The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

SJP Watermelon Project focuses on solidarity and campus safety

6 min read
A big rock spray painted in red, green and black.

Two of the demands from SJP’s instagram relates to student safety on campus. Norah Walsh / The Weekly Ringer



A previous version of this article described the violence against Palestinians in Gaza as a genocide. After receiving reader feedback, some of the language in the article has been changed to accommodate the differing perspectives on the definition of this term. The term “genocide” will appear when it is attributed to a particular speaker—whether as a quotation or paraphrased—as a definition and its subsequent elaboration, or about a certain cause that seeks to condemn the violence as genocide.

On Friday, Feb. 9, Students for Justice in Palestine started the Watermelon Project to indicate which spaces are “safe zones” for Palestinian, Jewish, Arab and Muslim students on campus. This is one of many projects that SJP has been working on after months of protesting, holding vigils, chalking Campus Walk and meeting with administration about safety concerns and their demands relating to the University’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and ongoing violence on the Gaza Strip. 

The project centers around the image of a watermelon slice, which has become an image associated with Palestinian advocacy, as the black seeds, green rind and red pulp symbolize the colors of the Palestinian flag. 

Similar to the UMW Safe Zone Program, the Watermelon Project involves faculty, staff, administrators and student clubs joining SJP to show solidarity with these affected groups. By displaying a watermelon sticker on their office door, computer case, or in other visible locations, individuals can convey their solidarity with students who have been impacted by the international effects of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attack and the genocide in Gaza—which SJP calls to condemn in addition to a ceasefire. 

In the Genocide Convention, the U.N. defines genocide as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” SJP members are advocating for the term “genocide” to be applied to the current state of events in Gaza, though not everyone agrees, for in the same definition, the U.N. also adds that genocide “does not include political groups or so called ‘cultural genocide.'”

According to Amirah Ahmed, a junior political science major and the president of SJP, the bearers of these watermelon stickers indicate that they offer a “safe space for Arab Muslim and Jewish students on campus and that they stand in solidarity with [SJP’s] demands,” as well as that they agree with SJP’s demands to the university.

UMW Safe Zone differs from the Watermelon Project insofar as students, faculty and staff can attend workshop trainings to “become more informed and supportive allies for the LGBTQ community,” according to the Program’s website. 

The student-led Watermelon Project does not have such training, and the students in SJP and Radical Student Union—one of the student clubs that advocates for SJP’s demands and stands in solidarity with their cause—hope that this expression of solidarity can help further some of the demands that they have proposed to the administration. 

According to SJP’s Instagram post from Nov. 13, 2023, two of their demands explicitly relate to student safety on campus. The first demand pertains to the creation of “a safety and support framework for Arab, Muslim and Jewish students on campus affected both directly and indirectly by Israel’s violence.” Another demand, posted on the same account on Dec. 6, 2023, adds a sixth demand for the “protection and respect for student activists and their organizing both on and off campus,” which highlights the issues that SJP—and the clubs affiliated with them, such as RSU—has faced in light of their pro-Palestine advocacy. 

The original demands were posted on SJP’s Instagram page on Nov. 13 of last year following a meeting between UMW President Troy Paino, several members of the UMW administration, SJP, RSU and Arab and Muslim students who have been affected by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, according to Ahmed.

In the meeting, students sought to express their concerns regarding the administration’s response to the ongoing violence, Paino’s Oct. 12 email, and some comments from the panelists who spoke during the “Middle East Crisis” community forum on Nov. 1. 

The email that addressed the Oct. 7 attack began, “Like many of you, I watched news of the recent terrorist attacks by Hamas and the unfolding war in Israel and Gaza with great sadness. We condemn any violence that targets innocent civilians, and we grieve with those whose loved ones were killed, injured, or taken hostage.”

According to Sasho Radoulov, a junior geography major, the email sparked backlash from SJP. 

He said, “The fact that [Paino] omitted the word ‘Palestine’ from [the email] is kind of telling. And he’d spoken on it already. And it’s really past the point of being political right now; it’s just a full-fledged genocide.” 

In response to the community forum, SJP demanded “An apology to Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim members of the community for the statements made during the November 1st ‘Middle East Crisis’ Panel that was framed as a counseling event, but turned into an environment of grossly genocidal rhetoric,” which was posted on their Instagram account with the other demands.

According to a post that was collaboratively uploaded by the SJP and RSU Instagram accounts, “A speaker referenced ‘The innocent who died as we bombed the [N]azis out of power,’ relating it to what’s happening now to Palestinians.” 

In the same post, the clubs wrote, “The speaker compared their overcoming cancer to Israel’s cleansing of Palestinians from their land for Israel’s gain. In reference to Palestinians, [the speaker] said: ‘We have to use radiation and chemicals to make the necessary sacrifices’” about the comments made by one of the panelists who was invited to speak at the forum. 

The underlying link that connects these events, statements and actions relates to student safety, hence the initiation of the Watermelon Project. 

Myca Lester, the president of RSU has been the target of a hate crime on campus and explained how they were met with little University support as well as their feelings of safety on campus.

“There was no real communication. There wasn’t a formal apology. There wasn’t a meeting or anything—It was just sort of the initial meeting to ask what happened and it was like they just forgot,” they said. “So that’s another reason why it’s genuinely not really a safe space, especially if you’re a student activist.” 

During the November meeting, Ahmed explained her perspective on campus safety for Muslim students to members of UMW administration, including Paino. 

She said, “UMW isn’t obviously the most diverse place, so there’s not a super expansive community of us, and other Muslims on this campus … there are a lot of us that we don’t even know they’re Muslim because they don’t feel comfortable enough, and I think that this situation has definitely exacerbated that.”

Students who have been affected do not feel safe, and Ahmed and Lester both have been doxxed by the site Canary Mission, which has publicly listed their personal information. According to Lester, names are submitted to the site, which has raised a concern, as they do not know if the person who submitted them is located in their area or merely found them on the internet.

Professor Nabil Al-Tikriti, who teaches in the History Department and is the faculty advisor for SJP, expressed his thoughts about Canary Mission. 

“It’s really unfortunate that Canary Mission exists, and I don’t think it should exist, and I don’t think they should engage in doxxing, and I think that’s outrageous,” he said. “At the same time, everybody knows what Canary Mission is doing, so I don’t know that it has as big of an effect as it used to have because employers, the general public, [and] other folks who might see it are not likely to be persuaded by it as much as they were persuaded by it a few years ago.” 

Nevertheless, safety remains a key element of SJP’s demands, as their activism on campus has garnered unwelcome attention that the University meets with recommendations to visit the Talley Center or contact UMW Campus Police.