How universities are cracking down on a swell of tension months into student protests

ByDakin Andone, CNN, CNNWire
Monday, April 29, 2024
Demonstrations roil US campuses ahead of graduations as protesters spar over the war in Gaza
Demonstrations roil US campuses ahead of graduations as protesters spar over the war in Gaza

With tension mounting over an encampment in support of Palestinians at New York's Columbia University, police strode onto campus this month and arrested more than 100 demonstrators.

Soon, dozens more students protesting the monthslong assault on Gaza were arrested at New York and Yale universities. At the University of Texas at Austin, police in riot gear and on horseback moved to disperse a like-minded demonstration, while nearly 100 at the University of Southern California also got arrested. Then at Emory University in Atlanta, law enforcement deployed pepper balls to break up a pro-Palestinian action, arresting 28, including several professors. At Boston's Emerson College, another 108 protesters were arrested, with four officers hurt. And arrests unfolded early Monday at a Virginia Tech encampment, the Washington Post reported, citing an unnamed university spokesperson.

On the cusp of the close of the academic year, university communities across the nation remain on edge, not only over flares of political action but also what response, if any, it might compel.

RELATED: Demonstrations roil US campuses ahead of graduations as protesters spar over Gaza conflict

While the latest run of arrests has commanded outsized attention, US colleges have been using law enforcement - along with academic suspensions and, for at least one school, expulsion - to try to bring to heel student demonstrations since Hamas' October attack on Israel left more than 1,200 dead and dozens taken hostage. Israel's devastating counterpunch in Gaza - with more than 34,000 Palestinians killed, according to its health ministry - has further fueled deeply held views of students and faculty on all sides.

Amid US students' broad insistence their tactics are peaceful, administrators often have decried campus protests as disruptive, with some - including at Indiana University, George Washington University and California State Polytechnic University's Humboldt campus - employing school rules governing use of public spaces to threaten or enact discipline or call for police backup.

Implicit in the crackdowns is a built-in tension of higher education: balancing the role of campuses as bastions of free speech while ensuring the safety of students, including those who are Jewish and have expressed concern for their well-being in the face of antisemitism that's surged nationally since October 7 and has occasionally been seen at or near - or conflated with - pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations.

Administrators lately have seemed quicker to levy consequences against campus demonstrators than they were six months ago, according to Zach Greenberg of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a non-partisan, non-profit civil liberties group defending free speech with a focus on colleges.

But, he said, calling in police carries risk.

RELATED: College protests updates: More protests, encampments pop up at Princeton, Northwestern and more

It is a "drastic action" that "should be reserved for only the most direct and severe threats to campus safety," Greenberg said. Further, doing so threatens to "erode" the trust between universities and students, who may see "police officers in riot gear arresting their classmates, maybe their professors."

"In many ways, it's a dark time for college campuses that may have to do that."

College officials' responses to Israel-Hamas war protests also have unfolded against a global debate over the US role in the conflict, as well as an intensifying race for the White House and control of Congress that's seen elite college presidents hauled to Capitol Hill and even forced out of their jobs as the major parties jockey for moral and political ground.

To some, the surge in universities' reliance on police to break up the protests illustrates an unwillingness by officials to truly engage with students and their demands, which usually include pulling institutional investments from companies whose work directly or indirectly supports Israel or its military apparatus, or profits from the war.

"Instead of engaging (protesters), they are cracking down," said Dima Khalidi, executive director of Palestine Legal, which has for months represented students in disciplinary hearings brought by their universities. She called the police response across many campuses a "concerning and problematic escalation of repression and state violence against students' peaceful protests against an ongoing genocide."

"All of this is a distraction to take our eyes away from Gaza, where mass graves are being found, where people are being starved to death, where 35,000 Palestinians have been killed," she said. "That's what students are trying to bring attention to."

At the same time, the power of civil disobedience - a long tradition among American college students - is derived, at least in part, from protesters' willingness to accept the consequences, Greenberg said.

"Many times, the severity of the consequences adds to the persuasive power of the protest," he said.

'Ready to ... put our bodies on the line'

Many students seem prepared to accept consequences.

Standing outside an encampment last week at Brown University in Rhode Island, Arman Deendar - their neck draped in a keffiyeh - told CNN, "We're out here and we're ready to risk suspension and arrest to put our bodies on the line because we believe that this moment is truly going to change."

At Deendar's side was Rafi Ash, a sophomore and member of Jews for Ceasefire Now, who stressed the protest is not new at Brown, which in recent days doubled down on its commitment to enforce its Green Space Usage policy with discipline up to and including "separation from the institution" as well as law enforcement response and arrest.

Ash told CNN he was one of 20 students arrested following a sit-in on November 8. The charges were later dropped, according to the Brown Daily Herald, but 41 students arrested the following month in similar circumstances still face charges, which protesters now want dropped.

"We had the same demand now as we did then, which is divestment from companies that are complicit in the genocide in Gaza," Ash said, echoing the wider demands.

Beyond criminal charges lies the ultimate academic punishment: expulsion. It was levied on Jack Petocz, a 19-year-old freshman, and others who were kicked out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville after more than two dozen students affiliated with the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition staged a 21-hour sit-in at an administrative office, he told CNN and the group has said.

The demonstration was prompted by the university's cancellation of a vote on an amendment to the student government constitution to prohibit that group's funds from being spent on targets of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Petocz said. Students were denied access to food, water, bathrooms and medical attention over the course of the sit-in, which concluded with some arrested, including Petocz, he told CNN.

All who participated, Petocz said, were issued interim suspensions - removed from campus and denied access to their dorms and dining halls. Within days, after a disciplinary hearing at which Petocz claims he was wrongfully accused of assaulting an administrative staff member - he faces a misdemeanor assault charge - the university expelled him, he said. At least two others were expelled, another suspended and more than 20 students put on probation, Vanderbilt Divest Coalition said.

