Advertisement

Violent protest at UC Berkeley triggers federal investigation into alleged discrimination

FILE - Students make their way through Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif. Leaders of the University of California, Berkeley, denounced a protest incited Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, against an event organized by Jewish students that forced police to evacuate attendees and a speaker from Israel for their safety. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Students make their way through Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus in 2022 in Berkeley. UC Berkeley leaders denounced a protest incited in February against an event organized by Jewish students that forced police to evacuate attendees and a speaker for their safety. (Eric Risberg / AP)

Federal authorities have added UC Berkeley to the growing list of colleges across the United States under investigation for alleged discrimination since the onset of the divisive Israel-Hamas war.

The investigation was launched March 5 after protesters violently shut down an event organized independently by Jewish student groups in February. A spokesman for the Education Department declined to comment further on the probe.

The federal probe is on top of an investigation by campus police, which Chancellor Carol Christ announced March 4. "We intend to gain a complete picture of what happened and hold accountable individuals or groups responsible for violations of the law and/or our policies," Christ said.

On Feb. 26, about 200 protesters gathered outside the on-campus Zellerbach Playhouse holding up signs that read, "Stop the genocide" and at times chanting, "Long live the intifida." The demonstrators targeted the event because the speaker was scheduled to be Ran Bar-Yoshafat, an Israeli attorney and former member of the Israeli military.

UC Berkeley police had to evacuate the event when the protest escalated, with demonstrators breaking open a door to the building and shattering a window.

Read more: Pro-Palestinian protesters shut down event organized by Pro-Israel student groups at UC Berkeley

The day after the protest, UC Berkeley officials issued a statement that expressed dismay about the disturbance but also talked about the university's commitment to the 1st Amendment and the principles of free expression.

The following week, Christ said that the university police department and its anti-harassment office received "reports that two of the Jewish students who organized the event, as well as some of the attendees, were subjected to overtly antisemitic expression."

Campus police are investigating these two accusations, which also included allegations of battery, as hate crimes, she said. "They are also investigating other reports of illegal conduct, including one additional allegation of physical battery upon a student. One criminal suspect has been identified to date, for trespassing."

The university is conducting interviews and reviewing video evidence.

It's also re-evaluating and modifying its security preparations in light of the current tensions over "issues that connect to the identities of many people in our campus communities," Christ said.

In her March 4 statement, Christ condemned the protest and said that what happened on Feb. 26 was not what university officials had in mind when they expressed their support for nonviolent political protest in alignment with 1st Amendment rights.

"Nor can we turn a blind eye towards the hatred and stereotyping at the heart of all forms of bias and discrimination," she said. "While hateful expression may be protected by the Constitution, we still have a responsibility to respond by working to protect and support targeted communities and by marshaling the educational resources of the university to confront the ignorance at the heart of bias."

Read more: Federal civil rights probes launched into UCLA, UC San Diego and other California campuses

Since Hamas' brutal surprise attack on Israel, the U.S. Department of Education launched civil rights investigations into several California campuses, including UCLA, UC San Diego, Stanford, San Diego and Santa Monica College. The department has declined to specify the nature of the complaints; instead, when it released its initial investigations list last November, it said the schools were under investigation for alleged "shared ancestry violations" of Title Vl of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That landmark act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, including harassment based on a person's shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.

At the time the department said the investigations were part of "aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination and harassment."

UC Berkeley officials are asking anyone with information about the Feb. 26 incident to contact the campus police department by calling (510) 642-6760.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.