day, and characterized the conversation as “productive.”

Kelly and Azaan say students are shaken up after hearing about what happened at SUNY New Paltz, but they're still deciding what to do.

"We're deciding on whether it is sustainable to maintain in the face of a desire [from] the school for us to bring it down, or whether it's more sustainable for our fight for Palestinian liberation to take the encampment down right now," they note.

By way of disclosure, Vassar College is home to WAMC’s Hudson Valley bureau.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."