Dozens arrested at U of Texas, USC as anti-Israel protests spread to more US campuses

Texas governor says protesters ‘belong in jail,’ White House upholds commitment to free speech, condemns ‘hateful rhetoric’; House speaker tells Columbia president to restore calm or quit

Pro-Palestinian students seen arrested by law enforcement on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin, April 24, 2024. (Social media/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Police arrested student protesters at the University of Southern California on Wednesday, hours after police at a Texas university aggressively detained dozens in the latest clashes between law enforcement and those protesting against Israel on campuses across America.

While tensions rose between police and protesters at USC earlier in the day, in the evening, a few dozen demonstrators standing in a circle with locked arms were detained one by one without major incident.

Police officers encircled the dwindling group, which sat in defiance of an earlier warning to disperse or be arrested. Beyond the police line, hundreds of onlookers watched as helicopters buzzed overhead. The school closed the campus.

While universities struggling to defuse unrest have quickly turned to law enforcement, the arrests in California were in sharp contrast to the chaos that ensued just hours earlier at the University of Texas at Austin.

Hundreds of local and state police — including some on horseback and holding batons — pushed into protesters, at one point sending some tumbling into the street. Officers made 34 arrests at the behest of the university and Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

“These protesters belong in jail,” Abbott wrote on social media.

“Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

A photographer covering the demonstration for Fox 7 Austin was in the push-and-pull when an officer yanked him backward to the ground, video showed. The station confirmed that the photographer was arrested. A longtime Texas journalist was knocked down in the mayhem and could be seen bleeding before police helped him to emergency medical staff.

Amid the unrest, the White House expressed United States President Joe Biden’s commitment to freedom of expression on campuses nationwide, while reiterating the importance of demonstrations remaining peaceful.

“The president believes that free speech, debate and nondiscrimination on college campuses are important,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told journalists at a briefing on Wednesday.

“We believe in people being able to express themselves in a peaceful manner. But when we’re talking about hateful rhetoric, when we’re talking about violence, we have to call it out.”

Dane Urquhart, a third-year Texas student, called the police presence and arrests at the university an “overreaction,” adding that the protest “would have stayed peaceful” if the officers had not turned out in force.

“Because of all the arrests, I think a lot more [demonstrations] are going to happen,” Urquhart said.

Police left after hours of efforts to control the crowd, and about 300 demonstrators moved back in to sit on the grass and chant under the school’s iconic clock tower.

In a statement Wednesday night, the university’s president, Jay Hartzell, said: “Our rules matter, and they will be enforced. Our University will not be occupied.”

North of USC, students at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt were barricaded inside a building for a third day, and the school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

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. That didn’t stop protesters from setting up a camp with 14 tents Wednesday following a rally against the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus, partly prompting a heavier hand from universities.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody, while over 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

A University of Southern California protester is detained by USC Department of Public Safety officers during a pro-Palestinian rally at the Alumni Park on the university’s campus, April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police earlier Wednesday. Columbia University President Minouche Shafik had set on Tuesday a midnight deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment, but the school extended negotiations, saying it would continue talks with protesters for another 48 hours.

On a visit to campus Wednesday, US House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, called on 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.

After meeting with Jewish students, Johnson spoke at a press conference on the campus, during which he was interrupted by demonstrators, including with shouts of “Mike, you suck.”

US House Speaker Mike Johnson gives a press conference after meeting with Jewish students, as pro-Palestinian students and activists continue to protest against Israel on the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 24, 2024. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP)

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.

Tents erected at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. 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. 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.

On the University of Minnesota campus, a few dozen students rallied a day after nine protesters were arrested when police took down an encampment in front of the library. US Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was among the demonstrators arrested at Columbia last week, attended a protest later in the day.

A group of more than 80 Columbia professors signed a letter Wednesday calling on the university’s president and other administrators to drop any charges and to allow future encampments without what they described as police retaliation.

They wrote that they were “horrified that the administration would permit such a clear violation of our students’ rights to freely speak out against genocide and ongoing occupation of Palestine.”

Following Wednesday’s New York University protest, some pro-Israel social media accounts released footage, whose source is unclear, of a protester at the institution who was unable to answer when an unidentified interviewer asked her what the divestment rally’s “main goal” was.

“I think the goal is just showing our support for Palestine and demanding that NYU stop,” says the protester, as a flag of the US Marxist Party for Socialism and Liberation flutters behind her.

“I honestly don’t know all of what NYU’s doing,” she quickly adds. She turns to a friend and asks: “Do you know what NYU’s doing?”

“About what?” asks the friend, whose face is hidden behind a black surgical mask.

“About Israel — why are we protesting?”

“I wish I was more educated,” replies the mask-clad protester.

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