Protesters around the bus in front of Clio Hall.
Julie Bonette
PAW reconstructed the controversial night’s events from interviews, public statements, social media posts

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with new information.

Though the occupation of Clio Hall on April 29 lasted for only a few hours, it has set off weeks of accusations and recriminations. Eleven students — five undergraduates and six graduate students — as well as a postdoctoral researcher and a local seminarian taking a class at the University were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing, although the University has since indicated that, following a disciplinary investigation, the students are unlikely to face penalties from Princeton greater than probation.

Even so, much is still unclear about what really happened at Clio Hall, the historic building that is home to the Graduate School’s administrative offices. A flurry of statements, both official and unofficial, have painted very different pictures of that evening’s events. To some, the student protesters were carrying on a noble tradition of civil disobedience. To others, their actions crossed a line from legitimate protest to threat and intimidation.

Within hours of the arrests, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 sent a message to the University community saying, “This incident was and remains deeply upsetting to many people, including especially the staff of the Graduate School. It is also completely unacceptable. Everyone on this campus needs to feel safe and be safe.”

The following afternoon, Rochelle Calhoun, the vice president for campus life, issued a letter to students saying that the sit-in “represented an escalation ... into unlawful behavior that created a dangerous situation for protesters, University staff, and law enforcement. As protesters entered Clio Hall, our staff found themselves surrounded, yelled at, threatened, and ultimately ordered out of the building.”

 “The way [staff members] were treated yesterday was abusive,” Calhoun continued.

This brought a sharp retort on May 1 from Professor Ruha Benjamin, who was present at the sit-in in a role she described as that of a “faculty observer,” along with associate professors Naomi Murakawa, Divya Cherian, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, who also were reported to have been in the lobby of Clio Hall during the brief occupation. The four described “cordial, quiet, and organized behavior” on the part of protesters and insisted that “no one treated Princeton staff in an ‘abusive’ fashion.” They did, however, blast Calhoun, the University’s senior Black administrator, for “fear-mongering” and said that her characterization of the protesters’ actions would perpetuate negative stereotypes against minority students. 

Later that week, on May 3, 128 faculty members published a letter in The Daily Princetonian denouncing Calhoun’s “repression and vilification” of students and her “criminalization” of the protests, calling the use of Public Safety officers to restore order “a textbook colonial discourse and tactic.” The signatories demanded Calhoun’s resignation.

Still more statements and counterstatements have followed. The arrested protesters themselves published a defense of their actions, calling them “peaceful.” Another petition, signed by 47 students as of May 23, commended the University’s response to the sit-in and called for punishment of faculty who allegedly abetted it. 

From such jumbled puzzle pieces, what does the full picture look like?

PAW has attempted to create a narrative of the occupation, working from contemporaneous reporting, official statements, public letters, a wide range of social media posts, and interviews with three University staff members — identified below as “Staff member 1, 2, and 3” — who were inside Clio Hall during the sit-in. None of the staff members have spoken publicly about the events. Each requested anonymity to allow them to speak freely and without fear of retribution. 

PAW also reached out to all the Princeton students who were arrested. Only two replied, declining to comment. Two of the four faculty members inside the building, Padilla Peralta and Murakawa, also replied to PAW’s emails but declined to comment beyond their May 1 statement, citing then-pending disciplinary proceedings against the students.

The account PAW has pieced together confirms several points in the letter from Benjamin and the other faculty present at Clio Hall but paints a very different picture of several other points. It also highlights aspects of the sit-in which the letter either ignored or glossed over. Whatever the protesters and their faculty supporters may have intended the sit-in to be, and however they may see themselves, staff inside Clio Hall saw and experienced the events very differently.

Protesters gather behind Clio Hall.
Protesters gather behind Clio Hall.
Peter Barzilai

The occupation began on the fifth day of an encampment in McCosh Courtyard at which students demanded, among other things, that the University divest from companies that have business ties with Israel. 

At 4:38 p.m., while many University administrators were attending a meeting of the Council for the Princeton University Community at the Frist Campus Center, 13 protesters, Benjamin, and two self-described student journalists entered Clio Hall and walked up to the suite housing the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School on the first floor. They announced that staff within the suite had 60 seconds to leave and began counting down the time as workers in the reception area and adjacent rooms within the suite quickly gathered their belongings and moved out of their office space. A number of other students, as well as professors Padilla Peralta, Murakawa, and Cherian, also entered the building lobby to support the protesters.

