Umut Bayramoglu: The night the First Amendment died on Jayhawk Boulevard, and why you should care (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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A firsthand account of the anti-war protest at KU on May 9, 2024:

On the evening of Thursday, May 9, I noticed social media calls for support by KU Students for Justice in Palestine. They had been given a curfew of 10 p.m. by the University of Kansas to shut down their encampment in front of Fraser Hall: “This is our final notice of policies, limitations, and associated consequences. The site must be cleared by 10 p.m., daily, beginning today, May 9, 2024. This includes, but is not limited to, furniture, bedding, tarps, and other camping paraphernalia. Anyone with items University identifies as camping paraphernalia after 10 p.m., will be removed from the site,” the letter said. “If there are breaches or policy violations, we will take quick action using the necessary resources and reserve the right to further pursue formal discipline under applicable university codes and policies. Additionally, KU SJP bears responsibility for any and all actions of non-KU affiliated individuals who join your assembly.” KU SJP asked for the community to come support them, so they could continue their encampment. 

So, around 9 p.m., I packed a tote bag of granola bars and snacks and headed up the hill to my old alma mater. The scene I found at the encampment was very peaceful — a number of students gathered under the tent around tables and chairs, and some students outside of the tent area chanting very respectful chants with their demands from the KU administration: “Disclose, divest,” etc. There was an altar set up with candles and flowers, honoring the civilian victims of war. There were no signs of hateful rhetoric anywhere to be found. They were peaceful anti-war protesters, exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, down to the letter of the law. 

They continued to chant at their peaceful assembly right through the 10 p.m. curfew with no sign of KUPD coming to enforce the clearing of the encampment. They were planning to spend the night and started setting up tents for the overnight campers, when around 11:25 p.m., law enforcement vehicles started rolling up Jayhawk Boulevard. The Lawrence Police Department was first on the scene. In the next couple of minutes, more vehicles from the Baldwin City and Eudora police departments, and unmarked vehicles from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and KU Police Department arrived on the scene.

By 11:47 p.m., an unmarked sedan started making an announcement through loudspeakers that, “On account of the university, it has been determined you have violated our policy, so you do not have the authority to be on this property and you are hereby directed to leave. If you do not leave, you will be trespassing and you will be arrested.” By 11:50 p.m., dozens of law enforcement officers started moving toward the encampment. The student protesters started moving down the sidewalk toward Watson Library. 

It was then that I noticed a group of four young men clapping from the sidewalk closer to Jayhawk Boulevard, cheering the protesters leaving, and I decided to move closer to them. One of them asked me, “Are you proud of wearing that scarf?” referring to the keffiyeh I had wrapped around my shoulder. I did not answer and just stared at him. He then proceeded to tell me that he was Jewish and he was graduating that weekend and he was worried about his parents and grandparents seeing “this protest.” At which point, I did reply with, “If your Jewish grandparents who know of the Holocaust see this, they will be impressed that there are young people standing up against genocide and apartheid.” (Bad math on my part there, I keep forgetting these students are much, much younger than me, so his grandparents were most likely not alive during WWII, mine were.)

The members of KU SJP kept moving down Jayhawk Boulevard, chanting and keeping their distance from the law enforcement officers stalking them. In front of Stauffer Flint Hall, the home of William Allen White School of Journalism, from where I graduated 26 years ago, is where I received my first warning from one of the officers to stop filming and leave campus, lest I be arrested. The irony was so bright, like the aurora borealis that would visit us a couple days later.

I dropped back from the group of KU SJP members remaining and as they went straight through Wescoe Beach on the sidewalk — I surprised myself with my muscle memory from 30 years ago in remembering how to navigate the labyrinth of concrete staircases around Wescoe Hall to keep my distance, yet still remain within good filming view. 

I filmed the desperate students heading into Anschutz Library and followed them in, at which point the law enforcement officers on the scene just switched into SWAT mode and started sweeping the library. For the record, there weren’t that many students studying for finals in the library. I saw way more drunk students returning from the bars later than I encountered in Anschutz. 

But by that point, I had already been identified as a “trouble-maker” on account of me just wearing a keffiyeh and just filming things on my phone, so I went outside. I don’t know what exactly transpired in Anschutz, but I was in the lobby when they brought down the three students in plastic handcuffs at 12:09 a.m. As I was filming their arrest, I was approached by Sgt. Robert Blevins of KU Police Department that it was my “last warning” to leave the area, lest I be arrested. 

I ran around the corner of the building, took off my keffiyeh, put it in my purse and continued to film without threat of arrest. I got within a few feet of the LPD vehicle that the kiddos got put in for transport. 

By 12:31 a.m., all 11 officers from various agencies left Anschutz Library. I encountered a student shortly after, trying to get to their vehicle. They were just threatened with arrest, on their way to their vehicle and understandably shaken and upset. I walked them to their car, then caught up with the legal observers outside Anschutz. 

The encampment in front of Fraser Hall had been picked clean by the officers by the time we got back about 1 a.m. All the food, water, medical supplies, camping equipment, tables and chairs, all gone.

Why should you care about this? You should care about it any time any group of people’s First Amendment rights are being trampled on. 

Twenty-six years ago, I walked down the hill at KU to receive my degree in newspaper-editorial journalism. My parents from Istanbul, Turkey, were there; my host parents who hosted me in Stilwell, Kansas, were there; my soon-to-be in-laws from Junction City, Kansas, were there. It was such a celebratory moment. 

I am the daughter of Turkish student activists who were wrongfully incarcerated in the 1970s. A big reason for me choosing to move here was for the rights protected under the First Amendment. Seeing it trampled on my alma mater’s campus left me so disillusioned, so worried. Who are we? Who are we becoming? 

In solidarity,

— Umut Bayramoglu, Lawrence

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Umut Bayramoglu: The night the First Amendment died on Jayhawk Boulevard, and why you should care (Column)

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”Seeing (the First Amendment) trampled on my alma mater’s campus left me so disillusioned, so worried. Who are we? Who are we becoming?” Umut Bayramoglu writes in this column.


More Community Voices:

Umut Bayramoglu: The night the First Amendment died on Jayhawk Boulevard, and why you should care (Column)

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”Seeing (the First Amendment) trampled on my alma mater’s campus left me so disillusioned, so worried. Who are we? Who are we becoming?” Umut Bayramoglu writes in this column.


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