Student Life

Tragedy, Far Away and Close to Home
Campus activism becomes deeply personal after a Brown student is shot in Vermont

By Pippa Jack / January–March 2024
January 11th, 2024
Image of students holding up signs and protesting at night in front of University Hall at Brown University
Photo: Nick Dentamaro

Student responses to horrific events unfolding in the Middle East, which have included vigils, multiple protests, a walkout, and two occupations of University Hall, became even more heated after the Nov. 25 shooting of Hisham Awartani ’25. In what has been reported as a possible hate crime, the Palestinian Irish American, an archaeology and math double concentrator, was shot in Burlington, Vermont, along with two childhood friends. They were speaking a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were wearing keffiyehs—black-and-white Palestinian scarves—when shot, police told the Boston Globe. Awartani, the most severely injured, is reportedly paralyzed from the chest down. Jason J. Eaton, 48, of Burlington, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder, said the Globe.

Image of students holding up signs and protesting at night with a student in front of a podium speaking in front of University Hall at Brown University

The vicious crime comes against a backdrop of increasing activism and unrest at Brown and nationally. Reports of bias incidents are up on campus; open letters have circulated in support of Israel and Palestinians; the University has held listening sessions about campus climate; and a series of events organized by Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab students have mourned the violence unfolding in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

Communities representing a range of complex and nuanced views have made demands including that the University call for a cease-fire, protect community members from harassment and discrimination, support Israel’s right to defend itself, and divest its endowment from companies that “enable war crimes.” Twenty members of BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now were arrested Nov. 8 because they wouldn’t leave University Hall; Brown later dropped charges. At a “vigil for peace and healing” for Awartani organized by the Chaplain’s Office Nov. 27, students—holding up gloved hands covered in red paint and demanding divestment—shouted down President Christina H. Paxson until she left the microphone. A few days later, Brown’s investment team told a student town hall that Brown’s endowment has no direct ties to Israel or defense manufacturers, and that broader holdings are invested with managers whose values align with those of the Brown community. On Dec. 11, another pro-divestment sit-in at UHall ended in 41 students being arrested.

As of Jan. 12,  investigators had still not determined whether to charge Eaton, who pled not guilty and is reportedly being held without bail, with hate crimes; Awartani, meanwhile, is at a hospital specializing in rehabilitation. University officials say they are working with community members affected by the violence and with Awartani’s family to ensure he has the best medical care. Professors were reaching out to help Awartani continue his course work, and international students got together before the semester ended to hold a card-writing session for their classmate. Awartani's family set up a GoFundMe to raise money for his long and uncertain treatment, care, and adaptive living needs, which they say doctors have told them are likely to cost at least $2.8 million; as of Jan. 12, they had raised $1.6 million. Awartani himself sent messages urging peers not to forget his fellow Palestinians.
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January–March 2024