Pro-Palestinian encampment group refuses closed meeting with Wayne State leadership

In a move to protect students and faculty and perhaps de-escalate tensions, Wayne State University announced early Tuesday morning it was transitioning "to remote operations, effective immediately until further notice," to limit interaction with a campus encampment by a pro-Palestinian group.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, the relationship with protesters has become potentially strained, with Matt Lockwood, the university's associate vice president of communications, saying that there are increasing signs of uncertainty and characterizing the protest as a "fluid situation."

"There are some walkways that have been blocked that are around the encampment," Lockwood told the Free Press, adding that "the fire marshal has expressed some concerns about combustible materials that have accumulated," and "there are a small number of occupants that have challenged public safety."

The Detroit university, however, had no immediate plans to clear the encampment, he said.

Wayne State University vice president of government and community affairs Patrick Lindsey, left, speaks to representatives from the pro-Palestinian encampment at Wayne State University, asking them to meet with the board right now on May 28, 2024.
Wayne State University vice president of government and community affairs Patrick Lindsey, left, speaks to representatives from the pro-Palestinian encampment at Wayne State University, asking them to meet with the board right now on May 28, 2024.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Wayne State Vice President Patrick Lindsey approached the encampment on behalf of the Board of Governors requesting that two representatives from the encampment meet with President Kimberly Espy and the Board of Governors at that moment.

Encampment members declined a closed meeting, asking, instead, for an open discussion involving more members of the group.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, joined the protesters, and briefly spoke with Lindsey, requesting Espy and the board of governors reopen the campus.

"Open up the school," she urged. "(Classes don’t) have to be remote. Everyone is safe here."

U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib joins the conversation calling for the Wayne State University campus to be reopened, asking the crowd at the pro- Palestinian encampment if the campus was safe, after a representative from the Wayne State University board of directors approached them about meeting on May 28, 2024.
U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib joins the conversation calling for the Wayne State University campus to be reopened, asking the crowd at the pro- Palestinian encampment if the campus was safe, after a representative from the Wayne State University board of directors approached them about meeting on May 28, 2024.

And just before 5:30 p.m., the university released a statement that said it is "committed to free speech and the right to peacefully protest," but also noted that Espy has offered to "engage with students, while also emphasizing the need to dismantle the encampment."

Wayne State, an urban campus on about 200 acres with about 100 buildings, is Michigan's third-largest university with about 24,000 graduate and undergraduate students. It also has its own police force, who are sworn officers.

Lockwood estimated that he counted early Tuesday about 40 protesters, many of whom do not appear to be students, and about 20 tents. It is difficult to know who the protesters are, he said, because many of them are wearing masks.

Lockwood added that early Tuesday, he did not see a police presence in the area, and the university had no timetable for how long it would continue with remote operations — nor did the administration have expectations for how long the protesters would occupy the campus.

Wayne State Associate Professor Tim Moran, however, told the Free Press he, too, was on campus early Tuesday and saw a "very small public safety presence" that included two officers, two SUVs, and "private security in bright blue zip-up jackets."

The encampment, he said, was larger than he expected but "absolutely quiet" and there was no tension. Last night's rain, he added, left protesters "damp and uncomfortable;" the sidewalks were clear, and the campus appeared to be otherwise "largely deserted" except for some landscaping contractors and joggers.

The medic tent at the pro-Palestinian encampment at Wayne State University in Detroit between State Hall and the David Adamany Undergraduate library on Friday, May 24, 2024. “We are here together to perform a demonstration to demand a meeting with the Board of Governors and President Espy to discuss divestment from (the S&P 500) that includes war-manufacturing companies … who directly aid the Israeli occupation and genocide of people in Gaza,” said Zaynah Jadallah, a Wayne State University alum who returned to her alma mater to join the protests.

The university, which released its first statement Tuesday just before 5:30 a.m., said, "students will receive further information from their instructors regarding class arrangements via email or Canvas," and faculty and staff who can work remotely are "expected to do so." Canvas is an online course management system.

Those who cannot work remotely, the university said, should "contact their supervisors for further instructions, and all on-campus events were “canceled until further notice," although "critical infrastructure workers" were "expected to report to campus."

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up the encampment at Wayne State last week, adding to a growing list of U.S. college campuses that have seen similar protests in recent months, including the University of Michigan, where it was broken up by officials who called it a threat to public safety.

At most universities, the protests have been peaceful, but a few have resulted in violent clashes.

More: Police remove tent encampment at University of Michigan protesting Israel

In addition to Michigan, police nationwide have cleared encampments at the University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia in New York, where a police officer discharged a gun; but so far, there have been no fatal incidents like the 1970 bombing at the University of Wisconsin or 1970 National Guard shootings at Kent State University in Ohio.

Protesters at Wayne State began pitching tents and putting up protest signs between State Hall and the David Adamany Undergraduate Library about 7 p.m., last Thursday, while campus police watched, the Free Press reported last week.

The protesters told the Free Press that they planned to stay on campus until they were removed by police or the university met their demands, including divesting from funds and companies that support Israel. The university, for its part last week, called the encampment "an evolving situation."

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Encampment group declines closed meeting with Wayne State leadership