Student Demonstrators Force University to Cancel Controversial Lecture; Crawford Promises Investigation

Student protestors occupy Schneebeck Hall, forcing the University to cancel Rep. Derek Kilmer's planned lecture. Photo Credit: Mercer Stauch // The Trail

By Andrew Benoit and Mercer Stauch

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  On the evening of Feb. 21, Representative Derek Kilmer’s scheduled Susan Resneck Pierce Lecture was interrupted and ultimately canceled due to protests organized by the on-campus political group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who advocate for an end to the genocide in Palestine. The protest, the second of two public campus actions organized by SDS,  condemned the selection of Rep. Kilmer to speak because of his support for Israel in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

  Initially centered on a corner of parking lot 4, the protestors moved up the walkway toward Schneebeck Hall, eventually forcing their way through Tacoma Police and University Security Services and onto the stage. Security Services initiated a full lockdown of campus, which left some students locked out in the rain, unable to re-enter buildings. Several protestors and University staff members involved in the event were injured during the protest, including Chaplain Dave Wright and one student who was taken to the hospital. 

  While the protestors were initially kept outside of the planned lecture, the doors to Schneebeck were eventually opened by people who had already been admitted to the event. Veronica Craker, the University’s Director of Media Relations, told The Trail that protestors already inside Schneebeck “forced themselves past administrators to open the door.” Protestors entered the building and occupied the stage, chanting messages accusing Kilmer of genocide and demanding Palestine be freed. Members of the audience, which contained few people, sat in shock. 

  Once the protestors entered the building, Tacoma Police and University Security Services canceled the event. “It became evident, after protestors breached the doors, bypassing security, ticket takers, and metal detectors, that cancelling [sic] the event was the most prudent course of action to ensure the safety and well-being of all attendees,” Tacoma Police Officer Shelbie Boyd told The Trail in an email. The Tacoma Police Department was at the event as extra security for the school and the Representative.

  Shortly after 7 p.m., Security Services initiated a complete campus lockdown, turning off swipe access to every building on campus, including residential buildings. No warning or notification was given to students. Many students were unable to immediately return to their dorms as the lockdown lasted for around half an hour. “This lockdown prevented demonstrators in campus housing from getting to a safe and secure location at the conclusion of the protest,” Grace Playstead (‘24), a protestor, said in a statement over email.  

  Security Services explained in an email sent to the campus community approximately 17 hours after the lockdown that, in addition to the action at Schneebeck, protestors attempted to enter other buildings, which prompted them to initiate the lockdown. While it does appear that students involved in the protest attempted to enter other buildings once the protest was over, many have suggested that students were simply trying to re-enter their dorms. “It’s people who go here, not just protestors trying to get into random buildings. It’s students who are going to go back home after protesting,” said Mya Anson (‘24), who attended the protest.

  Other students have pointed out the risks that the lockdown carried with the Tacoma Police Department on campus, specifically for BIPOC students. “I can’t imagine the fear of being a student of color on campus being locked out of your dorm while also knowing that TPD is on campus. That feels incredibly dangerous to me,” said a student who attended the event, who requested anonymity over concerns of University reprisal. 

  Several people were injured during the course of the events, though none seriously. The most serious student injuries occurred towards the end of the protest, when a blaring noise projected through the loudspeaker. It is still unclear what the noise was, but it interfered with hearing aids and caused at least one student to collapse; they later had to be taken to the hospital.  

  The student protester, who has asked not to be identified, recounted the experience in a statement to The Trail. “As soon as the noise went off I immediately went to the ground shaking while trying to cover my ears. The only thing that I thought about was hoping for the deafening noise to stop and wanting to get out of that room. But I couldn’t, my body became numb, unable to move or stand up, this is when I had to be carried out,” they said. The student reported they had to wait until the end of the lockdown to receive care, and was eventually transported via ambulance to the hospital. 

  Chaplain Wright was hit in the face as protestors entered Schneebeck and described “intentional injuries” to their right leg. He was part of the team attempting to prevent protestors from entering, and told The Trail via email that he believes his injuries “were committed by non-student individuals welcomed to campus by those organizing the protest.”

  Some students allege that the behavior of University personnel was responsible for the situation’s escalation. “The University is trying to say that we were violent, though,” said a student protestor. “I think that in terms of violence, I felt like the response to us was a lot more violent than we were.” Other protestors agree. “The protest would have been completely nonviolent if the faculty were, if they would have just been more understanding of the fact that this was a protest. They should have just moved out of the way and not engaged in altercations with students,” Mya Anson said. Video evidence obtained by The Trail shows students and University officials pushing and grabbing each other inside the entrance to Schneebeck Hall. 

  In a statement released Feb. 26, President Crawford asserted that “there should be no illusion that the protestors at the Pierce Lecture were peaceful in their intent or their actions. Many – but not all – protestors knowingly engaged in aggressive, violent and intimidating actions.” The statement also contends that protestors “infringed on the rights of others to hear and engage with Rep. Kilmer”. 

