“Raid Happening Now”: Scenes from UChicago’s Popular University

“We are the encampment. We’ll be back.”

Eman Abdelhadi

University of Chicago students camp out on May 4 to pressure the school administration to divest from interests that fund the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, and to invest in, among other things, Chicago neighborhoods in the South Side. Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images

This story was originally published in print shortly after the University of Chicago encampment was raided in the early morning hours of Tuesday May 7

CHICAGO — Students established a Popular University for Gaza on the University of Chicago’s Main Quad on Monday, April 29 — pitching tents and a makeshift camp in the shadow of century-old neo-gothic buildings that were built with money from some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

For the next eight days, anyone on this small piece of the quad who wanted to eat was fed. Anyone who wanted to sleep had shelter. Anyone who was ill was treated by well-supplied medics. Music filled the air, punctuated by rallies and speeches full of grief and rage and hope where students reiterated their demands of the university’s administration: disclose, divest, repair.

Students led and faculty, like myself, supported. We were of all different faiths, of all different backgrounds, of all different socioeconomic statuses.

Students dance together during a pro-Palestinian encampment on the University of Chicago campus on May 3. Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Popular University was both a revolutionary action and a rehearsal for the liberated future to which so many of us aspire, and so I took some notes along the way:

Day 1: Monday, April 29 at 9:55 a.m.

The morning’s rain has cleared, replaced by a shy sun. Students and faculty gather in groups of two or three on the edges of the quad. Like most of them, I mimic idle chatter with a nearby colleague. We try to appear inconspicuous, one eye on each other, another on the campus security guards in green vests.

Within 10 minutes, students emerge with painted plyboards and tents. They set up quickly, methodically birthing the UChicago Popular University for Gaza in just a few minutes.

I recruit two volunteers to run up to my office and gather the books I’d been accumulating over the weekend. Haymarket Books donated a box for our effort and the rest are from the libraries of friends and comrades. We carry the boxes down, take out the books (Light in Gaza, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, among many others) and erect the most recent version of the Refaat Alareer Memorial Library, which you could find at almost any other student encampment in the country. Immediately, students gather on the tarp around the books, pulling homework out of their backpacks and getting to work. Others spread out on the lawn with poster board, markers and paint — creating messages of freedom, peace and liberation. The encampment will have art, lots of art.

People look at books at a portable library dubbed the "Refaat Alareer Library." Refaat Alareer was a Palestinian writer, poet, and professor in Gaza who was killed in an Israeli air strike in the north of Gaza on December 6, 2023. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Around noon, the crowd — now about 200 strong — gathers for a rally featuring student speakers and organizers from various formations around Chicago. They remind us of the atrocities that brought us here and the university’s complicity in them. Our endowment is soaked in blood. Our institutional partners, like Hebrew University, are arms of the Israeli occupation and apartheid. They reiterate their demands: divestment from weapons manufacturers, divestment from Israeli institutions, disclosure of the university’s financial infrastructure, and repair, including for the South Side where UChicago’s ambitions have long harmed its Black neighbors.

At dusk, several faculty members spread blankets at the end of the encampment for dinner. I go from blanket to blanket meeting my colleagues’ children, who are enamored by the festivities. One colleague gently nudges her daughter to offer me some fries. I gratefully accept.

Day 4: Thursday, May 2 at 4 p.m.

Students rally at the edges of the quad as rain falls. They chant 40,000 People Dead, UChicago is Painted Red.” I chat with a friend as commotion surrounds the vacant flag pole. A few minutes later, students raise a Palestinian flag that flies over the Popular University for Gaza. I can’t help but cry.

An hour later, half a dozen students, mostly white men, gather around the flag, seething. They summon the university police. In turn, the police summon the faculty liaisons and claim the flag is a serious escalation, a red line. But the students who helped raise the flag roll duct tape around the pole’s base. The flag is here to stay, at least for a couple of days.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

Day 5: Friday, May 3 at 12 p.m.

Faculty link arms to face an angry crowd wielding American flags. They blast songs like the Star Spangled Banner” and God Bless the USA” over speakers. Police amass in riot gear. The university sends an emergency alert urging people to avoid the area.

Day 6: Saturday, May 4 in the late afternoon.

Palestinian students from across Chicago gather in a nearby building to discuss ongoing negotiations with the administration. They talk strategy — short term and long term, local and global.

Day 7: Sunday, May 5 at 12 p.m.

Two hours of negotiations with university administrators in what was supposed to be the last meeting to finalize an agreement that’s been in the works for two days. But administrators abruptly suspend negotiations, leaving us with the midnight deadline to clear the encampment that was instated as a precondition for negotiations.

University police confront protesters after raiding the encampment at the University of Chicago around 4:30am. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Day 8: Monday, May 6 at 3 a.m.

We are gathered in groups, trying to stay awake, joking with each other to hide our fear. The police do not come. We disperse around 4 a.m., thinking it’s been a false alarm, and the campers go to sleep. I make the 20-minute drive home. I eat a snack and try to catch up on messages. I climb into bed.

At about 4:45 a.m., as I am about to plug my phone into a charger, I see an urgent message: Raid happening now.” I bounce out of bed and to my car. By the time I get back to campus, the camp is gone. University police in riot gear raided the camp as soon as supporters left and students had gone to sleep. Many told me they woke up to their tents being pulled apart, to police shouting at them.

Students at the University of Chicago encampment stand off with university police. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

An hour later and the students are now rallying on nearby Ellis Avenue. They are angry and they are terrified. One student asks for a hug and weeps into my arms. I speak to the press. I link arms with faculty as the police try to move the crowd.

Before too long, all of our phones ding and an alert pops up: Alert: the Main Quad is closed and adjacent buildings are locked until the Quad cleanup is complete.” Dozens of handmade art signs and boards and expensive equipment have been shoved into dumpsters.

The quad looks empty, but our memories are not. Students rally. We are the encampment,” they say. We’ll be back.”

Eman Abdelhadi is an academic, activist and writer who thinks at the intersection of gender, sexuality, religion and politics. She is an assistant professor and sociologist at the University of Chicago, where she researches American Muslim communities. She is co-author of Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052 – 2072.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.