By Daniela Escobar and Anjali Vishwanath. Photo by Daniela Escobar.

On Tuesday, March 26, a pro-Palestine demonstration led by organizers of the Stony Brook University’s (SBU) chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SB4Palestine) ended with the arrest of nine protesters in Stony Brook University’s Administration Building.

The protest was affiliated with the Stop Unbearable Neoliberal Yuppies: Boycott Divestment Sanctions (SUNY BDS) group’s planned “Day of Action” for all State University of New York (SUNY) campuses. The protests were accusing the university and the SUNY system of funding Israel’s attacks against the Palestinian people and urging SUNY to divest. According to their website, SUNY BDS specifically targets SUNY because it “has numerous ties to Israel and to the weapons manufacturers supporting Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.” On the same page, they call on SBU to break their partnership with IBM, a company that contributes to Israel’s defense force.

The demonstration that ended in the arrests was titled “Our Money, Our Demands,” and began at 1 p.m. Around 30 protesters marched around campus, their passion clear in their raised voices. A well-known chant — “Free, free Palestine!” — rang through campus, the beats of a darbuka drum echoing in the background. One protester held a hand-painted sign that read, “THIS SEAWOLF SUPPORTS GENOCIDE,” which pointed toward a picture of Stony Brook University President Maurie Mclnnis with blood on her hands. Another sign read, “GENERATION AFTER GENERATION UNTIL LIBERATION.” Four students and a faculty member gave speeches demanding the university to divest funding from Israel and calling for a free Palestine.

After the students entered the Administration Building around 2:30 p.m., their chants were quieted upon administrators’ and the University Police Department’s (UPD) request. According to an email sent to students at 8:06 p.m. by the Vice President for Student Affairs Rick Gatteau, the administration was unaware that protesters intended to enter the Administration Building, as it was not included in the official route administrators had approved. Administrators and the UPD advised the protesters that they were violating the Code of Student Responsibility, alleging that they were being disruptive. After the warning, organizers intentionally spoke at a lower volume and instructed the students to begin the planned sit-in demonstration. The protesters sat quietly on the floor without blocking stairways or entrances of the building.

“We must take action, that’s why we are here today inside the Administration Building,” Iman, a protester who asked to be referred to only by her first name for safety reasons, said to the crowd. “In the past few months, Stony Brook University has made it clear that they have chosen the side of the oppressor. This administration … would rather deny the complicity of genocide than take a stand and divest and support liberation … The only legacy they will leave behind will be painted with the blood of the Palestinian people.”

Rick Gatteau and administrators talk to students inside the Administration Building. Photo by Daniela Escobar.

Around 2:55 p.m., as more UPD officers started to hover by the building’s entrance, Gatteau announced that the protesters had approximately five minutes to leave the building or they would be subject to arrest. “Being in this space is considered a disruption of [university] activities,” Gatteau warned the protesters. “Your rights are to go outside.” In spite of the warning, many protesters refused to leave the building.

When asked if he was willing to be arrested, one of the demonstrators said yes. “Because I know what I’m doing is not wrong,” he said. “[I am] sitting on the floor of a public building demanding a school to divest from bombing literal children.” 

Administrators spoke with the protesters who stayed behind, requesting again that they left. “Children are dying in Gaza,” Zubair, a student member of SB4Palestine who asked to be referred to only by his first name for safety reasons, responded. “I don’t care about an arrest. There are 13,000 dead children. Can you repeat the words back to me? There are 13,000 dead children in Gaza. You said [the arrest] is life-changing. How dare you?”

Administrators present continued to ask protestors to leave the building. They urged the demonstrators to think about their futures and how an arrest record would affect them. Adam French, one of the arrested students, incredulously called their request “crazy … when a genocide is happening in Palestine.”

When the protesters refused to leave, the UPD and the administration responded with handcuffs. The demonstrators, seven of whom were Stony Brook students, were detained at approximately 3:30 p.m. In addition, two other protesters who were not Stony Brook students were arrested. Zubair was the first to be detained. As he was being taken out of the building, he shouted, “This is what Stony Brook University stands for. They arrest students peacefully protesting. Shame on you! Shame on all of you.”

Demonstrators get arrested inside the Administration Building. Photo by Daniela Escobar.

The group that had earlier exited the building now gathered in solidarity outside. They responded in a chant, “Shame, shame, shame on you! Shame on you!”

Once it became clear that the protesters were not leaving the building, the nine arrests were made swiftly. French noted that he and other protesters were “shocked by how quickly it happened.” Around 11 to 12 UPD officers repeatedly yelled for onlookers to back off as administrators stood by the main entrance of the building watching the arrests.

