After several student-led protests since Donald Trump’s election, one march against student debt ended with two arrests, three people in handcuffs and, according to protesters, fear and concern among students.
The protests last week also drew sharp rebuke from Pitt’s administration on Friday, a stance some protesters took as disquieting.
The violence broke out during Thursday’s protest in Towers Lobby after protesters occupied the building as part of a demonstration against student debt. The protesters occupied Litchfield Towers lobby during the protest, singing and chanting, “You can’t stop the revolution.” Organizers of the protest stood on tables encouraging the more than 100 students at the occupation to take “back the spirit of the University” and “join us in waging this war.”
But as the students began to leave the lobby, the police detained a student, according to Raghav Sharma, a member of the Pittsburgh Student Solidarity Coalition, who helped to organize the march Thursday night. The detainment prompted the students to return to Towers, where police had blocked the main entrance with bicycles. The protesters entered through the side entrance of Tower B on Fifth Avenue, screaming, “Let him go, let him go.”
Amid screams of “get out” from police and “the whole world is watching” from students filming the scene, police took other protesters to the ground, forcefully pushed them out of the building and wielded batons at the marchers.
The whole encounter, Sharma said, lasted only three to five minutes. In a video filmed during the protest, two police officers can be seen grabbing a female student by the neck and pushing her to the ground.
Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner responded to the events of Thursday night the next day with both a reminder that Pitt encourages students’ right to organize and a warning that if they did not do so peacefully, Pitt would take action.
Some students, involved in the protest and following on social media, have said the letter was a sign from the administration that it does not support students.
In the letter, Bonner said the incident Thursday night was a “blatant disregard for the safety, welfare and rights of members of our community” and that Pitt would not tolerate “failure to comply with lawful direction of a University official acting in the performance of their duties and authority.”
Student protesters have said the incident was caused by the police while administrators have stood by the police saying the students were breaking the law.
Joe Miksch, a University spokesman, said in an email Thursday night that Pitt police arrested two people, one of which was a Pitt student, at the protest. Pitt police charged both arrestees with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and trespassing. Miksch said there were no injuries reported.
After the protesters forced entry into Tower B, police handcuffed three individuals — two females and one masked individual.
Sharma said the protesters that had been pushed out of Towers gathered on the patio outside the building. Footage of the encounter shows protesters screaming, “This is what a police state looks like,” as the officers continued to yell, “Get back, get back.”
“Whoever was holding the megaphone encouraged everyone to flee and return home,” Sharma said. “It was harrowing.”
Then, Friday afternoon, Bonner released a warning to student protesters saying they have the right under the University of Pittsburgh Student Code of Conduct to engage in “peaceful, orderly and nondestructive picketing, protests and demonstrations, to the extent they do not violate public law, and do not interfere with the educational process or the rights of other members of the University.”
“Protesters do not have the right to act in a manner that disregards the safety or rights of others or damage property,” the letter reads. “Therefore, we expect all members of this community to abide by directives and instructions provided by police and University administrators, and reserve the right to take appropriate action if these actions are disregarded.”
Bonner closed the letter with a warning that if protesters did not “follow the law and protest or demonstrate peacefully,” they risked “losing the great privilege of attending our great University.”
Seeing the letter as having an authoritarian tone, Tallon Kennedy, a junior studying English and gender and women’s studies, penned their own letter for NewPeople, a newspaper associated with the Thomas Merton Center, the same day counteracting Bonner’s statements.
According to Kennedy’s letter, the students did not attempt to damage property because they were acting out of emotion rather than intent to cause damage. Furthermore, Kennedy argued, the protesters were not acting in a way that would have caused legitimate harm to other people.
In their post, Kennedy requested that Bonner retract his statement and “clear up the lies that he has espoused.”
“For me, it was very much a rhetorical move to quell the act of protest and pushback at this school,” Kennedy said. “I think it was definitely a power move to try to regain control of the student body.”
Kennedy said that the message of the letter is even more potent considering the slew of protests since the presidential election. A day before the march against student debt, Pitt students delivered a letter to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher requesting the protection of undocumented students and the assurance of diversity and inclusion on Pitt’s campus. The letter was a part of the National Walk-Outs for #SanctuaryCampus movement. Gallagher responded in a private letter to the students on Nov. 17 instructing the students to set up a meeting with Bonner.
Moving forward, Sharma said he would like to see more “deliberate student aggression” toward the University, whether passively or disruptively.
“That’s what we need to be talking about,” Sharma said. “And there can’t be any of this we need to hear both sides things because one side has the guns and bullets.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Chancellor Patrick Gallagher had not responded to a letter students delivered to his office Wednesday. The story has been updated to reflect that Gallagher responded in a private letter to the students on Nov. 17, 2016.