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Passions flare during UC Regents meeting, pro-Palestinian protesters escorted out of gathering

More than a hundred protesters held up signs while speakers lead a rally at University of California, Merced, on Wednesday, May 1.
Rachel Livinal
More than a hundred protesters held up signs while speakers lead a rally at University of California, Merced, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

MERCED, Calif. — An encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters on UC Merced’s campus grew substantially in numbers Wednesday – and with it, the level of passion exhibited by demonstrators also expanded.

During the afternoon session of the UC Board of Regents’ Academic and Student Affairs Committee, a group of the protesters were escorted out of the auditorium after they began yelling during the meeting.

“We have tried to wait our turn, but you have not listened to our voices … You are complicit in genocide!” one protester yelled out during a presentation by H. Rao Unava, dean of the UC Davis School of Management.

Regent Lark Park issued an initial warning, saying if the disruption continued, law enforcement would be forced to clear the auditorium. More protesters began to speak out, and Park ordered the officers to “clear the room.”

More supporters join encampment

Wednesday events come as strike was authorized by the union representing 48,000 UC graduate students and other academic workers in response to crackdowns on pro-Palestine protests on campuses.

Located near a small lake in the center of campus, the encampment swelled to well over 100 protesters by Wednesday afternoon. When the camp was first assembled Sunday, those numbers were around a dozen.

Wednesday was the second of a three-day meeting by the Board of Regents at UC Merced. The meeting is scheduled to conclude Thursday.

Although the protesters have a list of demands for the Board of Regents, one is repeated often: calling for the 10-campus system to divest financially from Israel and companies that support the war in the Gaza Strip. According to the UC’s chief investment officer, the system has investments in weapons manufacturers – targeted by students protesting the Israel-Hamas war – and a wide array of other companies totaling about $32 billion.

Students are also calling for an immediate ceasefire in the war.

The UC Merced students were joined at the encampment throughout the day by protesters from other UC campuses, plus members of different advocacy groups. “We thought if they're going to try to go to Merced, we’re going to follow them,” said Rami Abdelkarim, a member of the Bay Area chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement.

Abdelkarim said Wednesday was also important because it marked a day in history for Palestinians called The Nakba. According to the United Nations, The Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Abdelkarim said his own grandparents were caught up in the displacement. “It really has shaped my positionality as a person knowing that I could very well be someone who was born in the West Bank, born in occupied Palestine, or even born in Gaza,” he said.

“That's part of the reason why I’m so involved in the movement across the U.S. and the student movement here across the UCs who are demanding that their tuition dollars (and) our tax dollars stop going towards weapons manufacturers.”

Students from other campuses came out to support, as did other community groups in the Merced community.

Diego and Rabecca Espinoza from AFSCME Local 3229 from Merced were among those present and the encampment Wednesday. They said it was important to support amplifying students’ voices.

Back in March, AFSCME’s International Executive Board unanimously passed a resolution calling the conflict in Gaza a humanitarian disaster and tragedy.

“For me as a veteran, I don’t support this war at all and I don’t think we should be part of it,” said Diego, 30, who works as a cook assistant at UC Merced.

“A ceasefire is the right thing to do. If we need to stay out here and do what we’re doing, then it’s what we have to do to get our voices heard and be recognized and actually do something about it. I can’t stand around and not do anything anymore.”

Those who came to the encampment set up food and tents for the growing number of supporters. The day was marked with a rally, musical performances and banner-making.

At Tuesday’s regents meeting, UC chief investment officer Jagdeep Singh Baccher disclosed the university system has billions in investments that protest. He went on to say the university would have to divest $32 billion in order to meet the students' demands, The Daily Bruin reported.

Public comment talks of policing at other UCs

Students started Wednesday morning by chanting and holding up picket signs for their cause.
Rachel Livinal
Students hold picket signs during a protest against the war in Gaza at University of California, Merced, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Policing was the main topic of those who participated during public comment portion of the regents meeting.

Dee Statum, who attends UC Irvine, held up a photograph of students being restrained by police officers.

“This is really unfortunate, and I am scared for the UC system, especially future students who are attending,” Statum told regents. “I really, really hope that the board steps in and gives amnesty to the students who are protesting. I really hope that the board is here to support students and to also hear students.”

UC President Michael Drake acknowledged the growing tensions during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The university has not wavered from its commitment to free speech during all of these events, but we must be responsive when protests become destructive or violent,” Drake said.

Drake said the situation of what's happened over the past weeks at UC campuses is more complex than anything the system has confronted in generations because different groups are at conflict with each other.

"While I am deeply saddened by some of what we've all seen unfold on campuses these last several weeks and months, we understand that this in many ways is part of what all of our campuses across the country are seeing,” Drake said.

Drake said the UC has engaged a nationally-recognised consultant with expertise in policing reform and helping education institutions enhance community safety to lead an independent investigation into what happened at UC campuses.

UC Merced officials have said they do not plan on actively dispersing the encampment, as long as it remains peaceful.

Some students have alleged the police presence at UC Merced had grown Wednesday. Sam Yniguez, UC Merced spokesperson, said the university’s police presence has been consistent with other campuses that have had regents meetings.

“This is our first, so we work in collaboration with other UCs that have held the regents meeting,” Yniguez said. “These measures were actually set several weeks ago.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.