Posters, banners, and sleeping bags line the walls of Parrish Hall as students in support of Palestinian freedom, led by the Swarthmore Palestine Coalition (SPC), continue a now four-day sit-in. SPC — composed of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and 28 other member organizations — plans to continue the sit-in until the semester’s end; a culmination of two months of student protest calling for SJP-written demands.
These demands include a statement from President Valerie Smith condemning “Israeli aggression in the Gaza strip,” college divestment from companies funding Israel, and a boycott of Sabra and HP products which support the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). According to SJP, a petition with these demands and over 1000 signatures has been refused by the administration throughout November. The overnight sit-in averages 40 or more participants, according to SPC, and general meetings have had an attendance of 80 or more students, according to daily updates from Voices, a member organization of SPC.
Throughout the semester, SJP has held walk-outs, vigils, a die-in, and a protest at the Dining Center to push for their demands. Chalk messages have appeared at various locations like Magill Walk, Kohlberg, and Lang Music Building with messages including “Divest now,” “Free Palestine,” and “Stop funding genocide.” At protests, students have been heard chanting “The students united will never be defeated” and “Swarthmore, Swarthmore, you can’t hide; you support genocide.”
On Dec. 3, at least ten students received emails from Dean of Student Life Nathan Miller informing them that their participation in these protests have potentially violated the College’s Student Code of Conduct and would result in an “official warning and a directive to not engage in any further behaviors that would violate” the code. The email also announced an investigation into student actions following the school’s procedure.
In response to the written warnings, SJP published a post on Instagram including a screenshot of a 2018 tweet from the College directed toward prospective students about Swarthmore’s support of the “right to peaceful assembly” and that participation in nonviolent demonstrations wouldn’t negatively impact admissions. SJP argued the warnings and investigation contradict the values championed by the post on X, formerly known as Twitter, as well as the school’s Quaker roots.
In response to inquiry regarding the reasoning for these disciplinary warnings, Vice President of Communications Andy Hirsch clarified the college’s position.
“Protestors interrupted a small dinner of board and faculty members. The warning letters were planned prior to that event in response to several other violations of college policies. They were then updated to include the violations that took place that night.”
He further explained that steps were taken prior to the issuing of disciplinary warnings, such as verbal warnings. Hirsch said students unaffiliated with SJP or SPC received emails, including students who “tore down pro-Palestine flyers that were hung in accordance with our Banners, Chalkings, and Posters Policy.” SPC leaders questioned this and believe the warnings were selectively enforced towards students of color. The student organization Solidarity at Swarthmore said they did not receive written warnings for similar past protests.
“The institution participated in the racial profiling of students,” said a representative from SPC. “They are trying to [wrongly] discipline students who had no participation in any of the events that SJP and the Swarthmore Palestine Coalition have organized simply because they are students of color or have their hair or face covered.”
In an emailed statement to the entire school titled “Navigating Challenging Times as a Community,” President Smith acknowledged student sentiment that the right to protest was being censored and said that while the College respects the student’s right to advocate for beliefs, doing so must be in line with the school’s values of “peace, mutual respect, and inclusion.”
“Some of the behavior during the protests, such as the use of a bullhorn and drums in enclosed spaces and in close proximity to others, have caused emotional and physical harm on more than one occasion,” Smith wrote. “Whatever the intent of these actions, they result in intimidation, harassment, and discrimination. Those committing such actions are suppressing, if not silencing, members of our community based on their views and beliefs, which flies in the face of academic freedom and our core values.”
SPC said the “selective enforcement” of the Student Code of Conduct works to silence the student right to protest, and believes many of the written code violations are false accusations, such as that protestors caused physical harm.
“We cannot see how using a bullhorn simply to amplify the voices of the people who are speaking at demonstrations would physically harm an individual,” the SPC representative said. “We do understand as well that they claimed emotional harm. We do not understand how that could be accepted and established to discipline students because that is incredibly subjective, according to whoever is enforcing these rules.”
