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On Nov. 9, police arrested 26 UChicago United for Palestine student protestors and two faculty observers inside the lobby of the university’s admissions office. As cops led us out of the building one by one, we chanted, “Do you know what you’re protecting? We’re asking for a f-cking meeting!” 

And that is the question: what is the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) protecting? What is so important to the University of Chicago administration that they ordered the majority of the UCPD to mobilize and forcibly remove peaceful student protestors rather than sit down with us in a public meeting? The answer lies in their investments—both locally in Hyde Park and globally in weapons contractors—that facilitate the displacement and death of people from Chicago to Palestine. UChicago’s properties and investments today emerge from, and perpetuate, the University’s longstanding entanglements in violent enforcement of racist policies, settler colonialism, and ultimately genocide. We view these investments as inextricably interconnected. And we see these investments as what the university seeks to protect above all else–not education, and not its students nor the greater community.

The UCPD protects the administration’s aggressive acquisition of property – whether it’s land locally, or its investments in apartheid and genocide globally. The university protects its property through policing at the expense of its students, of the local community, and of people of color. And, it justifies this violent ‘protecting’ with discourses of ‘free speech’ that disavow its fundamental non-neutrality. 

When it comes to Israel, UChicago’s investments are both intellectual and economic. Groups on campus have long questioned why the University hosts the Israel Institute, which funded six faculty to teach courses on campus last year. Although the Institute presents itself as a nonpartisan organization, it is clear that it is invested in the Israeli military regime. Meir Elran, a former brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), has been a fellow of the Institute on UChicago’s campus since 2018. He has deep connections to the IDF, from consulting for security departments in Israel to working on military intelligence. During the First Palestinian Intifada of 1987 to 1993, he served as deputy director of military intelligence. The IDF responded to the First Intifada with suppression and employed a slogan of “force, might and beatings,” where they broke the bones of Palestinian protestors and closed access to all education in the West Bank. Elran teaches classes at UChicago about “counter-terrorism,” and his syllabus focused heavily on the death of Israelis during the First Intifada, while ignoring that almost seven times as many Palestinians were killed due to “counter-terrorism” strategies. He taught another class in Fall quarter 2023 as well.

With regards to finances, we know that despite the University’s lack of transparency around the budget, investigations have found that it currently has investments in multiple weapons manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, and RTX (formerly Raytheon)—all of which supply weapons to the Israeli government in its ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people. Boeing, for example, supplies the IDF with several weapons they regularly use against Palestinians to destroy homes and infrastructure; the company expedited the shipment of 1,800 GPS-guidance bomb kits to Israel a week after Oct. 7.

This is not a new practice of the University. Students have been fighting for divestment for decades. UChicago participates in displacement globally, investing in causes that are both illegal and deeply unjust. It received a failing grade from Amnesty International for not abiding by UN Principles to respect human rights, and a ‘0/40’ on the issue of transparency in investments. The University’s record includes investments in the apartheid government in South Africa in the 1980s, as well as the War on Darfur in Sudan in the 2000s. In both cases, students held protests calling for divestment. The University did not listen then, either.

In addition to funding Israel, the building of the UChicago campus has caused the displacement of Black Chicagoans, pushing Southsiders out of their homes and communities. Photos courtesy of UChicago United for Palestine.

Not only does the University invest in companies that provide the tools to displace and kill Palestinians, but it also spearheads the ongoing displacement of Black people from the South Side of Chicago in order to build its own campus. The University has always employed its armed police force to enforce and maintain its will, to violently enact racist policies of displacement and surveillance, and to suppress peaceful protest. 

In the 1930s and 40s, the University indirectly funded racially-restrictive covenants to push Black people out of Hyde Park, Washington Park and surrounding areas. After that was ruled unconstitutional, the University kicked off its urban renewal program, which led to the displacement of at least 4,000 families and the demolishing of 638 buildings. The UCPD was founded at this time, to serve and protect University property in Hyde Park. 

“Urban renewal” serves as a euphemism for displacement and racist policing, allowing the University to continue to perpetrate its racist policies. UCPD was then –and still continues to be – weaponized by the administration to surveil, harass, and brutally target Black residents of the South Side. So, when we ask the question “what are you protecting,” what is unearthed is a history of oppression – international and local – carried out by the University and executed by its private police force. 

When we at UChicago United for Palestine (UCUP), a diverse coalition of seven-plus student organizations, held our six-hour sit-in at the UChicago Admissions Office on Nov. 9, it was far from the first action we took in protest of the University’s investments in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Since Oct.16, we have held daily demonstrations on the UChicago main quad. We’ve chalked the pavement with statistics from the ongoing genocide, talked to our peers, sold baked goods to raise funds, and spread awareness about the University and United States’s complicity in the daily murder of Palestinians. 

UCUP mobilizes a growing number of students who find UChicago’s relationship with the Israeli occupation unbearable and unacceptable. Our coalition is led by students of color and made up of organizations that include Students for Justice in Palestine, UChicago Against Displacement, CareNotCops, UChicago Environmental Justice Task Force, Stand with Kashmir, the National Lawyers Guild at UChicago Law, and UChicago Democratic Socialists of America. In addition to the sit-in, we have held rallies on campus with hundreds of attendees. We also staged an hour-long blockade of administrative office building Levi Hall, which effectively disrupted business as usual by blocking admin workers from entering the building and forcing those inside to relocate elsewhere.

