Students call upon University to stand with Palestinian students following Nov. 25 shooting

Students call upon University to stand with Palestinian students following Nov. 25 shooting

On Nov. 29, UVM Union of Students organized a rally following the Nov. 25 shooting of three Palestinian men in Burlington, according to the group’s Nov. 28 Instagram post

On Nov. 25, at around 6:30 p.m., 20-year-olds Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad were walking to a Thanksgiving holiday celebration at Awartani’s uncle’s residence, according to a Nov. 28 CNN article.

The men were walking on North Prospect Street, near Loomis Street, when a man fired at least four rounds from a pistol, striking two of the men in the torso and one in the lower extremities, stated a Nov. 26 press release from the Burlington Police Department.

The shooter was later identified as 48-year-old Burlington resident Jason Eaton, according to a Nov. 27 Burlington Police Department press release.

Eaton was arrested on Nov. 27 and has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Police have yet to find a motive at this time, according to a Nov. 27 Vermont Public article.

“This is absolutely a hate crime,” said first-year Kawsar Anwari at the protest. “It’s just a matter of recognizing it.”

Students with signs reading “Listen to Palestinian Voices” and “Protect Palestinian Students” crowded the Davis Center atrium, some wearing keffiyehs in solidarity.

“I’m here today because Palestinians are humans and they have a right to live in peace,” Anwari said. “I think the University should really do more and not just send us an email. They should acknowledge the problem that’s going on in Palestine.”

The protest began around 11:50 a.m. in the Davis Center Atrium. (Annalisa Madonia)

The protest events began around 11:50 a.m., starting with group chants led by student organizers such as “Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation.”

Standing up on a Davis Center table, one of the student organizers began with a speech.

“We are here today because UVM has not been listening,” said one of the student organizers. “We have said for months now that UVM has failed to protect Palestinian students.”

The crowd responded by chanting “Shame on UVM!”

“We’re here today because we can no longer politely ask that UVM listens to us,” the student organizer said. “We have to demand that UVM step up and protect Palestinian students.”

Another student organizer then announced the goals of the demonstration, reading from a flier that was handed out to protestors. 

These goals include the administration acknowledging Palestinian suffering, accountability for staff who engaged in anti-Arab and Islamophobic rhetoric, supporting Palestinian students, divesting financial holdings from Israel and providing an open line of dialogue with student movements.

They also had a series of demands regarding the canceled lecture by Mohammed El-Kurd on Oct. 21. They demanded the University commit to not canceling events held by organizers on campus, demand transparency on the canceling of past and future events and support with reorganizing these events.

“I am Palestinian,” said a student organizer. “My people are getting rocks thrown at them. We’re getting shot and even spit on just for being Palestinian. We can’t even wear our keffiyehs without feeling like we have a target on our back. We shouldn’t have to compromise our safety to show pride in our heritage.”

UVM has refrained from using the words “Palestine” and “Palestinian” in campus emails until the email following the recent shooting, the student organizer said.

“It took three men getting shot to say the word Palestinian,” the student organizer said. “Even then, they still refuse to admit that their Palestinian students are fearing for their lives every time we walk on campus. We can no longer keep politely asking for the bare minimum. We are demanding that UVM does better.”

A student organizer then read a message from Hisham Awartani, one of the men who was shot, that emphasized that this crime did not happen in a vacuum and is part of a larger issue.

“Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services that saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army,” Awartani stated. “I understand that the pain is so much more real and immediate because many of you know me, but any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine.”

Protesters began their march from the Davis Center to the Waterman building around noon. (Annalisa Madonia)

Around noon, student organizers led a march of 150 to 250 students to the Waterman building, where protestors then instituted a “die-in” outside UVM President Suresh Garimella’s office, according to a Chittenden Community TV reporter. 

A die-in is a protest method in which a group of people lie down in a public place as if they are dead and refuse to leave or allow normal activities to continue there, according to the Cambridge Dictionary.

The protestors did so to represent the millions of Palestinians who have lost their lives in this war, a student organizer said.

A car honked and cheered as students crossed the crosswalk in front of Waterman.

“UVM is silent,” said sophomore Sofia Gasbarro. “The city of Burlington is too quiet. Legislators in Vermont are too quiet. They’re not protecting the Palestinian people the way they should.”

Chants of “Not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes” could be heard as they marched toward the Waterman building. 

The protestors remained in front of UVM’s executive offices until around 1:15 p.m., when Michael Schirling, UVM chief safety and compliance officer, along with Amer F. Ahmad, vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, addressed the crowd.

Michael Schirling, UVM chief safety and compliance officer, arrived around 1:15 p.m. to address the crowd of protesters. (Annalisa Madonia)

Schirling announced that he was there as a conduit for bringing information from the event back to administration. 

“Our team, Amer’s team, are here to do our best to create a safe environment on campus for all students,” Schirling said. “In particular, at this moment in the wake of what happened on Saturday, we have extra focus on our Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students.” 

The protesters began with a question about why UVM has not yet acknowledged the shooting as a hate crime. 

“We held a forum yesterday, where I very clearly said that this is a hate-motivated event,” Schirling said. “A hate crime is a specific thing. Everyone involved in this investigation has said we cannot call it that unless there’s evidence of that.”

The protesters then called upon Schirling to join them in the protest to which he responded that the safety and security team had to stay neutral.

Students went on to ask about the cancellation of the Oct. 26 Mohammed El-Kurd event.

The email canceling the event came from the Division of Safety and Compliance, according to a Nov. 6 Cynic article.

“The security team does not make a decision,” Schirling said. “What we do is collect information, whether it’s here at the University or in prior roles in state government or with the city of Burlington. We collect information and we do what’s called a ‘threat assessment,’ what are the issues and risks associated with a particular event?” 

The University’s administration and others met to make a decision about whether hosting at that particular time on campus was a good idea and decided it would not be safe, Schirling said. 

“We did not want to decline to host,” Schirling said. “What we actually offered the organizers […] was to try to move the event because of the tensions that have grown […] in the days following October 7, so there was a concerted effort not to ‘cancel,’ but to try to just move the event a little bit further away from that particular flashpoint in time.”

The protesters then asked about a police blockade that was provided by UVM Police for the Oct. 12 Israel vigil. They asked why the same could not have been provided for the El-Kurd event.

Schirling’s team was concerned that Palestinian students could be disproportionately targeted by people who had their intentions on targeting that event, he said 

“The reason we did not specifically name that is because naming that at the time actually potentially puts a target on Palestinian students’ backs,” Schirling said. “So we were trying not to elevate the profile in a way that would allow the concerns we had to actually play out.”

After Schirling left at approximately 1:45 p.m., the student organizers reiterated that they would continue to work toward their needs being met by the University to protect Palestinian students and divest the funding they give to Israel, a student organizer said.

The last of the protestors left Waterman around 5:30 p.m.

“This isn’t a neutral issue,” said sophomore Talia McMahon. “Being in neutrality is supporting the oppressor.”

The three men were transported to UVM Medical Center following the shooting. Ahmad and Awartani are still being treated at the facility, with Ahmad now in stable condition and Awartani remaining in critical condition. Abdalhamid has been discharged, according to a Nov. 29 CBS article.

An ongoing campaign supporting the victims and their families has raised over $200,000.

“We showed up today because we can no longer ask politely for the bare minimum,” stated UVM Students for Justice in Palestine in a statement made to the Cynic. “The stakes are very clear: UVM can either authentically meet its obligation to Palestinian students, or continue to escalate against it.”

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