- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A prolonged sit-in at Saint Louis University to protest police shootings has the private Jesuit school struggling to balance a commitment to social justice and free speech with growing safety concerns among some students.

Hundreds of protesters first arrived early Monday, several hours after an interfaith rally at the school’s Chaifetz Arena. The event was part of the four-day Ferguson October demonstrations to protest the early August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed when killed by a Ferguson police officer, and other killings of young black men by white officers.

By Friday, a small group of protesters with tents, donated food and other supplies remained at an encampment next to a campus clock tower. Group members said they had no immediate plans to leave.

“We didn’t come here by permission,” said Talal Ahmad, of north St. Louis. “This is an institution of privilege. It’s a bubble.”

Monday’s march to campus grew out of protests several miles away, near where 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers was fatally shot Oct. 8 by a St. Louis police officer. His father is a delivery worker at the university.

In an email to students, faculty and concerned parents, university President Fred Pestello said: “It was our decision to not escalate the situation with any confrontation, especially since the protest was nonviolent.”

Still, the school is keeping close tabs on the protests, with campus public safety officers nearby and a live stream of the clock tower site being broadcast online.

The university allowed protesters on campus after one participant said he was a student and the others were his guests. On Thursday, a protester whose face was covered with a bandanna slowly circled the clock tower while dragging an upside-down American flag at his feet. Several students objected, leading to extended conversations that at times grew heated as campus police stood watch.

“This is a private university,” said sophomore Dan Greg of suburban Chicago. “A lot of students don’t want them here. I’m worried that it’s not going to stay peaceful. People are starting to get angry.”

Pestello noted that the clock tower has also been the site of more nuanced discussions about race, equality, poverty and other issues. He commended the hundreds or people who participated in “peaceful conversation” at one of several “teach-ins,” saying students who aren’t interested in such exchanges could simply go about their regular business.

A campus website created to provide updates on the protests noted that many students planned to leave Friday for the start of fall break. “We believe this will provide a calming effect and allow for a time for everyone to reflect,” the update read.

Police have said evidence suggests Myers had gunshot residue on his hands and fired three shots at the St. Louis police officer, who responded with 17 rounds. His family contends Myers’ wasn’t armed.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier

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