May 24, 2024 10:00am

Gaza Protests

Respondents to this month’s survey said they approve of how the University of Tennessee has handled the peaceful demonstrations.

Photo of Scott Barker
Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Like cities across the United States, Knoxville has experienced protests over the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in recent months. Hamas terrorists killed nearly 1,200 people and took 252 hostages during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Some hostages have been returned or rescued, while an unknown number have been killed.

This week, Israel released its estimate of the death toll among Palestinians since its retaliatory invasion of Gaza — 14,000 combatants and 16,000 civilians. Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health has reported 35,000 Palestinians have died, but does not differentiate between combatants and civilians.

Locally, pro-Palestinian protesters have held peaceful demonstrations at the University of Tennessee, which have resulted in 21 arrests for trespassing, and at Knoxville City Council meetings. A solid majority of respondents to this month’s Power Poll said UT’s response to campus protests has been appropriate and an overwhelming majority opposes the protesters’ tactics at City Council meetings.

Protests at UT’s Knoxville campus throughout the month of May have been nonviolent, though not without law enforcement involvement. On May 2, UT Police arrested nine protesters when they stayed on the lawn in front of the College of Law past a 10 p.m. deadline set by the university. UT then set aside space for protesters in front of the Student Union, but kept the time limit in place.

Courts have upheld time, manner and place restrictions on speech as long as content isn’t regulated. Another 11 protesters were arrested on May 15. Among them was Yassin Terou, the popular owner of Yassin’s Falafel House. Terou said being handcuffed aggravated a nerve condition in his hand. He has filed a complaint with the UT Policde Department. No one was arrested last Saturday during a rally and march from Market Square to the UT campus.

Sixty-one percent of Power Poll members who responded to this month’s survey said UT’s response was appropriate. About one-third — 34 percent — said UT Police should not have arrested nonviolent protesters. Only 3 percent said UT should have been more aggressive dealing with them.

At City Council meetings, protesters have focused on getting the panel to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. More than 70 American cities — including Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis — have passed ceasefire resolutions. Councilwoman Amelia Parker has twice offered ceasefire resolutions that also would have condemned Israel for the killing of Palestinian civilians. At both meetings, members of the Palestinian community and members of the Jewish community showed up in large numbers to argue for and against the resolutions. Both resolutions died for lack of a second by another Council member.

Councilwoman Seema Singh has offered to work with members of both communities to craft a resolution acceptable to them, but so far she said she has only heard from Jewish community members. Since then, a small number of protesters have begun signing up to speak on specific agenda items at Council meetings, using the forum as a way to call for a ceasefire. The tactic, which stretches out the amount of time it takes to get through Council’s business, has not been persuasive.

Power Poll respondents overwhelmingly disagree with the tactic, with 82 percent saying it’s an abuse of the system, while only 11 percent agree with the protesters’ methods. A large majority of respondents — 74 percent — also don't think local governments should pass ceasefire resolutions. Only 7 percent responded that it’s appropriate, with 12 percent saying their support would depend on the resolution’s specific wording.

Despite increasing international pressure on Israel, the war shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Power Poll members were split in their predictions about the future of the local protest activity. Thirty-eight percent predicted the protests will lose steam — UT’s spring semester ended with graduation ceremonies last Saturday — but 23 percent anticipated they will continue as before. Fourteen percent predicted the number of protests would increase and 5 percent thought the demonstrations would intensify and possibly become violent. One in five, however, expressed uncertainty over what would happen in the coming months.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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