Brown Student Arraignments: How does wielding the carceral system against peaceful protesters help to foster safe learning environments?

Despite months of student protest to demand divestment of the Brown University endowment from the Israeli military, the administration has tried to squash student activism through use of the criminal justice system. On February 12 and 14, 41 students were arraigned at the state courts in response to conducting a sit-in months earlier. Though the University has claimed that their actions are politically neutral and are motivated by desire for campus safety, their actions say otherwise. 

This sit-in occurred after numerous attempts by the Brown Divest Coalition, and other allied student groups, to have a meeting with Brown University President Chistrina Paxson. The Coalition describes itself as “a multicultural, mutli-ethnic, and multi-religious coalition of students from diverse backgrounds and traditions, which demands that Brown promote a permanent ceasefire by divesting from companies that facilitate the genocide in Gaza.”

I spoke with two members of the Brown Divest Coalition, Bella Garo and Alicia Joo, about what it was like to be part of this movement, to face the criminal justice system, and how they felt that the University was engaging with the demands of the various student groups pushing for divestment. “It has frustrated a lot of people who feel upset that the University is willing to come down so hard on student protesters, especially given that it brags about its history of student activism,” Garo explained.  


This sentiment was shared by students who came to support the protesters. A graduate student who wished to remain unnamed told me “It is ridiculous that President Paxson has chosen to arrest students rather than listening to what they have to say.”

One of the many contradictions that the students are contending with is the wide gulf between the University’s actions and their words. In official communications, the University uses rhetoric grounded in safety and neutrality. 

Since October 7, 2023, the University has issued several announcements that recycle language, and all expound on some version of: It is up to the community members to ensure they are “fostering open and respectful learning environments, providing care and empathy to affected members of our community; and taking the strongest possible stance against all forms of racism, discrimination, and harassment.” 

How does wielding the carceral system against peaceful protesters help to foster safe learning environments? How can we simultaneously hold onto providing care for one another, and arrest members of our community who we disagree with?

From talking with Bella and Alicia, it is clear that the administration is reacting to divestment-related protesters in ways that are deleterious and particular to anti-Zionist organizing. Though certain students get full protection from the University, others are not afforded safety. Bella recounts, “we have had some of our organizers heckled and even harrassed for hours by Zionist students.” All the while Zionist community members are pursuing Title VI complaints against the University for creating an “antisemetic environment.”  In truth, these Zionist community members get full institutional backing, while others are arrested.

Brown University has taken additional administrative steps that may serve to punish anti-Zionist protesters. As recently as February 5, 2024, the Office of Inclusion Equity and Diversity launched a new website entitled “Strengthening our Community Amid Conflict” that includes the definitions of antisemitism which purposefully confate antisemitism and anti-Zionism. 

It is not lost on me as someone who engages in anti-Zionist organizing with Jewish Voice for Peace and Brown Academics for Justice in Palestine, that these definitions will be used against students, staff, and faculty who engage in divestment or other anti-Zionist organizing. It feels as though the university is getting ready to use its full force against any subsequent divestment related organizing. 

What angers and saddens me the most is that we are seeing the University use the criminal justice  system and internal university punishment as a way of circumventing real dialogue with students, staff, and faculty. 

The demonstrations, teach-ins, panels, and other programming that have filled the University are some of the most beautiful and engaging I have seen. These students have become lawyers, economists, and politicians, all using their talents to fight for a world where Palestinians can be safe and our institutions are not invested in war. 

In ignoring the students, in punishing them with state violence, the University is abandoning the values that should be intrinsic to higher education; those of: free speech, inquiry, creation, and belief that we can use our knowledge to make the world a better place.