UTD professor reflects on arrest, experiences of ‘UTD 21’

History professor Ben Wright was arrested and jailed during the "Gaza Liberation Plaza" encampment raid alongside 20 others

Surjaditya Sarkar | Mercury Staff

While attempting to reduce the tension between encroaching police and student protesters, UTD history professor Ben Wright was arrested alongside two other colleagues on May 1 at the “Gaza Liberation Plaza” encampment. 

Wright spent over 20 hours in Collin County Jail alongside the rest of “the UTD 21” — the 20 other professors, students and community members detained during the raid on the “Gaza Liberation Plaza.” A professor of early U.S. history, Wright visited the student encampment three times to bring the protesters reading materials about past student protests and civil disobedience, among other topics, as part of a “teach-in” during the encampment. Wright told students that protesting would not be a simple affair because there will always be resistance to change, but that doesn’t mean they should forsake their morals.  

“I was struck by the kind of order and dogged commitment to peaceful protest and the conscientiousness which went into … [keeping] lanes open for students to travel,” Wright said. “There was a conversation about if the Fire Marshal does come and talk to them, what kind of approach they will take to moving the encampment to comply with safety concerns. So my first impression when I got there was how pervasive that sense of calm responsibility was.” 

Wright said he rushed to UTD on May 1 as soon as he heard about the encampment because he felt worried about how administration would react to the protesting students, especially with how peaceful protests have historically been met with violence in the U.S. However, when he arrived, Wright said he found a wonderfully organized and peaceful gathering of students who had supplied food and water for the encampment, created teams of legal observers, set up a medical tent and issued clear guidelines for participation in the encampment. The encampment rules prohibited any form of bigotry within the encampment, mandated that participants respect the space they occupied and each other, banned vandalism and banned speaking with counter-protesters to avoid confrontations. Wright said he was concerned about the potential delay the encampment would create for students, so he and a colleague timed themselves taking detours around Chess Plaza. The encampment added less than 30 seconds to their respective walk times.  

“The protest was not the product of outsiders,” Wright said.  “It was the work of some of our brightest and most committed students.” 

Between faculty meetings, writing a book review, stopping by the encampment to drop off books and grading papers, Wright said he had a fairly normal day until he began receiving concerned messages from students around 3:30 p.m. saying that state troopers had arrived on campus. Wright made his way to Chess Plaza and around 3:45 p.m., he heard student leaders reading the notice UTD administration had sent them that mandated the encampment be immediately dismantled. Fifteen minutes later, state troopers arrived at Chess Plaza and Wright stood between them and the students.  

“At a minimum, I understood myself as engaging in peaceful protest against an absurd, dangerous overreaction, but I still hoped for de-escalation,” Wright said. 

Wright said that after the notice had been read, police gave the protesters no other orders. Coordinated waves of officers pushed into the encampment in rapid succession and quickly arrested students, faculty and community members.  

“We saw these officers lining up in what looked like military formations, and I looked back and I saw the eyes of students — who were young, who were scared, who were confused, who were looking for a sense of guidance or clarity from campus administrators,” Wright said.” But the officers were not there …  to do anything other than to arrest people and to destroy.” 

Standing in between the officers and students made Wright one of the first to be arrested. Wright said the officers chained his wrists, waist and legs, and he was thrown into one of the hot transport vans alongside arrested students and UTD professor Ali Alibhai. Beyond the physical violence of the arrests, Wright said officers at Collin County Jail continued the abuse verbally, through what he perceived as veiled threats and through open intimidation. 

“When we arrived at the Collin County Jail, we were marched out one by one with machine guns pointed at us, and we were told to stand up against the wall and not to move,” Wright said. “It was incredibly intense. It is crazy how quickly your sense of self and experience changes when you have men with guns screaming and dehumanizing you.” 

Wright said the students were spectacular throughout their detainment — they immediately began talking to one another and Wright about their academic interests and passions, and emphasized how the repression they had faced on campus was miniscule compared to what the people of Gaza go through every day. At the jail itself, Wright said students bonded with other inmates and learned from them about the U.S. prison system; in exchange, students gave inmates reading recommendations and encouraged them to pursue their academic interests despite the hurdles they had faced.  

“UTD is seen as a nerdy school, and I think for one night, we made Collin County Jail nerdy,” Wright said.  

Wright was released May 2 on a personal recognizance bond at no cost. Wright said he was taken aback by the prejudice the judge overseeing arraignment demonstrated toward students and faculty: some inmates were let out for free while others had to pay $3,000 bonds despite being arrested under similar circumstances. Wright is prohibited from coming to campus for anything beyond teaching or work-related duties. Wright said he finds parallels between the reactions to current student protests and those which occurred during the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.  

“When we look at these student protests in hindsight, they receive celebration and elicit nostalgia, but when they are happening in real time they receive this condemnation, dismissal and fear,” Wright said. “I have a feeling that 50 years from now, people will be remembering the UTD 21. What now is something the administration is ashamed of will be something it talks about with pride in the future.” 

  • I am a former student of UTD – never had the pleasure of taking a class with Dr. Wright, but I am deeply appreciative of his commitment to protecting his students, a conviction that UTD admin clearly does not share. It is incredibly shameful that peaceful student protestors should be met with such excessive, disproportionate force. The response of admin contradicts the university’s purported values and the very purpose of educational institutions as forums of dialogue, discussion, and yes, dissent. It’s faculty like Dr. Wright that represent the best of what a university can and should be.

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