Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Letter: Members of UMass History Department condemn police action towards protestors on May 7 and 8

Letter calls for dropping of charges and refraining from police involvement in future protests
Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Dear Chancellor Javier Reyes,

We are writing as History Department faculty, graduate students and staff to condemn the brutal police action you authorized against peacefully protesting University of Massachusetts faculty, students, staff and alumni on May 7 and 8. We urge you to:

  1. Cease and desist from calling law enforcement on any future peaceful protests.
  2. Call on the district attorney to drop all criminal and civil charges against the arrested protesters.
  3. Drop all student conduct charges against student protesters from this protest and the October 2023 protest.
  4. Drop all disciplinary charges and procedures against faculty and staff from this protest and the October 2023 protest.

Over 130 people were arrested, including three history professors, at least two history graduate students and a history alum. While the University claims the arrests are about the violation of the Land-Use Policy and had a designated non-arrest zone, the police later threatened to arrest anyone in the vicinity. Thus, it became impossible to peacefully protest without risking arrest. These arrests included tossing and tackling students, kneeling on their backs and using tasers. At least one student spent the night in the emergency room after their leg was broken. Additionally, the police arrested people clearly marked as medics and press, and then held protesters for hours while handcuffed with zip ties. We are horrified at seeing our students being chased and tackled by police on our own campus lawns.

These peaceful protesters had several demands, including disclosure and divestment by UMass from companies that are profiting from the conflict in Gaza and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and dropping all criminal, civil and conduct charges against students. While there can be legitimate differences of opinion about how to approach these demands or the larger Palestine-Israel conflict, UMass faculty, students and staff have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to peacefully assemble and assert their viewpoints.

There is a long history of student activism on campuses — including at UMass. For example, the Office of the President’s website writes proudly of UMass’s status as “one of the first universities to divest of holdings in apartheid South Africa” in the late 1970s, a divestment prompted by many student protests, rallies, teach-ins and sit-ins.

As recently pointed out by the American Historical Association, history shows us “that the use of force to suppress peaceful public protest at institutions of higher education endangers students, faculty and staff…. [and] escalates tensions rather than leading to constructive resolution of disputes.” The use of force in response to peaceful protests, even those containing messages we might disagree with, is counter to the free speech and academic freedom protected by the First Amendment which is necessary to a functioning democracy.

By authorizing police action against peaceful protesters, you have not only broken past precedent, as illustrated below, but also broken any sense of trust, safety and community UMass claims it wants to build on this campus. And despite claims that the actions of prior chancellors are irrelevant to how the current administration responds to protests, as historians, we know that the past matters both for community expectations and culture.

  • In 2023, students were allowed to construct an encampment on the University lawn to peacefully protest the housing crisis they face. UMass administration supported this effort.
  • In 2016, students led an eight-day protest demanding that UMass divest from direct holdings in fossil fuel industries. UMass President Marty Meehan supported and congratulated the students for their protest movement, noting that “[i]mportant societal change often begins on college campuses and it often begins with students.”
  • In 2011, “Occupy UMass” erected a tent city on the green outside of the library for over a week. Importantly, then Chancellor Robert Holub “said in an email to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian . . . that [the protesters] had asked him if they would be removed from the site through means of police brutality, to which he said they would ‘most assuredly not.’”

There is a better way to respond to student protests, as demonstrated by campuses around the country that resolved encampments without calling law enforcement, such as Brown University, Rutgers University, the University of Minnesota and Wesleyan University. We are outraged and deeply saddened that UMass administrators did not choose this path, and instead chose to call the police on non-violent protesters.

Therefore, we urge you to rethink your administration’s approach — respect peaceful protests, refrain from calling law enforcement and, most urgently, drop all criminal, civil and conduct charges against faculty, staff and students.


Faculty and Staff

Christian Appy, Professor and Director of the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy

Mohammad Ataie, Visiting Lecturer

Matthew Barlow, Visiting Online Faculty

Joyce A. Berkman, Professor Emerita

Anne F. Broadbridge, Professor and Chair

Brian D. Bunk, Senior Lecturer II

Richard Chu, Five College Professor of History

Sarah E. Cornell, Senior Lecturer

Patricia Ellsberg, peace activist

Jennifer Fronc, Professor

David Glassberg, Professor Emeritus

Emily Hamilton, Assistant Professor

Timothy C. Hart, Lecturer

Jennifer Heuer, Professor

John Higginson, Professor Emeritus

Elizabeth Jacob, Assistant Professor

Jess Johnson, Outreach and Community Engagement Director

Jason Moralee, Professor

Alice Nash, Associate Professor

Jennifer L. Nye, Senior Lecturer II

Stephen R. Platt, Professor

Samuel Redman, Professor

Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor

Heidi V. Scott, Associate Professor

Diana Sierra Becerra, Assistant Professor

Libby Sharrow, Associate Professor

Asheesh Kapur Siddique, Assistant Professor

Priyanka Srivastava, Associate Professor

Susan Ware, Senior Lecturer II

Mary Wilson, Professor Emerita

Joel Wolfe, Professor of History

Matthew Wormer, Assistant Professor

Kevin A. Young, Associate Professor


Graduate Students and Alumni

Madison Albano, MA candidate

Marwa Amer, PhD candidate

Erika Arthur, ‘12MA

Sheher Bano, PhD candidate

Marisa S. Budlong, ‘24MA

Justin Burch, PhD candidate

Jessica Antonia Casillas Scott, PhD candidate

Daniel Chard, ‘16PhD

Hee Yun Cheong, PhD candidate

Katlyn Durand, PhD candidate

Kimberly A. Enderle, PhD candidate

Kate Freedman, ’18PhD

Timothy Hastings, PhD candidate

Joanna Hejl, ’24MA

Clara Higgins, MA candidate

Ragini Jha, PhD candidate

Destiney Linker, ‘24PhD

Laura McCullagh, MA candidate

Jamie Mastrogiacomo, MA candidate

Shay Olmstead, ’24PhD

Gaye Ozpinar, PhD candidate

Elizabeth Pangburn, PhD candidate

María Portilla Moya, PhD candidate

Mark Roblee, ’19PhD

Alison Russell, PhD candidate

Casey Scarpati PhD candidate

Jaehee Seol, PhD candidate

Lauren Whitley-Haney, MA candidate

Emily Whitted, PhD candidate

Amelia Yeager, MA candidate

Other History Department members endorse this statement but wish to do so anonymously.

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