On Monday, April 2, the University of Chicago hosted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to speak to a crowd at the International House about how Israel and America share parallel struggles and how relations between the two countries will determine whether or not the Middle East will ever see peace.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago worked with students and community leaders to organize an emergency protest. The following is a report-back of what took place.
Before the event
The event was scheduled to begin on a Monday at 4:15 pm before the 9-to-5 workday even ended. The inconvenient timing of the event could have been a glaring sign that administrators and event organizers had consciously attempted to outmaneuver any expected protests. Nevertheless, SJP members and protest participants gathered at the appropriate location and at the appropriate time.
We were met by two UCPD officers, one uniformed and one plainclothed. Eric, the plainclothed officer, directed our attention to a plastic yellow fence across the street and all the way at a corner of a public park.
We asked him why we were forced to protest behind what we termed a cute little playpen and he said that new school policy dictates that all protesters must be confined behind fences. This made no logical sense to us and since were on city rather than school property, we asked why we couldn’t stand across the street but in front of the building. The fence, he said, was for our protection.
I feel that it is necessary to remind readers that a plastic fence that is less than 3.5 feet tall is not going to protect anyone from an attacker.
We didn’t buy it. He insisted that we’d need a permit anyways, but we were schooled in municipal law and he wasn’t. Eventually, after failing to provide any legitimate reason as to why we the campus administration wanted our protest to be invisible, Eric brought up the Dean-on-Call.
Although Eric insisted that our protest was to be confined to a playpen, the Dean found no reason why we couldn’t protest in front of the building so long as we stood on the other side of the street as per University ordinance. We crossed the street, set up shop, and began the protest. Eric appeared to be shouting on his cell phone and eventually left the scene.
During the event
Our response was two-fold. Immediately facing the building, students and community members chanted messages to both the University administration and to those attending Oren’s event inside. The second component of the protest was a staged murder scene.
The chants were heard deep into the venue. According to at least three attendees, eventgoers were forced to acknowledge the presence of the protest outside. Within twenty minutes, event organizers closed the doors. However, the University of Chicago skimps on purchasing window insulation so even with the doors and windows closed, our message made it through to the other side.
The staged murder scene served as a visual representation of Oren’s message. His idea of peace—which involves the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the persistent abuse of Palestinian rights, and war with Iran—aims to mute Palestine’s right to exist and endangers American values of justice and equality. Chalked out on the sidewalk alongside evidence placards were the maps of Palestine and the United States, both paying the price of Oren’s state-sponsored propaganda.
After the event
As the audience left the building, a number of individuals—identified as members of pro-Zionist groups on and off campus—hastily pulled out their cameras and snapped away as if we had any intention of leaving.
During the process, three protesters from outside of the University were confronted by a man who threw at them at least one verbal assault.
A reporter who identified herself only as a reporter for the Maroon asked a fellow protester and I to share our perspective on Oren’s appearance. Instead of following up with a related question, however, the reporter asked whether we were “protesting Israel’s right to exist or Palestinian policies”. She had missed the point entirely and I kindly requested, for the sake of journalistic integrity, that she take the time to read each of our signs to get a better idea of what our stated mission was.
As we gathered up for a final discussion of what our mission was, what we stood for, and what wished to see in the future, we watched UCPD officers move away their yellow playpen. We will not be silenced, and we will definitely not be caged.