A week of protests for Spirit Rocks

Photo Courtesy of Mercury Staff

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Hundreds of impassioned Comets participated in a week of events protesting the Spirit Rocks’ Nov. 20 removal, organized by the Progressive Student Coalition.

The coalition, also known as PSC, was formed earlier this month by a group of student organizations to promote progressive causes on campus, primarily calling for the reinstatement of the rocks and protesting in support of Palestine. The PSC has organized protests, artistic events and informational sessions, which interpret the removal of the rocks as UTD deliberately suppressing pro-Palestinian student voices.

“We are here again protesting against the parasitic administration and their bloodthirsty President Benson,” a speaker from the Young Democratic Socialists of America said. “We are here again, fighting against the administration and their silencing of student voices.”

The first event was held on Monday, Nov. 27 at 2:30 p.m., where over 150 students gathered near the Spirit Rocks’ former location to protest the removal. Two students gave speeches before a different student broke away from the march and vandalized a university banner with spray paint. Dozens of students joined throughout the demonstration, with many participants wearing keffiyehs and chanting pro-Palestine slogans as they arrived at the front of the Administration Building.

“It is important that people should be allowed to openly express what is happening to Palestinians citizen, but when we do, we get called hateful names, labeled, fired from our jobs and censored,” alumnus Mohammad Shalabi said. “By choosing to remove the Spirit Rocks, they are choosing to take a stance against peaceful protesting and silencing our voices. But it will not stop us from speaking up.”

The next day, the Rainbow Coalition — which focuses on LGBTQ+ advocacy — held a stone-painting event at 2 p.m. Students painted small stones with Palestinian flags, gay rights flags and other messages and scattered then on the plot of grass where the Spirit Rocks used to stand.

“Obviously, removing the rocks doesn’t remove our free speech — we can still talk — but I feel like it’s a step toward repression of ideas because it was subjective,” chemistry sophomore Lillian Owings said. “If the concern truly was ‘we don’t want any political messaging on there,’ these rocks would’ve been gone long before I came here.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 29, the National Day of Action for Palestine, SJP organized “Chalk the Block” in affiliation with PSC, where over 200 students gathered to cover the Plinth with pro-Palestine chalk art. ATEC sophomore Chengyang Zhou collaborated with other participants on a large piece that created a Palestinian flag out of the names of killed Gazans.

“I actually come from a family of activists, revolutionaries … So I really resonated with the Palestinian sentiment, the desire to not be under occupation and the desire to ignore being talked down upon,” Zhou said.

Starting at 3 p.m. and continuing past sunset, students wrote slogans and drew artwork. Some creations demanded the Spirit Rocks return while many expressed solidarity for Palestine, by drawing the flag, cultural symbols like olives and watermelons — a replacement for the Palestinian flag in countries where the symbol is banned. The two largest drawings featured the names of those killed in Palestine since Oct. 7 and recorded all the outbreaks of violence in the region since Israel’s founding in 1948. SJP leadership reminded participants not to obstruct pathways or engage in hateful speech and read aloud the biographies of dead Palestinians, as law enforcement and UTD administrators watched from the sidelines.

“First, we have a message to administration that although you continue to silence the student body, the student body will continue to speak, especially in terms of Palestine,” Nour Saad SJP secretary and healthcare management senior, said. “The entire [Plinth] is filled with words, with drawings, with chants that speak out for our wish for freedom, with dates of all the recorded incidents against Palestinians with flags and even with the names of the martyrs … They’re here, and they’re spoken, and their stories are being told so that administration sees that we are not going to stay silent.”

On Thursday, Nov. 30, Young Democratic Socialists of America organized an informational presentation about the history of the Spirit Rocks, highlighting the political messages that students painted on the rocks between 2008 and 2023. Around 30 students from PSC-affiliated organizations gathered for the presentation. Ayed Abushaar, president of YDSA, argued the removal was part of a pattern of UTD opposing pro-Palestinian sentiments, starting with Benson publicly distancing himself from SG’s divestment resolution . He said this has recently extended into suppressing student expression, such as via removing the Spirit Rocks and students’ chalk drawings.

“I went and I chalked ‘free Palestine’ in front of the admin building, and I hadn’t finished ‘free’ until there was a truck next to me,” Abushaar said. “Workers [got] out, saying ‘We have to erase this’ … I moved to a different part of admin and within a few minutes of me chalking there, police roll up … [positioning] themselves between me and admin.”

Comets’ vehement response to the Spirit Rocks’ removal comes during a period of tension between students and universities. UT Austin students successfully challenged their university’s restrictive free speech policies in 2020, while Columbia University faced student opposition this month after it suspended its chapters of SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters. From ground-level protests to SG’s reinstatement resolution, Comets have been demonstrating their disagreement with UTD’s decision at all levels of organization.

“This was definitely a stab in the back,” Lyan Alshaikhsalama, a child learning and development sophomore, said. “I often felt safe here [at UTD], but now it feels even more prominent that UTD does not care for its Palestinian students … There wasn’t a removal of the rocks for any other movement … Yet you remove the rocks whenever Palestinians voice our opinions on the rocks?”

While PSC’s Week of Action had many Muslim and A­­rab attendees, participants at each event came from all backgrounds.

“I’m a Jewish student here and I walk past the rocks every day, and I’ve even spray painted stars of David on the rocks,” ATEC freshman Oliver Hood said. “No matter what side you’re on, the removal of the rocks is a removal of free speech on campus.”


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