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Pro-Palestine student group at RISD takes over school building

Students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) who are part of the group RISD Students for Justice in Palestine (RSJP) are occupying a building on the highly-ranked art school’s campus in Providence, Rhode Island, amid nationwide protests at universities against the war in Gaza. Around two dozen students entered the building at 20 Washington Place on Monday (6 May), staging a sit-in and barricading the doors.

Students’ demands include greater financial transparency regarding RISD’s investments, divesting from the Providence-based aerospace and defence company Textron, establishing a student oversight committee on investments and for RISD president Crystal Williams to “condemn the genocide of Palestinians and call for an immediate ceasefire”.

“We are occupying the renamed Fathi Ghaben place, after the recently martyred Palestinian artist (formerly 20 Washington Place),” says Sadie Liebo, a RISD student an member of RSJP. “We are here for holistic divestment, the condemnation of this genocide from our principal and the creation of a student oversight committee to oversee future investments as well as fiscal transparency.”

On Monday night, students met with Williams and the school’s provost Touba Ghadessi, but no agreement was reached. School administrators announced that the group would have until 8 a.m. Tuesday (7 May) to vacate the premises. At that time, students held a rally outside the building where the occupation was taking place with around 80 people attended.

“Last night a group of students demonstrated inside one of our campus buildings, occupying an actively used academic space,” a RISD spokesperson told The Art Newspaper. “Our president and provost met with them until late into the night discussing their concerns and ways to address them. RISD condemns violence and injustice, and we decry antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of hate.”

The building that RSJP’s members are occupying is a widely used academic space on the RISD campus, and classes typically held there have been relocated. “While we have and continue to affirm our students’ right to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, we also respect the rights of the many students who want to attend their classes,” the RISD spokesperson added. “We have asked the demonstrating students to relocate out of respect for their peers’ academic experience.”

Some members of RISD’s faculty and staff have come out in support of the protesting students. In a message posted to Instagram, the faculty and staff of the school’s graphic design department collectively wrote that it “stands in solidarity with RISD students—against genocide, against apartheid and in support of Palestinian people”. They added: “The moment to listen closely and learn from RISD students who organise and participate in this movement is now. Students, faculty and staff request less deflection and ambiguity, and more clarity from the administration. We implore you to take immediate action to meet their demands.”

Palestinian solidarity protests at campuses across the United States in recent weeks—including at several major art schools—have led to the suspension and arrest of thousands of students. On Saturday, faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles protested outside the Hammer Museum’s annual gala, calling for amnesty for students who had been arrested during the violent police crackdown on a campus encampment there. On Monday, as Israeli troops began an operation in Rafah, the city in Southern Gaza where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering, a pro-Palestine march that began at the City University of New York’s Hunter College came almost to the doorstop of the US museum sector’s biggest fundraising event, the Met Gala.

Notably, students at RISD’s neighbouring institution, Brown University, are among the only ones to have reached an agreement with their university’s leadership, leading to the dismantling of their encampment without incident. Students at RISD planned another rally in support of Palestine for Tuesday evening.

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