With Benjamin and the two student journalists still with them, the 13 protesters began barricading the door to the administrative suite with a large stone-topped conference table and several filing cabinets. Two of the three staff members who entered the suite after arrests had been made said they found several bicycle locks in the room, which presumably were used to lock the door. The occupying students also unfurled a Palestinian flag out the window overlooking Elm Drive.

Almost immediately, the protest spread beyond Clio Hall as supporters announced the occupation on social media. 

The group Princeton Israel Apartheid Divest, which has spoken on behalf of the pro-Palestinian protesters, posted on its Instagram and X feeds, “We are taking our demands directly to administration to force Princeton to the table NOW! Students and faculty are leading a sit-in in Clio Hall. Everyone to Clio Hall now!” In response to the postings, a group of students began to mass around the front and back doors to Clio Hall but were prevented from entering by Public Safety officers. The crowd surrounding the building eventually swelled to nearly 200 people, multiple observers estimated.  

At 4:48 p.m., approximately 10 minutes into the sit-in, a group not affiliated with the University community called Writers Against the War on Gaza posted on X, “HAPPENING NOW: @Princeton students have taken a building. Who’s next?” A photo also captured Benjamin standing in the open window, speaking to the crowd through a bullhorn. On the front steps of the building, associate professor Max Weiss, who had advised the student encampment, announced to the crowd that Clio Hall had been occupied “in solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza.”

A few minutes later, Writers Against the War in Gaza posted a photograph of graduate student Aditi Rao, who has led several pro-Palestinian demonstrations this year, standing at a door to the suite that appeared to be barricaded with filing cabinets. The caption read: “We’re soooo sorry, but you’re officially not allowed to make fun of Princeton students unless you have also taken a building!!!” Speaking through a bullhorn, Rao then went to the window and engaged the crowd outside in a call-and-response chant saying, “We already told you. There’s no rest until divest. They’re so confused. I’m going to be here. My friends are going to be here. You guys are going to be here.”

Two other videos, obtained by PAW, appear to raise questions about Benjamin’s role in the occupation.

In the first video, posted on Instagram by PIAD, Benjamin, wearing academic robes, is seen standing in the window addressing the crowd through a bullhorn. “I am here as a faculty observer,” she declares. In a second video, posted on X by @brokenmirror33, Benjamin can be heard saying, “Every artist, every scientist must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers.” Both videos have since been deleted.

Although the protesters may have entered the administrative suite quietly and in an orderly fashion, news of their sit-in spread quickly through Clio Hall. University staff throughout the building, estimated to be between 20 and 40 in all, emailed each other to lock their office doors and to shelter in place. “Something’s happening, get safe, and stay where you are,” Staff member 3 recalls the email saying.

When Public Safety arrived, officers checked for staff by going floor by floor and office by office. The officers and other University employees inside Clio Hall then tried to decide how to remove all staff from the building, including those whom the protesters had ejected from the administrative suite. But the large, and increasingly vocal crowd, many with locked arms, made it impossible for anyone to get in or out of the building by either the front or back doors.

“[Public Safety] said they didn’t think they were going to be able to [open the back door] because they couldn’t assure our safety,” Staff member 1, who was initially outside, told PAW. “[T]hey were concerned that if individuals did try to start to make their way to the building, that if they pushed against the door, it could crush us while we were halfway in and out of the door.” Public Safety officers also told Staff member 1 that they were afraid that if they opened the door, the crowd might try to force its way in.

After several minutes, Public Safety decided to attempt to remove staff through the back door. As they waited to be evacuated, the staff huddled in the vestibule “seemed bewildered,” Staff member 2 said. When staff members in the vestibule asked colleagues if they were all right, “They said they just wanted to leave the building.”

 “You could tell they were pretty frightened at that point,” Staff member 1 said. “They looked downtrodden. They were not in a good place.” Staff member 2 recalls turning to a colleague and speculating about what the crowd intended to do. “I just remember feeling a bit afraid by that,” the person said. “It’s clearly like a group psychology situation outside. Everyone’s in this mob mentality, it seems.”

