The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

Opinion: A First-Hand Account of the UVA Protests

A centuries-long conflict paved the way for the atrocities of October 7th, ultimately igniting the flame for civil disobedience amongst America’s youth–a phenomenon that was witnessed first-hand by many in the recent weeks.
Sunny Li
A tent encampment at UVA, approximately two hours before the protests erupted on May 4.

On October 7th, 2023, a horrific terrorist attack in the Middle East made ripples that spread worldwide, shaking the political climates of many major nations. Nearly seven months later, tensions peaked at various university campuses in the United States, as protestors, counter-protestors, and law enforcement clashed, further dividing the already polarized American public.

However, as to be expected of any for-profit corporation, many mainstream media outlets moved on to the next big headline, quickly diverting Americans’ attention from what should have been a revolutionarily eye-opening event.

But I haven’t forgotten. I was there.

On May 4th, 2024, during a campus tour, I stood amidst a massive demonstration at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the memory of actually witnessing the Gaza protests that had been so frequently discussed on the news, in classrooms, and between peers has lingered with me ever since, drastically changing an aspect of my holistic perspective on not only the protests or the war in Gaza, but also the entire future of American public discourse.

However, as with any revelation, a series of complex changes in the status quo of both this country, and the world’s affairs needed to precede.

Even within the first hours of the attack on October 7th, the seams of division were being sewn. While a majority in America, including US President Joe Biden, stood in solidarity with Israel–a metric that was only recently reversed–sympathies for Palestine, especially among young Americans, started increasing following the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, the tensions would lead to a division that would seem both irreparable and destructive, as accounts of both antisemitism and islamophobia only continued to increase.

Unfortunately, I can attest to the nature of this demoralizing political climate. While I was fortunate, and perhaps privileged, enough to avoid being involved in any direct discourse, numerous opinions of many around me echoed anything but sympathy or compromise.

Here was what I heard, what I saw, and what followed me up until my first hand-experience.

On one hand, there were many people around the world who lacked any sympathy for the suffering that the innocent Israeli citizens had to endure on October 7th, because they saw the attack as a mere extension of a greater geopolitical struggle for the liberation of Palestine, and while there is truth to that sentiment, I could not help but feel disappointed in the failure to see the atrocities for what they also were–horrific atrocities committed against innocent people.

What was worse was that I even witnessed some of those around me accepting unfounded claims from media outlets and even authority and parental figures that ran dangerously close to the Jewish Question conspiracy theories espoused by the Nazis in the 1930s.

There were ideas being espoused concerning the supposed disproportionate amount of Pro-Israel media, trying to assert that such apparent inequality was due to the fact that Jewish people supposedly possessed most of the corporate power in America. While I doubt those people–who I can attest to be intelligent critical thinkers–ever fully bought into those ideals, it was still shocking and worrying to hear.

But on the other hand, my disappointment only grew when I saw the shortcomings on the other end of the spectrum. Several who stood firmly with the State of Israel simply refused to speak about the destructive war in anything but black-and-white terms.

To them, the massive amount of demolition that was occurring in the Gaza Strip was merely an inevitable necessity in the State of Israel’s attempt to defend itself. To them, the growing civilian death toll was merely an afterthought. To them, the elimination of Hamas was first on the list of priorities, and any measure necessary was permissible.

To them, the actions taken in response to the October 7th atrocities were simply a matter of security, and for that, I was disappointed that this side of the spectrum failed to see the atrocities for what they also were–a reflection of the tragic, complex, and centuries-long history of this region of the world.

I held onto hope that these extreme stances only represented a vocal minority. While it is likely that I was correct, as time went on, it certainly didn’t feel that way.

Gradually, Pro-Palestine started to mean failing to admit the numerous atrocities committed by a militant group, ignorance or negligence to the rise in antisemitism, and distortion of terminology that was once considered taboo.

Slowly, Pro-Israel started to mean failing to hold a nation accountable for its lack of regard for civilian casualties, ignorance or negligence to the rise in islamophobia, and distortion of identities that were not always so interchangeable.

But there was one similarity both sides seemed to share–an undying urge for control over the narrative, the desperate desire to smear the other side, and the disappointing, but glaring lack of accountability.

Unfortunately, the media only sought to amplify these polarizing and problematic viewpoints, as a wave of Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine video clips–which cherry-picked the absolute worst people on both sides both domestically, internationally, and even in the midst of the war–spread across news outlets and social media, manipulating viewers to hate the opposition even further.

I knew not everyone thought this way; I knew the majority did not think this way.

But it sure didn’t feel that way.

Not once did I hear a single, genuine, independent offer of sympathy to the innocent people of Israel and Palestine. If there was any, it was within the midst–or worse, a mere tool–of political discourse.

Then came April 17th, 2024–the day Columbia University initially burst out into protest. Suddenly, the debate was given a whole new layer, as the Gaza conflict had become intertwined with the interests of many young Americans.

However, I was nothing short of frustrated. The mutual objectification and dehumanization of innocent people was now extended to not only those directly involved in the conflict, but also those who simply held opinions of said conflict.

Those who felt unsafe in what was supposed to be a safe space for them were merely brushed aside, while those who wanted nothing more than to exercise their right to protest were promptly shut down and vilified. But one question stood out amongst the many within the discourse.

“What are they hoping to accomplish?”