  There have been multiple accusations of staff misconduct at several points during the night. One student, who asked not to be named, can be seen on video being grabbed with force by Director of Security Services David Ferber as he was trying to prevent the crowd from entering the building. Bella Sanchez (‘25), who is also the ASUPS Vice President, sent an email to University officials, including Director of Security Dave Ferber and President Crawford, accusing University staff of misconduct. “It has come to my attention students of color, a black student, was targeted and the only one dragged and grabbed by Dave himself. This is revolting and at this point I am disappointed I attend this university,” the email read, which Sanchez shared with The Trail. 

  President Crawford’s Feb. 26 statement also rebuffed any “unfounded criticism” of staff members. “We fully support staff who helped ensure the safety of guests at the Pierce Lecture against any unfounded criticism levied against them,” the email read. 

  The University’s investigation will review reports collected from protestors, staff, and attendees in the coming weeks, but Crawford indicated that confidentiality policies would likely mean its results won’t be broadly shared. The statement additionally promised all individuals “will be held appropriately accountable” if the University determines they violated the Student Integrity Code, Code of Conduct, Faculty Code, or other relevant University policies. 

  Beth Picardo, Chair of the Board of Trustees, also condemned the student protestors’ actions, claiming the protest did not represent University values and accused them of causing an unsafe situation. “I’m disappointed that protestors put staff and attendees’ safety at risk as they forcibly entered Schneebeck Concert Hall and intentionally and substantially interfered with the event, prevented the speech from occurring, knowingly infringed upon the rights of others, and intimidated attendees,” she said in an email to campus community.

 On Feb. 27, SDS released a statement on its Instagram which celebrated the protest, claiming it represented the University community’s true values. “This incredible act of student unity showcases our collective power and ability to uphold our true community values.” The statement condemned the response of Security Services and the university’s failure to cancel the event.

  A contingent of Washington’s Black Panther Party was present during the protest, invited to act as protest security by SDS. “Our role is simple: ensure the message of Palestinian liberation is delivered, draw clear comparisons between the genocide in Gaza and the disenfranchised Black people in America, and to keep the students safe while exercising their rights. The police and campus security have proven they have no problem getting aggressive with peaceful student protestors,” the Washington Black Panther Party said in an email. SDS organizers thanked the Black Panther Party for keeping students safe on social media the next day, encouraging students to donate to the party.

  Rep. Kilmer released a statement the next day criticizing the protestors’ approach to political discourse. “Sadly, a group of protestors decided they wanted to stifle speech on campus even after I had offered to meet with concerned students. Their actions on Wednesday made the case for my remarks – and for more civil discourse – better than I could have.” The transcript of Kilmer’s speech was also shared with students by President Crawford “to ensure that speech is not silenced”.

  Many on campus don’t share President Crawford’s opinion that Rep. Kilmer’s views deserve a platform. “The university is trying to create this narrative of bridging a gap, or being able to hear other perspectives. But I think that there is an extent to which trying to hear other perspectives is harmful,” one student protester said. “For me personally, I don’t see where a civil conversation comes in when we’re talking about genocide.” 

  Rep. Kilmer voted no on Resolution 786 which called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and signed bipartisan Resolution 771 reaffirming the United States’ support for Israel. More than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the territory’s Health Ministry. Rep. Kilmer has publicly voiced his support for Israel and its right to defend itself, and also advocates for the passage of a defense bill that would allocate funds to humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians on the ground in Gaza.

  Prior to the event on Feb. 21, President Crawford defended his decision to not cancel the lecture, something SDS had been requesting for over a month. “I consulted with a variety of people and came to believe that it is still the good and the right thing for us to do to bring someone here to speak about those particular issues around bipartisanship and being able to reach across divides and address divisive issues and find commonality,” he said.

  Crawford and student protestors also stand at odds when it comes to their views on the genocide in Gaza. At their rally on Feb. 7, SDS demonstrators called for the dissolution of Israel and the US. One speech even called Hamas ‘freedom fighters’. Crawford explained his own view of the conflict. “I think we were all horrified by the terrorist attack by Hamas, and respect Israel’s right to defend itself. And I think we’re equally troubled, deeply troubled by the loss of life that we’re seeing as a result of the Israeli war, both in Gaza and in Israel,” he said to The Trail before the scheduled lecture.

  A letter written by students and alumni has been released demanding apologies from administration officials for their treatment of students. It also demands the University cover medical costs for injuries sustained at the protest, not retaliate against student protestors, divest from Israel and call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

  The University was not ready to provide any further comment on the event to The Trail prior to publication. SDS leadership did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.

  Despite his injury, Chaplain Wright is still ready to be there for students. “I continue to be available as a confidential support resource for all students, whatever their views about or participation in the protest, the abbreviated lecture, or any of the related situations. I was not the only person injured, and I know many of us are struggling with many different facets of both the global and campus situation. Succinctly, and you can quote me if you’d like: this sucks,” they said via email.