Clifton Crais, a history professor, was walking to class at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia, outside Atlanta, on Thursday shortly before 10am when several students rushed up to him.

“Please, please contact president Fenves,” they begged, referring to the university president, Gregory Fenves. “Ask him to not call the police.” Several dozen protesters seeking the university’s divestment from Israel and opposing a $109m police training center colloquially known as “Cop City” had set up tents on the school’s grassy quad – the size of a football field – several hours before.

Crais had spent the last year working with fellow faculty members on a policy about when the school could bring police on campus; the students were asking the right person. That policy: police could come on campus “only under threat of bodily harm or property destruction”, he said in an interview.

The professor dashed off a one-line email on his phone to Fenves; Enku Gelaye, the dean of campus life; and Ravi Bellamkonda, the provost. “I do hope you will not summon the Atl police,” he wrote.

It was too late. Within minutes, dozens of Atlanta police officers and Georgia state troopers had arrested 28 people – 20 of whom were “Emory community members”, according to a statement from the school, including three faculty members and an unclear number of students from Emory and other Atlanta schools.

The university’s response was likely the quickest show of police force in response to a divestment protest among the dozens nationwide that have occurred in recent weeks. It was also probably the only one where pepper balls, stun guns and rubber bullets were used against students, faculty and community members – at one of the few student protests in the south to date.

This singular set of circumstances was perhaps most grotesquely highlighted by the Georgia state representative Mike Collins, who posted Thursday afternoon on X: “Not sure what y’all are doing up north, but we don’t give them the time to encamp. Tazers set to stun!”

Officers detain a protester at Emory University on 26 April 2024. Photograph: Mike Stewart/AP
Officers detain a protester at Emory University on 26 April 2024. Photograph: Mike Stewart/AP

The Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, issued a statement saying: “College campuses … in Georgia … will never be a safe haven for those who promote terrorism and extremism that threatens the safety of students.”

Asked whether Kemp was referring to Emory students as terrorists, spokesperson Garrison Douglas said the governor was referring to participants in demonstrations at other campuses – and that “such activities will not be tolerated in Georgia”.

Campus demonstrations elsewhere have generally been peaceful. The spokesperson denied a request for an interview with him or Kemp by saying the governor’s statement does not “require clarification”.

‘I’m not doing anything!’

In the 48-plus hours since, fallout has included Crais writing a “motion of no confidence” in Fenves that appears likely to be approved by faculty via an electronic vote in the coming days; a statement from 19 state legislators opposing “the [university’s] use of extreme anti-riot tactics … [and] a dangerous escalation to protests which were by all accounts peaceful and nonviolent”; and growing numbers of protesters arriving on campus, reaching about 500 by Friday, including an ongoing occupation at the Candler School of Theology.

The faculty motion calls Thursday’s events “unprecedented in the history of Emory College and University” – which dates to 1836. “No confidence,” Crais said, “means we don’t want you to be here anymore.”

One person who wasn’t at the packed emergency meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the motion was Emil’ Keme, professor of English and Indigenous studies. Keme, an Indigenous K’iche’ Maya scholar and one of only two Indigenous tenured faculty members at Emory, was hired in 2022 to establish an Indigenous studies program. From Guatemala, Keme came to the US as a teenager, escaping “a civil war against my people … involving the Guatemalan army, who received training from Israelis”.

Keme had class Thursday morning and saw a crowd on the quad when he arrived at about 10am. He walked over to see what was happening. He said: “Police immediately began to force people to move. I felt like I was in a war zone, with all the police and their weapons, the rubber bullets. We were pushed away. I held on to one of my students.

“Police took the student next to me, pushed an older lady nearby and then pushed me.”

Keme told the officers: “I’m a professor. I’m not doing anything!” Police pushed him on to the sidewalk surrounding the quad; he fell on his knees. They arrested and charged him with “disorderly conduct”, a misdemeanor. He was released the same day. Most of the arrestees were released Friday, also with misdemeanor charges.

But the impact remains, Keme said. “It was very traumatic, and triggering in many ways,” he said. “The university is supposed to be a place of ideas, of dialogue and freedom of speech. All of that came crumbling down.”

Keme said he didn’t want to attend the emergency faculty meeting called on Friday afternoon because he was still distraught. “I knew I might lose it,” he said. Students who are also distraught have spoken to him. “They don’t want to accept their degrees from Emory – and I completely understand,” he said.

Crais said the meeting was attended by at least 250 faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences, about half the total number and more than he had seen at any meeting in his 20 years at Emory.

‘Respect for Palestinian voices’

Other faculty members who were also at the protest spoke at the meeting, including one who tried to speak with one of her students as they were being arrested, only to have a state trooper point a long gun loaded with rubber bullets at her forehead, according to Lynne Huffer, a philosophy professor who was present. That professor said “she no longer felt safe, was not coming back to campus and will be talking with an attorney”, Huffer said.

J Wroe, a doctoral student and research assistant in biomedical engineering, was also arrested Thursday. She was in a class when she started seeing mention of police on campus on her phone.

Wroe also dashed off an email to Fenves, telling the president she was “deeply ashamed to be affiliated with the administration of the university”.

She finished class and rushed to the quad, where she was “grabbed and arrested within 90 seconds of my arrival”. Five officers pushed her to the ground and grabbed her arms and legs. They put zip ties on her wrists so tightly that she still has not recovered feeling in her right thumb, two days later.

On Friday afternoon, about twice the number of protesters as the day before had assembled on campus. A survivor of the 1948 Nakba, in which Israel drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land, addressed a rapt crowd of about 500. As night fell, a smaller crowd danced dabke, an Arabic folk dance.

Fahed Abu-Akel, born in Galilee and a survivor of the Nakba, at Emory University on 26 April 2024. Photograph: John Arthur Brown/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Members of Jewish Voices for Peace participate in the Sabbath at Emory University on 26 April 2024. Photograph: John Arthur Brown/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

At midnight, police arrived once again on campus. Georgia statehouse member Ruwa Romman – one of only two Palestinian state legislators in the south-east – and faculty had joined protesters. After a brief standoff, protesters agreed to leave campus.

Meanwhile, Keme said that some things he’d like to see in response to Thursday’s events are a public apology from Fenves, all charges dropped and a dialogue with students – “especially those who were arrested”.

He’d also like to see “a signed document from the president allowing protests, and respect for Palestinian voices on campus”. He added: “I don’t know what the fear is.”

Wroe called attention back to the protesters’ goal: “[The university’s] involvement in global repression also needs to be apologized for, followed by action.”

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