Despite a 10 p.m. deadline Thursday, University of Toronto students remained in their encampment through the night, peacefully demonstrating and demanding that the administration disclose all investments and completely divest from Israel. 

As of Sunday morning, the encampment remained standing.

“I have a lot of energy, optimism and hope, which I know are things that are hard to come by, but it is moments like this that make me feel hopeful and optimistic because there are 150 students here who are willing to risk arrest, willing to risk suspension to stand up for what is right,” said Erin, a student and organizer with the group OccupyUofT. 

The King’s College Circle encampment was set up in the early morning hours on Thursday. Student activists, staff and alum with banners, signs, and Palestinian flags knocked down the fencing and put up dozens of tents. 

An “entry point” on the south side of the encampment was established and for most of the day, visitors passed freely in and out of camp. U of T students are facing the unique issue of dealing with this pre-established perimeter around the lawn, which was put up by the administration just days before. At some U.S. encampments, students have been able to establish a perimeter, such as at UCLA, where demonstrators used plywood and other materials to create walls. 

As the Thursday deadline drew closer, the administration informed demonstrators that although the university “respects [its] members’ rights to assemble and protest.” Demonstrators were told that they must clear their encampment or they would be removed, because “protesting will not be allowed after 10 p.m.” 

Immediately, encampment organizers began soliciting support on social media and through their personal networks from progressive communities and groups, many of whom travelled to the U of T campus for a 7 p.m. rally to “protect camp.” 

While preparing for the night ahead, at approximately 4 p.m., roughly 40 Zionist counter protesters descended upon the outside perimeter of the camp. One managed to break through the entry point but was quickly encircled by demonstrators and forced back out. The counter protest was called by Meir Weinstein, former national director of the Canadian branch of the Jewish Defense League, who at the time of publishing is still calling for another counter-protest Sunday, May 5. 

On Thursday night, as the sun set over the People’s Circle for Palestine, more than 1,000 people were chanting, singing and surrounding the encampment in an effort to protect it should police or security move in. 

Before 10:30 p.m., the university administration announced that the encampment could stay so long it remained peaceful — the students inside the fence, as well as the crowds outside, erupted into cheers.

“Who protects us?” shouts a demonstrator to the crowd on the other side of the fence, who was perched on top of his friend’s shoulders as they heard the news. 

“We protect us!” shouted back the crowd, now composed of more than 1,000 students, activists, community members, alumni, families, and union organizers — most of whom had now stayed with the encampment for more than three hours. 

Over the past month, post-secondary students around the world have begun to occupy their campuses in solidarity with Palestinians, demanding that their universities divest from companies with ties to Israel. 

“This is about the sanctity of human life, everywhere. I do this because protecting human rights is what I hope to dedicate my life to,” said Kalliope Envar Mccall, one of the roughly 100 students, staff and faculty that set up camp in the King’s College Circle, now referred to as the People’s Circle for Palestine. 

By Friday, more than 120 student encampments had sprung up at campuses around the world. 

This past week, that wave of student organizing reached Canadian campuses.

The first to establish occupations in Canada were students from McGill and Concordia Universities, led by the Montreal chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement, and the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights chapters at both universities. Students from both schools set up camp at McGill, where it has continued to grow in numbers.

Demonstrators across the country have reported enormous support from the community, with several announcing that they’ve become overwhelmed with food and other donations. 

“Honestly, we had to ask community members to stop bringing food — we were so, so grateful,” said a student from the University of British Columbia’s encampment — now being referred to by students as the People’s University for Gaza. 

Still, several of these peaceful protests, particularly in the U.S., have been victim to overwhelming and indiscriminate police violence. Since encampments began in the U.S., commentators have been drawing worrying parallels to the Kent State Massacre, where anti-Vietnam-War student protests culminated in the Ohio National Guard arriving on campus and opening fire on demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine. 

On Tuesday, the NYPD stormed into New York’s Columbia University campus, after police were called in by school president and UK baroness Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, and forcefully cleared students, claiming that “outside agitators” were responsible for leading the demonstrations.

In California, more than 2,000 people were arrested and the encampment was destroyed at UCLA following violent clashes with police. At other schools, videos circulated on social media of students and faculty being violently arrested, tackled, and even shot at with rubber bullets.

Meanwhile, Brown University set a rare example of successfully getting administrators to agree to consider divesting from companies tied to the Israeli military campaign. In Canada, Kamloops’s Thompson Rivers University also announced an agreement to disclose investments within 30 days and a commitment to review and divest.

Faculty at Columbia say they were engaging in negotiations with students before NYPD were called in.

McGill University called in Montreal police and sought legal action against the student protest, citing antisemitism. “This appears to show a preference for maintaining financial and academic ties that support Israeli policies, ignoring student concerns,” Jamila Ewais from Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East writes in a statement. Such actions not only dismiss the legitimate issues raised by protesters but also divert attention from the moral and logical grounds of their demands.”

A Quebec Superior Court judge last week rejected the injunction request, which called for the encampment to be forcefully removed by police — threatening levels of violence recently seen at Columbia University and UCLA.

The injunction was filed by two students asserting that “not only does this encampment violate McGill’s bylaws, it creates a dangerous, hostile, aggressive and violent environment.”

This echoes the anti-Palestinian rhetoric that dominated the mainstream narrative in the wake of October 7th, asserting that any critique of the Israeli government, Zionist ideology, or advocacy for the Palestinian struggle is a form of antisemitism. However, this feeds into the fundamental fallacy that Judaism and Zionism are one and the same.

At the UBC encampment, the Jewish Faculty Network released a statement in support stating that “We reject the misleading notion that these protests, or other protests against Israel, are inherently antisemitic. Neither are displays of Palestinian cultural and political identity, including keffiyehs and Palestinian flags. The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a dangerous and bad-faith tactic that has been used to repress critics of Israel, including many Jewish people like ourselves.”

Hostility and suppression from police and university administration further puts students in danger by limiting access to essentials. 

“The sense of community that we’ve built in our camp is the strongest form of resistance we have,” a UBC student said.