Pro-Palestinian US campus protests grow as police crack down

Israel-Hamas conflict and humanitarian crisis in Gaza lit a match of shock and divisive outrage in American universities from New York to California


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Students protest the war in Gaza at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024 in Austin, Texas. — AFP
Students protest the war in Gaza at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024 in Austin, Texas. — AFP

Published: Thu 25 Apr 2024, 6:31 PM

College campuses across the United States braced for fresh protests by pro-Palestinian students Thursday, extending a week of increasingly confrontational standoffs with police, mass arrests and accusations of anti-Semitism.

The Israel-Hamas conflict and humanitarian crisis in Gaza has lit a match of shock and divisive outrage in American universities from New York to California.

More than 200 protesters were arrested Wednesday and early Thursday at universities in Los Angeles, Boston and Austin, Texas where a fresh rally was scheduled for midday.

The spreading protests began at Columbia University in New York, where a midnight deadline set by college officials was fast approaching for students to remove an encampment that has become a symbolic epicenter of the movement after more than 100 demonstrators were arrested there last week.

Visiting the campus on Wednesday, top Republican leader House Speaker Mike Johnson condemned the nature of the protests and suggested it could be necessary to call out the National Guard.

Student protesters say they are expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, where the death toll has topped 34,305, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and are calling on universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

The protests pose a major challenge to university administrators who are trying to balance campus commitments to free expression amid complaints that the rallies have crossed a line into intimidation and fuelled a surge in anti-Semitism.

Demonstrations flared at the University of Southern California's (USC) Los Angeles campus, where 93 people were arrested for trespassing, and at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, where 34 were arrested, according to authorities.

USC said on social media site X at around midnight that the protest had ended and the campus would remain "closed until further notice."

"Students, faculty, staff, and people with business on campus may enter with proper identification," the university said.

Los Angeles police officers went to the campus on Wednesday afternoon and "assisted the university in effecting trespass arrests" when protesters refused to leave, Captain Kelly Muniz told reporters.

The LAPD said there were no reports of injuries and patrols would remain in the area on Thursday.

At Emerson College in Boston, local media reported that classes were cancelled Thursday after police clashed with protesters around 2 am, tearing down a pro-Palestinian encampment and arresting 108 people.

In Washington, students from Georgetown and George Washington University (GW) established their own solidarity encampment on the GW campus Thursday morning, student magazine the Georgetown Voice said, with a walkout planned for the afternoon at Georgetown.

Protests and encampments have sprung up at universities from coast to coast, including at New York University and Yale -- both of which also saw dozens of students arrested earlier this week -- Harvard, Brown University, MIT, the University of Michigan and elsewhere.

Demonstrators, including a number of Jewish students, have disavowed instances of anti-Semitism and criticized officials equating it with opposition to Israel.

But pro-Israel supporters and others worried about campus safety have also pointed to anti-Semitic incidents and allege that campuses are encouraging intimidation and hate speech.

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden denounced "blatant anti-Semitism" that has "no place on college campuses."

But the White House has also said that the president supports freedom of expression on US campuses.

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