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How are Washington’s candidates for governor responding to pro-Palestinian campus protests?

A line of tents is pictured under the shade of green, leafy tree branches in the Quad at the University of Washington in Seattle. There is a sign on one of the tents that says "Free free Palestine."
Megan Farmer
KUOW Photo
A growing number of tents are shown at the UW Palestine Encampment on Wednesday, May 1, 2024, on the University of Washington Quad in Seattle

Candidates for governor in Washington are weighing in on the pro-Palestinian protests that have spurred hundreds of arrests and disruptions at colleges across the country.

Both Democrats and the leading Republican in the race say they support the right for people to protest, and are condemning actions that escalate into antisemitism or violence.

A few pro-Palestinian campus protests have popped up in Washington – including an encampment at the University of Washington in Seattle – after dozens unfolded at colleges across the country in recent weeks.

According to student journalists, the UW encampment has remained largely peaceful, with students going to and from the encampment to attend classes and sharing resources. Last week, an encampment ended at Evergreen State College in Olympia after administrators negotiated with protestors.

Protesters have been calling for a permanent ceasefire and more aid for the people in Gaza for months as Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas continues, with the latest college demonstrations seeking to diminish U.S. support for Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Democrat Mark Mullet, competing in the race for governor against fellow Democrat and frontrunner Bob Ferguson, says he is “proud” of President Joe Biden’s handling of the crisis in the Middle East.

But Mullet made a distinction between supporting Israel and its government, and says he’s appalled by both the events of Oct. 7, as well as the ongoing suffering in Gaza.

“We have to make it clear that we’re a friend to Israel, but that doesn’t mean we can’t push back on the Netanyahu administration and the things that they’re doing,” Mullet said.

As for the protests happening across the country, Mullet says he’s worried about the safety of Jewish students, and that college leaders should keep close watch to prevent antisemitism on campus.

“Anything that even borders on antisemitism I don’t think we should be allowing on college campuses,” Mullet said. “People should feel our kids on college campuses can go about their business without any threat of anyone targeting them.”

The leading Republican candidate for governor, Dave Reichert, put it another way.

“You have the right to express yourself freely – your ideas and thoughts – but that does not give you the right to stomp all over the rights of other people,” Reichert said.

Reichert says he’s troubled by video footage that allegedly shows two confrontations at the UW encampment between protestors and counter protestors, where an Israeli flag is torn and people are blocked from walking through the encampment.

“Those are two things that should be addressed immediately,” Reichert said, adding that he thinks police should step in when crimes occur, like assault and property damage. “As governor I would certainly be working with the University of Washington… and really assessing the activities that are happening – are they peaceful or are they not peaceful?”

Reichert didn’t say whether or not he thinks the U.S. should change course on its approach to the war in the Middle East, but did say that he believes Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The frontrunner in the race for governor, Democrat Bob Ferguson, weighed in via an emailed statement, noting his record fighting against Islamophobia and supporting the Jewish community.

"All students must be able to attend class without fear or obstruction, and we must call out and stand up to hate in all forms,” Ferguson’s statement said. “I am committed to preserving the constitutional right to peaceful protest, but those who break the law in the name of protest should face consequences.”

Governor Jay Inslee isn’t running for reelection. But a spokesperson said via a statement that Inslee hopes for a “durable” ceasefire that includes the release of hostages and “robust” aid for people in Gaza.

The statement also said that the governor’s office is in touch with UW administrators for regular updates on the protest happening there.

“The governor believes the safety of protesters, counter-protesters, observers, and the public at large is paramount,” the statement continued. “While free speech needs to be maintained, it is absolutely vital that the university’s basic functions are not disrupted for other students and the broader community.”

Republican Semi Bird’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.