Rep. Tlaib joins pro-Palestinian activists at Wayne State as they brace for police crackdown

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronts Wayne State University police, telling them protesters "won't move." - Viola Klocko

Viola Klocko

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronts Wayne State University police, telling them protesters “won’t move.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib gathered with pro-Palestinian activists at Wayne State University on Memorial Day after school officials gave protesters until Monday evening to clear out a protest encampment.

As rumors circulated that police would raid the encampment early Tuesday morning, Tlaib and university activists braced for a confrontation with police.

Shortly after 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and the only Palestinian American in Congress, told a cop in a cruiser, “They won’t move! They won’t move!”

Meanwhile, the university canceled on-campus events and moved to remote classes as police in tactical gear staged at the edge of campus.

University officials told activists that WSU President Kimberly Andrews Espy would meet with them to discuss their demands if they cleared out the encampment.

Activists set up the encampment on Thursday and issued a list of demands, the most important of which called for the university to divest from companies with links to Israel.

Activists said they’re ready to meet, but on their terms.

“These students have every right to say, ‘Look, we’re ready to meet, but we’re not taking down the encampment until we have assurances that you are really going to open up a dialogue and be more transparent,” Tlaib told Metro Times at the encampment Monday evening. “I’m really disappointed that President Espy is so afraid to meet with her own student body. For someone that is new to campus, you would think she’d want to meet with her diverse community.”

As the deadline to move the encampment neared Monday evening, more than 200 activists gathered in peaceful resistance, some wearing goggles in case police sprayed tear gas. Some faculty, staff, and alumni also joined to show their support.

At dawn Tuesday, Wayne State Police SUVs lurked atop the Gullen Mall walkway, with some unmarked vehicles appearing briefly. A protester sat in front of one of the SUVs to block its path.

Police retreated and left the walkway.

As sunrise approached, students began marching in a picket formation around the encampment in anticipation of an imminent raid, chanting, “DPD, KKK, IOF, you’re all the same!”

At 5:30 a.m., Wayne State issued a notice that classes would be remote on Tuesday.

At this point, about 200 activists had gathered.

click to enlarge Protest encampment at Wayne State University. - Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling

Protest encampment at Wayne State University.

The raid never came, but activists say they received a copy of a leaked Detroit Police Department memo titled, “Mobilization of Mobile Field Force for Tuesday, May 28, 2024.” The memo read, “Members shall bring gasmasks, PR-24s, helmets, and any other assigned MFF equipment (shields, turtle gear, etc.).”

When word of the memo began to circulate, many activists began to prepare for a potential faceoff with police. At other universities, including the University of Michigan, police have resorted to violence to forcibly break up encampments.

click to enlarge One of many signs encircling the protest encampment at Wayne State University. - Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling

One of many signs encircling the protest encampment at Wayne State University.

Signs encircling the WSU encampment read, “The children won’t forget,” “Divest from Genocide,” “Fund Our Education Not Our Occupation,” and “Wayne State, break the chain. End the funding. End the pain.”

Students, faculty, and staff are still unsettled after campus police, some in plain clothes, converged on protesters at a WSU Board of Governors meeting on April 26 and pushed and yanked them out of the meeting room as they linked arms and continued to chant. They were calling on the board to divest from Israel-linked companies.

More than 100 faculty and staff members condemned the use of force.

Campus officials say the board plans to discuss the divestment demands at its next meeting in June.

Tlaib says activists are ready to meet.

“What’s really important to understand is that they’ve asked for a meeting with President Espy to specifically talk about divestment, and instead of doing that, she is giving them an ultimatum,” Tlaib says. “That’s not fair. This encampment came because you wouldn’t meet with them. You want them to trust you? You’re new. Welcome to Detroit. Welcome to this diverse, beautiful community that is asking you in good faith, ‘Sit down with us, listen to us, we’re the people you’re supposed to be serving.’”

Viola Klocko contributed to this report.

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