Amid upheaval in the Middle East, UTD students spray painted the Spirit Rocks at least eleven times over three days, alternating between the flags of Palestine and Israel.
Between Wednesday, Oct. 11 and Friday, Oct. 13., days after Hamas launched an attack on Israel and Israel launched a counter attack on Gaza, several slogans were written on the rock including “End Occupation,” “Free Palestine” and “no peace on stolen land” to support Palestine, as well as “USA stands with Israel,” “Terror ≠ Justice” and “ישראל,” Hebrew for “Israel,” to support Israel. Dozens of students camped by the rocks in waves to protect their designs, which at the time of publication is a Palestinian flag that reads “Love them both” and “People = People.” The rock was painted with the Palestinian flag at least seven times and the Israeli flag at least four times, with pro-Palestine designs up for the longest amount of time. According to Dean of Students Amanda Smith, the frequent changes of the past few days do not change the rules of the Spirit Rocks; UTD administration will only get involved if those painting the rocks violate law or the Student Code of Conduct. Otherwise, any student can paint them at any time.
An economics senior who witnessed and assisted with painting efforts over several days said that the graffiti started with the Palestinian flag on Monday, Oct. 9 and went back and forth between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel messages throughout the week. The student said pro-Palestine students on campus have a rich history of activism through graffiti and spray painting, similar to activist graffiti on the West Bank Wall.
“The actions that happened on Monday was very much a natural response by the campus,” the student said.
Mathematics and physics freshman Alejandro Lizardi added the colors of the Israeli flag to a “WHOOSH” design on the rocks Wednesday afternoon, saying he felt there was not enough support for Israel on campus. Lizardi camped out for four hours by the rocks in hopes that his message would not get covered up. He supports pro-Palestine groups painting the rocks as an expression of free speech and said he had constructive conversations with disagreeing students and respected their “commitment to their beliefs.”
“We shouldn’t hold any hatred towards each other individually, because this is just an expression of our values,” Lizardi said. “It’s not a reflection of the war.”
The student said painting of the Palestinian flag eventually became coordinated throughout the week between students from several organizations, including SJP and MSA. Around midday Thursday, the rocks were painted over with the Israeli flag with the slogan, “We are winning.”
“So, we had elderly people, parents and grandparents of students who were coming to campus, and we did not want them to see the Israeli flag as they’re walking down the Chess Plaza,” the student said. “We understood it would be traumatic and triggering to those parents and families who firsthand experienced that.”
In response, dozens of pro-Palestinian students camped out by the rocks Thursday afternoon and painted over the Israeli flag with a dove, which traditionally symbolizes peace. Around 5 p.m., pro-Palestine students at the rocks and pro-Israel students came to an agreement that the pro-Israel students wouldn’t paint them over for the rest of the night to honor SJP’s poetry night fundraiser.
“This was dubbed a three-rock solution,” the student said.
The rocks remained under the Palestinian flag until Friday at 2 p.m., when pro-Palestine students left to perform Friday afternoon prayer. Later that afternoon, it was covered by the Israeli flag and the message, “Terror ≠ Justice.”
Students reported that police officers were present near the Spirit Rocks Thursday night, Friday morning and Saturday night. Brent Tourangeau, chief of UTDPD, said that officers attended to bring a sense of safety to proceedings.
“We try not to interfere in any of the things that the students are doing,” Tourangeau said. “We just want them to know that we’re there in case they need us.”
On Saturday morning, the rocks were painted with a UTD design for Scholar’s Day; the Office of Admission and Enrollment left a sign asking students not to paint it over until 2 p.m. Later that night, someone painted over the design with the message “Zionism = Nazism.” The next morning, it was replaced with a Palestinian Flag that said “People = People” and “Love them both.”
“In light of everything that’s been going on the last few days, we are very proud of our students … students have been conducting themselves very honorably,” Tourangeau said.