Brandeis University Planned Violent Protest Response Days in Advance

Brandeis University Planned Violent Protest Response Days in Advance

The start of the war between Israel and Hamas on October 7th left the country extremely divided. Nowhere is that more apparent than on college campuses. Many college students and campus groups were quick to announce their strong support for Israel in the aftermath of the attack. Other groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), claimed that Israel was responsible for the attack because of their occupation of Gaza and that Hamas’ attack was the only possible form of resistance against an oppressive occupying power. 

Many of the universities were criticized for their responses to the attack. A letter was published by 34 student groups at Harvard declaring that Israel, and not Hamas, was responsible for the attack on October 7th. Many people confused this letter from the students as Harvard’s official position, which Harvard did not clarify for over a week. They eventually released a statement saying that “no student group – not even 30 student groups – speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

Harvard, along with MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, again came under fire for their response to the war in December. At a hearing in the US House of Representatives, none of the university presidents answered a question about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their campus code of conduct. The backlash from this was even greater, with major donors pulling their donations to the schools.

As many of the country’s top universities faced growing criticism for their slow responses, one university decided to take an opposite course. Brandeis University is a private university located in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was established by the Jewish community in 1948 to combat discrimination at other universities. It maintains its deep roots to the Jewish community, which makes up about 35 percent of its student population. 

Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz quickly issued a statement just hours after the attack that stated Brandeis’s support for Israel and condemned terrorism. He reiterated that message in another statement sent out to students three weeks later. “Brandeis stands with Israel and its right to defend itself,” the statement read.

A few weeks later, Brandeis made a monumental and unprecedented decision: it decided to revoke the charter of the campus chapter of SJP. This decision came hours before SJP held a vigil for the innocent civilians killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes. The university told SJP to cancel the vigil, although they refused. The vigil was held in the campus center that night with a heavy police presence. Brandeis would later claim it did not try to cancel the vigil. 

The decision to remove SJP’s charter was a contentious one. Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as well as important donors to the university, lauded the decision as a necessary step to stop rising antisemitism. However, free speech groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) condemned the move as a violation of the university’s public commitment to the free speech rights of its students and claimed that the move was punishment for advocating political views that the university disagreed with.

On November 10th, 2023, some members of the Brandeis community held a rally outside of an administration building in protest of the dechartering. Students formerly involved in SJP live-streamed the entire event to the group’s Instagram. The protestors used several chants common at pro-Palestinian protests, including “from the river to the sea.” Once the chants began, the police ordered the protest to disperse. 

Police on the scene included Brandeis campus police, the Waltham Police Department, and some private security hired by Brandeis. At one point, what looked to be a water bottle was thrown in the direction of an officer. The police responded with extreme force. Many of the protestors were tackled and handcuffed. The police used nightsticks on several others. Video of the protest shows one officer repeatedly punching a man who is already in handcuffs and on the ground. Another video shows an officer kneeling on the neck of a protestor. The Brandeis Hoot, a campus newspaper, alleges that an officer groped a protestor’s genitals, although that is not seen on the video. During the course of the protests, seven students were arrested. 

A mid-level source within the Brandeis administration, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, revealed a shocking twist to us: Brandeis had planned for the protest to turn violent before it even began. “Some people in the administration were worried that just banning SJP wouldn’t be enough, that we would have to do more to keep our donors happy,” the source said. “We were worried that it would be seen as no more than a symbolic gesture if there wasn’t something else, so when we found out that students were planning a protest, some people in the administration said to shut it down, do whatever is necessary,” the source added.

A separate source within the Brandeis Police told us that they were told the night before to “be prepared to send a message to those terrorist sympathizers”. The source reportedly told their supervisor that they were worried that the message could be interpreted to mean violence against the protestors. The supervisor responded by saying one word: “good”.

Other evidence also seems to indicate that the violence was premeditated by the university. The Brandeis Police say that they called Waltham Police for backup after the protest became unruly. However, Waltham Police were called at 3:30, while the rally did not begin until 3:41, eleven minutes later. Brandeis also hired Provident Response as private security. Provident Response is a low-profile business that offers “armed security and private investigations” as its services, not law enforcement. It is unclear what they were hired to do at the protests.

A police officer in a department unaffiliated with the events at Brandeis spoke to us on the condition of anonymity to discuss the affairs of another police department. He believes based on the video of the protests that Brandeis had some knowledge that the police had turned violent and that they had encouraged it. “It just seems like something else is happening here. In a post-George Floyd world, it seems unlikely that any police officer who knew they were on film would be so violent, towards mostly peaceful protestors, to people that were already in handcuffs. Any officer that acts like that should expect to be fired. For a whole department to behave that way knowing they were on film, they would have had to have been given some kind of permission from the top, or have some knowledge that there won’t be any real consequences” he said. 

The seven students arrested at the protest, who are calling themselves the Brandeis Seven on social media, appeared in court on Monday. All seven have entered pleas of not guilty. They are facing charges including assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct. An attorney for the students declined to comment. Brandeis University and the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.