Charges against UMass sit-in protesters downgraded to infractions

Ruya Hazeyen, left, and Maysoun Batley, co-presidents of the Students for Justice in Palestine at UMass Amherst, appear outside of Eastern Hampshire District Court following a pretrial hearing last Thursday. 

Ruya Hazeyen, left, and Maysoun Batley, co-presidents of the Students for Justice in Palestine at UMass Amherst, appear outside of Eastern Hampshire District Court following a pretrial hearing last Thursday.  STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-15-2024 8:25 PM

BELCHERTOWN — All of the UMass students who were arrested during a sit-in protest against the war in Gaza on Oct. 25 have had or will have their criminal charges converted to civil infractions, with those who accepted the lesser charges already processed and a dozen who are choosing to fight the infractions appearing before an Eastern Hampshire District Court judge last Thursday. The protesters said they hoped the reduced charges will put pressure on campus administration to drop student conduct charges related to the sit-in.

Standing outside the courtroom following the ruling, several of the students, many of whom wore the keffiyeh scarf associated with Palestinian solidarity, stated they were not done fighting the charges against them by both law enforcement and the university.

“To bring our case to trial is rooted in a fundamental belief in human rights, as well as an unwavering belief that we have nothing to plead guilty for,” said Ruya Hazeyen, who serves as co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine and was one of the protesters arrested during the sit-in. “An institution of higher learning with a rich history of civil disobedience has a moral responsibility to uphold the principles of justice and equality for all.”

The students were arrested on criminal trespassing charges after occupying the school’s Whitmore Administration Building past its 6 p.m. closing time, with 56 students and one faculty member arrested. Twelve of the students had their charges downgraded on Thursday by Judge Bruce Melikian, and an additional nine students planned to appear at a later date to also have their charges reduced to civil infractions, minor violations with the same legal weight as a parking ticket. The remaining students previously accepted offers from the district attorney’s office to accept the civil infraction and pay a $100 fine.

Despite the downgrade, the 21 protesters who did not accept the DA’s offer said they intend to head to trial. Maysoun Batley, the other co-president of the SJP, said they took inspiration from UMass protesters who successfully got the CIA to stop recruiting on campus after a civil disobedience campaign in the 1980s.

“They took their trial to the very last step, but they did not admit guilt at any point throughout the process,” Batley said. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to emulate.”

Although the protesters said they have received much support from students and faculty on campus, they also said they have been targeted for harassment, doxxing and attacks on social media for protesting the war and the Israeli government. They also said they’ve had to obtain a no-contact order for at least one person who had physically threatened them.

“Every time I’ve posted on Instagram since the arrest, I’ve received hate comments,” said Malia Cole, a junior at UMass who was in court Thursday. “I’ve had to add filters to my Instagram account so that I don’t see them anymore.”

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The students also clarified that their protests were directed at the Israeli government and not against Judaism or Jewish people.

“It takes away from true antisemitism that is present in the U.S., which is very scary and must be addressed,” Batley said. “But it has been co-opted by attacking students like us who have perfectly good and honorable intentions.”

Rachel Weber, an attorney representing the students and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace activist group, said with the charges being reduced, the ball was in the hands of the university to follow suit and stop disciplinary actions against the protesters.

Already, three students who participated in the protest were denied a study abroad semester this spring for partaking in the protest, leaving them to recoup thousands of dollars in costs and scramble to try to register for classes.

“Many of these students are on academic probation until the end of the spring semester,” Weber said. “And to be clear, the only charge that they’re facing with the disciplinary proceeding is being in a building after it closed.”

UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement that the university would continue its internal conduct process independently of any court proceedings.

“Protests regularly occur at UMass and through our commitment to free speech we strongly support students’ right to voice their views,” Blaguszewski said. “However, in this case, the students were not arrested for participating in a protest, but rather for refusing to comply with a lawful order to leave the Whitmore Building after it closed for business. ”

Weber will return to court on April 23 for a with prosecutors before picking a future date to proceed with the trial. Weber also said a “teach-in” protest by UMass faculty in support of the students is planned for Feb. 13.