As the leaves fell softly on the lawn yesterday, hundreds of students collected in front of the Rotunda bearing signs and flags. Word of a university walkout—orchestrated by fifteen different student organizations in protest of “the siege on Gaza”—had been swirling around Grounds the last couple of days via social media, word of mouth, and flyers tacked to the pillars of multiple buildings. Approaching the crowd, some observers stood under the shade of pavilions, deciding not to participate, but the increasing group of protestors was the most noticeable. Many wore coverings: disposable COVID masks or head scarfs that concealed their identities, and at 12:30, a student took the steps and began chanting to the crowd, with a thunderous response of shouts and pumped fists.
Within moments, a handful of Jewish students made their way through the masses, gripping the flag of Israel in their hands and climbing to the top of the Rotunda steps. It didn’t take long for two Palestinian flags to appear alongside them, with the bearers of one such flag attempting to block any view of the blue and white Star of David. Amidst the continuing chants and sign waving, what followed was a struggle between the two groups over whose flag would be seen. The Jewish students would move their flag upward slightly only for the supporters of Palestine to grow closer to them and raise their flag higher in response, chanting directly in the face of counter-protestors instead of with the crowd. The Jewish students would shift right then left, trying to find an opening with the protestors following their every step. At one point, the Palestine supporters even attempted to pull down the banner of Israel but were unsuccessful. This charade continued until the entire crowd seemed to turn their attention to the Israeli flag toters, shouting “This is our space,” as two more protesters wedged themselves between the opposing flags and, with hands outstretched, moved closer to the counter-protestors without any physical contact, forcing them farther up the steps away from the event.
When this concluded, the crowd turned outward and cried, “This is our space!” to the entire university as they formed a line and began marching toward Old Cabell Hall. The line snaked down the Lawn and curved rightward in the direction of the amphitheater. Flags continued to wave on the horizon, and chants echoed off of Garret Hall, condemning United States colonization, UVA financial support from weapons manufacturers, and supporting anti-Israel, “Free Palestine” sentiments. Hooking around the West Range, they marched until returning once more to the Rotunda.
A similar scene re-emerged, with call and repeat chants thundering quite loudly on the marble entrance to Mr. Jefferson’s historic dome. The Jewish students and their flag returned, and white printouts were passed to the group. I was not given one of these printouts but observed that they were patterned in QR codes that led to university email addresses, likely those of administrators or professors, with the hope of having them acknowledge the demonstration.
Once more, the few Jewish counter-protestors were met with opposition. A splinter of the main crowd broke off and approached them, shaming them for their presence and pointing angrily. Some words were returned by the pro-Israel students about their opinions, to which numerous cries of “f*ck you!” and “shut the f*ck up!” erupted from this smaller faction of masked protestors.
About an hour had passed until some final chants of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” sounded, and the crowd began to disperse into the autumn afternoon. Before long, the leaves tumbled downward softly once again and the uproar drew into silence. All that remained were a few wayward posters and a couple of whispered conversations from observers in the shade.
While the demonstration consisted of hundreds of students, there was a noticeable collection of adults among them as well. Speaking to some students on the periphery, I was surprised to hear that some had been told by their instructors to attend and that their class discussions had ended early in solidarity with the walkout.
The night prior, a letter from the provost’s office was sent to university department chairs which was to be relayed to faculty. It stated:
“[…] while the university is aware that a number of student organizations are planning a walkout at 12:30 tomorrow, we are not canceling classes and expect that instruction will continue as scheduled.”
Despite this direction some instructors decided not to listen— one of these instructors, Mack Gregg of the English department, who, as I was told by two students who wished to remain anonymous, ended class at 12:30 and urged them to attend the walkout demonstration. I reached out to Gregg for a comment but have yet to receive a response.
Tension continues to rage across UVA over the Israel-Hamas War. This afternoon’s demonstration exposed the bitter divide amongst the student body, but while protestors occasionally used aggressive tactics in expressing their stance, they never used more than words. Even so, questions still linger about the entire situation. Should faculty and their staff be allowed to encourage a protest against the instruction of the administration? Should there be a university comment on the rising number of student demonstrations? And will unrest continue to grow, or will it one day fade away?
Only time will tell, but, for now, it has decidedly remained silent.