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Crackdown on Campus: The Harsh Response to Pro-Palestinian Protests

The Gaza war continues to make itself felt in the United States, most notably in a wave of protests and confrontations across American college and university campuses this spring. Campus protests on behalf of the Palestinians and in opposition to Israel grew dramatically last fall after the October 7 attacks and subsequent Israeli campaign against Gaza. After subsiding somewhat, the number of protests soared to new heights in late April, sparked by protests at Columbia University that began April 17. As of early May, protests have occurred on more than 150 American campuses.

College administrators have responded to campus protests in different ways, but a frequent response has been to use police force. Roughly 2,600 people were arrested across 50 campuses between April 18 and May 7. Several accounts indicate people have been intimidated or physically injured by police.

Such a harsh response to protests, even unauthorized or disruptive protests, is hard to justify. This crackdown should disturb not only those advocating for an end to the Gaza war but anyone concerned with protecting the ability to protest injustice.

Confrontations on Campus

The college protests have frequently involved students and others camping out on school property or close to it: around 80 encampments were established this spring. Some protestors have occupied university buildings, such as Hamilton Hall at Columbia. 

The protestors’ exact concerns vary by campus, but a common theme is their desire for colleges and universities to cut financial ties with Israel or companies that do business with Israel or otherwise contribute to the Gaza war. 

School administrators’ responses to the protests have varied. Wesleyan University has allowed protestors to set up 100 tents on campus, with university President Michael Roth even commending them for “bringing attention to the killing of innocent people.” Roth has said that the encampments are permissible “as long as that space is not disruptive to campus operations.” The Rhode Island School of Design has allowed protestors to occupy a campus building, relocating classes that would have been held there.

Harvard restricted access to the protests to those with student IDs and said that it would take disciplinary action against protestors. After the administration agreed to future talks with the protestors, they voluntarily dismantled their encampment.  

Other schools have resorted to calling in school or local law enforcement to evict the protestor encampments. New York police began arresting protestors at Columbia the day after the camping began, arresting 100 individuals on April 18. Further police responses to the protests have followed, with sometimes violent results.

Police cleared an encampment at Emory University within hours of its establishment, using tear gas, pepper balls, and batons against protestors. They also repeatedly tased one man who had been pinned to the ground. Almost 30 people, including university faculty members, were arrested.

At the University of Arizona in Tucson, police used rubber bullets and pepper balls against protestors, hitting one person with a rubber bullet. The university president said the police were “assaulted with projectiles.” Police at the University of Texas at Austin used chemical irritants to clear a crowd and repeatedly punched a protestor. Police used tear gas against an “unsanctioned” demonstration at the University of South Florida. At the University of Virginia, police used pepper spray against protestors. 

At Washington University in St. Louis, police clearing an encampment beat a professor, who was later hospitalized with broken ribs and a broken hand. Boston police who cleared an encampment connected with Emerson College sometimes pushed protestors to the ground; one protestor was later treated in an emergency room.

A significant violent incident occurred at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on April 30. Counter-protestors attacked an encampment, using projectiles, fireworks, and chemical agents against protestors. The confrontation between counter-protestors and protestors lasted for hours. At least 15 people were injured, and one person was hospitalized. 

UCLA brought in the police a couple of days later to clear the encampment, which they did by using stun grenades and arresting more than 200 people. Protestors shouted in response, “You can’t stop us!”

Responding to Disruption

While college and university administrators and the police bear most of the blame for the violence and confrontations on campus, some complexities should be acknowledged.

First, to the degree protestors were breaking school rules, whether by camping out in certain spaces or occupying campus buildings, they were going beyond protest to engage in civil disobedience. Civil disobedience can be a justified and even noble activity, but by definition it involves violating laws or rules. Some type of punitive response by the schools’ authorities was predictable and (from the authorities’ perspective) understandable.

Second, both before and after the spring encampment protests, some pro-Palestinian protestors on campuses have engaged in behavior that could plausibly be considered intimidating or threatening. For example, protestors disrupted a Rutgers University Town Hall with the university’s president on April 4, booing and heckling the president. A Jewish student at Columbia who organized a counter-protest was harassed and attacked on April 20. Custodial staff at Hamilton Hall reported being intimidated and shaken by the protestors’ takeover of the building, which initially prevented them from leaving (their union is now suing Columbia). 

Doubtless some protestors have also not been scrupulously nonviolent in response to police assaults. In a police/protestor confrontation at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, a protestor struck a state trooper in the head with a skateboard. Three other police officers were also injured in the confrontation.

Third, the pro-Palestinian protestors, like any activist community, can justly be criticized for their views, tactical choices, slogans, or other comments. Several sympathetic observers have offered such criticism in recent weeks. 

Even acknowledging all these complexities, however, the choice by many schools to call in the police and the police’s often violent treatment of protestors are hard to justify. 

The protests have reportedly been mostly peaceful. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-profit, analyzed 553 American campus protests from between April 18 and May 3. The group found that fewer than 20 involved either serious interpersonal violence (that is, something more severe than shoving someone) or property damage (breaking a window or worse). 

Of the protests that were violent, almost half involved protestors fighting with police, as in the UW-Madison incident previously mentioned or a confrontation at Washington University in St. Louis that left an officer with a concussion. This pattern suggests that sometimes violence may have occurred only because police intervened.

For colleges and universities that do not wish to make too many concessions to protestors, measures short of calling the police are possible, as Harvard has shown. Simply waiting out the protestors is also an option: the school year will end soon and most students will leave. The brutal tactics used at so many colleges were not necessary.

A tendency by institutions to resort to police force against nonviolent civil disobedience can potentially threaten a wide array of people and groups who challenge the status quo. The crackdowns on campuses across the United States should trouble not only pro-Palestinian activists but activists everywhere. 



Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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