Student expression from the Gaza solidarity encampment on the Advocacy and Spirit Walls leads to administrative tension

Student expression from the Gaza solidarity encampment on the Advocacy and Spirit Walls leads to administrative tension

Frequent focal points in campus activism at Case Western Reserve University are the Spirit and Advocacy Walls spacesdesigned for students to be able to express themselves and share upcoming events. Before the encampment, CWRU’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) received an interim suspension due to alleged violations of the Posting Policy, which included the alleged gluing of flyers on the Spirit Wall.

At 9:57 p.m. President Eric Kaler sent an email reiterating that the university will not concede to the protesters’ demand for divestment. While he acknowledged the importance of student expression, he also stated, “It is never acceptable, however, to protest with signs, chants or other actions that are intimidating to members of our campus community,” which he claims have occurred in the encampment.

Recently, a group of protesters from the Gaza Solidarity Encampment walked to Eldred Hall’s Advocacy Wall and painted a Palestinian flag with the words “You can’t hide” in red letters with drips resembling blood. They also painted the phrase “Student Led Intifada.” The first statement, in the words of a student organizer, “is an obvious call to the administration that has refused to meet with leaders of any sort of pro-Palestinian advocacy or Students for Justice in Palestine.”

One student told The Observer that the painting “feels like a direct attack on the Jewish community.” They noted that the timing of the first statement comes during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. “And to be told ‘we can’t hide’ along with [mentioning the] Intifada … that’s chilling,” they said. An image of the wall was also posted by the Jewish on Campus Instagram page, an account with over 67,000 followers, with a caption calling attention to rising antisemitism on college campuses. The Advocacy Wall was later covered with tarp, which at least one individual removed, before it was painted over by sundown.

A student encampment organizer commented that they were “worried about the conflation of this organizingbeing led by people of color”immediately being assumed to call for violence, as we do know that the use of ‘intifada’ doesn’t necessarily have violent ties as it is also just an Arabic word representing ‘resistance.’” They also stress that organizers “are constantly being reassured by Jewish organizers and participants that what we are doing is not antisemitic.”

“We know that this wall is not necessarily close to some of the predominant walkways off of the Binary Walkway. So I don’t know if that was necessarily the most intentional choice other than red is just loud and bold,” they noted about the stylization of the letters.

Later that day, a much larger group from the encampment on KSL Oval painted all panels of the Spirit Wall. The painting included a Palestinian flag, handprints and tally marks representing the deaths in Gaza and the resistance fist with the words “Come together in peace.” The panel with the Israel-Hamas war death toll, painted days earlier, was updated.

According to the protesters, contractors were sent by CWRU to paint over the Spirit Wall late in the evening on May 6. However, they did not immediately begin repainting the wall.

At 5:30 a.m. on May 7, a video posted to SJP’s Instagram page shows students standing in front of the Spirit Wall hoping to stop the contractors from painting over their work. The video later shows the students being handed face protection by fellow protestors before getting sprayed with white paint by a contractor.

One of the protesters who was sprayed noted that they saw a graduate student standing next to the wall, and “he had no covering, no face mask, just a T-shirt, and they still continued to paint … I sat right on the wall with them … the painters continued to paint, I stood with them. I put on my face mask, and they painted over my body. I asked them to stop and they still continued to paint.”

In addition to the third-party contractors and protesters, there were also CWRU police officers present at the scene. Despite their presence, the protester commented that there was a lack of communication between the contractors, CWRU police officers and administration.

“We asked the cops if they were going to stop. The cops told us that [administration] told [the police officers] to be there … And then the painters were asking the police what to do, and the police didn’t know what to do. So [CWRU police officers] asked [administration], and [administration] wasn’t giving them a response. So basically, there was this circle of lack of information,” they said.

At 11:27 a.m. on May 7, Kaler sent out an email stating that the Advocacy Wall painted by the protesters displayed “threatening, intimidating and antisemitic” language. In comparison, he said that the language on the Spirit Wall “was less threatening but still intimidating.” Kaler also said that the university was investigating the incident of protesters covering the Spirit Wall being hit by paint.

That same day at 7:18 p.m., Kaler specifically addressed the spraying incident. In his email, he wrote, “This is not who we are as an institution, and I am deeply sorry this ever occurred” and that he was “disturbed by what occurred.”

The email ended with a promise that “The university will continue to fully investigate these actions and hold individuals responsible for this behavior, including the failure of our own officers to intervene.”

Hours after Kaler’s second email, the freshly painted Spirit Wall displayed a new message: “They call for 10/7 intifadaso we call them terrorists.” As of 1 a.m. on May 8, the writing on the Spirit Wall remains untouched.

In a larger context, the Spirit and Advocacy Walls can be seen as a microcosm of social movements both at CWRU and across the nation.

The Advocacy Wall is overseen by the Student Presidents’ Roundtable (SPR), and the Spirit Wall is managed by the Office of Student Activities and Leadership (SA&L). In managing the space, SA&L reserves the right to remove “offensive materials which serve no informational purpose.”

As for the Advocacy Wall, new rules are currently in the process of being updated by SPR. As a recent addition to the CWRU campus, the Advocacy Wall was created as a designated space for social and political expression.

This came as a response to an incident in 2020 when the Spirit Wall was painted with the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” which a student attempted to paint over. As a result, SPR created the aforementioned Advocacy Wall on Eldred Hall as a space distinct from the Spirit Wall where students can engage in meaningful discourse and advocacy over national and global issues.

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