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UMass students and others arrested at May protest to return to court

Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.
Nirvani Williams
/
NEPM
Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.

UMass students, faculty and others arrested at a pro-Palestinian protest will return to court this week and next.

The pretrial conferences are scheduled for the more than 100 people facing charges after the UMass chancellor's controversial order on May 7 for police to clear the protest encampment.

Attorney Rachel Weber said she is among a small group of attorneys representing the bulk of those arrested. Weber said the district attorney's office has begun to offer deals to some of her clients.

"But it's in the beginning stages of that. And so, we'll have to see how many people are offered what dispositions," Weber said Friday. "And the folks who've been arrested may need some time to consider the various implications of those dispositions. And then we'll be able to figure out what we're doing after that."

As with the arraignments in May, the pretrial conferences will be spread out over more than a week at the small Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown. They begin Monday.

Weber said the charges include trespassing, failure to disperse and resisting arrest.

She said UMass also notified the students who were arrested that they face potential discipline from the university.

"We've been trying to help coordinate faculty support for those students and legal support when needed for those students who are now having to navigate both charges in criminal court and also dealing with these disciplinary proceedings," she said.

Weber said the last few months have been very stressful for many of those arrested.

"Things really could have been resolved in a much calmer, much more peaceful way," she said. "So many people were arrested, not even because they were engaging in some sort of civil disobedience, but just because they sort of got like swept up in a crowd, even many hours after any dispersal warnings had been given."

Since the arrests, Weber said the defense team has received hundreds of hours of video discovery from prosecutors, including both police body-camera and cell-phone footage filmed by officers.

"A lot of what we've been doing is figuring out the best ways to organize that data, start to go through it, analyze it, categorize it, things like that," she said. "That's been a big piece of things."

The UMass chancellor, Javier Reyes, has faced criticism — including a faculty vote of no confidence — for ordering police to clear the protest, which he said "posed a significant danger."

The university is keeping quiet about the upcoming court action, and whether Reyes had communicated to prosecutors how he wanted the cases handled.

"The university respects the independence of the judicial system and does not comment on active investigations," spokesperson Melinda Rose replied Sunday.

In a text message Saturday, a spokesperson for Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the office does not comment "on proposed dispositions ahead of time because they can always fall through."

Disclosure: UMass holds the operating license for NEPM's main frequency.

Updated: July 7, 2024 at 1:22 PM EDT
This story has been updated with a quote from a UMass spokesperson.
Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.