Police tangle with students in Texas and California as wave of campus protest against Gaza war grows

University of Southern California protesters push and shove University Public Safety officers as tempers get heated during a pro-Palestinian occupation on the University of Southern California campus Wednesday, April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Police tangled with student demonstrators in Texas and California while new encampments sprouted Wednesday at Harvard and other colleges as school leaders sought ways to defuse a growing wave of pro-Palestinian protests.

At the University of Texas at Austin, dozens of local police and state troopers formed a line to prevent students from marching through the campus, eventually clashing with the protesters and detaining multiple people.

And at the University of Southern California, police removed several tents, then got into a back-and-forth tugging match with protesters over tents before falling back.

Harvard University in Massachusetts had sought to stay ahead of protests this week by limiting access to Harvard Yard and requiring permission for tents and tables. But that didn’t stop protesters from setting up a camp with 14 tents Wednesday, which came after a rally against the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Students protesting Israel’s war with Hamas are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Dozens have been arrested on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police earlier in the day. The situation there remained tense, with campus officials saying it would continue talks with protesters for another 48 hours.

On a visit to campus, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, called on Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign “if she cannot bring order to this chaos.”

“If this is not contained quickly and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard,” he said.

Shafik had set a midnight Tuesday deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment but the school extended negotiations, saying it was making “important progress.”

On Wednesday evening, a Columbia spokesperson said rumors that the university had threatened to bring in the National Guard were unfounded. “Our focus is to restore order, and if we can get there through dialogue, we will,” said Ben Chang, Columbia’s vice president for communications.

Columbia graduate student Omer Lubaton Granot, who put up pictures of Israeli hostages near the encampment, said he wanted to remind people that there were more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas.

“I see all the people behind me advocating for human rights,” he said. “I don’t think they have one word to say about the fact that people their age, that were kidnapped from their homes or from a music festival in Israel, are held by a terror organization.”

Harvard law student Tala Alfoqaha, who is Palestinian, said she and other protesters want more transparency from the university.

“My hope is that the Harvard administration listens to what its students have been asking for all year, which is divestment, disclosure and dropping any sort of charges against students,” she said.

In Austin, a demonstration by hundreds of students at the University of Texas was met with pushback and arrests by local and state law enforcement.

State police — include some on horseback and holding batons — created a perimeter around the school’s main lawn and pulled several students to the ground while taking them into custody.

Troopers used megaphones to announce that people who remained protesting on the public school’s grounds would be arrested under criminal trespass charges. Meanwhile, the predominantly peaceful crowd chanted in support of Palestinians.

Texas police and public safety officials did not immediately confirm the number of people arrested.

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. But the move backfired, acting as an inspiration for other students across the country to set up similar encampments and motivating protesters at Columbia to regroup.

On Wednesday about 60 tents remained at the Columbia encampment, which appeared calm, with students going in and out — one girl holding a toothbrush. Security remained tight around campus, with identification required and police setting up metal barricades.

Columbia said it had agreed with protest representatives that only students would remain at the encampment and they would make it welcoming, banning discriminatory or harassing language.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on U.S. college campuses in a video statement released Wednesday, saying the response of several university presidents has been “shameful” and calling on state, local and federal officials to intervene.

Students at some protests were hiding their identities. At an encampment of about 40 tents at the heart of the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost every student wore a mask, which was handed to them when they entered.

Student protesters declined to identify themselves to reporters, saying they feared retribution by the university. Organizers of the protest said some students who had participated in prior protests at Michigan had been doxxed and punished. But some students passing by shouted at the protesters to remove their masks and show their faces.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. More than 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said college leaders face extremely tough decisions because they have a responsibility to ensure people can express their views, even when others find them offensive, while protecting students from threats and intimidation.


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