Drexel Students Set Up Palestine Encampment, Call for Divestment From Israel

Philadelphia, PA — Students at Drexel University established an encampment in support of divesting from Israel on May 18, following a rainy Nakba Day commemoration march from Center City that started around 4 p.m. Philadelphia and Drexel police officers quickly surrounded the encampment with a ring of metal barricades and largely barred additional people from entering; this was apparently at the orders of Drexel’s campus police chief.

There was a brief struggle over the metal barricade components, and at one point an officer brandished a Taser at the crowd but was pulled back by another, shortly after our reporters got onsite. As of late Monday the encampment was still in place.

Our livestream from inside the barricade ring ran for almost 3 1/2 hours until shortly before midnight Saturday (YouTube). The night before, nearly 20 demonstrators were arrested just blocks away at the UPenn campus which we also streamed live. Students and other observers we interviewed discussed everything from Philly’s protest culture and law enforcement practices to the Samidoun Prisoner’s Solidarity Network. Full livestream:

In a tense confrontation at the beginning of the stream, Philly officers in riot gear wearing “Counter-Terrorism Operations” badges briefly assembled inside the perimeter but withdrew.

A protest sign on Saturday night.

In interviews on-site students said that they were pushing to get Drexel to pull its investments from BlackRock, which does business with Israel, as well as other divestments. They also said that Drexel administrators have claimed it is illegal to disclose specific investments, but this is apparently not illegal at all. The Drexel Palestine Coalition has a list of demands posted online.

Tents late Saturday night.

Drexel announced that it would switch to online learning for Monday.

During late Saturday night, police were largely a static presence while dozens of students milled just outside the perimeter discussing politics and playing music. A lengthy know-your-rights training with Up Against the Law and National Lawyers Guild members also took place with most of the camp participants.

Camp supporters regularly handed supplies including stacks of pizza, large tent structures and medic supplies over the barricades without much interest from the police. A Unicorn Riot reporter stuck around until the morning as a police sweep seemed possible (UPenn’s encampment was cleared in an early morning maneuver).

While the encampments might seem like a typical exercise in campus politics it should be noted that these activities are regarded as a strategic threat to Israel because they could shift the intellectual climate in the United States, which is Israel’s main international patron. A series of articles by James Bamford in The Nation has shown that groups like the Israeli-American Council and Canary Mission are closely coordinating with Israeli government agencies to crush student protests in the United States by harassing protesters.

Plethora of Police Forces in West Philly since 1970s

Police from multiple units including Drexel and Philadelphia PD on milled around Saturday night southwest of the encampment.

After the shocking events at Kent State and Jackson State, in September 1970 President Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest, chaired by Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, dropped its report (418 page PDF). One result was the rise of campus police departments.

As the Penn Disorientation Guide outlines, police forces multiplied during the campus crackdowns of the 1970s, until today:

“If you walk west down Market St. from 30th St. Station, in 1.5 miles you pass through the jurisdictions of six police departments: Philadelphia, Amtrak, SEPTA, Penn, Drexel, and Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).”

A Brief and Violent History of Campus Policing, 2023

Campus police in this side of the city (Drexel & UPenn) have demarcated “patrol zones” which extend into the city.

Cover sheet for Nixon’s 1970 Campus Unrest report (large PDF)

Related: UPenn Students Arrested at Palestine Demo After Building Occupation Attempt [May 18, 2024]

Philadelphia Police Department in with “Counter-Terrorism” badges and riot gear earlier on Saturday night.

Social media clips and camera operation in latter sections of the livestream by Chris Schiano.

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