Demonstrations roil U.S. campuses ahead of graduations as protesters spar over the war in Gaza

About 275 people were arrested on Saturday at various campuses including Indiana University at Bloomington, Arizona State University and Washington University in St. Louis

April 29, 2024 10:33 pm | Updated May 01, 2024 10:14 am IST - LOS ANGELES

People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment, advocating for financial disclosure and divestment from all companies tied to Israel and calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, inside the campus of Columbia University on April 28, 2024, in New York.

People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment, advocating for financial disclosure and divestment from all companies tied to Israel and calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, inside the campus of Columbia University on April 28, 2024, in New York. | Photo Credit: AP

Protests are roiling college campuses across the U.S. as upcoming graduation ceremonies are threatened by disruptive demonstrators, with students and others sparring over the war in Gaza and its mounting death toll.

Many campuses were largely quiet over the weekend as demonstrators stayed by tents erected as protest headquarters, although a few colleges saw forced removals and arrests. Many students are demanding their universities cut financial ties with Israel over the large-scale operation in Gaza it says was launched to stamp out the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Also read: Columbia University pro-Palestinian protests 2024 LIVE news updates

Protesters on both sides of the rancorous debate shouted and shoved each other during duelling demonstrations on Sunday at the University of California, Los Angeles. The university stepped up security after “some physical altercations broke out among demonstrators,” Mary Osako, vice chancellor for UCLA Strategic Communications, said in a statement. There were no reports of arrests or injuries.

About 275 people were arrested on Saturday at various campuses including Indiana University at Bloomington, Arizona State University and Washington University in St. Louis. The number of arrests nationwide approached 900 since the New York police removed a pro-Palestinian protest encampment at Columbia University and arrested more than 100 demonstrators on April 18.

The plight of students who have been arrested has become a central part of protests, with the students and a growing number of faculty demanding amnesty for protesters. At issue is whether the suspensions and legal records will follow students through their adult lives.

Faculty members at universities in California, Georgia and Texas have initiated or passed largely symbolic votes of no confidence in their leadership.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said U.S. President Joe Biden “knows that there are very strong feelings” but would leave managing the protests to local authorities.

Also Read | Palestinian flag unfurled by protesters at venue of Biden’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner event

“People should have the ability to air their views and to share their perspectives publicly but it has to be peaceful,” Mr. Kirby said on ABC’s ”This Week.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in an interview that aired on Sunday, called it “a dangerous situation” and placed the responsibility with college administrators.

“There’s also antisemitism, which is completely unacceptable. I’ve been shocked to see that in this country,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The nationwide campus protests began as a response by some students to Israel’s offensive in Gaza after Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel on October 7.

Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. Vowing to stamp out Hamas, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry.

Israel and its supporters have branded the university protests as antisemitic, while critics of Israel say it uses such allegations to silence opponents. Although some protesters have been caught on camera making antisemitic remarks or violent threats, organisers of the protests, some of whom are Jewish, say it is a peaceful movement aimed at defending Palestinian rights and protesting the war.

Student demonstrations have sprung up across the U.S. in various locations including New York, California, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Early protests at Columbia University in New York City, where demonstrators set up tents in the centre of the campus, sparked pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the country. The demonstrations have caused the school to hold remote classes.

Columbia has set a series of deadlines for protesters to leave the encampment, which they have missed, but the school said in an email to students that bringing back police “at this time” would be counterproductive. The students and administrators have engaged in negotiations to end the disruptions, the university said in a statement on Saturday night.

On Sunday, students walked among dozens of colourful tents in front of Low Library, where rows of chairs already have been set up in preparation for commencement in May.

At UCLA, police set up barricades before hundreds of demonstrators on both sides joined a growing crowd Sunday near tents where pro-Palestinian students have been staying around-the-clock.

Pro-Israel demonstrators who arrived for a “Stand in Support of Jewish Students” rally said their goal was to “stand up against hatred and antisemitism.” The counterprotest was organised by the Israeli-American Council, whose leader Elan Carr urged marchers to remain peaceful, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“We don’t want any violence,” Mr. Carr told the crowd as the rally ended. “Don’t engage. You go right to your cars, you move peacefully. Can we agree?”

Across town, the University of Southern California said it was open on Sunday after administrators shut down the campus a day earlier because of what the school called vandalism and disruptions.

USC drew criticism after refusing to allow this year’s class valedictorian, who has publicly supported the Palestinian cause, to make a commencement speech. Administrators then scrapped the keynote speech by filmmaker Jon M. Chu. Last week the school announced the cancellation of its main graduation event, a day after more than 90 protesters were arrested by police in riot gear.

In the northern part of the state, officials on Saturday ordered an “enforced hard closure” of California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. Two halls remained occupied by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The school said Sunday that the cost of the occupation was estimated to be in the millions, including damage done by “theft, vandalism and graffiti.”

Washington University in St. Louis locked some campus buildings and arrested protesters Saturday. Photos showed uniformed police attempting to remove masked protesters as others, also wearing masks, linked arms to thwart the efforts.

The university said in a statement that more than 100 people, including 23 students and four university employees, were arrested on suspicion of trespassing. Megan Green, president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, said in a social media post that she was present and the protest remained calm “until the police came in like an ambush.”

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said in a social media post that she and two of her campaign managers were among those arrested.

The university’s statement defended the action and said protesters “did not have good intentions on our campus and that this demonstration had the potential to get out of control and become dangerous.”

Some of those arrested also face charges of resisting arrest and assault resulting from injuries to three police officers including a severe concussion, a broken finger and a groin injury, the statement said.

The Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the arrests as “heavy-handed.”

Police in riot gear cleared an encampment on the campus of Northeastern University in Boston on Saturday.

About 102 protesters were arrested and will be charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct, the Massachusetts State Police said.

Northeastern said in a statement that the demonstration, which began two days ago, had become “infiltrated by professional organizers” with no affiliation to the university and antisemitic slurs, including “kill the Jews,” had been used.

The Huskies for a Free Palestine student group disputed the university’s account, saying in a statement that counterprotesters were to blame for the slurs and no student protesters “repeated the disgusting hate speech.”

Students at the Boston protest said a counterprotester attempted to instigate hate speech but insisted their event was peaceful.

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