Written By Kate Dempsey
Edited By Serin Sarsour and Shlomie Katash
The Vanguard would like to encourage readers to read the Editors’ Note on methodology and transparency in writing this article.
Chants from protesters reverberated outside of Brooklyn College’s East Quad on Thursday, Oct. 12, as students and faculty made their daily commute to and from classes. What would have been a normal school day was filled with barricades, police, and press helicopters whirling overhead. On one side of the CUNY-wide rally organized by the BC Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Club stood pro-Palestine supporters, and on the other side, separated by the barricade of student traffic, were counter-protesters supporting Israel.
The protest came five days after Hamas, a militant political group that governs the Gaza Strip and designated by many western countries as a terrorist organization, launched an attack on Israel that killed over 1,200 people and injured 3,000, according to the United Nations as of Oct. 12. Israel has since launched its own counteroffensive against Hamas, its retaliatory airstrikes killing 1,500 Palestinians and injuring 6,000 more, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health as of Oct. 12. Civilians on both sides have been facing the brunt of these deaths.
BC President Michelle Anderson released her condemnation of the Hamas attack on Oct. 9 in a college-wide email and on social media, urging the BC community to stand against hate and come together. “We condemn the violent attacks by Hamas on Israel and its diverse peoples […] We stand against hate. The college remains committed to fostering an inclusive and diverse community, encouraging civil discourse, and enhancing compassion for one another. We pray that peace prevails,” read her statement.
The following day, BC’s United4Israel held a vigil on the East Quad to honor the lives lost as a result of the Hamas attack. Officially registered in BC’s Campus Groups as a club event, it was listed as a “community gathering in support of Israel following the tragedies that have occurred. A safe space for students to come together, mourn and memorialize the innocent lives that have been taken.”
During the vigil, a group quickly formed with students chanting and waving Palestinian flags. According to eyewitness testimony, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the gathering was interrupted by students chanting, “Your 9/11 is our 24/7!” “Judaism, yes; Zionism, no!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” across from the vigil.
United4Israel’s executive board released a statement to The Vanguard on Oct. 15 regarding the actions of the group who they believed were a part of SJP. “We are deeply disturbed by the actions of Students for Justice in Palestine club and protesters who disrupted our peaceful vigil to mourn more than 1,200 Israelis dead. Mass cheering the loss of life and calling for Israel’s destruction during our prayers was an attack aimed at Jews on our campus. We had also planned to observe a moment of silence, but the disruption caused by protestors prevented us from doing so.”
For the students of SJP, the Muslim Student Association (MSA), and Muslims Giving Back (MGB) Club at BC, allowing open support for Israel but not Palestine has left them feeling ignored by President Anderson, as well as by the BC and CUNY administrations. They wrote in a joint open letter released on Oct. 12 on Instagram that for Palestinians, the killings from Israel’s attacks did not start just one week ago, but many years ago.
“Your statements on condemnation do NOT include the total Palestinian deaths from 2008 to 2023 (August 31), where 6407 Palestinians were killed and around 152,000 injured (UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs),” the letter read, noting that CUNY and BC administrators also did not include the latest deaths of Palestinians in Gaza in their statements.
A subsequent CUNY-wide protest was organized by SJP and its allies, including BC’s Puerto Rican Alliance, on Oct. 12. Originally scheduled to be held outside of Ingersoll Hall, SJP moved the rally off campus and onto Bedford Avenue after facing obstacles from administration, SJP leadership told The Vanguard. The call for protests CUNY-wide was met with criticism by CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, releasing his own statement about the organizing on Oct. 11.
“We wholeheartedly reject the participation of organizations affiliated with CUNY in demonstrations that glorify Saturday’s violence and celebrate the killings, injuries and capture of innocent people,” Chancellor Rodriguez wrote. “We respect their right to free speech but condemn their support of these crimes against humanity. We want to be clear that students or anyone from CUNY who chooses to organize or attend these events are in no way speaking for or representing our University or its 25 campuses.”
In the letter by SJP, MSA, and MGB, they refuted Chancellor Rodriquez’s claim that the goal of the protest is to “celebrate” the killings, demanding that administration recognize the distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people, and the harms that could come by associating all with Hamas’s actions.
“We wish to unequivocally state that the Brooklyn College Muslim & SJP community has never endorsed the actions of Hamas, or any militant group in any of our protests, nor will we ever do in future events or programs,” the joint open letter read. “It is imperative that the BC & CUNY administration distinguish between the actions of Hamas and the broader Palestinian people. Unjustly associating Palestinians, our student organizations, and our larger communities with violence is a dangerous and unsubstantiated claim.”
In President Anderson’s statement released prior to the Oct. 12 protest, she stated that the administration would be “taking proactive steps to increase campus security,” adding that students would not be penalized for choosing to not attend school on Thursday out of safety concerns.
SJP leaders told The Vanguard that protesters made a point to cover their faces and heads with keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves worn for solidarity, and to remove any identifiable traits in fear of being “doxxed” – the publication of identifying information about a protester on the internet.
Student leaders of SJP also told the Vanguard that they were fearful of some counter-protesters, who they claim were combative. NYC Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, who represents the 48th District that includes neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn, was spotted openly carrying a pistol on her waistband at the protest, according to The New York Times. Vernikov went to the protest to show her support for Israel, calling the pro-Palestinian rally a “pro-Hamas” rally on social media.
Vernikov turned herself into police on Oct. 13 and has been charged with criminal possession of a firearm, an NYPD spokesperson told THE CITY. Vernikov violated New York’s carry concealed firearms only law and possession of a firearm in “sensitive locations,” such as schools and protests, added under new legislation that was passed last year. Vernikov is due back in court on Nov. 2 where she will face her charges.
At the end of the rally, protesters made their way down Campus Road and toward Tanger Hillel, which is self-described by its members as a non-profit organization that “seeks to strengthen Jewish identity among the college’s Jewish students; to sustain and develop their commitment to Israel […],” as stated on their website. Much like the last protest held by SJP outside of Tanger Hillel, as reported by The Vanguard in May, speeches highlighted a call for justice for Palestinians.
Tanger Hillel released a statement to The Vanguard on Oct. 16. “Tanger Hillel’s top priority since last Saturday morning has been ensuring that our students feel safe and supported. The recent barbaric terror attack in Israel has deeply shaken the Jewish community, hitting close to home for many of our students who have relatives and friends directly affected. Although we are devastated, we have witnessed incredible moments of leadership, unity, and togetherness from our student leaders. We will continue to support our students’ decisions,” said Sarali Cohen, engagement associate at Tanger Hillel.
For students returning to their day-to-day school lives while grappling with the attacks affecting their people thousands of miles away, student leaders at BC emphasize that support is there for them as they navigate the rest of the fall semester.
“Every student has the right to express their opinions and feel safe on campus. Students’ well-being and mental health are [the Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG)] top priorities,” USG Press Director Dylan Karlowski told The Vanguard. “As your student representatives, we will continue doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our students. Our office door is open to anyone in need of support or assistance connecting to resources.”
The Vanguard reached out to the BC administration for comment on Tuesday, Oct. 10, and they were given until the paper’s deadline of Saturday, Oct. 14, to add anything else, but no further comments were received. President Anderson stated that she “has nothing else to add at this time,” according to Interim Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications Ludovic Leroy.
This is a developing story. The Vanguard will report on updates as they are made available.