UT-Austin student protesters balance end-of-year work with fallout from police crackdowns

Protesters chant at Texas Department of Public Safety troopers during a pro-Palestinian demonstration on April 24 at the University of Texas in Austin. (Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune, Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

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The bruises were still fresh on Anne-Marie Jardine’s legs when she delivered the final presentation for her civil rights class last week.

At the bottom of her final research paper, she typed a disclaimer: “This is the best I can do right now.”

Jardine, who is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, is still recovering from multiple injuries after police dragged her by the hair to detain her last week during the first police crackdown on pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus. These are the last days she will spend at the school. But she doesn’t have it in her to finish strong.

“I can't write. I was trying to order food on Friday. I couldn't read the menu,” Jardine said. “It was so weird. I was looking at the words but my head was just everywhere.”

Jardine, who is studying international relations in the Middle East, is set to walk across the stage at her graduation ceremony next week. At least, she hopes so.

[UT-Austin says protesters carried guns and assaulted people. One person has received a weapons charge.]

Students who were arrested during the chaotic protests are awaiting to hear if they will face campus discipline. University of Texas System leaders have vowed to make sure that students who violated campus policies are punished. Jardine is terrified that could lead the school to withhold her degree from her.

“We have heard nothing. And we are so scared,” said Jardine, who was part of the high school class of 2020 that graduated in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I didn't get a graduation then. And if I don't get a graduation now, I will go bonkers bananas.”

Most of the 136 people arrested during the protests were not affiliated with UT-Austin, according to university officials. For students who were arrested — and for their close friends — juggling the fallout from demonstrations and their school responsibilities has been a difficult balancing act.

Students brought their study notes to the school’s South Lawn when they occupied that space — and to the Travis County Jail as they waited for friends to be released. For many, the injuries and violent memories from the demonstrations have tainted their relationship with the school and weighed on their ability to perform well in classes. They also fear their participation in the protests will hurt their academic plans and chances of getting jobs.

Balancing finals and student life

A divide on campus was clear at the university’s South Lawn in the days after officers deployed pepper spray and flash bangs to disperse protesters who had set up an encampment on school grounds Monday.

At the foot of the lawn, students in orange stoles and white dresses posed for photos, adjusting their hair after every outtake. Others huddled in study groups in empty classrooms, scribbling notes on cheat sheets. Of the 40,000 students on campus, many have tuned out the protest chants as they wrap up the school year.

[UT-Austin’s Jay Hartzell praised by GOP leaders as university presidents nationwide take heat over protest response]

But while student life marches on as normal for some, student protesters like Jardine have clutched tightly in the last two weeks onto their demands for the university to divest from manufacturers supplying Israel weapons in its strikes on Gaza. The lawn has been littered with students finishing final assignments while their peers painted “Free Palestine” posters.

It was the same outside the Travis County Jail, where students went over their outstanding class assignments on their laptops. One student pored over a picture of trigonometry formulas on his phone in preparation for a test.

On Tuesday, Hansa Sreemanthula stared at a bright blue presentation on her laptop to prepare for one of her last entrepreneurship club meetings this year. For most of the day, the UT-Austin sophomore had been traveling back and forth between the campus and the jail, where she waited for her roommate, who was arrested Monday, to be released.

Sreemanthula and a friend had bought a Raising Cane’s meal for their roommate to eat when she got out. But hours passed and the meal got cold.

Sreemanthula, who studies management information, asked her professor for an extension on an exam so she could wait for her roommate, but never heard back. Her other friends skipped formal for a spirit club because it didn’t feel right to go after the arrests.

Some students who spent the night in jail had to switch back to pressing school concerns once they got out. Mia Cisco, who was among the first demonstrators arrested during last week’s protest, rushed home to shower and change for class after she was released. She was back on campus within an hour and a half.

For students like her, campus grounds now hold raw memories of police officers charging at them with horses, pushing them with black batons and deploying pepper spray and flash-bang explosives.

“It’s a trauma that I’m having to take time and space to process but it’s really hard during finals considering you can’t avoid the place of trauma,” Cisco said. “How much am I willing to re-trigger myself to get A’s?”

Life after protests and graduation

Citlalli Soto-Ferate is weeks away from getting her dual degree in health and society, and race, indigeneity and migration. The UT-Austin senior would like to use the degree to work in public health for the city.

She had made some inroads with contacts at a job fair she was supposed to email. But she got arrested at the first police crackdown before she got a chance to reach out.

She's trying to reestablish contact with those potential employers but crystalizing plans after college now feels trivial compared with the constant violence 7,000 miles away in Gaza, she said.

“Everything feels like it’s floating right now,” said Soto-Ferate, who was waiting for protesters to be released from jail Tuesday and had a black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh tied around her waist.

Graduating seniors involved in the protests like Soto-Ferate are also waiting to hear from the university about possible disciplinary measures against them, which could range from getting a warning to being expelled.

[Gov. Greg Abbott and UT-Austin shift from championing free speech to policing protesters’ intentions]

For Jardine, her plans after graduation would be upended if her participation in the protests prevented her from getting her degree. She was headed to New York University’s global affairs masters program but wouldn’t be able to enroll without her undergraduate diploma.

She put her housing search in New York on hold until she knows whether the university will take disciplinary measures against her.

Jardine said her left ear goes numb with anger when she thinks about how her participation in a cause she believes in could keep her from finishing school.

“What do you mean you don't know if I can even get my diploma, my degree that I've spent four years on?” she said.

Jardine was planning to celebrate her graduation with a backyard cookout. She had pictured ordering catered Mexican food and getting a burnt-orange, vintage-style cake with frilly piping.

“I don’t want that freaking cake anymore. I’m going to change the colors,” she said.

William Melhado contributed to this story.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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