Colleges across US seek to clear protest encampments by force or ultimatum as commencements approach

AP , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

As upcoming commencement ceremonies grew closer Tuesday, universities across the U.S. grappled with how to clear out encampments of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, with some continuing negotiations and others turning to force and ultimatums that have resulted in arrests and clashes with police.

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A protester is taken away by Austin police officers at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. AP


Dozens of people were arrested Monday during protests at universities in Texas and Virginia, while Columbia University in New York said it began suspending students.

Demonstrators are sparring over the Israeli war on Gaza, and its mounting death toll, and the number of arrests at campuses nationwide is approaching 1,000 as the final days of class wrap up.

The outcry is forcing colleges to reckon with their financial ties to Israel, as well as their support for free speech. 

Since October, students have launched rallies, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and most recently, encampments against the war.

They are demanding that their schools, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel. 

Student activists say that companies doing business in or with Israel are complicit in its ongoing war on Gaza - and so are the colleges that invest in those companies.

University endowments fund everything from research labs to scholarship funds, mostly using returns from millions - and billions - of dollars in investments. They own shares of large companies from Amazon to Microsoft, and put money into private equity, hedge funds and index funds.

Tensions have boiled over into an uprising that joins the ranks of Occupy Wall Street and the 1980s anti-apartheid movement and evokes memories of the protests against the Vietnam War.

At the University of Texas at Austin, an attorney said at least 40 demonstrators were arrested Monday. The confrontation was an escalation on the 53,000-student campus in the state's capital, where more than 50 protesters were arrested last week.

The plight of students who have been arrested has become a central part of protests, with the students and a growing number of faculty demanding amnesty for protesters. At issue is whether the suspensions and legal records will follow students through their adult lives.

The Texas protest and others — including in Canada and Europe — grew out of Columbia's early demonstrations that have continued.

On Monday, student activists on the school's Manhattan campus defied a 2 p.m. deadline to leave an encampment of around 120 tents. Instead, hundreds of protesters remained. A handful of counter-demonstrators waved Israeli flags.

While the university didn’t call the police to roust the demonstrators, school spokesperson Ben Chang said suspensions had started but could provide few details. Protest organizers said they were not aware of any suspensions as of Monday evening.

Columbia’s handling of the demonstrations also has prompted federal complaints.

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of Jewish students alleges a breach of contract by Columbia, claiming the university failed to maintain a safe learning environment, despite policies and promises. It also challenges the move away from in-person classes and seeks quick court action requiring Columbia to provide security for the students.

Meanwhile, a legal group representing pro-Palestinian students is urging the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office to investigate Columbia’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for how they have been treated.

A university spokesperson declined to comment on the complaints.

In a rare case, Northwestern University said it reached an agreement with students and faculty who represent the majority of protesters on its campus near Chicago. It allows peaceful demonstrations through the June 1 end of spring classes and in exchange, requires removal of all tents except one for aid, and restricts the demonstration area to allow only students, faculty and staff unless the university approves otherwise.

At the University of Southern California, organizers of a large encampment sat down with university President Carol Folt for about 90 minutes on Monday. Folt declined to discuss details but said she heard the concerns of protesters and talks would continue Tuesday.

USC sparked a controversy on April 15 when officials refused to allow the valedictorian, who has publicly supported Palestinians, to make a commencement speech, citing nonspecific security concerns for their rare decision.

Administrators then scrapped the keynote speech by filmmaker Jon M. Chu, who is an alumnus and declined to award any honorary degrees.

The backlash, as well as Columbia's demonstrations, inspired the encampment and protests on campus last week where 90 people were arrested by police in riot gear. The university has cancelled its main graduation event.

Administrators elsewhere tried to salvage their commencements and several have ordered the clearing of encampments in recent days. Officials threatened discipline, including suspension, and possible arrest.

But students dug in their heels at other high-profile universities, with standoffs continuing at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and others. Police in riot gear at Virginia Commonwealth University sought to break up an encampment there late Monday and clashed with protesters.

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