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Police officers clear encampment on Ann Arbor's UM Diag

Ann Arbor police prepare to remove protesters and their encampment from the University of Michigan Diag.
Josiah Walker
Police officers prepare to remove protesters and their encampment from the University of Michigan Diag.

Updated 4:05 pm: Protesters temporarily moved their encampment activities from the University of Michigan campus to the Washtenaw County jail on Tuesday in support of the four who were arrested in the early morning hours, when police in riot gear used pepper spray and batons to break up the encampment.

The four arrested individuals had been released by 3 p.m. Tuesday, according to Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police for the university. “The incident will be submitted to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's office for review and potential charges," Overton said in an email.

Several students said they were still recovering from minor injuries sustained during the dawn raid. Three protesters said the police initially gave verbal warnings to disperse within 10 minutes, but moved in on protesters before the time was up.

“That pepper spray ended up getting very deep into my lungs, all over my face,” said Kayla Gonzales, a graduate student. “And that's when people started really needing medical attention, calling for medical help. The medics were trying to get in to help us. But we were so blocked by the tents. [Police] were pushing us towards the side of camp that was hardest to exit … so people were, like, crawling over the tents trying to get out. … I saw people carrying my friend out, like four people carrying someone who looked unconscious.”

Gonzalez said an encampment medic drove her to the ER soon after, because medics were running out of water to help protesters get the pepper spray out of their eyes and mouths. “I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe.”

“I was hit with a baton multiple times — they aimed for my face,” said Tarana Sharma, the social media director for Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), a Palestinian solidarity organization and the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the University of Michigan. Video on SAFE’s social media shows police using pepper spray on protesters. The organization says demonstrators were peaceful, and the use of force was unwarranted.

In a written statement, spokesperson Colleen Mastony said the university is “not aware of any injuries.”

Protestors rally outside the Washtenaw County jail Tuesday morning.
Kate Wells
Protestors rally outside the Washtenaw County jail Tuesday morning.

“After law enforcement issued three verbal warnings directing protesters to leave the encampment, some individuals began pushing and throwing objects at the officers. Pepper spray was deployed to overcome physical resistance and minimize risk of injury to officers and protesters,” Mastony said. “Officers began a sweep to clear the crowd, during which four individuals were arrested for resisting and obstructing police. No injuries were reported. Later, fewer than five people sought treatment at Michigan Medicine for exposure to pepper spray.”

Why did the University do this now? 

In a campus-wide email sent at 6:45 a.m., about an hour after the police raid began, U of M President Santa Ono said the encampment was cleared in response to the findings of a fire marshal’s inspection.

“Following a May 17 inspection by the university fire marshal, who determined that were a fire to occur, a catastrophic loss of life was likely, the fire marshal and Student Life leaders asked camp occupants to remove external camp barriers, refrain from overloading power sources, and stop using open flames,” Ono’s email said. “The protesters refused to comply with these requests. That forced the university to take action and this morning, we removed the encampment.”

But nearly a month after the encampment was first erected and a couple weeks since the University’s largely peaceful commencement ceremony, protesters said they were skeptical of Ono’s claims that the tents on the campus Diag had recently become a fire hazard.

Several navy blue camping tents line up outside in between two large trees in front of a brick building.
Beth Weiler
Michigan Public
The encampment earlier this month before it was cleared by police on Tuesday.

Several protesters said there were never any open flames, and that students had asked to meet with the fire marshal to discuss any concerns.

“We did not use open flames at all,” said Josiah Walker, a student taking a gap year to do research. “And this is something that we were even concerned about going into the encampment. We're so worried about fires that we told people that they would not be allowed to bring in space heaters, because we were worried that they'd set their tents on fire when they were asleep. We always have multiple fire extinguishers on site scattered throughout the camp.

“So it just became, like, clearer and clearer that [the university’s Division of Public Safety and Security] was trying to use the fire marshals in order to justify going in and tearing down the camp. And when you look at the claims that are being made, it doesn't add up,” Walker said. "This is a fire hazard, so we're going to send in police in riot gear to pepper spray on some students, and then to toss everything in the dumpster?”

Ono also cited the use of spray paint graffiti in and around the encampments, and protests at the homes of some of the members of the Board of Regents earlier this month. “The disregard for safety directives was only the latest in a series of troubling events centered on an encampment that has always violated the rules that govern the Diag — especially the rules that ensure the space is available to everyone,” he said in the email.

