Scores arrested as police clear UCLA pro-Palestinian camp

President Joe Biden addresses the nation, saying ‘there’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos’

Police enter an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in L.A.
Police enter an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in L.A.Jae C. Hong (AP)

Police arrested more than 130 people as they moved in to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on Thursday morning, according to the Los Angeles Times. The decision to send in the police came after protesters ignored orders to clear the area. There were scuffles between students and police officers, who launched flares and wore body armor, helmets and face shields as they moved in to tear down the barricades around the university encampment.

At least 1,300 people have been arrested across the U.S. in the last two weeks in connection with student protests. The movement continues to gather pace across the nation and more clashes with the police were expected on Thursday. At Portland State University in Oregon, officers were getting ready to evict students who took over the campus library in recent days. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, some of the activists who were arrested on Tuesday at Columbia University were brought before a judge.

After keeping largely quiet about the campus unrest, President Joe Biden gave a televised address to the nation on Thursday, condemning the acts of violence and saying that things had gone too far. “We’re a civil society and order must prevail. There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” he said. “Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

“We all see the images, and they put to the test two fundamental American principles. The first is the right to free speech and for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard. The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld. We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” said Biden, who answered “no” to reporters’ questions of whether he would change his Middle East policy or send in the National Guard to quash the protests.

Biden, who is lagging behind the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump in the polls, is walking a fine line. His rivals are seeking to portray the protests as antisemitic and extremist, and saying that the Democratic administration is incapable of keeping them under control. On the other hand, being too critical of the student movement could alienate him from young and progressive voters, something he can ill afford to do: the under-30s are one of the pillars of his race for re-election, and this group has been very vocal in its criticism of Biden’s unwavering support of Israel, as have Arab-American communities.

Officers detain a protester at UCLA during a pro-Palestinian protest on May 2, 2024.
Officers detain a protester at UCLA during a pro-Palestinian protest on May 2, 2024. Mike Blake (REUTERS)

In New York, at least 20 people were brought before a judge out of a total of 282 who were arrested at Columbia University and the City College of New York, where protesters had clashed with the police on Tuesday. Although the encampment at Columbia — the epicenter of the protest movement — has been cleared, there are others still up at more than 40 universities across the country.

The clashes at UCLA had been brewing since Tuesday, when university officials declared the encampment illegal after being initially tolerant of protesters. By Wednesday morning the Palestinian flag was flying on campus, but a brawl initiated hours earlier by a pro-Israel group against the pro-Palestinian encampment raised tensions to their highest level during the weeks-long demonstration. “It was an unexpected and unprecedented attack,” said Alicia Verdugo, a 20-year-old sociology student who is among those demanding that the U.S. government stop investing in the conflict through aid to Israel. “Our tuition money is the same money that buys bombs to wipe out Gaza,” she added. Her fellow students were beaten, faced pepper spray and chemicals used to frighten bears, and even had fireworks directed at their tents. The police took several hours to intervene, a lack of swift response that has been widely criticized.

The violence at one of California’s most important educational institutions forced university officials to follow in the footsteps of Columbia, where the NYPD cleared the student encampment on Tuesday night. UCLA canceled classes for Wednesday and Thursday. At around 6 p.m., university loudspeakers blared a police message declaring the protest illegal and threatening to arrest anyone who did not leave the site. Hours later, hundreds of helmeted officers descended on the campus to disperse protesters, some of whom donned helmets, goggles, and respiratory masks in anticipation of the raid, Reuters reports.

Students had been preparing all day Wednesday for this outcome, the same reaction that has followed most of the university protests across the United States. “We are ready to resist, to go through again and again what we experienced last night until the occupation of Gaza ends,” one of the spokespeople said Wednesday afternoon to the applause of hundreds of students, who came to hear a press conference after the early morning events. “Intifada Revolution, there is only one solution,” the demonstrators chanted.

Protestas propalestinas en Estados Unidos
A pro-Israel group attacks the pro-Palestinian camp early Wednesday morning.Ethan Swope (AP)

The press conference also gathered another audience: a heavy police deployment. This grew throughout the day, heralding what was to come. First, several LAPD riot police officers arrived. By the afternoon, dozens of California Highway Patrol vehicles were parked on the grounds of the public university, their trunks open so that helmets and rubber bullet-firing rifles were easily accessible. “Where were they last night?” a student shouted to the uniformed officers as he recorded them with a video camera.

The slow reaction of the police has been harshly criticized. California Governor Gavin Newsom called it “unacceptable” and demanded answers from those responsible. “They arrived around 3 or 4 a.m. They were here for an hour and 20 minutes before they mobilized. They were back there...” said Kaia, a researcher who graduated last year from the university and was part of the encampment.

Karen Bass, the city’s Democratic mayor, has called for an investigation into what happened on campus and has vowed to find those responsible for the violence. “Those involved in launching fireworks at other people, spraying chemicals and physically assaulting others will be found, arrested and prosecuted, as well as anyone involved in any form of violence or lawlessness,” Bass said in a statement.

Campamento propalestino UCLA
A pro-Palestine protester confronts a police officer in the early hours of May 1.Ethan Swope (AP)

Following the eviction announcement, students turned to social media for support. “We need bodies to keep us from being swept out. This is high risk. Only come if you are prepared,” the movement wrote on Instagram. Many used markers to write the number for a legal hotline on their forearms in case they were arrested.

By Wednesday morning, almost nothing remained of the brawl that hastened the end of the camp. A thick silence hung over UCLA’s main lawn, located between the main library and Royce Hall, a concert venue for nearly 2,000 people built in the image of Milan’s St. Ambrose church. Students at the encampment, all wearing sanitary masks, reinforced the security perimeter with planks and wooden pallets donated by supporters of the movement. The chirping of birds was only interrupted by the thud of helicopters, from the police and television channels, which watched over the settlement from the air.

“Today in the morning, some people’s eyes were still hurting from the chemicals they threw at us,” Verdugo said. Kaia claims that 100 people were hit with pepper spray and other substances and that at least 25 people received hospital care. There are no independent figures to corroborate this. The Fire Department claims that a 26-year-old was also treated by paramedics after receiving an injury from a blow to the head.

The students do not know which group was responsible for the violence. Verdugo points, without naming it, to “a Zionist group” that raised a hefty amount of money to serve as a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian camp. This manifests itself in a giant screen, watched over by a couple of security guards 24 hours a day, which projects images of the Israeli hostages taken during the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023. The audiovisual system is an ominous presence for the students. Loud music began to emanate from there, preceding the beatings.

Campamento propalestino UCLA
The display set up by a pro-Israel group, seen on the UCLA campus on April 29. Jae C. Hong (AP)

Wednesday’s events have attracted curious onlookers who want to witness with their own eyes the movement on American campuses. One of them was Will, 25, originally from Chicago and in town for a year. He was the only one showing his solidarity with Israel by waving a flag bearing the Star of David. “It’s not the best time, I know. But these camps are wrong. Everyone has the right to express themselves, but when you close part of the university and affect classes and harass and intimidate individuals, when people openly chant that they want Jews dead... there’s a limit to everything,” he said.

But among the students there was determination, even moments before the police broke up the camp. “We’re not planning on going anywhere. We’re here for the people of Gaza. It’s much worse for the people of Palestine. Reminding ourselves why we are here has made us resilient,” Kaia said.

Campamento propalestino UCLA
Protesters block the entrance to a campus building on Wednesday afternoon.Jae C. Hong (AP)

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