All of our efforts have sought the same simple demands: 1) a public meeting between UCUP and President Paul Alivisatos, Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen and Executive Director of the Office of International Affairs Nick Seamons; 2) transparency in investments; 3) full divestment from weapons contractors that arm Israeli genocide. 

At first, the administration responded to our demands by referring us to the Kalven Report, a free speech report produced by the University in 1967 and revered by the University to this day as an excuse for “neutrality.” Then, during our sit-in, the University stalled, telling us they were meeting to discuss our demands while continuing to escalate threats of removal or arrest. In the end, rather than responding to our demands, the administration—represented by the Deans on Call—authorized our arrest for “trespass to real property.” The Deans on Call, who are supposed to ensure that students receive “fair consideration” and serve as liaisons between the police and protestors, are intimately linked to the UCPD, sharing the same phone number. They are the administration’s front line deployed to silence protests and write reports that the university can use to take disciplinary action against its students. They have lied to and intimidated members of our coalition during the blockade by forcing certain students to show ID and taking pictures of them, while telling other students that it was not necessary to identify themselves. 

These experiences reflect a longer history of silencing students who not only call attention to UChicago’s racist and genocidal policies and investments, but also demand that the university do better and change its settler colonial status quo. It is blatantly hypocritical to see such a violent response to student voices at a University that prides itself as a staunch defender of ‘free speech.’ 

UChicago has historically had UCPD on-hand to silence such protest. UChicago’s actions at the November student sit-in echo another moment about a decade ago, when UCPD was authorized to violently suppress students protesting for a trauma center at the University of Chicago Hospital. Student activists, forming a coalition led by Black community organizations like STOP (Southside Together Organizing for Power) and FLY (Fearless Leading by the Youth), demanded that the hospital address the racial disparities in trauma care access by re-opening the adult trauma center. Protestors highlighted the distribution of University investments to other healthcare centers and projects while their protests often targeted University construction sites. The University’s response was to use UCPD to forcibly remove protestors, protect their property, and ban some of the non-student leaders from campus — until they finally approved a trauma center and now themselves celebrate this achievement.

Students gathered to protest outside the University of Chicago, demanding the disinvestment in Israel. Photos courtesy of UChicago United for Palestine.

The modus operandi of the University is to protect and develop its propertied interests, with the costs unevenly born by people of color. We have seen this play out again and again in the community right at home, through explicit and implicit anti-Black policies. Most recently, rent and property taxes in neighborhoods surrounding campus have increased drastically due to the incoming Obama Presidential Center, which is being built in Jackson Park after the University won a bid to build it on the South Side of Chicago. This has devastating consequences for people like Christiana Powell, whose mortgage for her home in Woodlawn increased from $800 to $3,500 in 2016, while taxes from the city also went up due to property value increase. Christiana, whose family was the second Black family in Hyde Park, has since been fighting her home’s foreclosure in various different courts. Even as organizations and individuals call on the University to provide funding for affordable housing in the South Side and pay reparations for its years of violent displacement of Black families, UChicago continues to remain characteristically silent and complicit.

The ties between UChicago’s support of displacement locally and globally reflect broader links between displacement at these different scales, and our coalition reflects the interconnectedness of struggles for liberation and against these systems of displacement.  Movements for Black liberation in the U.S. and for Palestinian liberation are interconnected, as are U.S. and Israeli systems of oppression, policing and surveillance. The links between U.S. and Israeli military operations run deep. In fact, police departments all across America, including the Chicago Police Department (CPD), train alongside and exchange tactics with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). 

Indeed, UCPD at UChicago, like policing histories elsewhere, has deep global and colonial roots. The University has historically propped up prominent figures in police history who developed racist techniques during the colonization of the Philippines, and then taught these in the University’s former police administration program. These same techniques, like pin-mapping, which is putting pins of crime in a map to identify hot-spots, persist today as the basis for more complex algorithms that ultimately are used to justify racist policing. The Palestinian struggle is therein intrinsically tied to the struggles against colonialism, racist policing, and the military and prison industrial complexes in the U.S in multiple ways. 

UChicago actively displaces South Side residents, invests in bombs, apartheid, and climate destruction, and even supported Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship in Chile, all while using the Kalven Report as a cover through which they claim “neutrality.” But neutrality discourse protects the oppressor, as shown by UChicago repeatedly taking devastating political stances, from its investments in apartheid regimes or in police enforcement of displacement. 

UChicago has an ethical imperative to take a stand against genocide and against racism. This is the ethical obligation of all institutions, one that cannot be abrogated. It’s an ethical imperative heightened by the need to repair the damage the University has inflicted on its community and the world. This obligation must and should supersede any University policy of “neutrality.” Even the University’s Kalven Report acknowledges this, saying: “In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the University may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.” This section was added specifically to address concerns about German universities under Hitler. Thus, UChicago violates its own policies by 1) not being neutral and, 2) proclaiming neutrality to avoid accountability or transparency regarding the University’s support for Israel’s genocide against Palestinians. 

It is clear that what the University is actually protecting is their property, their investments in genocide and their ability to silence dissent. Respecting free speech and communicating with students is just the beginning of what we are looking for. The rest of our demands are clear – a public meeting with University admin, transparency around investments and divestment from weapons companies. By meeting these demands, UChicago has the opportunity to be on the right side of history, for one of the first times in its history.

is a coalition of students at the University of Chicago committed to the liberation of Palestine. Joining the longstanding Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign, UCUP demands that UChicago be transparent in its investments, divest from all weapons manufacturers that supply the occupation of Palestine and the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and cut its ties with the Israel Institute on campus.