In their May 1 statement, the four faculty members described an orderly exit from the building, writing, “Protesters opened a corridor for staff to pass with three or four [Public Safety] officers.” But those on the scene recall it differently. Staff member 1 said that the crowd refused to move until someone on the staff called out that many of them had young children who needed to be picked up after work. “That was about the only thing that helped to give a little bit of space,” the person said.

Even as Public Safety officers escorted staff through the crowd, several heard loud cries of “Shame!” The May 1 faculty statement acknowledged the cries but suggested they were meant to “reference the fact that protesters often chant/shout the word ‘Shame’ at the increasingly frequent sight of police patrols.” The staff members, however, said they felt the chants were directed at them.

Many in the crowd, Staff member 2 said, were “yelling so loud that my ears were just deafened by it. The students were pointing at us, making eye contact, yelling ‘Shame!’ over and over again. And I just remember thinking, like, I was stuck in the building. I didn’t do anything.”

Once the staff was safely out of the building, Public Safety officers repeatedly announced that anyone who remained in the building after 5:30 would be arrested for trespassing. After several warnings and shortly before the deadline, someone inside the suite announced that Benjamin and two others were coming out. The furniture barricade was moved aside, then pushed back in place after they had left, leaving the 13 protesters still inside. On Instagram, as the 5:30 deadline approached, PIAD encouraged protesters to link arms to block the exits to Clio Hall. 

Approximately 10 minutes later, after several more warnings, several Public Safety officers forced the barricaded door open by pushing the furniture out of the way and entered the suite. They encountered no resistance from the protesters, informed them that they were under arrest, and restrained them with zip cuffs. 

“They were fairly quiet,” Staff member 1 said of the arrested protesters. “I think they asked a few questions like, what does this mean? What is a summons? What’s an arrest? How do we get our stuff? That kind of thing.” 

The original plan was to take the arrested protesters out to a Tiger Transit bus that was parked on Elm Drive and remove them as a group to be processed. Owing to the size and intensity of the crowd, however, a decision was made to take graduate student Ariel Edelman and Sam Nastase, a postdoctoral researcher, out first and then to move the others in small groups.

Protesters shoved traffic cones into the bus’s wheel wells.
Protesters shoved traffic cones into the bus’s wheel wells.
Julie Bonette

Almost immediately after Edelman and Nastase were placed on the bus, it and a nearby Public Safety vehicle were surrounded by protesters shouting, “Princeton, you want arrests. This doesn’t end without divest.” Several people began banging on the bus, eventually cracking the glass on the rear passenger door, and shouting, “Let them go!” while protesters wedged safety cones into multiple wheel wells to prevent the bus from moving. Four police cars from the town of Princeton soon arrived in response to a call for assistance from Public Safety, while on Instagram, PIAD posted, “Come help block the cop cars.”

“My thoughts were about the bus driver and how scared that individual must be, to be surrounded like that and have people trying to break in,” Staff member 1 recalled.

The cracks protesters put in a bus passenger door are visible behind this Public Safety officer.
The cracks protesters put in a bus passenger door are visible behind this Public Safety officer.
Peter Barzilai

Assessing that it was too dangerous to try to continue loading the arrested protesters onto the bus, Kenneth Strother, assistant vice president for public safety, announced that they would all be issued summonses at Clio Hall and released. Weiss engaged with the crowd through a bullhorn during the occupation, at one point saying, “If you don’t trust me, do not do what I say. If you trust me and Zia Mian [co-director of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security] and the Faculty for Justice in Palestine, consider the following.” After being warned that police would arrest anyone who continued to block the bus, several in the crowd shouted, “F--- the police!” and “We keep us safe.” After Public Safety officials repeated an order to move away from the bus, Weiss again called for the crowd to disperse but added, “Do what you want.”

Protests continued on all sides of the building. A small crowd continued to mass around the back door. “If you are willing to be arrested, get to the front,” one student yelled. “If you are not, still get closer!” Several people also locked arms to block the entrance while some shouted for American citizens to move forward to protect the identities of international students behind them. Around on the front steps, another group chanted, “They can’t arrest all of us. We will not rest until divest.”

