RISD Gaza Solidarity Encampment Dissolves After Expulsion Threats

This afternoon, May 9, 21 undergraduate students affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter elected to vacate their “de-occupation” of a campus building before 2:30pm after RISD President Crystal Williams issued a threat of expulsion.

The group had taken over the second floor of the Providence Washington building (Prov-Wash), home to administrative offices, studios for furniture design and illustration majors, and campus mail services, on the evening of May 6, referring to their “de-occupation” of RISD as the “Popular University of Art and Design for Gaza.” They renamed the Washington Place building “Fathi Ghaben Place” as a tribute to the late Palestinian artist who died in Gaza last February after Israel denied his request for medical evacuation.

The students barricaded themselves in the building, demanding that RISD’s administration provide transparency on RISD’s investment portfolio; commit to divestment from Israeli companies and institutions, establish a student oversight committee for future investments, and “publicly condemn the Israeli occupation of Gaza as a genocide.”

Outside of Fathi Ghaben Place, RISD community members took part in creating various banners and signage in support of the SJP’s demands.

That night, Williams and Provost Touba Ghadessi met with RISD’s SJP representatives for a long conversation about the demands amidst the din of some 100 organizers chanting and drumming outside. Unable to meet in the middle, the students expressed that they were staying put on Tuesday, May 7, leading Williams to release a community-wide message outlining RISD’s investments and offering financial transparency through annual meetings.

Williams’s communication did not acknowledge the demand that RISD publicly condemn the siege of Gaza, denied the demand to cut ties with the Providence-based company Textron whose defense technology subsidiaries provide the Israeli military with aircrafts, and would not commit to declining future collaborations with the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, undergraduate senior and current RISD SJP media liaison Luca Antonio Colannino said that Williams took a “corporate approach to the disclosure that we are asking for,” noting that her proposals “don’t even begin to address divestment from Israeli war manufacturing” and pointing to the SJP chapter’s dissection of Williams’s communication in an Instagram post.

The students elected to stay at Fathi Ghaben Place through May 8 and May 9 as well, hosting art builds, teach-ins, and muraling messages of support for Palestine throughout the building walls.

Crystal Williams’s notice for campus safety’s intervention with the barricades was distributed by hand and shared on the RISD SJP Instagram. (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

Today, May 9, Williams called public safety officers to remove the barricades students erected throughout the second floor, underscoring that she had no intention of enlisting police forces to respond to the protest and was concerned about fire code violations. A statement from RISD SJP alleges that public safety team members pushed three student organizers down the stairs during the barricade intervention. RISD spokesperson Jaime Marland disputed the students’ account, claiming that “RISD Public Safety and Facilities staff members were on site and ensured that everyone safely exited.”

Shortly after the barricades were moved, Williams issued another community-wide message threatening expulsion if the students did not vacate the Prov-Wash building by 2:30pm and did not restore campus property to its original state by Friday, May 10.

Williams’s expulsion threat claimed that the building takeover, while peaceful, was interfering with student academic success and career opportunities among other complaints such as missed deadlines, class displacements, and inaccessible critique spaces. However, Colannino told Hyperallergic that SJP was “actively working to collaborate with students on their needs, regardless of their support.”

Regardless, all 21 students elected to vacate the building at approximately 2:10pm after Williams’s threat. As events unfold in realtime, Colannino maintained that “there’s no definite plan as of yet, but we’re continuing our fight and that no demands have been met.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for RISD referred Hyperallergic to Williams’s public communications.

A student organizer reads a zine while sitting on a handpainted textile calling for RISD to divest from Israeli donors, sponsors, and affiliates.
Various undergraduate students affiliated with RISD’s SJP chapter occupying the second floor of 20 Washington Place
A People’s Library sprouted at the “Popular University of Art and Design for Gaza” at 20 Washington Place.

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