Riot police dismantle peaceful pro-Palestinian protest at UCLA

Students disperse from US campus amid din of detonating flashbangs, ‘large number of arrests’.

After a tense stand-off at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), hundreds of police in riot gear launched a pre-dawn raid on an encampment filled with about 400 peaceful protesters demonstrating against Israel’s war on Gaza, forcing them to disperse with flash-bangs and batons.

The operation to clear the encampment advanced after police issued a second order to disperse or face arrest just before 1am local time (08:00 GMT) on Thursday. California Highway Patrol officers gained partial entry to the encampment of tents, which was protected by a barricade of plywood palettes, but they were forced to beat a temporary retreat after protesters resisted arrest.

By 2:30am (09:30 GMT), the police numbers were bolstered with busloads of reinforcements arriving near Royce Hall, an auditorium located outside the encampment.

An hour later, the stand-off had entered its endgame, with police pushing back protesters who linked arms outside the encampment. They wrenched down the palettes and threw protesters to the ground, moving into the zone with high-intensity torches amid the heavy smoke from the flashbangs.

Sean Carmitchel, a videographer on the scene, told Al Jazeera there had been a “large number of arrests”.

Throughout the operation, police were seen cuffing students with zip ties. By 4:30am (11:30 GMT), most of the students had been removed from the encampment.

Officers were observed sitting students on the grass, chants of “Free Palestine” ringing in the air. Police transport buses had been positioned on campus, presumably to take the arrested protesters to stations for processing.

Law enforcement officers detain a protester at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA),
Law enforcement officers detain a protester at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), during a pro-Palestinian protest on May 2 [Mike Blake/Reuters]

Many protesters, even those who have been arrested, said they will continue their demonstrations “no matter what”, reported Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds from the UCLA campus.

“We’ll see what form the protests take and whether at some point the university … feels they need to have some sort of dialogue or whether they will continue to suppress [the protests],” he said.

“Finally, will this extremely highly-publicised event, with dozens and hundreds of cameras focused on these students … have a cumulative effect on US public opinion on Israel’s war on Gaza and the role the US government plays in it?”

Previous attack on the camp

Thursday’s raid took place one night after the Palestinian solidarity encampment was attacked by a violent pro-Israel mob.

Masked and carrying Israeli flags, they hurled fireworks into the pro-Palestinian encampment and tried to tear tents down. They were also filmed assaulting students with pepper spray, sticks, stones and metal fencing. Pro-Palestinian protesters ultimately used the metal fencing that was thrown at them to shield themselves.

Police only intervened several hours after the attacks, allowing the assailants to leave without making any arrests. More than 100 people were injured in the attack, and some were admitted to hospital, according to the protest organisers.

Al Jazeera’s Reynolds said the mob, which appeared to come from outside the university community, had been present on campus for days. It was “puzzling” that the police had taken hours to arrive, he added.

“There are Los Angeles Police Department vehicles and policemen, as well as the California Highway Patrol, at the disposal of the mayor and the governor to respond in very quick order to these types of disturbances,” he added.

Following the cancellation of classes on Wednesday, students spent the day reinforcing the barrier surrounding their camp. That evening, campus authorities broadcast a message to student protesters inside the Gaza solidarity camp telling them that they were in an illegal encampment and they had to disperse immediately or face arrest.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators build makeshift shields in preparation for the possible clearing of an encampment by authorities on the UCLA campus Wednesday, May 1, 2024
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators build makeshift shields in preparation for the possible clearing of an encampment by authorities on the UCLA campus on May 1 in Los Angeles [Ethan Swope/AP Photo]

Ahead of Thursday’s police operation, UCLA professor Danielle Carr told Al Jazeera that the university faculty found it “disgusting” that the peaceful pro-Palestine protesters in the encampment were now facing a “militarised police invasion”.

Independent review

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that “a group of instigators” perpetrated the previous night’s attack, but he did not provide details about the crowd or why the administration and school police did not act sooner.

“However one feels about the encampment, this attack on our students, faculty and community members was utterly unacceptable,” he said. “It has shaken our campus to its core.”

The head of the University of California system, Michael Drake, ordered an “independent review of the university’s planning, its actions and the response by law enforcement”.

The university faculty has harshly criticised the administration, with 200 members signing a letter making a series of demands, including that the police not be unleashed on the student encampment and that no student be disciplined for exercising their right to free speech.

Muslim organisations in the US have also blasted university officials and police for failing to intervene and protect them from pro-Israeli attackers. “The community needs to feel the police are protecting them, not enabling others to harm them,” said Rebecca Husaini, chief of staff for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

US political analyst Eric Ham, co-author of The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party, said the student-led university protests are just the latest sign of public disdain for the Biden administration’s role in Israel’s war on Gaza.

“We have already begun to see the impacts that these protests, that these demonstrations [are having], but more importantly, the backlash that many people are feeling about President Biden’s handling of this conflict,” Ham told Al Jazeera.

The chaotic scenes at UCLA came just hours after New York police burst into a building occupied by antiwar protesters at Columbia University on Tuesday night, breaking up a demonstration that had paralysed the school.

The Associated Press news agency counted at least 38 times when arrests were made at US campus protests since April 18. More than 1,600 people have been arrested at 30 schools.

Biden reacts to protests

Hours after the UCLA camp was dismantled, US President Joe Biden offered brief remarks about the campus protests roiling the nation, attempting to strike a balance between the protesters’ free speech rights and the need to preserve a safe learning environment.

“We’ve all seen images, and they put to the test two fundamental American principles,” he said as he opened his remarks. “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.”

While Biden was emphatic that peaceful protest must be protected, he focused much of his speech on the violence and law-breaking attributed to some demonstrations.

“Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is. It’s against the law when violence occurs,” he said.

“Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellations of classes and graduation — none of this is a peaceful protest.”

Biden also implied that the protest movements had rendered campuses unsafe for some students, an allegation many organisers have forcefully denied. The Democratic president underscored the need for students to feel safe crossing campus “without fear of being attacked”.

“There should be no place on any campus, no place in America, for anti-Semitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” he said. “There is no place for hate speech or violence of any kind, whether it’s anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or discrimination against Arab Americans or Palestinian Americans. It’s simply wrong.”

As he left the podium, a reporter asked him if the protests forced him to reconsider any of his policies regarding Israel or its war in Gaza. Many of the encampments were set up in protest of the US support for the war, which has claimed more than 34,500 Palestinian lives in the narrow enclave.

“No,” he responded firmly, before turning away. “Thank you.”

He answered a last question as he walked out of the briefing area: Do you think the National Guard should intervene in the protests? “No.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies