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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Students allege police aggression at Nov. 17 protest for Palestine

Following protest, 18 students receive disciplinary violations, one loses study abroad privileges.


Protesters assemble outside Ballou Hall on Nov. 17, 2023.

Student demonstrators held a protest at Ballou Hall in support of Palestine on Nov. 17, 2023, demanding that Tufts end its ties to Israeli institutions and denounce Israel’s assault on Gaza. In the weeks following the protest, 18 students received disciplinary violations, one student had their study abroad privileges revoked and Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine publicly alleged on Instagram that Tufts University Police Department officers had engaged in physical and verbal harassment against students.

In a month-long investigation, the Daily interviewed student protesters, solicited statements from TUPD and reviewed video evidence and eyewitness accounts in an effort to understand what exactly happened during the demonstration. The Daily corroborated many of the protesters’ claims that officers used physical force and verbal intimidation in a way that made students feel unsafe.

Student protesters whom the Daily interviewed requested anonymity due to fears of university retaliation.

“A really bad, bad experience”: Student demonstrators recount the protest

Protesters arrived at Ballou at approximately 7:00 a.m. on Nov. 17. They proceeded to gather at the front, side and back entrances of the building, blocking the doors, which is a violation of Tufts policy. Approximately 50 students were in attendance, holding up signs, participating in chants and forming picket lines. Also at the scene were legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild, trained volunteers who monitor police officers’ behavior at protests. The legal observers were dismissed by officers at around 8:30 a.m. after being told that they could not be on Tufts’ campus because it was private property.

According to protesters, interactions between protesters and the TUPD officers at the scene quickly grew tense. Videos reviewed by the Daily show several officers threatening protesters with the possibility of being arrested. In one video publicly posted on SJP’s Instagram, a TUPD officer physically presses up against a student and demands, “What would you like to be arrested for: assaulting an officer or resisting?” 

All footage from Nov. 17 courtesy tufts SJP.

In another video obtained by the Daily, officers threaten to arrest and charge students blocking the door with “felony kidnapping,” claiming that they were “holding people hostage inside of the building.” The Daily reviewed videos in which protesters repeatedly tell officers that they will let people out of the building. According to Tufts’ Chief of Police Yolanda Smith, no students were ultimately arrested or charged with a crime following the protest.

At around 9:15 a.m., officers called in maintenance staff to set up a barricade around the front and side entrances. Smith said that this was meant to limit the number of students blocking the doors.

They got increasingly aggressive,” one protester recounted. “They put up these barriers and they’re like, ‘nobody can cross the barriers.’ They’re filming all of us, getting all in our faces.”

Protesters sitting in front of the doors were sectioned off inside the barricaded area, while a crowd of students remained outside.

Several protesters whom the Daily interviewed also claimed that officers repeatedly stated that there was a “medical emergency” inside of Ballou, despite no ambulances or medical response ever arriving at the scene. In a statement to the Daily, Smith claimed, “We have no information suggesting that officers said there was a medical emergency inside Ballou.”

An officer pushes his knee into the backs of students.

Protesters also allege that officers engaged in excessive physical aggression against students. In one video posted publicly on SJP’s Instagram, an officer repeatedly pushes his knee into the backs of two students sitting in front of the door, attempting to break them apart. According to one protester, “[The students] had to switch at some point because the kicking had gotten so bad that one of the protesters couldn’t take it anymore.”

“The scariest part was being threatened with a felony and … just having the cop physically assault and put their hands on us and try to rip our hands apart and step over us and dig their knee into our backs,” another protester recounted.

“I think generally they were not afraid to touch students,” another protester said. “They were not afraid to use their bodies to prevent people from violating what they’ve set up as a boundary.”

Protesters allege that one officer pinched the abdomen of a student attempting to join the protesters within the barricade. The Daily was unable to independently verify this claim.

When shown the publicly posted videos, Smith did not directly address the specific actions of officers depicted in the recording. In her statement, Smith wrote, “What has been provided to you was a snippet of a very long event.” Smith explained that officers are allowed to physically engage with individuals if other deescalation measures such as verbal persuasion, warnings and orders do not resolve an incident.

“All TUPD officers are properly trained and certified regarding the use of force, which includes but is not limited to de-escalation tactics, responding to mass gatherings, and lawful use of force techniques,” Smith wrote.

