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At the student protest at UPenn, passions are clear and dialogue is lacking


By Shimon Prokupecz, Evelio Contreras and Rachel Clarke, CNN

Philadelphia (CNN) — The chants, banners and tents announce the presence of the student protest camp at the University of Pennsylvania from several blocks away.

Unlike other colleges witnessing demonstrations around the Israel-Hamas war, UPenn’s campus is open and accessible to all.

Visitors may approach the encampment that’s grown under the new leaves of the trees on College Green in recent days, but that does not mean they are welcome.

“Don’t talk to him,” a person advised passersby on Monday, whether they are connecting with a reporter or a lone counter protester. “Don’t engage.”

There is little, if any, spirit here of trying to change hearts or minds.

Inside the barriers

“There’s been a lot of harassment, like doxxing,” said Sarah, a designated media liaison representative for the protesters, as she explained why she does not want to give her last name for fear her private information would be found and spread online.

As for the motives of the protest in the park, she said: “We like to center ourselves in this space and that centering comes with solidarity with the people who are being innocently killed in Gaza.”

Sarah, who said she’s a UPenn senior, wore a Star of David necklace over her T-shirt and linked her Jewish faith to her action. “My Jewish values tell me that innocent people being killed in my name is something that I want to fight against.”

Getting Penn to divest from Israel and weapons manufacturers – that is, selling all investments linked to these sectors and stopping any university work supporting them – is a key demand of the protesters in the encampment as on campuses nationwide.

Sarah acknowledged they have to start with more information. “Our first demand is about disclosure. So it’s disclose the investments in the endowment because Penn actually does not release them. We do realize they’re probably invested in weapons manufacturing, and we’d like to know exactly where.”

She pointed to the university’s Pennovation Works program and its support for Ghost Robotics, which has produced robot dogs for the US Air Force and Department of Homeland Security and, through a partnership, to Israel’s forces. “A way to start,” she said, “is to divest from that project and no longer fund it.”

Less than five minutes into the interview, she said she had to go.

No one else inside the barriers seemed willing to talk. Some told CNN, “You’re not for the cause.” On the pathway outside, a man wearing a fluorescent safety vest, balaclava and a traditional black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf wanted to pose questions, not answer them.

“What’s your personal definition and the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist, what’s the definition?” he demanded of a reporter while declining to give his own views of the situation in the Middle East.

A 19-year-old who was not part of the encampment did speak to CNN.

When asked if Israel had a right to defend itself, Sultan Smalley countered with: “I think that October 7 wouldn’t have happened in the first place if Palestinians weren’t living in an open-air prison. That doesn’t mean that it was OK, but it means that there was an issue that was ongoing and nobody was addressing and it was going to be inevitable, regardless, because you can’t just oppress a group of people for 75 years and think they’re never going to do anything back.”

On some campuses, protests that may have started out as opposition to Israel’s military action or support for civilians in Gaza have also seen outbursts of antisemitism.

But Smalley, a student from the nearby Community College of Philadelphia, said many of the protests he’d been to had Jewish organizers.

“I think that that’s awesome because there’s been a history of Black and Jewish solidarity in activism. And I feel I’m continuing that legacy by joining a lot of awesome Jewish people and protesting this genocide. I don’t see that as antisemitic.”

Silencing a lone counter protester

The person who was most obviously ready to engage in conversation was not a student but a man standing next to the barriers waving an Israeli flag.

He said he was not Israeli or Jewish, but a Christian who believed the God of the Old Testament followed by Jews was also his God, the father of Jesus Christ.

“I think Israel does wrong, but not all the time,” he told one of the student organizers who questioned him holding Israel’s flag.

Students recognized him from earlier protests on College Green, also known as Blanche P. Levy Park, across the Schuykill River from the business heart of Philadelphia and tourist hotspots like Independence Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its “Rocky Steps.”

Young people on the other side of the barrier held up a tarp to block him from the students inside the encampment.

Another took out chalk, drawing a circle around him they them labeled as the “Designated Dingus Area.”

“At least I get this,” the counter protester said of the circle, “because if what I’m saying was being said in Gaza, I wouldn’t even have this … At least you support a little bit of freedom here.”

He told CNN he thought some of the students had picked up and repeated chants from the protests without being fully aware of what they meant.

“When they chant ‘From the river to the sea,’ they’re talking about they want all of it, they don’t want a two-state solution, unfortunately,” he said.

An older man who said he was from an Arab village inside Israel told the pro-Israel demonstrator that was wrong, that the meaning of ‘From the River to the Sea’ was for everyone living in the area to have freedom and the same opportunities as each other.

But as the two men tried to win concessions from each other, a marshal encouraged the older man to walk away.

A second tarp was held up as a barrier between the Israeli flag and the student encampment. A bearded man started playing tambourine right in front of the protester, apparently to drown him out. “I’m just playing music,” he said when asked why he picked that spot. “Can you please walk away?”

An administrator from the school came and asked the man with the flag and the student-led protesters to keep their distance.

Hate on display

As the sun began to set, the energy seemed to ramp up inside the encampment. Chanting, clapping, drums and percussion drowned everything out around the statue of Benjamin Franklin.

As joggers and dog walkers made their way through the park, one woman behind the barrier was waving a bright red flag with a white insignia: the banner of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the groups blamed for the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda, and other attacks. It is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the European Union.

“I’m not talking to media,” she told CNN. Another protester came forward, physically blocking the way as the first woman left.  Others came out from behind the barriers and tried to cover the camera. Asked if they were OK with someone carrying the flag of a terrorist organization, one student responded, “We don’t engage,” and everyone walked away.

That evening, the Muslim call to prayer was sung through loudspeakers and two men led chants on a microphone. “We just got more energy than other people,” one says after he approached CNN to see what pictures were taken.

Neither of the men was a student at Penn, he said, before deflecting and saying he could be and could be not – that was only a question for the police.

As the protesters moved away, one said, “They’re not on our side.”

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