Biden says ‘order must prevail’ as police flatten pro-Palestinian camp at UCLA, arrest protesters

Published May 2, 2024
California Highway Patrol officers detain a protester while clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP
California Highway Patrol officers detain a protester while clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP

President Joe Biden broke his virtual silence on Thursday on the nationwide Gaza campus protests, saying the United States was not authoritarian but insisting “order must prevail”.

In a televised address from the White House, Biden added that there was “no place” for anti-semitism on university campuses, which have been roiled by pro-Palestinian demonstrations amid Israel’s bombardment in Gaza.

The 81-year-old Democrat — whose reelection bid in November faces a challenge from voters opposed to the bombardment — said there had to be a balance between the right to peaceful protest and the need to prevent violence.

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” Biden said from the podium in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

“But neither are we a lawless country,” added Biden.

“We’re a civil society, and order must prevail.”

The US president also said the protests could not be allowed to disrupt classes and graduations for thousands of students at campuses across the United States.

Biden has faced criticism from all sides of the political spectrum over the protests, several of which have been broken up by police in recent days with dozens of people arrested.

Police remove a board reading ‘We Wont Be Silenced’ as they clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP
Police remove a board reading ‘We Wont Be Silenced’ as they clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP

Republicans have accused him of being soft on what they say is anti-semitic sentiment among the protesters while he faces widespread opposition in his own party for his strong support for Israel’s deadly military offensive.

“There should be no place on any campus, no place in America for anti-semitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” Biden added.

“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,” he said.

“It’s simply wrong.”

His comments came after Israel’s president on Thursday said US universities consumed by campus protests were “contaminated by hatred and anti-Semitism”.

After his remarks, Biden said “no” when asked if the US National Guard should intervene to break up the demonstrations.

He also said “no” about whether the protests would change his policy of strong support for the Israeli offensive on Hamas in Gaza following the October 7 attacks on Israel.

Police flatten pro-Palestinian camp

Hundreds of helmeted police swarmed the site of a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) early on Thursday, arresting defiant demonstrators and dismantling their encampment.

The pre-dawn police crackdown at UCLA marked the latest flashpoint in mounting tensions on US college campuses, where protests over Israel’s bombardment in Gaza have led to student clashes with each other and with law enforcement.

Prior to moving in, police urged demonstrators in repeated loudspeaker announcements to clear the protest zone, which occupied a central plaza about the size of a football field.

“If you fail to leave and remain present in the encampment or unauthorised tents or structures […] you will be in violation of the law and those who choose to remain could face sanctions,” UCLA said in an early morning alert before police closed on the encampment.

After messing around the campus for hours, officers eventually moved through the area in lines holding batons as protesters — some in white helmets — linked arms, attempting to block their advance.

Live TV footage showed officers taking down tents and removing the encampment, while arrested protesters sat with their hands restrained behind their backs with zip-ties.

Students have rallied or set up tent encampments at dozens of schools in recent days, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and demanding schools divest from companies that support Israel’s government.

Many of the schools, including Columbia University in New York City, have called in police to quell the protests.

Student Pro-Palestinian protestors chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30, 2024 in New York City.—AFP
Student Pro-Palestinian protestors chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30, 2024 in New York City.—AFP

Campus clashes

At UCLA, dozens of loud explosions were heard during the clash from flash-bang charges, or stun grenades, fired by police as they moved into the camp in the early hours of the morning.

Demonstrators, some carrying makeshift shields and umbrellas, sought to block the officers’ advance by their sheer numbers while chanting, “Push them back” and flashing bright lights in the eyes of the police.

Others on the opposite side of the camp gave up quickly and were seen walking away with their hands over their heads under police escort.

The police operation had started around sunset on Wednesday when officers in tactical gear had begun filing onto the UCLA campus and taking up positions adjacent to a complex of tents occupied by throngs of demonstrators.

Members of law enforcement break through barricades set up by Pro-Palestinian protestors at an encampment at UCLA on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP
Members of law enforcement break through barricades set up by Pro-Palestinian protestors at an encampment at UCLA on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP

Local television station KABC-TV estimated 300 to 500 protesters were hunkered down inside the camp, many wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, while around 2,000 more had gathered outside the barricades in support.

Those numbers dwindled on Thursday as protesters left the camp and were arrested.

Some of the protesters had been seen donning hard hats, goggles and respirator masks in anticipation of the siege a day after the university declared the encampment unlawful.

The demonstrations at UCLA and other campuses have been met with counter-protesters accusing them of fomenting anti-Jewish hatred. The pro-Palestinian side, including some Jews opposed to Israeli actions in Gaza, say they are being unfairly branded as antisemitic for criticising Israel’s government and expressing support for human rights.

The issue has taken on political overtones in the run-up to the US presidential election in November, with Republicans accusing some university administrators of turning a blind eye to antisemitic rhetoric and harassment.

UCLA crackdown came day after violent clash

UCLA had cancelled classes for the day on Wednesday following a violent clash between the encampment’s occupants and a group of masked counter-demonstrators who mounted a surprise assault late on Tuesday night on the tent city.

The occupants of the camp, set up last week, had remained mostly peaceful before the melee, in which both sides traded blows and doused each other with pepper spray.

