Pitzer paints over pro-Palestinian artwork, messages on Free Wall

On Wednesday, April 12, Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) announced an April 14 event to repaint the Pitzer College Free Wall. 

This followed an April 11 email from Pitzer’s Vice President of Student Affairs Sandra Vasquez to Pitzer students confirming that the Pitzer administration removed pro-Palestinian artwork and messages painted by Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on the wall. 

Prior to the administration’s repainting, the wall contained Palestinian symbols such as a keffiyeh pattern, an olive leaf and an outline of the state of Palestine with the Palestinian flag inside of it. It also featured statements like “Suspend Pitzer Haifa,” “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free.” SJP initially spray-painted the messages on March 30, the day of their Suspend Pitzer Haifa campaign relaunch. 

Vasquez explained that she directed the removal following concerns from a Pitzer student and a faculty member. 

“[The] Office of Student Affairs leadership took immediate steps to share our acknowledgement of [the] error, an explanation of how it occurred, and an apology with a concerned faculty leader, both in-person and in writing via email,” Vasquez said in the email. “Our office made an honest error, and again, I sincerely apologize.”

Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and History and proponent of SJP’s campaign Dan Segal contacted Vasquez on Thursday, April 6, confirming the administration’s involvement after hearing about the issue. Segal shared that Vasquez explained that the student and faculty member complainants had interpreted the statement “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” as an anti-Semitic threat. 

“I told her the truth: that that claim about that expression is a common lie of Zionist propaganda, precisely to trick people like her into censoring pro-Palestinian speech,” Segal said. “Some naïve people might even have been duped by this lie, this propaganda, and genuinely think that the phrase means that, but it’s nonsense malicious nonsense.”

He sent an email to Pitzer faculty later that day stating that the painted over wall constituted “a grievous violation of speech rights” and targeted Palestinian-identified students. 

“In wider U.S. society, anti-Palestinian bigotry racism, to speak honestly is normalized.  And rather than Pitzer being an exception to this wickedness, it is especially true at Pitzer,” Segal said in an email to TSL. “This new censorship by the Pitzer administration hardens that normalization of anti-Palestinian racism by this Pitzer administration.”

SJP was not consulted prior to their artwork and messages being painted over, Palestinian student and SJP member Jacob Brittain PZ ’23 explained. 

“It was a complete falling apart of the administration structure and their communication, since it was not even clearly communicated [that] when [they] do remove anything from the Free Wall, this is supposed to happen,” Brittain said. 

Brittain clarified that the “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” statement is a common phrase used in support of Palestinian freedom.

“Understanding the [intentions] of where [the statement] comes from is the key purpose,” Brittain said. “I think that’s something that allows me to feel like I have a voice when I hear it or when I say it.”

Segal criticized Vasquez’s email response, sharing that the administrative apology was too abstract in mentioning the censorship. 

“This so-called apology thus fails to acknowledge, and fails to accept responsibility for, the harms done by this administrative censorship to Palestinian and Palestinian-American students at Pitzer and at the 5Cs,” Segal said via email. 

According to Brittain, Pitzer administration has offered to reimburse the spray paint and materials needed to reinstate the mural. 

SJP member Evelyn Lillemoe PZ ‘25 stated that she was not completely surprised at Pitzer’s actions given their precedent of opposing student support for Palestinian liberation, referencing former Pitzer President Melvin Oliver using two vetoes during his tenure in response to resolutions in support of Palestine.

“Pitzer has a long history of silencing student voices that are for Palestinian liberation and specifically Palestinian student voices,” Lillemoe said. “I think this act of censorship was shocking but not necessarily surprising.”

In reparation for the act of censorship, Brittain and Lillemoe ask that Pitzer support their Suspend Haifa Pitzer campaign. 

“If Pitzer is truly dedicated to social responsibility and uplifting student voices, then what they need to do is support our campaign to conditionally suspend the study abroad program at the University of Haifa because that is a way that we can materially contribute to the fight for Palestinian Liberation,” Lillemoe said. 

The addition of the “inadequate” apology to the censorship and previous veto of the Suspend Pitzer Haifa resolution signals a broader anti-Palestinian trend, according to Segal. 

“My response to this administration is this: your anti-Palestinian racism is showing,” Segal said in his April 11 email.

Nhi Nguyen contributed reporting.

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