Hundreds arrested across US campuses as police clamp down on anti-Israel protests

Authorities increasingly using a heavy hand with encampments popping up at colleges throughout the country; 108 arrested at Boston protest, 93 at University of Southern California

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists and students from Emerson College block an alley where they have set up an encampment as police move in to clear it, in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 25, 2024. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists and students from Emerson College block an alley where they have set up an encampment as police move in to clear it, in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 25, 2024. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

Authorities across the US are taking an increasingly hardline approach in shutting down anti-Israel student encampments before they can take root, as they pop up at universities throughout the country calling for divestment from Israel amid the war in Gaza.

In the latest campus clash, police officers immediately responded on Thursday morning as student protesters at New Jersey’s Princeton University began setting up an encampment, video footage on social media showed.

“You all are in violation of university policy. These tents must come down now,” an officer is heard saying in a video posted on X, as protesters chant “Free, free Palestine.”

The swift response by police in Princeton came hours after Boston police forcibly removed an encampment set up by Emerson College students early on Thursday, arresting 108 people, media accounts and police said.

The tents, on a walkway next to the college in downtown Boston, were removed shortly after 1 a.m., police said.

Video of the scuffle showed students in the alleyway linking arms and using umbrellas to resist officers, who moved forcefully through the crowd and threw some protesters to the ground.

College leaders had earlier warned students that the alley, which is not solely owned by Emerson, had a public right-of-way and city authorities had threatened to take action if the protesters didn’t leave. The video showed officers first warning students to leave before moving in. Emerson canceled classes on Thursday.

Another 93 people were arrested Wednesday night during a protest at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles Police Department said. One person was arrested on allegations of assault with a deadly weapon, although police officials didn’t immediately provide details about the incident.

At USC, tensions were already high after the university canceled a planned commencement speech by the school’s pro-Palestinian valedictorian, citing safety concerns.

The university later canceled its main stage graduation ceremony. The university said it would still host dozens of commencement events, including all the traditional individual school commencement ceremonies where students cross a stage and receive their diplomas.

After scuffles with police early Wednesday, a few dozen demonstrators standing in a circle with locked arms were detained one by one without incident later in the evening.

Officers encircled the dwindling group sitting 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.

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

A fresh demonstration at the University of California, Los Angeles, called for colleges to sever ties with Israel and with companies they say profit from the conflict.

“For 201 days, the world has watched in silence as Israel has murdered over 30,000 Palestinians,” said a message posted online by organizers of the UCLA protest.

“Today, UCLA joins students across the country in demanding that our universities divest from the companies which profit off of the occupation, apartheid, and genocide in Palestine.”

At Emory University in Atlanta, local and state police swept in to dismantle a camp, although the university said the protesters weren’t students but rather outside activists. Some officers carried semiautomatic weapons, and video shows officers using a stun gun on one protester whom they had pinned to the ground. At least 17 people were detained, handcuffed with zip ties, and loaded into a police transport van. It was unclear if the people detained were Emory students or faculty.

Protesters at Emory chanted slogans supporting Palestinians and opposing a public safety training center being built in Atlanta. The two movements are closely entwined in Atlanta, where there have been years of “Stop Cop City” activism that has included attacks on property.

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 after a rally against the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

At Northwestern University, students began erecting tents on the campus just north of Chicago as they called for the school to protect anti-Israel speakers and end relationships with Israeli institutions, organizers said.

“We refuse to allow business to continue as usual in the face of Northwestern’s complicity,” the NU Educators for Justice in Palestine, Student Liberation Union, and Jewish Voice for Peace said in a joint statement.

Footage from the anti-Israel encampment at Northwestern showed a masked pro-Palestinian demonstrator assaulting a student reporter who was filming protesters setting up tents.

Another video from the university showed a demonstrator with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face wearing a hoodie with an image of Abu Obeida, the spokesman of the Hamas terror group’s military wing.

Tents were also erected on Thursday morning at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where a group of protesters chanted “It is our right to rebel, divest now or go to hell,” video footage posted on social media showed.

Friday deadline

Columbia officials have given protesters until 4 a.m. on Friday to reach an agreement with the university on dismantling dozens of tents set up on the New York City campus in a protest that started a week ago.

An initial deadline of midnight Tuesday came and went without an agreement, but administrators extended it for 48 hours, citing progress in the talks.

The university already tried to shut the protest down by force. On April 18, Columbia President Nemat Shafik took the unusual move of inviting New York City police to enter the campus, drawing the ire of many students and faculty.

More than 100 people were arrested and the tents were removed from the main lawn. But within a few days, the encampment was back in place, and the university’s options appeared to narrow.

Anti-Israel students and activists gather at a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 25, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

On a visit to Columbia on 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.”

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.

The protesters have vowed to keep the protest going until the university agrees to disclose and divest any financial holdings that might support the war in Gaza, and grant amnesty to students suspended from school during the demonstrations.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its months-long 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.

A person is detained by police as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students protest on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, on April 24, 2024. (Suzanne CORDEIRO / AFP)

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden denounced “blatant antisemitism” that has “no place on college campuses.” But the White House has also said that the president supports freedom of expression at US universities.

In Austin, authorities showed no hesitation in shutting down a protest on the main campus of the University of Texas on Wednesday.

State highway patrol troopers in riot gear and police on horseback broke up a protest at the school’s flagship campus in Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety posted on X that 34 people had been arrested.

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

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