But Walker believes the timing is primarily connected to President Santa Ono reportedly being scheduled to appear to testify before Congress later this week. (The presidents of both Harvard and Penn resigned following criticism of their responses at similar hearings.)

“When you look at how other university presidents have been put through the wringer by Congress, it makes sense that the University of Michigan administration would be in panic mode,” Walker said. “Because one of the main talking points is this encampment.”

A spokesperson for the University of Michigan said Tuesday that President Ono will not appear in person at this hearing, referencing a statement from U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx. Instead, Ono "will be required to appear before the Committee for transcribed interviews at a later date or risk deposition and subpoena,” according to Foxx's statement.

There have been other arrests related to on-campus demonstrations against the university’s stance on Israel’s military action in Gaza.

Recently, the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office announced charges against four people who participated in a sit-in calling for divestment from Israel at University President Santa Ono’s office last November. The prosecutor says demonstrators pushed past officers to gain entrance to the university’s main administrative building and alleges the four individuals charged “intentionally made sustained physical contact with officers in an attempt to dislodge them from their positions” and one tried to disarm an officer.

Forty people were arrested for trespassing during that sit-in, but the prosecutor declined to pursue charges against all of them on the belief that potential “internal University sanctions” would be sufficient consequences for individuals “engaged in non-assaultive civil disobedience.”

Updated 11:13 a.m.: Kim Broekhuizen, Director of Public Affairs for the university, confirmed four arrests were made this morning. She said they did not have any additional information.

Updated 10:56 a.m.: The Ann Arbor Police Department released the following statement:

"On the morning of May 21, 2024, the Ann Arbor Police Department responded to North University and Church after being requested by the University of Michigan Police Department to assist with traffic control around campus. The AAPD was not involved with the clearing of protesters on the University of Michigan campus and made no arrests connected to the protest."

This is a developing story.

Update 9:17 a.m.: After being removed from a nearly one-month-long tent encampment on the University of Michigan Diag, protesters are planning to gather in front of the Washtenaw County Jail, where they say some of their fellow protesters have been taken after being arrested.

University of Michigan police have not confirmed the arrests.

Student protester Ryan Mersol-Barg said protesters had expected the police action for some time and had prepared for it.

"They used batons to beat us, they used pepper spray — a lot of pepper spray — they shoved, they grabbed, they hit people on the head. We have, I believe, somebody with a dislocated shoulder or broken bone. The brutality was very apparent," Mersol-Barg said. "What they're not counting on though -- and this is something we've seen across the country -- is that when they use police brutality to attempt to put down the movement, it inspires people to our side."


Police in Ann Arbor have removed protesters on the University of Michigan Diag.

The protesters are opposed to Israel's actions in Gaza and have been calling for the university to divest from businesses with ties to Israel.

Officers in riot gear moved in on the group early Tuesday morning.

Police used pepper spray to move the people back.

"I was sprayed directly in the face," said Josiah Walker. Walker says once the protesters were cleared the police began indiscriminately throwing everything in to dump trucks, including people's personal belongings.

In a letter to the university community this morning, University of Michigan President Santa Ono cited fire hazards and other safety concerns as one reason for the move.

Ono says protesters refused to remove barriers around the camp, stop overloading power sources, and stop using open flames.

The U of M president also cited some incidents including vandalism on the campus diag and said the rights to protest "are not limitless."

Additional police officers on scene removed people from the Diag encampment and were cleaning up tents and debris this morning.

In an morning email to the campus community, University of Michigan President Santa Ono said the university will provide multiple opportunities in the coming year to discuss and debate these issues, but that there is no place for violence or intimidation.

The University of Michigan owns Michigan Public's broadcast license.

Updated: May 21, 2024 at 4:23 PM EDT
This story was updated to include a response from the University of Michigan about President Ono's testimony before a U.S. congressional committee.
Corrected: May 21, 2024 at 10:57 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story said the encampment was nearly two months old. It is actually nearly one month old.
Vincent Duffy has been news director at Michigan Public since May 2007.
Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Large sets of numbers add up to peoples’ stories. As Michigan Public’s Data Reporter, Adam Yahya Rayes seeks to sift through noisy digits to put the individuals and policies that make up our communities into perspective.