After the arrests, a small group of students followed UPD officers to its station on campus to stand in solidarity with those arrested until they were released. They all expressed their disappointment and frustration with the university. One undergraduate student, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said the arrest “tore apart our rights to free speech and to free assembly,” but that he takes “pride in the comrades who decided to get arrested, who took the courageous step to stand firm and not be intimidated by the suppression of free speech.”

While waiting for a bus to the UPD station, a freshman student who preferred not to give their name due to fear of retaliation from the university said, “I feel like it’s a complete betrayal of all the values that Stony Brook claims to uphold of being at the forefront of social justice, climate justice, all that. This act of censorship and suppression of voices for Palestine by students is … proof that this university is not standing on that fucking business when they need to.”

Upon arriving at the police headquarters, the group found six UPD officers waiting outside to prevent them from approaching the building where the detained protesters were being held. They obliged with the officers’ requests to keep their distance from the headquarters. Standing in solidarity, they led chants and Ramadan prayers.

“As a Palestinian with blood flowing through me, [I am] privileged to stand here as my brothers and sisters are being killed, and you stand there with a smile on your faces,” one member of the crowd shouted at officers.

The demonstrators were held for four and a half hours to fill out paperwork. Iman described it as an “incredibly disorganized” process.

In an interview, Iman detailed her four-hour stint in the station. She said that officers got angry whenever the arrested protesters talked or interacted with each other. Iman also said that some of the protesters were observing Ramadan and were not given the food necessary to break their fast. She also shared that one of the officers told them that outside food was not allowed in the building. Iman explained to the officers that their religion requires them to break their fast by eating a date, requesting access to the ones in her backpack.

Demonstrators get arrested inside the Administration Building. Photo by Daniela Escobar.

“I asked, ‘Please, may I be allowed to take my dates from my book bag?’ And they denied us that,” she said. “They said, ‘No, you can’t, we don’t know what’s inside, so you’re not allowed access.’ So we had to just drink the water that they gave us to break our fasts.”

By approximately 8:00 p.m., all nine protesters were released from UPD custody. French said he was charged with congregating in a public place and refusing to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse. Their arraignments are scheduled for April 15 and several of them are required to attend disciplinary hearings on campus.

“Inside the administration building, we asked multiple times, ‘Why are we getting arrested?’ and they couldn’t give us a straight answer,” Iman said. “Even when we went inside the station, the police never directly clarified what we were there for. We didn’t know our charges until we got the summons, which was right as we were exiting.”

As they emerged, they were greeted with a round of applause and hugs by their supporters waiting outside. Iman and French expressed their gratitude for those who waited for them, saying that they were “in this as a community … we’re all here for each other.”

Gatteau’s statement arrived four hours after the arrests. Gatteau said that it was “necessary for the university police to arrest nine demonstrators,” and that Stony Brook values the right to free speech. In a statement to The Press, Stony Brook University officials wrote, “All individuals were charged with disorderly conduct, which is a violation under the New York State Penal law and all arrests were processed in the normal manner; which includes consultation with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.” 

SB4Palestine made a statement via Instagram alleging that Miranda rights were not read to demonstrators, which is corroborated by recordings of the arrests and eyewitness accounts. In their statement to The Press, university officials addressed this concern, writing, “Miranda warnings are only required when police officers are questioning someone related to a criminal investigation or arrest.”

Both statements from the university named a deviation from an agreed-upon route that the organizers had determined in coordination with the university as a contributing factor to the arrests. Iman confirmed that protest organizers were required to meet with administrators to discuss routes and expected attendance for a protest. The only deviation that was made from this plan was entering the administration building.

Demonstrators protest near the Staller Steps. Photo by Daniela Escobar.

The arrests have not slowed the momentum of the protesters’ movement. The next day, a faculty-led demonstration in support of Stony Brook students’ right to protest was hosted at the Administration Building. The protesters once again entered the building to conduct a sit-in, this time with faculty. Pro-Palestine protesters are planning to return to the Administration Building on April 3 for another demonstration. They are once again accusing the university of funding Israel and calling for a divestment.

When asked how the arrest will affect his personal life and future, French redirected the spotlight to the movement as a whole. He and the other protesters do not see themselves or their arrests as an important story to tell.

“This is not about us,” French said.” This is solely about Palestine. And that’s what we need to focus on. And we’ll continue to do this [protest], regardless of what happens to us, regardless of the implications it has for our professional careers, regardless of the time it takes away from our personal lives. We will continue to invest our time in this because preventing a genocide, stopping the murder and starvation of Palestinians is what we care about.”

Sydney Corwin contributed reporting.

Comments are closed.