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Police forcibly prevent public from attending SJP event at University of Pittsburgh

Officials at the University of Pittsburgh attempted to shut down a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event featuring slam poet Remi Kanazi and journalist Joseph Dana on 2 November, according to student organizers. The university police also forcibly prevented members of the public who had taken part in an Occupy Pittsburgh march from attending the event.

The university initially ordered the event shut down prompting the speakers to decide to continue it outdoors, but the order was rescinded after University of Pittsburgh SJP leaders demonstrated they had followed all the procedures.

The campus newspaper The Pitt News reported that SJP leaders had invited participants in the Occupy Pittsburgh march to the public event “Confronting Apartheid: Voices of the Joint-Struggle.” According to the newspaper:

Students for Justice in Palestine President Ryan Branagan invited the protesters into an SJP event in David Lawrence Hall at 8:30 p.m. following the protest, which was already open to the public. However, Pitt police closed the door to anyone who was not a Pitt student, including Gerhardt [an Iraq war vetaran quoted earlier in the article].

“I think a lot of people just got scared,” Branagan said as to why the police reacted defensively in allowing the protesters to enter the University building for the lecture.

One man was arrested outside of David Lawrence Hall at 9:40 p.m. for failure to leave the building after being told to do so by police.

Pitt Police Chief Tim Delaney said that he needed the proper permit from Students for Justice in Palestine to make sure that the group was allowed to host an event. After Branagan gave Delaney a copy of the permit, he allowed about 10 remaining non-Pitt student protesters to enter the event.

SJP officers provide a fuller account of what happened in this open letter to University of Pittsburgh police chief Tim Delaney and University Executive Vice Chancellor Jerome Cochran:

On Wednesday, November 2nd, Pitt Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted an event titled Confronting Apartheid: Voices of the Joint Struggle. At 8:30pm in David Lawrence Hall, SJP hosted Israeli journalist Joseph Dana and Palestinian-American slam poet Remi Kanazi. SJP had advertised the event through fliers, social media, and designated it as an event free and open to the public, along with Pitt students and faculty.

We received funding through the Student Government Board and reserved the room from 8:30-11:00pm through the proper methods required by the University of Pittsburgh. This event was specifically advertised to many groups, including the Occupy Pittsburgh movement. Earlier that day SJP had posted on the Occupy Pittsburgh Facebook page inviting them to the event after their solidarity march with Oakland, CA being held on Pitt’s campus.

Within the first few minutes of the event, Karina Goulordava, vice-president of SJP, exited the event to discover Pitt police refusing entry to members of Occupy Pittsburgh who had participated in the march. Eight Pitt police officers and about twenty Occupy participants were standing at the entrance to David Lawrence Hall. Quickly Goulordava made an announcement that SJP welcomed all of the Occupy participants to the event and that the decision to deny entry was made by the Pitt police and not supported by SJP. Pitt Police demanded proof to hold the event although SJP had completed all required paperwork.

Nonetheless, Ryan Branagan, president of SJP, provided contracts which were signed with Dana and Kanazi and approved by the University. A member of Occupy Pittsburgh held her laptop to Ustream the entire event and WPTS and the Pitt News were present to document and interview. Executive Vice Chancellor Jerome Cochran was contacted and claimed he was unaware of SJP’s event, demanding that it end within half an hour, despite the room being reserved until 11:00pm.

Before 10:00pm a member of Occupy Pittsburgh was handcuffed and cited when he refused to leave the premises, although the event was free and open to the public, as repeatedly stated by Goulordava and Branagan. Shortly before 10:00pm, SJP along with Dana and Kanazi made the decision to continue the event outside so that member of the community and Pitt students could attend, as was originally intended. However, Branagan was finally able to provide police with a copy of the room reservation and allocation approval from the Student Government Board. Pitt Police Chief Delaney then made the decision that SJP had the remaining hour to continue the event and all members of the public were permitted to enter.

This entire ordeal was incredibly disrespectful to the presenters, audience, and organizers of the event. SJP should never have been faced with this altercation, or been treated as guilty until proven innocent. The organization obeyed all of the rules to reserve the room and host the speakers. In addition, we are deeply disappointed with the brazen profiling of the Occupy Pittsburgh participants by the Pitt Police. The police described some of our attendees as “hooligans” and “knuckleheads,” and Chief Delaney even told our crowd he wished he could “pick and choose who could attend” our event. Their participation in the march should have had no influence on whether they were able to attend the SJP event. The refusal of entry by Pitt Police was blatant discrimination against Pittsburgh citizens who choose to participate in the Occupy movement. Furthermore, we are incredibly troubled by the unnecessary arrest of a member of Occupy Pittsburgh who eventually received a citation.

SJP expects the Pitt Police and the University to respect the rights of SJP to hold our events free and open to the public, especially when all of the rules to hold the event have been followed. Finally, we demand that our attendees are treated with the utmost respect and condemn this unnecessary arrest. The Pitt Police and administration must never pick and choose which policies apply to certain organizations but treat all students fairly; failure to do so undermines not only students’ rights to legitimately organize through the University system, but also the integrity of the Pitt community as a whole.

Sincerely,

Students for Justice in Palestine

Ryan Branagan, President
Karina Goulordava, Vice President
Mahmoud Yacoub, Business Manager