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Society

Colleges Turn to Police to Quell Pro-Palestinian Protests Ahead of Graduation Ceremonies

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — With graduations looming, student protesters doubled down early Thursday on their discontent of the Israel-Hamas war on campuses across the country as universities, including ones in California and Texas, have become quick to call in the police to end the demonstrations and make arrests.

While grappling with growing protests from coast to coast, schools have the added pressure of May commencement ceremonies. At Columbia University in New York, students defiantly erected an encampment where many are set to graduate in front of families in just a few weeks.

Columbia continued to negotiate with students after several failed attempts — and over 100 arrests — to clear the encampment, but several universities ousted demonstrators Wednesday, swiftly turning to law enforcement when protests bubbled up on their campuses.

Police peacefully arrested student protesters at the University of Southern California, hours after officers at the University of Texas at Austin aggressively detained dozens in the latest clashes between law enforcement and those protesting the Israel-Hamas war on campuses nationwide.

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

State troopers try to break up a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas Wednesday April 24, 2024, in Austin, Texas. Student protests over the Israel-Hamas war have popped up on an increasing number of college campuses following last week’s arrest of more than 100 demonstrators at Columbia University. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

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.

Hours earlier in Texas, hundreds of local and state police — including some on horseback and holding batons — bulldozed into protesters, at one point sending some tumbling into the street. Officers pushed their way into the crowd and made 34 arrests at the behest of the university and Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

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 shows. 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.

Dane Urquhart, a third-year Texas student, called the police presence and arrests 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 as graduation nears, 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.

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

On a visit to campus Wednesday, U.S. 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.

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.

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.

___
By JIM VERTUNO, ACACIA CORONADO and NICK PERRY Associated Press

Perry reported from Meredith, New Hampshire. Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists in various locations including Joey Cappelletti, Will Weissert, Larry Lage, Steve LeBlanc, Dave Collins, Jim Salter, Haven Daley, Jesse Bedayn, John Antczak, Julie Walker and Joseph Krauss.

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