The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Editorial | UW-Madison should rely on negotiations, not police raids

May 3, 2024

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Protesters chant “off our campus” Wednesday as police retreat from Library Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.RUTHIE HAUGE

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin erred when she authorized a police raid Wednesday on a well-organized encampment by student advocates for peace and justice in Gaza on Library Mall.

The raid, which led to 34 arrests and several injuries of protesters and officers, was ill-conceived and unnecessary, as have been similar raids on a number of campuses across the country. It was also pointless, as the encampment was reestablished within minutes of the departure of the officers.

But Mnookin got things right Thursday when she met with students and faculty members who are associated with the protest. By most accounts, the meeting was productive — resulting in an agreement to meet again within 24 hours. According to participants in the session, there will be no further police action for the time being.

That should be the goal going forward.

Mnookin and the UW-Madison community should strive for a result similar to the one achieved Thursday at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, where university officials and protest organizers agreed to disband an encampment while allowing ongoing protests that do not disrupt final exams and graduation ceremonies.

The Star-Tribune reported: “University of Minnesota Interim President Jeff Ettinger told students and faculty Thursday that a deal has been reached to disband a pro-Palestinian encampment that had set up on the Twin Cities campus for three days. The announcement came after Ettinger and others held a series of meetings with the leaders of student groups who had been calling on the U to divest from companies with ties to Israel, provide amnesty for people arrested during protests and meet other demands.”

Those are similar demands to the ones made by students who have been active in the Madison encampment, including those associated with groups such as University of Wisconsin-Madison Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Young Democratic Socialists of America. The Wisconsinites support a cease-fire in Gaza as an immediate response to the crisis that has resulted from the Israeli assault on the enclave, which has left roughly 35,000 Palestinians dead. At the same time, they are also seeking divestment by the university system from companies selling war-related products to Israel.

No one says that achieving these goals will be easy. But there should be an agreement that honest discussions about sincerely advanced demands are preferable to an ever-escalating cycle of police raids and arrests.

After several days of negotiations in the Twin Cities, Minnesota’s Ettinger explained in an email: “While there is more work to do, and conversations are still planned with other student groups affected by the painful situation in Palestine, I am heartened by today’s progress. It grew out of a desire among those involved to reach shared understanding.”

We have little doubt that a similar shared understanding can be achieved on the Madison campus.

That does not mean that protests will end. But they can move to a new stage. The Minnesota activists who had set up 30 tents on UMN’s Northrup Mall announced Thursday that they planned to “be fully packed up by noon today.”

They added, “UMN Divest remains steadfast in our commitment to demanding FULL divestment from apartheid Israel and all entities complicit in human rights violations. We will continue fighting for all … of our demands until they are met and continue with full transparency of every step that is taken.”

We recognize that the political environment is different in Minnesota, where responsible Democratic supporters of higher education are in full control of the statehouse. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers must contend with a Republican-controlled Legislature that includes a number of powerful legislators who regularly attack the UW. That makes Mnookin’s job harder.

But she must resist the pressure for crackdowns and arrests from reactionaries who do not have the best interests of the university, the students and the faculty at heart. And Evers and the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents must back her up in this regard.

What everyone should recognize is that protest and dissent are a vital part of UW-Madison’s history, and its present. There must always be respect for the honest concerns of students, faculty members and those from the community who may disagree on particular issues. That’s especially true when the issues are as contentious as those arising from the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This is a conflict with deep roots that became even more intense following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli kibbutzim and a music festival. But the fact that negotiations may be difficult cannot become an excuse for intransigence or arbitrary actions by the administration.

We appreciate that Mnookin has, for months now, placed an emphasis on opposing antisemitism and Islamophobia, and on promoting dialogue. Now is the time for the chancellor and the campus community to put those noble goals into practice by seeking a resolution similar to what’s been achieved in Minnesota.

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