Administration Sets Police on Peaceful Student Protestors

Milagros Peña, president of Purchase College, State University of New York, authorized campus and local police to forcibly break up what appears to be a peaceful gathering of student protestors, in a continuing trend across the country.

The faculty have called the event “a catastrophic failure by the administration to uphold the fundamental pillars of justice, academic freedom, and the democratic principles our institution is supposed to embody and impart.”

You can watch footage of the police attack on the protestors here:

According to Emiliano Diaz, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Purchase, philosophy students at Purchase have been among the leaders of the protestors.

He writes:

Philosophy students at SUNY Purchase have been deeply involved in the pro-Palestinian protests on campus. Sabrina Thompson, a junior in philosophy and president of the Philosophy Society, has been a key organizer.  

On the night of Thursday, May 2, a group of students, led by Thompson and others, attempted to establish an encampment on campus near the dormitories. They were eventually persuaded not to set up tents, but they were steadfast in their commitment to remain.  At 10pm, when the university quiet hours began, they sat silent in observance of the student code of conduct.  This is when police moved in to disperse them with substantial and violent force…

In an email about what would transpire, President Milagros Peña cites the “quiet hours” policy as justification for the use of force.  She also notes that fire alarms were set off and that this was disruptive for students who are entering the final weeks of class. Students have noted that the quiet hour rule is not uniformly enforced. Students regularly congregate in the quad after 10pm without issue. During “Culture Shock,” a music festival held on campus near the end of the year, this rule is also flouted. Fire alarms were set off, but this happened only after the police moved in, and some students are claiming that it was a diversionary tactic meant to distract police and give room to students who wished to flee the violence that unfolded. President Peña also suggests that “outside agitators” were somehow threatening the safety of the campus. There was no evidence of immediate or even inchoate threat as the police moved in.  Also, at least some of those who were “outsiders” (a difficult word to parse in the context of a public college) were human rights lawyers invited by a faculty member to observe the protest. 

In all, 70 people were arrested. In order to jail all of them, Police spread them across Westchester County. If not for their friends, many of them, college students with few resources and parents who do not live locally, would have been stranded. According to reports, many were not told the charge during the arrest and were also denied information about arresting officers.

Faculty who were present only to observe, support the students’ right to free speech, and help de-escalate the situation were among those arrested.  One of these faculty, who has participated in other protests, noted the lack of training on the part of the officers involved in the arrests. He cited the fact that students were told to disperse but then given no clear means of egress. Some were even pursued as they tried to leave. He also noted that he has never witnessed such violence in response to protests.

The next morning, arrested students would find the belongings they were forced to leave behind, pillows, book bags, blankets, and other things, in and strewn around a dumpster.

Students were back out protesting last night, May 3, and have remained peacefully encamped throughout the night and into this morning.

Below is President Peña’s email, followed by a response from the faculty.

Dear Campus Community,

As an academic institution and a diverse campus of individuals with a vast range of backgrounds, experiences, and opinions, we are committed to upholding the right to free expression and also the right to safety on campus for all who dwell, work, and learn at Purchase. That tension has been at the forefront of many conversations over the past several months. 

I wanted to update you on last night’s events in a way that also responds to the many messages, conversations, and emails I have received, which run the gamut from fear related to the protests to passionate support of the protestors’ cause. I have read them all and thank you for reaching out.  

I also want to dispel any myths about what happened, to the best of my ability at this time, considering it is an ongoing investigation. 

Last night, as has been the case all semester, students were allowed to protest peacefully, which they did for several hours. 

However, this right to protest is only honored as long as protestors follow SUNY’s rules for maintenance of order and the student code of conduct, something we have been communicating repeatedly, for the safety and well-being of the entire campus. 

This right does not apply to outsiders. Dozens of non-affiliated people were turned away from campus. We are investigating their role in escalating the protest activity on campus, but their presence put the police on high alert. It is believed many of them snuck back onto campus once turned away. 

At 10pm, once campus quiet hours started, protestors were given multiple opportunities to disperse peacefully, as ordered, more than 10 times by the campus police and other local police forces there to assist. 

Those who didn’t disperse after multiple warnings of consequences were arrested for trespass violations, most without incident. 

The 10pm deadline was not arbitrary. Quiet hours are especially important during the lead up to the end of the semester when students need time to sleep, study, and complete final projects andgo to dorm rooms without fear or concern for personal safety. We received numerous complaints that this did not happen last night due to the fire alarms being repeatedly pulled by students in protest. 

Protestors were brought to local precincts for processing as the University Police Department couldn’t hold that many individuals. Students will also go through the student code of conduct process, which may include consequences up to expulsion. As the investigation continues, a few individuals may face additional criminal charges. 

To the best of our knowledge, there were approximately 70 individuals arrested including students and faculty members. 

Despite last night’s activity, we plan on preserving the rest of the semester’s activities as scheduled, including commencement.All scheduled activities will continue without disruption, as long as it is safe to hold them. Please carry your Purchase ID with you when coming to campus and leaving campus at this time. 

Our long-standing policies limit the time, place, and manner for protest, for good reason, and in support of our entire community. 

Anyone who adheres to these policies is welcome to take part in free speech activities. We know from witnessing protests at other campuses that when these policies are ignored and especially when outsiders are involved, intimidation, bias, and violence may occur, along with disruption of events and activities central to the campus experience. Anyone who has been struggling or impacted by recent events is encouraged to reach out to Counseling and Behavioral Health Services for additional support. 

We can disagree and debate the emotionally charged issues related to the protest and the complex issues we are grappling with globally, but the well-being and safety of the entire Purchase community will and must always be my top priority.

 Thank you.

Milagros (Milly) Peña, PhD (She, Her, Hers)
President, Purchase College, S.U.N.Y.

Here is the faculty response:

Dear President Milagros Peña,

We, the faculty of Purchase College, are outraged and condemn in the strongest possible terms the violent and disproportionate actions taken by campus authorities against our students and faculty colleagues on the evening of May 2nd, 2024.

Our students were participating in a peaceful protest on campus – an act protected by their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. Our faculty members were present solely to ensure the safety of students and observe their non-disruptive demonstration. Despite this, a staggering number of over 70 students and faculty, were arrested after police violently intervened and disrupted the lawful gathering.

This represents a catastrophic failure by the administration to uphold the fundamental pillars of justice, academic freedom, and the democratic principles our institution is supposed to embody and impart. Rather than fostering an inclusive environment supporting a range of ideas, the leadership has chosen a path of alienation, vilification, and unjust criminalization of responsible free expression.

The hostile actions of the university police and other law enforcement agencies on May 2nd have sent a chilling message that peaceful assembly may lead to undue punishment and violence, in blatant violation of core rights. Not only were the rights of those arrested trampled, but the incident has undermined the entire community’s faith that the administration will protect our freedoms.

We demand immediate and decisive action. All charges against arrested community members must be vacated, and any related disciplinary actions dropped. Furthermore, the administration must clarify its processes for community engagement to prevent further acrimony and restore trust. We demand an immediate outside and independent investigation into all aspects of this incident, particularly the excessive use of police force, to ensure full accountability.

Swift and thorough corrective measures, including resignations of those culpable for the infringement of student and faculty civil liberties and rights, are imperative to begin healing these wounds and reaffirming our institution’s commitment to its integral rights and liberties. The time to act is now.


The Faculty at Large of Purchase College, SUNY


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