Wave of Pro-Palestinian Protests on Campus Meets Forceful Response

REUTERS/Leah Millis
People pray as students and others demonstrate at a protest encampment at University Yard in support of Palestinians in Gaza, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at George Washington University in Washington, U.S., April 25, 2024.

NEW YORK, April 25 (Reuters) – Renewed clashes between police and students opposed to Israel’s war in Gaza broke out on Thursday, raising questions about forceful methods being used to shut down protests that have intensified since mass arrests at Columbia University last week.

Over the past two days, law enforcement at the behest of college administrators have deployed Tasers and tear gas against students protesters at Atlanta’s Emory University, activists say, while officers clad in riot gear and mounted on horseback have swept away demonstrations at the University of Texas in Austin.

Prosecutors on Thursday dropped charges against 46 of the 60 people taken into custody at the University of Texas, citing “deficiencies in the probable cause affidavits.”

At Columbia, the epicenter of the U.S. protest movement, university officials are locked in a stalemate with students over the removal of a tent encampment set up two weeks ago as a protest against the Israeli offensive.

The administration, which has already allowed an initial deadline for an agreement with students to lapse, has given protesters until Friday to strike a deal.

Other universities appear determined to prevent similar, long-running demonstrations to take root, opting to work with police to shut them down quickly and in some cases, with force.

Overall, nearly 550 arrests have been made in the last week across major U.S. universities in relation to protests over Gaza, according to a Reuters tally. University authorities have said the demonstrations are often unauthorized and called on police to clear them.

At Emory, police detained 28 people on its Atlanta campus, the university said, after protesters began erecting a tent encampment in an attempt to emulate a symbol of vigilance employed by protesters at Columbia and elsewhere.

The local chapter of the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace said officers used tear gas and Tasers to dispense the demonstration and take some protesters into custody. Atlanta police acknowledged using “chemical irritants” but denied using rubber bullets.

Video aired on FOX 5 Atlanta showed a melee breaking out between officers and some protesters, with officers using what appeared to be a stun gun to subdue a person and others wrestling other protesters to the ground and leading them away.

“Our primary goal today was clearing the Quad of a disruptive encampment while holding individuals accountable to the law,” Cheryl Elliott, Emory’s vice president for public safety, said in a statement.

The Georgia office of the NAACP questioned what it called the “apparent use of excessive force” against people exercising free speech.

“The use of force should only be considered as an absolute last resort and must be proportionate to the threat posed,” Georgia NAACP President Griggs said in a letter.

Similar scenarios unfolded on the New Jersey campus of Princeton University where officers swarmed a newly formed encampment, video footage on social media showed.

Boston police earlier forcibly removed a pro-Palestinian encampment set up by Emerson College, arresting more than 100 people, media accounts and police said.

At the University of Southern California, where 93 people were arrested at the Los Angeles campus on Wednesday, administrators canceled the main May 10 graduation ceremony, saying newly required security measures would have placed excessive delays on crowd control.


Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union have condemned the arrest of protesters and urged authorities to respect their free speech rights.

But some Republicans in Congress have accused university administrators of allowing Jewish students to be harassed, putting increasing pressure on schools to tightly control any demonstrations and to block any semi-permanent encampment.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Thursday said his department was closely monitoring the protests, including what he called “very alarming reports of antisemitism.”

In response, activist groups have strongly denied that the protests are antisemitic. Their aim is to pressure universities from divesting from companies that contribute to the Israeli military actions in Gaza, they say.

Even so, protest leaders have acknowledged that hateful rhetoric has been directed at Jewish students, but insist that people who tried to infiltrate and malign their movement are responsible for any harassment.

Outside Columbia, hundreds of conservative pro-Israel demonstrators staged a counterprotest to the students, marching on the streets circling the campus, waving and draped in Israeli and U.S. flags.

University officials have given protesters until 4 a.m. on Friday to reach an agreement with the university on dismantling dozens of tents set up on the New York City campus in a protest that started a week ago.

The university already tried to shut the protest down by force. On April 18, Columbia President Minouche Shafik took the unusual move of asking police to enter the campus, angering many rights groups, students and faculty.

More than 100 people were arrested and the tents were removed from the main lawn. But within a few days, the encampment was back in place.