Crackdowns and concessions: Student protests enter new phase

Colleges are taking more definitive action to end the pro-Palestinian student protests that have sprung up nationwide, either through police force or peaceful agreement between demonstrators and campus leaders.

Multiple universities this week have sent in law enforcement to arrest hundreds of protesters as administrators declare their demonstrations illegal, while at least two schools have been able to reach deals with activists to peacefully close down their encampments.

But even as college administrators likely hope the protests will dwindle naturally once classes are over for the summer, advocates on both sides say the work is not over.

Rabbi David Markowitz, executive vice president at Olami, a group leading a “#ZeroTolerance” antisemitism campaign on campuses, told The Hill that “in the most likely scenario, what’s going to happen in the next week to two weeks is that things are going to quiet down, and there’s a huge risk that people see that quieting down as the problem going away.”

“You don’t solve the problem by having the semester end conveniently,” Markowitz said.

Police had already been called into multiple campuses to deal with the protesters against Israel’s war in Gaza, but their presence escalated significantly in the last two days.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 30 people were charged with trespassing on Tuesday.

An encampment at the University of Utah was deconstructed on Tuesday, and 17 people were arrested.

On Wednesday, police removed the encampment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the college reporting 34 people were arrested. CNN reported that as police left the area, however, more tents were promptly put back up.

And on Monday, riot police again arrested several students at the University of Texas at Austin.

But the schools that have caught the most attention are Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

On Tuesday night, Columbia called in the New York Police Department to take back Hamilton Hall, which protesters had taken over earlier in the day. More than 300 people were arrested, and protesters were cleared from the building and a nearby encampment.

At UCLA, the Los Angeles Police Department came in early Wednesday morning to quell violence at the demonstration after pro-Israel counterprotesters attacked the pro-Palestinian activists, attempting to remove their encampment and reportedly throwing fireworks into the crowd.

“We are appalled at the violence that took place on the campus of UCLA last night. The
abhorrent actions of a few counter protestors last night do not represent the Jewish community or our values. We believe in peaceful, civic discourse,” the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles said in a statement.

The encampment has been declared unlawful by UCLA, but it has yet to be cleared by the police. The school canceled classes Wednesday due to the violence.

Activists at other universities say they are not discouraged.

“I would say that I see the resolve of the student movement just getting stronger and stronger in the face of this repression,” said Batya Kline, a student organizer at Wesleyan University.

“We are in a situation where we’re in the midst of a seven-month genocide. And so seeing our friends get arrested and seeing them getting beat up by the cops is not deterring us, because we are so enraged and in so much grief because of what’s happening. It’s just kind of making our student movement stronger, more tightknit and more widespread.”

At least two colleges have managed to get their encampments removed without police force by striking a deal with protesters.

At Brown University, the school agreed to allow five students to present arguments to its board about why they should divest from companies connected to Israel, and the board will vote in the fall on potential divestment. Brown also said it will look favorably on students during disciplinary hearings for willingly taking down the encampment.

And at Northwestern University, students are now allowed to protest through June 1 with only one tent on the premises and must keep the demonstrations in line with university policy. In exchange, the school will provide more transparency in its investments, reestablish an advisory committee to consider “investment responsibility” in the fall and provide full tuition to five Palestinian students and funding for two visiting Palestinian faculty members.

“I think that just demonstrates the power of our student movement, that we’re mobilizing basically the entire student population at each of these schools so that the administrations, which have been deaf to us for so long, not listening to our demands, are now accepting them at face value and making deals that the organizers, the Palestinian organizers themselves, deem appropriate and are accepting these deals,” Kline said.

Others, however, are appalled by the deals Northwestern and Brown made.

“I think that any university that agreed to make any concessions on their university-wide policy to these protesters have demonstrated an ultimate failure of leadership,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. 

“There are some among the protesters who have good intentions, who want to see an end of the war, but these protests across the country have been infected with the most vile, Nazi-era type antisemitic language, and there should be no compromise with them on anything. There should just be total condemnation across the board and no offers to meet with any of their demands,” Halber added.

He argued these protests would not have lasted as long if they were “attacking another group other than Israelis and Jews” and that this requires “immediate federal action.”

House Republicans have in recent months made combating antisemitism, particularly on college campuses, a pivotal part of their messaging.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) announced Tuesday a House-wide investigation into the matter, and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said she will be conducting another college antisemitism hearing, calling on the heads of Yale University, UCLA and the University of Michigan to attend.

But some advocates have said there has been a lot of talk with very little action on the issue.

“The government needs to hold the schools accountable. There’s been a bunch of stuff from Congress where they’ve made statements that are going to hold the schools accountable. I don’t know that we’ve seen any real holding schools accountable. I think we’ve heard talk about it,” Markowitz said.

He argues there needs to be clear rules around where protesting is allowed to happen and the consequences for breaking the regulations.

“Here are the rules around which you can do that, and if you don’t follow those rules, then you’re going to have your group status removed. The student would be expelled, the nonmembers of the school […] will be removed and arrested by the police,” Markowitz said.

“Everything follows from there, but create policy as a school around what is allowed and what’s not allowed, or what are the guidelines into which it can be done, and this way everybody has clarity about what they can do [and] what they can’t do.”

—Updated at 5:33 p.m.

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