It seemed like a recipe for disaster. On Tuesday night, right-wing activist Charlie Kirk drew hundreds of his fans to a speaking event being held at the University of Washington, about 200 yards away from the student protesters who have been camping out in solidarity with Palestinians facing Israel’s ongoing genocide.

That afternoon, pro-Palestinian students prepared for potential agitators and a police crackdown that was foreshadowed by a small group of cops guarding the school’s newly erected barricades at all entrances to the Quad. But the University of Washington took a hands-off approach and while The Stranger certainly observed some agitators looking for trouble, the hours-long stand-off remained relatively calm. 

As has been proven during other demonstrations across the country, police presence can be the special ingredient for making protests turn chaotic, but students aren’t giving the UW much praise for not ordering the armed defenders of the capitol to beat the shit out of them. Admin still has not agreed to student demands to materially and academically divest from Israel, cut ties with Boeing, and end the repression of pro-Palestinian students and faculty on campus. 

Crossover Episode 

Earlier this week, some students requested that the UW administration pull the plug on the Charlie Kirk event fearing that his fanboys would agitate what had been a peaceful occupation in the Quad. But the UW said their hands were tied. A registered student organization (RSO) invited Kirk and, as a UW spokesperson told The Stranger, they are “free to extend invitations to guest speakers.” At 12:30 pm Kirk tabled on the HUB lawn and asked attendees of his event to debate him (read: stroke his ego). At 6:30 pm, Kirk held a sold-out speaking event in the HUB Ballroom. But campers from the United Front for Palestinian Liberation’s (UF) Liberated Zone kept to themselves during those events for the most part, and it seemed the Kirk crowd did the same. 

Media liaisons for UF told The Stranger Tuesday afternoon that they did not want to engage with any of the students attending Kirk’s events. They wanted to defend their occupation, their chosen strategy to protest for their demands.

While the students continued their scheduled programming, they were joined by another group of protesters—coordinated by the Palestinian Youth Movement, Samidoun, and others—who marched from the UW light rail station to the Liberated Zone to grow to a rally of hundreds. 

At around 6:45 pm, Liberated Zone protesters started closing off some entrances to the Quad using the barricades the UW propped up earlier Tuesday afternoon. The protesters wanted to keep out any agitators so they could, as media liaison Zho Ragen wrote in a message to The Stranger, hold a peaceful rally “centered on the reality in the ground in Gaza, where the Zionist entity has destroyed every single university and Rafah, the last area of Gaza not invaded by Zionist forces, is being bombed.”

The protesters took special care with the entrance on the east side of the Quad between Miller Hall and Smith Hall, the closest access point to Kirk’s event at the HUB, by forming a defensive line that blocked access to outsiders. A large group of protesters stood at the top of the stairs behind the fence, and another line of Black Bloc protesters, armed with umbrellas, trash cans, and makeshift shields, formed in front of them. A bike brigade formed another line in front of Black Bloc, making for a three-times reinforced blockade between Kirk fans walking out of the HUB and the Liberated Zone. 

Students forming a blockade. HK

Between 6:45 pm and about 10 pm, when the final MAGA hats left the perimeter, everything stayed pretty calm. People asked to go through the line of protesters instead of around but to no avail. 

For the most part, the pro-Palestine side chanted to an audience of curious normies who watched them like a parade float, and a few white guys in their twenties took selfies with them in what seemed to be a mean-spirited joke. The UW’s Dean of Diversity walked around freely, asking people on both sides of the line and reporters if they “felt safe.” I say “freely” because other student-led protest movements have literally held deans hostage. So, yeah. Pretty chill. And it looks like UW thinks so too!

“Given the circumstances, through good planning and the fact that the vast majority of people participating in various activities sought to exercise their free speech rights without violence or aggression, we reached a largely peaceful conclusion to the night,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta said in an email to The Stranger

Balta said “A relatively small number of individuals and groups who went looking for confrontations found them and we have received some reports of altercations.” He declined to disclose more details about the reported altercations. 

Isolated Instances

The Stranger only saw a few altercations in the more than three-hour-long blockade.

At about 6:50 pm, one person tried to breach the line by going through some trees and bushes on the side. Video from that evening does not make clear how, but the protesters kicked him out quickly. At the time, several other entrances remained open.

Another scuffle broke out around 7:50 pm. Again, the details are muddy, but people near the action told The Stranger that a counter-protester tried to grab a flag from someone on the front line, failed, and then another counter-protester, who seemed to know her, allegedly started punching. Others “held” the agitators and “defused” the situation within two minutes. 

At around 8:30 pm, a guy who said he was from Bellevue tried to sicc the three cops who were hanging off to the side on someone from the Pro-Palestine camp who he claimed spray painted a live-streamer’s camera before disappearing into the blockade. The officer told him that there was no safe way for the cops to enter. The Bellevue guy called him a coward for not “doing [his] job.”

Learning Not to Overreact 

But the cop was kind of right. If cops tore through the three lines of defense formed by protestors, it would have escalated the situation, which had remained pretty calm given the size of the crowd. 

UW spokesperson Balta did not respond to The Stranger’s question about their strategy with cops at the Liberated Zone last night. Ragen told The Stranger that UF’s negotiators told UW admin that, “We strongly oppose policing, as the police often escalate violence. We definitely think the UW saw the brutality enacted by the police on students and faculty on other campuses and are hoping to avoid a similar situation.”

While UW’s hands-off approach may have saved the protesters from the tear gas and rubber bullets seen at other recent student protests, it could be a sign that UW will simply wait the campers out. As I wrote when UF first took over the Quad last week, UW has three options here: Cave to their demands, use cops to clear them out like other schools, or just ignore them and hope they go home for summer break. 

UF acknowledged that UW has so far refrained from sending in cops to ransack the camp. However, it doesn’t seem like UW is making huge strides in meeting their demands either. 

“[A]dministration is gesturing at its own bureaucratic processes as reasons for why it can't commit to divesting from Israel and cutting ties with Boeing, both of which are entities that are deeply implicated in violence against Palestinians greater than what the students movement across the US is facing,” Ragen said in a message to The Stranger. 

The University of Washington's Quad on Tuesday afternoon. ALEX GARLAND

Back to the Focus

Both sides have kept pretty quiet about negotiations, but it’s clear if UW conceded, it would mark a big shift. UF media liaison Gina Liu told The Stranger that UW would need to pull all investments from BlackRock, Silicon Valley Capital Partners, and others. According to UF’s estimates, that’s more than $200 million the UW would need to divest. 

As for cutting ties with Boeing, the UW has basically rejected the demand. As the Seattle Times reported, Boeing has had a close relationship with UW for more than a century. Since 1917, Boeing has donated more than $100 million to UW and UW has funneled countless students into Boeing’s workforce. UW President Ana Mari Cauce said, “Boeing’s support for the UW in time, talent, and funding cannot be replaced by other endowment sources, nor would we choose to sever our relationship if they could be.”

There’s less indicating where negotiations stand with the protesters’ demand to stop repression of pro-Palestinian students and faculty. 

Regardless of where the UW admin stands, protesters told The Stranger that the students are clearly on their side. The Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), the student government, voted Tuesday to pass a resolution demanding that UW comply with UF’s demands. Additionally, nearly 3,000 people have signed their petition calling on UW to divest from Israel. 

If UF continues to gain broad support, UW may have a harder time just waiting them out.