"It's incredibly jarring," Petocz said, noting he has appealed. "I would be the first person in my family to have a bachelor's degree - from Vanderbilt University, of all places. It meant a lot for me to go to a college like this."

Vanderbilt University declined to discuss disciplinary actions taken against students, citing federal privacy laws and directing CNN to earlier statements about the incident. Students "forcibly entered" the administrative building on March 26, those statements said, and three faced misdemeanor assault charges for "pushing a Community Service Officer as well as a staff member who offered to meet" with protesters.

Separately, the referendum on the BDS resolution "did not move forward because of potential conflict with federal and state laws," the university told CNN in a statement.

Petocz has experience with "institutional repression," he said: In high school, he was a prominent opponent of his home state of Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill and was suspended after distributing Pride flags at his high school, he said.

It's because of his history as an activist that he believes he was admitted to Vanderbilt in the first place, and he feels the university wants "to make an example out of me."

'We'll do what we have to do'

Other schools that reportedly have suspended students in response to their protests over the conflict in Gaza include Barnard College in New York, Harvard University near Boston and Pomona College, one of Southern California's seven Claremont Colleges where at least 19 people were arrested following an early April sit-in.

Protests had gone on this academic year largely without administrators interfering with Pomona Divest from Apartheid, a coalition of student groups demanding the college "disclose and divest" its $2.8 billion endowment from "all weapons manufacturers and all institutions that aid the ongoing occupation of Palestine."

But the tenor changed on April 3, when Pomona College's president sent a message to the university community, decrying the "harassment targeting visitors to our campus" and telling students continued violation of the student code "is subject to disciplinary action." Masked student protesters' refusal to identify themselves also was "unacceptable," it said.

RELATED: It began at Columbia. Now students nationwide are upping their Gaza war protests

Then school staff and security on April 5 began dismantling an "apartheid wall" where pro-Palestinian demonstrators had gathered, said Samson Zhang, a student journalist at Pomona College. Soon after, the sit-in happened at Alexander Hall, recalled nearby Pitzer College's Mita Banerjee, a member of Faculty for Justice in Palestine who said she saw the arrests.

Banerjee had "never seen this kind of militarized police force used against students and against student protesters who were not a threat," she told CNN. "It was understood that this was legitimate protest and that you negotiate, and you have conversations, and that's how you resolve things."

Claremont Police confirmed 19 people were arrested for trespassing at the request of school administrators, with one other arrested for "obstructing/delaying an officer." Arrestees enrolled at Pomona College were suspended, and while several have successfully appealed their suspension orders, others remain suspended, Banerjee told CNN, which has reached out to Pomona College.

Other US universities, meanwhile, have levied community-level consequences tied to pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The University of Southern California canceled its main commencement ceremony in May days after it canceled the commencement speech of its Muslim valedictorian, citing security concerns.

University of Michigan's president admonished protesters who in March interrupted the 101st Honors Convocation, saying in a statement the school is reevaluating rules, seeking feedback on a new draft policy about "disruption of university operations, including academic and social activities," among other events.

That's done little, though, to deter student activists with the Transparency, Accountability, Humanity, Reparations, Investment and Resistance, or TAHRIR, Coalition, the group that led the demonstration at the honors event, demanding the University of Michigan divest from all companies and entities that support Israel's military and economy.

"It's horrifying to see what is happening," said Shubh Agrawal, a spokesperson for the group that has been holding demonstrations since last fall, including one at which students were arrested during a sit-in Agrawal said was aimed at demanding a meeting with school officials about divestment.

Police then were aggressive, Agrawal told CNN. Forty people were arrested for trespassing after forcing entry to a locked building, said university spokesperson Colleen Mastony, noting demonstrators were warned repeatedly before being arrested; two police officers were injured, she said.

Still, the group persists: Last week, about 100 students set up an encampment on campus and plan to stay there until the university divests, Agrawal said, committed to "staying here for the long haul."

"We'll do what we have to do."

'Students take very seriously their role'

Civil liberties groups have urged universities to be measured in response to protests, underscoring demonstrators' rights to free speech: In response to arrests at New York University last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union said, "City and campus officials should take great care to distinguish between controversial speech, which helps students and society develop, and actual threats."

"Officials," the organization said, "should not conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism or use hate incidents as a pretext to silence political views they oppose."

There are, of course, limits to free speech, which "ends at violence," said Greenberg, noting schools have an "obligation" to preserve security and safety. "It ends at true threats, serious intent to commit unlawful violence, it ends at discriminatory harassment," he said, and potentially at disruption.

Still, some question whether all pro-Palestinian protesters are interested in honest dialogue. Adam Lehman, the president and CEO of the Jewish campus organization Hillel International, called the free speech argument a "red herring."

"Unfortunately, a lot of students who understandably want to think about and express compassion toward Palestinians - hopefully they think the same towards Israelis, the victims of 10/7 and others who've been so adversely impacted - they're getting, in my view, co-opted into a political movement that, as we have seen, has been marked by hateful, discriminatory and violent speech and actual harassment and violence spawning from those protests," Lehman told CNN's Dana Bash.

But the suppression of dissent on campus - and the continued US military aid sent to Israel - sends a signal to Palestinian students and their allies "that they don't matter," Palestine Legal's Khalidi said. Still, they "remain undeterred, because they understand what's at stake here."

"They understand that they are morally in the right," she said. "They understand that they are in a long tradition of crucial student activism for justice from the anti-Vietnam War movement to the civil rights movement and beyond."

"We see that students take very seriously their role, their moral obligation to speak out and to mobilize their own communities, to speak out against injustice," Khalidi said. "And I think history will judge them kindly."

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