An officer forcefully attempts to break two students apart.
Officers film protesters up close.

The Daily reviewed notes from the legal observers which affirm several of the protesters’ claims, including officers threatening to charge students with felony kidnapping and acting aggressively toward protesters. Protesters claim that officers toned down their behavior once tour groups arrived in the area. The protest ended at around 12 p.m.

“The entire event was extremely, extremely traumatizing to a lot of students. A lot of people laugh it off, … but I think to me … it’s just so icky,” a student medic at the protest said. “It’s crazy that people don’t know about how horrible the protest was. It was just a really bad, bad experience for everyone.”

Protesters receive disciplinary violations; some stripped of study abroad privileges

As a result of their participation in the protest, 18 students were charged with disciplinary violations for violating four policies on Tufts’ Student Code of Conduct: Section IV (J), “gatherings, protests, and demonstrations”; Section IV (G), “failure to comply with a University official”; Section IV (D), “disorderly conduct policy”; and Section IV (E), “disruption or obstruction of community activity policy.” Disciplinary violations are handled by the Office of Community Standards and are addressed through the Student Conduct Resolution Process, which can result in sanctions ranging in severity from a warning to expulsion from Tufts.

Junior Grace Borbon had their study abroad revoked after being found responsible for the four disciplinary violations and being identified as one of the individuals blocking the entrance to Ballou. As a result, Borbon was placed on disciplinary probation, which made them ineligible to study abroad. According to Borbon, TUPD was able to determine that they were at the Nov. 17 protest after an officer recognized them at a later protest and identified them using campus security footage. Borbon, who had planned to study abroad in Madrid, is now taking a gap semester.

“Students on campus should know how violent these cops are, and how they are being watched all the time and are constantly under surveillance,” Borbon said. “It was definitely something that all of us had theoretical knowledge of, but maybe not necessarily in practice.”

Issac Leib, a junior who attended the protest, had already been put on probation and stripped of his study abroad privileges prior to Nov. 17 due to disciplinary violations he received from previous pro-Palestine protests. According to Leib, TUPD identified him at these previous demonstrations by using security camera footage and tracking his swipes into dining halls. The disciplinary violations that he received on Nov. 17 extended his probation period. 

“It’s been pretty rough. There’s a ton of people at Tufts, students and faculty, who were super supportive,” Leib said. “But the systems that are in place are so anti-student, it feels like.”

Leib, who had planned to study abroad in Ghana, is currently on a leave of absence.

“If I had wanted to, I live in Somerville, so I could have just signed up for classes and commuted. But I just could not stop thinking about how if I was someone who was not from the area and had been subletting for a semester and then had these plans …  fall through, … [I couldn’t] just come back to school without housing and take classes,” Leib said. “What is that person supposed to do? There’s just no support at all from the school as to how to navigate what to even do if you’ve been withdrawn from study abroad.”

TUPD responds to protesters’ claims

The Daily reached out to TUPD for its response to the events of Nov. 17.

“On Nov. 17, a group of demonstrators gathered outside Ballou Hall without notice, blocking all entrances and exits, preventing people from entering the building as they arrived to work and prohibiting those already in the building from exiting,” TUPD Chief of Police Yolanda Smith wrote. “This is a clear violation of university policy. TUPD asked demonstrators repeatedly to step away from the doors to allow people in and out. The demonstrators refused. Several demonstrators were asked to produce student IDs, as required by the student code of conduct. Most refused. And most demonstrators disguised their appearances with masks, refusing to identify themselves.”

In her statement, Smith emphasized that both the university and TUPD support students’ right to protest but expect students to follow university policies that exist to preserve public safety. She explained that TUPD “routinely works closely with student groups and its colleagues in [the Dean of Students Office] to ensure that students are able to demonstrate safely.” According to Smith, the protesters who blocked Ballou in November did not coordinate their actions with TUPD or Tufts Student Life. 

Regarding the disciplinary violations that students received, Smith wrote that the proceedings “might have been avoided had students complied with requests to avoid blocking the building.” According to TUPD, no formal complaints of police misconduct have been filed in the months since the protest occurred.

Since November, student activism for Palestine has not abated. While shaken by their experiences on Nov. 17, students continue to pressure the administration to cut ties with Israel. In response to the administration’s rejection of Tufts Community Union Senate resolutions for divestment, students rallied outside Barnum Hall on Tuesday.