As midnight approached on the first day of pro-Palestinian protests at Johns Hopkins University, President Ronald J. Daniels took the unusual step of paying a visit to the tent encampment. It was a departure from the elite Baltimore college’s strategy a few years ago, when Daniels put conditions on meeting with the protesters who occupied a campus building for more than a month.

Daniels’ visit on Monday may have temporarily convinced most — but not all — students to leave. But with each day, a growing number of protesters have come back, even amid warnings that they could face discipline. Now the university must grapple with how to balance free speech and campus safety as they watch conflict play out at other colleges.

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None of the aggressive police interventions that occurred at Columbia University in New York or the University of California, Los Angeles, where hundreds were arrested and encampments forcibly cleared, seemed imminent in Baltimore. Here, the Baltimore Police Department is in no rush to come onto campus to clear out students who are engaged in peaceful protest.

University administrators also haven’t signaled that they are going to enter serious discussions over protesters’ demands as Brown University officials did. The Rhode Island college struck a deal to vote next fall on divesting university funds connected to the Israeli military action in Gaza. In return, the students packed up their tents and went back to studying.

Hopkins’ encampment has grown significantly since Monday, and students showed no signs of giving in to the university leadership warnings that they clear out between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. The JHU Palestine Solidarity Encampment continued Thursday to call on Hopkins “to divest from such manufacturers, and end the Applied Physics Lab’s weapons engineering and development through contracts with the defense industry.”

Hopkins officials weren’t giving in, either, leaving them in a tense but peaceful stalemate with protesters. On Thursday, Daniels wrote a strongly worded letter calling on protesters to change course. He wrote that the school would “take additional steps as necessary to protect the safety of the community, including moving forward with appropriate disciplinary and legal actions.”

”You have seized attention but created a stand-off in which the next step–as we have seen at other universities–often has consequences that are dangerous and damaging for everyone involved,” he also wrote in the letter.

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Hopkins officials have said that they believe the encampment threatens the safety of the community. A university spokesperson said the university is in contact with all “relevant authorities to ensure the health and safety of our students and the entire campus community.”

They did not answer questions about whether Baltimore Police are willing to come on campus to clear the protest unless there’s a threat of violence. The Baltimore Police Department referred all questions about its role to Mayor Brandon Scott’s office.

The City of Baltimore strongly stands with every person’s first amendments rights, and we are monitoring the situation to ensure everyone’s safety,” the Mayor’s office said in a statement. “In the event of escalation, credible threat of violence, or similar change in the situation, we will adjust accordingly.”

Protesters have pitched tents as well as created signs in honor of Palestine. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The university has told students that if they continue the protests overnight they will face disciplinary action. Hopkins officials said that the protesters “are in violation of our policies and/or are trespassing.”

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The university said that the encampments at universities elsewhere had drawn people who aren’t affiliated with the institution “who may not have the best interests of our community at heart” and called on protesters not to cover their faces or use pseudonyms because it “impaired” the university’s ability to protect the community.

Several faculty members said they hoped Daniels would not intervene, and instead allow students to continue their political activism. Johns Hopkins, they said, had a long tradition of peaceful protests, which they hoped would be respected.

“So long as First Amendment guidelines are followed, it seems anathema to the mission of the university to shut down peaceful protests,” said François Furstenberg, a Johns Hopkins history professor who also represents the American Association of University Professors on campus.

Anthropology professor Clara Han said that freedom of expression is central to the role of universities. “Students actually, by engaging in dissent, by engaging in these practices, are also learning how to be in the world. And freedom of expression is a crucial pillar of academic freedom.”

Han was one of more than 255 faculty and staff who signed a letter asking university leaders not to arrest students. Han said faculty are concerned that students will be hurt if the police are called onto the campus.

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Hopkins can learn from what happened on other campuses as it tries to consider what direction to take, she said. “It would just be helpful to look at how these other universities manage that and try to take the pathways that have led to the best results,” Han said. “What has happened at Columbia ... I don’t think anybody would say that is a success story.”

On Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Daniels and the board of trustees asking that the university follow its own 2015 guidelines for academic freedom that allow students and faculty “to speak and create, to question and dissent, to participate in debate on and off campus, and to invite others to do the same, all without fear of restraint or penalty.”

The letter said that the university should allow the encampment because it does not interrupt the functioning of the university, and should not threaten students with disciplinary action.

Professors said the aggressive response by administrators at some universities in the past two weeks goes against long-established academic traditions that allow peaceful dissent.

Daniels is the author of “What Universities Owe Democracy,” a book that examines the role of the university, including in providing “citizenship education.”

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In 2019, the university called in Baltimore Police after students chained shut the doors of Garland Hall during a monthlong sit-in, according to a report on the incident written by faculty. About 80 police officers arrived on campus and arrested seven people.

That experience may have informed Daniels’ stance this time, said Joel Andreas, a professor of sociology. He was at the encampment on Monday night around midnight when Daniels came down to talk to students, after administrators and protesters had emailed back and forth.

Andreas said the students and Daniels did not engage in any discussion about divestiture. Andreas said he doesn’t believe the Hopkins police force, which is just getting up and running, has enough officers to clear the encampment. The university declined to say how large its police force is. If the city police won’t intervene, Hopkins has little choice but to accept the encampments for the next two weeks until students leave for the summer break, Andreas said.

“I don’t think the university will try to actually physically remove it. I don’t think they have the force to do that and so they have given up on that,” Andreas said.

Many of the protesters on the Johns Hopkins campus are covering their faces to protect themselves from disciplinary actions. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The question then is whether the students will be disciplined or expelled, as they have on some campuses. On Thursday, the university said “student conduct proceedings” are underway.

One student protester who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, Willow, was more worried about getting in trouble with the school than getting arrested.

“If my scholarship were revoked, I do not know if I’d be able to come here or what would happen to my education,” Willow said. “It would be detrimental, but I’m willing to take that risk.”

Johns Hopkins officials said in an email that they have told students there is an established process for divestment requests that they can pursue. “We assured them that the committee takes very seriously every request received.”

Even as the protests on some college campuses have grown unruly, Hopkins students have taken strides to maintain order at their encampment.

Within hours of releasing their list of demands, the Hopkins Justice Collective, a self-described group of university students, alumni and affiliates, had trained and designated spokespersons to communicate with news media on site. They stressed early and repeatedly the importance of nonviolence and peaceful protest, stating that “Anti-Palestinian sentiment, Islamophobia, Antisemitism, or any kind of hate and discrimination, will not be tolerated.” Leaders instructed their peers to ignore opposition and deescalate questionable behavior.

They set up a makeshift privacy curtain out of bedsheets around the perimeter of the encampment and stood in a circle around Muslim peers during prayer times. Mornings were spent picking up trash, setting up a breakfast table with bagels and offering water or coffee to the university security stationed around the grassy area called the “beach.” On the first two nights of the demonstration, organizers at the encampment turned off music and announced it was time for bed around or just after 11 p.m. so that everyone could sleep.

However, on Wednesday night, graduate student Noga Mudrik posted on social media that she had been hit by a protester.

View post on X

Mudrik said on X that she had talked to the provost about her concerns.

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, protesters called the allegation “baseless.”

“We have explicitly told participants not to interact with counter-protestors. We are not on the Beach in order to argue with people who disagree with us or who want to defend Israel’s actions. We are here to protest the ongoing genocide of Palestinians and to demand that JHU end its complicity in it,” the statement said.

The war started on Oct. 7 when Palestinian militants launched an unprecedented attack into southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducting around 250 hostages. Israel says militants still hold around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

The war has driven around 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes, caused vast destruction in several towns and cities, and pushed northern Gaza to the brink of famine. The death toll in Gaza has soared to more than 34,500 people, according to local health officials.

Police have arrested more than 2,000 people during pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses across the United States in recent weeks. That’s according to a tally by The Associated Press.

Cody Boteler and the Associated Press contributed to this story.