Opinion Submission: Brown School students speak out about WashU Palestine protest response

On Friday, May 3rd, a version of this letter was sent to members of the WashU administration, including:

Dorian Traube, Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School and Professor

Rob Wild, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Dean of Students

Andrew Martin, Chancellor

Beverly Wendland, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

Anna Gonzalez, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

More than 360 Brown School community members have signed this open letter. We urge every member of our community to join us by signing and sharing.

As social work, public health, and social policy students, we are deeply disturbed by Washington University’s response to the recent student demonstrations on campus and the Brown School’s silence in the face of an ongoing genocide in Palestine and the unjust murders of more than 30,000 Palestinians. The Brown School administration has also been silent on students’ right to protest and organize on campus.

On Saturday, April 27, a group of Washington University students, faculty, and activists gathered at Olin Library and then at Tisch Park to demonstrate in support of Palestine and to protest the University’s ties with Boeing, a supplier of the weapons being used to bomb civilians in Gaza. Accounts from those present at the demonstration, including statements from St. Louis Board of Aldermen president and Brown School adjunct professor Megan Green, alongside significant video documentation, all point to the peaceful nature of the group.

In response, protesters were met with a large group of police — WUPD in addition to five local police departments — who proceeded to make over 100 arrests, many of which were violent. Brown School students who were arrested reported that they were held in handcuffs for hours without being read their Miranda Rights or told their charges. Videos taken at the scene show truly alarming displays of force from police, including students and faculty being thrown to the ground despite submitting to arrest. Bystanders report being targeted and threatened with arrest for taking video of police action, with one WashU professor being arrested for doing so. Five of our own Brown School students were among those arrested.

Chancellor Martin’s April 29 email cited “protests [that] have spiraled out of control on other campuses across the country in recent months” and claimed that officers’ use of force was a response to aggression, attempts to deface property, and threatening and antisemitic chants, despite a seemingly total lack of evidence to this end. In the aftermath of Saturday’s arrests, Washington University has taken further disciplinary action, banning 23 students (including five of our Brown School peers) and at least four faculty members from campus. Faculty have been placed on administrative leave and prohibited from contacting students, while students face suspension and, in many cases, a loss of housing and on-campus employment, meal points, and access to campus medical providers. And while University messaging has characterized the other protesters as outsiders, we know that many were in fact WashU staff and alumni.

The University’s use of excessive policing and disproportionate disciplinary action is utterly antithetical to the values claimed by the University. A school that highlights a “proud history of promoting freedom of expression” and a “commit[ment] to upholding this fundamental value” has no business suppressing students gathered to express support for a community of more than two million individuals in Palestine under daily attack.

More measured reactions from peer institutions make WashU’s extreme response particularly shocking. Wesleyan University released a statement vowing to closely monitor their students’ encampment but to avoid intervention unless any unlawful activity occurs. Schools like the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota have not necessarily welcomed their encampments, but as of April 29 have all avoided or minimized arrests of students. To our knowledge, these protest movements have not “spiraled out of control” in the absence of mass arrests.  

As social work, public health, and social policy students, we stand in solidarity with Palestinians. We condemn the continued silence of the administration at the Brown School and Washington University in St. Louis. As an institution that offers a specialization in violence and injury prevention, it is reprehensible that the school has, as of April 30, remained silent surrounding the 35,072 dead and 77,704 injured in Gaza. Silence is complicity.

As future leaders in social work, public health, and social policy, we are called to speak out against injustice. Our Brown School courses have taught us to turn to our professional codes of ethics, which requires us to elevate service to others above self-interest, challenge social injustice particularly affecting vulnerable and oppressed peoples, and to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person. As we learn to advocate for our clients and communities, to further social justice, and to challenge institutional and systemic oppression, we find the Brown School’s silence on the genocide in Palestine fundamentally hypocritical and thoroughly in opposition to our institutional values.

How can a school that purports to train mental health clinicians and public mental health professionals in anti-oppressive practice ignore the vast psychological effects of a genocide?

How can a school claim to train global health concentration students for work with vulnerable populations without confronting a genocide that is causing the current displacement, starvation, and murder of thousands of Palestinians, medical and public health workers, journalists, and international aid workers? 

How can a school that is training the next generation of social policy leaders expect students to accept being silenced about one of the most critical social justice issues of this present moment? 

How can a school that offers coursework and concentrations in social and economic development and community organizing stand by while University leaders malign grassroots social action as harmful? 

These are not rhetorical questions. 

We demand the following actions to be taken by the Brown School and Washington University administrations:

  • We demand that Dean Dorian Traube and the Brown School bring an end to their silence on the ongoing genocide of Palestinians. 
  • We demand that Dean Dorian Traube and the Brown School speak out about students’ right to protest and advocate for social justice globally, in accordance with our Social Work and Public Health Codes of Ethics and professional values. 
  • We demand that Chancellor Andrew Martin; Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Robert Wild; and other relevant members of the Washington University administration reverse the suspension and drop all charges against the WashU’s 23 student protesters (including five at the Brown School), as well as dropping charges against faculty, staff, and community members. We also demand that these leaders publicly retract their inaccurate and stigmatizing characterizations of the protests and protesters. 
  • We demand that Chancellor Andrew Martin, Provost Beverly Wendland, and members of the Board of Trustees of the University engage in direct dialogue with student organizers. Such dialogue would be in accordance with the values of effecting “meaningful, constructive change in our world” and to “act in service of truth through the formation of leaders” (per the Washington University Mission Statement). 
  • We stand with Resist WashU’s five demands for divestment from Boeing: cutting ties with educational institutions in Israel, ending policing on campus, stopping land purchases in our immediate St. Louis region, and the University’s condemnation of the ongoing genocide in Palestine. 
  • We demand that the University support and safeguard students’ right to protest and engage in civil disobedience, in line with First Amendment rights of everyone in the United States.

We are proud to see so many of our peers live up to the core values of public health, social work, and this University. We hope to see you do the same.

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