That question left me with nothing more than anger, confusion, and frustration, for while I was absolutely furious at the continued objectification of activists, I regrettably found myself becoming more and more attracted to the logical appeal of such a statement. What could protesting really change in the grand scheme of things?

Then came May 4th, 2024, the day when protests at the University of Virginia reached their climax–the day when I witnessed those very same protests first hand.

At 10:26 AM, my father and I arrived at the scene. There were several tents set up in the grass, with Palestinian flags being flown. However, the encampment was quiet, and the protestors were merely sitting or walking around their tents, conversing with each other. There were no megaphones being used, no law enforcement in sight, not even a slogan being shouted out. There was nothing.

We continued our walk along the path around the encampment. Then, I made eye contact with one of the protestors. We merely looked at each other from a distance, neither of us saying a word. Somehow, in their eyes, I felt an unusual sense of mutual understanding, yet I couldn’t quite decipher precisely what I was feeling in my gut, or my mind.

The rain started pouring harder, so my father and I took shelter in an area still close to the protestors. Again, there was nothing but an ominous tension in the air. After a few minutes, we left.

At around 12:30 PM, a series of loud cries through a megaphone alerted us back to the scene. The encampment was suddenly surrounded by officers, and a crowd had gathered around, forming yet another ring around the perimeter. On one end of our section of the ring stood a vocal group of activists, demanding that the officers leave the protestors alone. On the other end stood everybody else–bystanders and perhaps a few counter protesters.

Even in a situation as dire as this, there was apparently still room for discourse. In front of me was a Pro-Palestinian observer arguing with multiple students who seemed to disapprove and question the protests. Eventually, cameras were taken out to film the discourse, and the Pro-Palestinian observer continued to explain the rationale behind the protests; the skeptics seemed to only grow more skeptical.

What happened next shook me to my core, but not for the reasons I would have expected.

Tens of people in dark green uniforms started arriving on the scene. Looking back, they were probably members of the state police, but at the time, I could not be certain. However, it was not them who frightened me the most–it was a few skeptical college students surrounding me, chanting something I never would have expected.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!”

The implications of those chants disturbed me, to say the least. What even was their position on the conflict? Was this the opposition? Were they Pro-Israel? Or were they merely uninformed bystanders trying to find a messed up laugh in the situation?

I could only hope it was not the last option. I would have never thought that I would be more scared by a patriotic chant than an encampment of protestors with a megaphone.

After a few minutes, my father and I decided to leave. We spent the afternoon resting.

At 2:45 PM, my father and I were fast asleep. The University of Virginia was not.

Three hours later, we were sitting down at a tea spot in downtown Charlottesville when we finally checked the news.

That’s when everything hit me at once.

My mind suddenly drifted back to the memory of all the events that led me to this point. The protestors, the police, the state officers, the counter-protestors, the political discourse, the chanting–

“U-S-A! U-S-A!”

“Free, Free Palestine!”

“Leave them alone! Leave them alone!”

–and even further back, I remembered. I remembered the political discourse, the manipulative media, the cherry-picked videos, the objectification of innocents, the struggle for the narrative, the tension between friends, peers, and nations even.

But even further back, I saw the tragedies and atrocities endured by two groups of people who, at their core, wanted nothing more than a place to carry out their lives in peace, and somehow, amidst all that they have suffered, the world turned them against one another.

However, most importantly of all, I understood the protestors. I understood their protests.

The protests were merely the final extension of a reality that has been hidden from the rest of the world. For them, every atrocity, every hour of suffering, every moment of guilt, and every glimmer of hope had been fused into a reality that they now had to live in–a reality where the burden, sorrow, struggle, victory, and determination amongst a desperate group of people, objectified by the rest of the world, was and is real.

No matter if such a reality was the “true reality,” or “our reality,” or even if some believe it to be nothing more than a “metaphysical reality,” for them, said reality has become a reality.

And if we are to even think about continuing our political discourse over such a deep, nuanced, painful, yet necessary conflict, we have to start understanding each other from such a lens.

This awful situation is not something that should ever be treated merely a debate. It should never be treated as any sort of political competition. It should never be treated as a zero-sum game, and the people who have suffered–both Israelis and Palestinians before and after October 7th, 2023–are not statistics, and should never be objectified.

It is time we finally acknowledge the reality that has unfolded upon us.

Finally, perhaps I should admit one final thing: I lied when I said there was no voice that could reach me amidst the tense discourse. Though now I know that the voices of the majority who are far away from the extremes were simply unvocal, at the time, things seemed bleak.

However, one voice, a Social Studies teacher at NASH (whose name I will not disclose) gave me chills with a single statement.

“My heart goes out to the people of Gaza.”

That sentence was the one I could connect with: a salute to the people–not the governments, not the militias, not the politicians–just to the people of Israel, Palestine, and the world.


Editors’ note: All opinions expressed on The Uproar are a reflection solely of the beliefs of the bylined author and not the journalism program at NASH.  We continue to welcome school-appropriate comments and guest articles.

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About the Contributor
Sunny Li
Sunny Li, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Sunny is a Senior at NASH who is writing for the Uproar for the second and final year. As one of three Editors-in-Chief, Sunny hopes to inspire the rest of the Uproar's staff to go outside the box with wacky, yet well-constructed works. Outside of writing for the Uproar, Sunny enjoys aiding, guiding, and competing for the Speech and Debate team as one of two event leaders for Interpretation.

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