United States: Pro-Palestine campus movement spreads amid police crackdown and expulsion threats

May 2, 2024
tents with solidarity messages
Photo: @NationalSJP/X

Pro-Palestinian protests have spread to more than 70 campuses large and small across the United States. Crackdowns by administrators suspending students and using police to make arrests have only spurred them on.

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Gaza solidarity encampment was violently attacked on May 1 by pro-Israel counter-protesters armed with fireworks, tear gas and other weapons. Reportedly, police initially stood by while the attack happened.

LA Times higher education reporter Teresa Watanabe reported on X: “Pro-Israel counterprotestors started tearing down @UCLA encampment barriers and screamed ‘Second nakba!’ referring to the mass displacement & dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.”

Police prevented emergency services from coming onto campus to tend to the injured. Local journalist Jack Ross reported on X that “folks are taking their own people to hospitals because they say @UCLA PD won’t let EMS in”. Ross quoted encampment activists saying the camp “has treated 100+ people so far for medical injuries including tear gas pepper spray head injuries from projectiles fireworks burns shock…”.

As reported in USA Today, at Columbia University, where mass arrests at a student encampment sparked the recent wave of nationwide campus protests and occupations, students defied the university administration’s April 29 deadline to disperse and threats of suspension or expulsion.

After the university began suspending students who refused to leave the Gaza solidarity encampment, cops moved in to make arrests and clear the site.

The Intercept's Natasha Lennard wrote that "[b]etween Columbia and [nearby] City College, over 200 protesters — almost all students — were arrested before the night was out.

As DemocracyNow! reported, students at Columbia occupied the Hamilton Hall building just after midnight.

“Columbia’s Emergency Management Operations Team says it has now locked down the main campus following the occupation,” reported DN. “Hamilton Hall was also the site of a historic student occupation in 1968. Students have renamed the building Hind’s Hall in honor of Hind Rajab, a 6-year-old Palestinian girl killed by the Israeli military in Gaza.”

Lennard wrote that "City College President Vince Boudreau, in his letter inviting the NYPD to storm the campus, made specific note of the fact that protesters had refused to take down a Palestinian flag from a flagpole.

"After the police had cleared the campus of the students who belong there and filled the space with cops instead, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry pulled down the Palestinian flag and raised the American one to full mast in its place.

"Riot cops cheered below."

DN host Amy Goodman visited Columbia before the crackdown and interviewed students and staff at the encampment, where there were dozens of tents and where university staff, wearing orange fluorescent vests, gathered to protect the students.

Despite earlier promises by Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik that she would not send in the New York police, Goodman reported that as the crew arrived, “scores of police” were assembled outside the campus, “with plastic handcuffs”.

Goodman asked student organiser Sueda Polat — a postgraduate at Columbia studying human rights and part of the encampment’s negotiating team — what the students were demanding.

“We don’t want to trade in the blood of Palestinians. And that means divestment from all direct and indirect holding that this university has, whether that be weapons manufacturing, companies that operate illegally in occupied territory, companies that produce information technology for the occupation army. Complete divestment.

“We’re also requesting disclosure. We don’t have transparency on this university’s investments. And we need that to be able to push the movement further.

“We’re also requesting amnesty. Hundreds of our students have been disciplined over the past six months on unfair premises…”

Linnea Norton, a PhD student in ecology and climate science and an activist in the encampment, told Goodman: “[M]y shoulder was injured during the arrest [at the initial encampment] because we were zip-tied for like seven hours straight…”

Columbia professor of English and comparative literature Shana Redmond, part of the encampment’s faculty support, told Goodman: “These students have taken the worst of circumstances on a global scale and the worst of circumstances at a very localised university scale and turned it into something beautiful.

“The encampment here, complete with a library, a complete de-escalation team, complete with lessons and teach-ins, has modeled for this campus what open and free inquiry and debate actually looks like. As the students say, we keep us safe. And so, we, as faculty, are here to assist in ensuring that that is made true.”

Professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia, Nadia Abu El-Haj, said: “The people behind me in the orange vests are mostly faculty, some staff, who have been mobilised since the last police raid ... [to] come out and stand … guard, but also mostly witness if the police came in again.

“[T]he … depiction of the students as somehow Hamas supporters or antisemites and sort of dangerous rabble-rousers is a complete misrepresentation of these students. They’ve been calm. They’ve been incredibly well organised. And they’re taking a principled stance.”

The New York Times reported on a week-long occupation of Siemens Hall, an administration building at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, which houses the campus president’s office.

According to the NYT, pro-Palestinian protesters “barricaded themselves inside and fought off an early attempt by the police to remove them … and renamed [the building] ‘Intifada Hall’...

“Inside, they painted graffiti messages like ‘Time 2 Free Gaza’, ‘Pigs Not Allowed’ and ‘Land Back’” and sprayed “Blood on Your Hands” across a wall hanging and “I Will Live Free or Die Trying” on the door.

In response to the protest, “The university has shut down the entire campus, first for a couple of days, then a week and now through May 10, one day before its scheduled commencement.

“After the Siemens Hall takeover, protesters set up dozens of tents on patches of grass around the hall, and demonstrators took over a second building to use its bathrooms and hold meetings.”

Students have also set up an encampment at the California campus of Sonoma State University.

At the University of Texas in Austin, cops arrested at least 30 people. According to the Austin American Statesman, “Members of the university and Austin police, along with state troopers in riot gear, initially encircled the approximately 80 protesters, who sat on the ground and linked arms, some of them holding umbrellas to shield from the sun in 85-degree temperatures. Video from the scene showed a handful of demonstrators being taken away with their hands zip-tied behind their backs.”

Right-wing Republican Texas governor Greg Abbott took to X saying “No encampments will be allowed. Instead, arrests are being made.”

More campus actions are likely to occur at graduation ceremonies in May. Students have been helping build broader actions off campus across the country.

It will be a long hot summer of protest, including at the conventions of the two pro-imperialist war parties, the Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic convention will be in Chicago, where anti-Vietnam War protests took place in 1968. The Republican convention will be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

[Includes additional reporting by Susan Price.]

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