SJP felt Smith’s statement was evasive and lacking, particularly about Kinnan Abdalhamid, a Palestinian Haverford College student who was shot in Burlington, Vt., on Nov. 25 along with two other Palestinian students in what authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime. While Smith condemned the “heinous violence,” she did not name Abdalhamid or the two other students also shot in the attack.
“We believe that the lack of recognition of simply stating the name of Kinnan is to dehumanize him and neglect his pain and his struggle. This is a Tri-Co student who some of the students here have taken classes with, and are incredibly close friends with. He deserves to be named,” the SPC representative said. “His name deserves to be honored for the pain and the suffering that he has gone through, which is a direct result of the complacency of Swarthmore College and institutions like Swarthmore and their negligence of this Islamophobia, white supremacy, and racism that is rooted within the greater conflict that is happening in Palestine.”
As SJP continues the sit-in, they’ve held events in Parrish such as an Art Build hosted by the student-run Kitao Gallery, poem readings, and a teach-in about personal safety during protests. The central stairway and the main part of the second floor are wallpapered with posters of Palestinian victims from the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In bold letters, each photo has “MURDERED by Israel” printed across its front. Additionally, Palestinian flags and freedom slogans have been put up as students occupy the second level of the building.
Some professors have moved class meetings to Parrish Hall to support students wishing to protest there. However, on the evening of Dec. 5, Dean of Faculty Tomoko Sakomura sent an email to faculty urging them to follow guidelines that include providing an environment free from discrimination and not forcing students to make political choices. SPC believes class location shifts are not in violation of these guidelines because professors have been conferring with students before moving classes.
“It is not something that [professors] do without the consent of all of the students in their classes. Furthermore, the SPC provides support for the student and for these classes to be held,” the SPC representative said. “We are aware that some students might have disability accommodations, so when they come we are doing things like lowering the music and creating pathways for them to walk through. We are giving them an open and safe environment to host their classes and for the students to be most comfortable.”
In an interview with The Phoenix conducted during the first hours of the sit-in, an anonymous demonstrator who is not a member of SJP explained their reasons for attending and provided context for the demonstration’s exigence.
“The College is refusing to divest and refusing to give in to SJP’s demands, which have been raised not just since the Oct. 7 attacks, but have been [present] for years now,” they said.
Additionally, when asked about the goals of the sit-in, the demonstrator stated that “business as usual will not continue until the demands are met.”
Sit-ins have a history at Swarthmore College. In 1985, student activists called for divestment from companies involved with the apartheid state of South Africa. The students facilitated a multiple-day sit-in of the President’s office and interrupted a board meeting. In July of 1986, divestment began and full divestment was reached in 1990.
“[Swarthmore has] the financial and political means to do something about the injustice happening,” the unnamed demonstrator said. “Swarthmore, who claims to have these Quaker values of justice and equality, has the power to stand up against that and if they are not using that power, then they are complicit in the violence that is happening.”
As the sit-in continues, SPC plans to work with other schools across Philadelphia and the country to share ideas and resources. Swarthmore alumni and parents expressed support for SPC and Palestinian freedom through a separate petition, resources, and guidance. Additionally, they pledged to pause college donations until demands are met. The Coalition has also received some faculty support at protests, and believe that this support is important as a role model for student protesters.
According to Smith’s statement, the administration is “working to reach a peaceful resolution to this latest demonstration.” However, SPC has not heard directly from the administration about the sit-in and believe the only way a peaceful resolution can be reached is through communication. SPC said they are “indifferent” to this statement because they are not happy with the content and wording, but see the statement being released the day after a protest and the sit-in as a sign of progress.
“The [administration’s] attempt to prolong conversations and dialogue in order to put students in a position where they aren’t actually making any change is making the [administrators] comfortable,” the SPC representative said. “Actions like the sit-in and what you’re seeing today [protests] serve to put admin in an uncomfortable position because they simply do not deserve to be comfortable when the injustices around the world and within this institution are occurring. Putting them in a position of discomfort pushes them to accomplish the change that we want to see.”