At 6:50 p.m., after about an hour on the bus, Edelman and Nastase were issued summonses and released by Public Safety. The remaining arrested students inside Clio Hall were also cited and released in batches, but it was still necessary for the few staff members who had remained inside to assist Public Safety to leave the building. 

“It was not a friendly crowd by any means,” said Staff member 1, who had remained behind to help the Public Safety officers. “It was definitely unnerving as you’re surrounded by this many people all casting their anger at you.” Staff member 2, who also left the building after the arrested students had been cleared, recalls protesters outside shouting at him, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

By about 8 p.m., Public Safety officers had cleared and secured the building.

The crowd of protesters drifted on to Cannon Green, and later that evening a decision was made to relocate the entire pro-Palestinian encampment there. Groups of protesters remained on Cannon Green until the encampment was disbanded, at the University’s insistence, on May 15.

Though Clio Hall remains closed and locked except to those who work there, the staff members have taken time to recover. On May 7, Eisgruber wrote in a letter to the University community that he had “seen Graduate School staff break into tears when trying to describe the fright they felt when their building was occupied and surrounded, and when they locked themselves in offices because they believed they could neither safely remain nor safely exit the building.” In interviews with PAW, staff members confirmed that several of their colleagues have asked to work from home rather than return to their offices in Clio Hall. “Some people have needed to take some time to step away,” Staff member 2 said. “Some people have reported not feeling particularly safe.” Speaking personally, he added, “I have minor but significant heightened anxiety about just being on campus and being in my building. It’s not a peaceful time to be on campus.”

In a May 2 essay for The Daily Princetonian Cole Crittenden *05, the vice provost for academic affairs and former acting dean of the Graduate School, wrote, “[W]hen expression turns into mob activity that threatens and displaces staff who play no meaningful role in the matters of interest to the protesters, it crosses a line ... . The students, postdocs, and faculty who occupied Clio Hall seem to have abused their privileges in the way they treated staff as an expression of protest. That is wrong.” 

Crittenden’s views were echoed by the three staff members, who also disputed assertions that the occupation of Clio Hall was peaceful. 

“It was a pretty flagrant violation of someone’s personal space, like, that’s someone’s office,” Staff member 2 said. “And while it’s not their home, that’s still their space, with their belongings.”           

“My definition of [peaceful] is not barricading oneself in a room and kicking people out,” Staff member 3 said. “They’re being told … that this was a peaceful sit-in, and I think some may feel effectively being told this didn’t happen or you’re not valued. The people who have written letters [about the incident] to my knowledge didn’t ask to understand what it felt like to us.”

“Taking over a building is not peaceful,” added Staff member 1. “It would seem to me that some of the protest organizers and leaders were in the suite barricaded and trying to get the crowd outside pretty riled up. If they intended to do that or not, I can’t speak to that. But it seems like their actions definitely created unsafe and hostile environments for individuals that were in the building.”

Most who work in Clio Hall seem eager for life to return to normal. On May 20, Rod Priestley, dean of the graduate school, sent an email to graduate students that read in part, “While many of the staff are still unsettled and saddened by the incident, they are as dedicated as ever to their mission of supporting graduate students and graduate programs. I know our community will heal and strengthen.”

Staff member 3 echoed Priestley’s thoughts. “I can speak for all of my colleagues to say we really, really want to get back to working collaboratively with graduate students and look forward to supporting them,” they said.

Doing that may be challenging without a full accounting of what happened. Many details about the occupation and the University’s response to it remain unknown.

At a contentious meeting in Richardson Auditorium on May 20, the faculty voted by a margin of 154-136 to recommend legal and disciplinary amnesty for the 13 protesters arrested at Clio Hall as well as two graduate students arrested on the first day of the encampment. At least one participant in that meeting, politics professor John Londregan, said the debate was hindered because different faculty members were arguing from different accounts of what had taken place.

“Some people claim to know the facts,” Londregan told PAW, “and depending on which facts one claims to know you come to different decisions about whether the demonstrators were meritorious of leniency. And we just couldn’t know. My opposition rested on that. More generally, I'm a huge advocate of free expression, but free expression ends when you start issuing threats and breaking rules."

Julie Bonette, Carlett Spike, and Peter Barzilai s’97 contributed to this report.