Members of the pro-Palestinian group said fireworks were thrown at them and they were beaten with bats and sticks. University officials blamed the disturbance on “instigators” and vowed an investigation.

The confrontation went on for two or three hours into early Wednesday morning before police restored order.

A spokesperson for California Governor Gavin Newsom later criticised the “limited and delayed campus law enforcement response” to the unrest as “unacceptable”.

As the much-expanded police force entered the campus on Wednesday night to clear the encampment, some of the protesters were heard yelling at them, “Where were you yesterday?”

Taylor Gee, a 30-year-old pro-Palestinian protester and UCLA law student, said the police action felt “especially galling” to many protesters given the slow police response a night earlier.

“For them to come out the next night to remove us from the encampment, it doesn’t make any sense, but it also makes all the sense in the world.”

UCLA officials said the campus, with nearly 52,000 students, would remain shuttered except for limited operations on Thursday and Friday.

Berkeley takes hands-off approach to protests while Columbia calls police

At Columbia University, tensions between the administration and students protesting have reached the point that scores of New York City police marched onto campus to clear an encampment and arrest demonstrators who had commandeered a classroom building.

It was the second time in as many weeks that the administration has called on police to control the protests. Students have been suspended and threatened with expulsion. Police are now stationed around the clock on campus.

California Highway Patrol officers detain a protester while clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP
California Highway Patrol officers detain a protester while clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, on May 2 in Los Angeles, California, US. — AFP

At the University of California, Berkeley, the scene has been far different. Student demonstrations have so far taken place without arrests or disruption of campus operations.

The contrast in how protests have played out at the two prestigious institutions — both with long histories of student activism — illustrates the range of factors at play in how school administrations, students and the police navigate what can quickly turn into a full-blown crisis.

South of Berkeley at UCLA, part of the same university system, police on Wednesday night prepared to clear out a pro-Palestinian camp, a day after it was attacked by pro-Israeli counter-protesters.

Authorities at the Los Angeles school declared the encampment an unlawful assembly.

Also in Los Angeles, police in riot gear last week swarmed the private University of Southern California campus arresting dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters.

Similar crackdowns have occurred at colleges across the country, from Arizona State to Virginia Tech and Ohio State to Yale. Police have arrested more than 1,000 students to date.

Still, some universities — including Berkeley, Northwestern and Brown — have managed to avoid confrontations between the police and students.

Education experts say these cases offer lessons in keeping tensions from boiling over, a key one being a university’s experience with balancing student activism against pressure from donors, interest groups and politicians.

Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has allowed students to maintain a protest space on campus since they began erecting tents on April 22 on the steps of Sproul Hall, where Martin Luther King gave a 1967 civil rights speech.

Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said that remained the case on Wednesday, in the hours after UCLA and Columbia called in police.

“UC Berkeley has long experience with nonviolent political protest,” Mogulof said, adding that the school was responding to demonstrations in line with University of California policy.

That guidance tells administrators to avoid police involvement unless it’s absolutely necessary and the physical safety of students, faculty and staff is threatened.

That policy is rare, with most universities having some kind of regulation that prohibits permanent encampments or outlaws overnight student activities on campus.

The University of California system has seen in the past where police involvement can lead.

In a 2011 Berkeley protest during the Occupy movement against economic inequalities, campus police clubbed and jabbed students with batons.

Then-chancellor Robert J Birgeneau later apologised, and the UC system shifted to the policy of restraint Berkeley spokesman Mogulof described.

Amid current protests, administrators across the country are seeking to ease tensions with talk.

In Illinois, Northwestern University reached a deal with protesters to remove tents and sound systems in return for a new advisory committee on investments, a key policy for students who object to their school’s financial ties to companies that back Israel’s government.

Protesters at Brown University in Rhode Island also agreed to take down their encampment in return for a vote by the college’s corporation on whether to divest funds from companies tied to Israel’s military attacks on Gaza.

Still, some deals have failed to resolve tensions. While Portland State University in Oregon agreed to pause donations from Boeing, a company that makes attack helicopters used in Gaza, students there have nonetheless occupied the library, scrawling messages like “End genocide now” on windows.

Other factors at play as institutions navigate balancing free speech and campus security include how students react to daily developments in the Middle East as well as those at other campuses in the United States.

Columbia has often proven to be a beacon for protest movements at other universities.

Pro-Palestinian students signal from inside a building where they had created an encampment on the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus on May 01, 2024 in New York City.—AFP
Pro-Palestinian students signal from inside a building where they had created an encampment on the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus on May 01, 2024 in New York City.—AFP

President Minouche Shafik has said the campus has become “intolerable,” citing factors ranging from antisemitic language to loud protests going into the night.

“One group’s right to express their views cannot come at the expense of another group’s right to speak, teach, and learn,” Shafik said in a Monday statement.

Adversaries of pro-Palestinian protesters accuse them of antisemitism, a claim Columbia student protesters and their faculty advocates strongly deny.

Zach Greenberg of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said no matter how hateful or offensive the speech on campuses, it was not a justification for police crackdowns.

“It’s always better to counter the speech you dislike with more speech,” said Greenberg, a programme leader at the campus rights advocacy group.

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