How universities defuse tensions that have been raging for months in student protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza

How universities defuse tensions that have been raging for months in student protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza

With tensions running high at an encampment in support of Palestinians at New York’s Columbia University, police stepped onto the campus this month and detained more than 100 protesters.

Soon, dozens more students protesting the month-long attack 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 in to disperse a like-minded demonstration, while nearly 100 people at the University of Southern California were also arrested. Later at Emory University in Atlanta, law enforcement deployed pepper balls to break up pro-Palestinian actions, arresting 28, including several professors. And at Boston’s Emerson College, another 108 protesters were arrested, with four officers injured.

As the academic year draws to a close, university communities across the country remain concerned, not only about political action but also the response, if any, it might force.

While the latest arrests have drawn much attention, US colleges have used law enforcement — along with academic suspensions and, for at least one school, expulsions — to try to lead to student demonstrations since October’s Hamas attack on Israel led to more 1,200 dead and dozens taken hostage. Israel’s devastating retaliation in Gaza — with more than 34,000 Palestinians killed, according to its health ministry — has fueled a deep-seated view of students and faculty from all sides.

Amid widespread insistence by US students that their tactics are peaceful, administrators often denounce campus protests as disruptive, with some – including at Indiana University, George Washington University and California State Polytechnic University’s Humboldt campus – using school rules governing the use of public spaces to threaten or enact discipline or call for police backup.

Implicit in the crackdown is a built-in tension in higher education: balancing the campus’s role as a bastion 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. it has surged nationally since October 7 and is sometimes seen at or near – or in conjunction with – pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations.

Administrators lately seem quicker to impose consequences on campus protesters than they did six months ago, according to Zach Greenberg of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil liberties group that defends free speech with a focus on colleges.

But, he said, calling the police carries risks.

It’s a “drastic measure” that “should be reserved for only the most direct and severe threats to campus security,” Greenberg said. Further, doing so threatens to “erode” trust between the university and students, who may see “police officers in riot gear arresting their classmates, perhaps their professors.”

“In many ways, this is a dark time for college campuses that may need to do that.” College officials’ response to the Israel-Hamas war protests has also come amid a global debate over the US’s role in the conflict, as well as a growing escalation. races for the White House and control of Congress have seen elite college presidents dragged to Capitol Hill and even forced out of their jobs as the major parties compete for moral and political reasons.

For some, the surge in universities’ reliance on police to break up protests reflects a reluctance by officials to truly engage with students and their demands, which typically include pulling institutional investment from companies whose work directly or indirectly supports Israel or its military equipment, or profits from war

“Instead of engaging (the protesters), they acted violently,” said Dima Khalidi, executive director of Palestine Legal, who for months represented students in disciplinary hearings brought by their university. He called the police response on many campuses a “disturbing and problematic escalation of state repression and violence against peaceful student protests against the ongoing massacre.”

“All this is a distraction to take our eyes off Gaza, where mass graves have been found, where people are starving, where 35,000 Palestinians have been killed,” he said. “That’s what students are trying to pay attention to.”

At the same time, the power of civil disobedience — a long tradition among American college students — derives, at least in part, from the 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 willing to accept the consequences.

Standing outside a camp last week at Brown University in Rhode Island, Arman Deendar – his neck covered in a keffiyeh – told CNN, “We’re out here and we’re willing to risk suspension and arrest to put our bodies on the line because we believe that this moment will really change.”

Next to Deendar is Rafi Ash, a sophomore and member of Jews for Ceasefire Now, who insists the protests are nothing new at Brown, which in recent days has redoubled its commitment to enforcing its Green Space Use policy with discipline up to and including “separation from institutions” as well as law enforcement responses and arrests.

Ash told CNN he was one of 20 students arrested following the Nov. 8 sit-in. Those 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. fell down

“We have the same demand now as we did then, which is a release from the companies involved in the genocide in Gaza,” Ash said, echoing a broader demand.

Behind the criminal charges lies the ultimate academic penalty: expulsion. It was imposed 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 Divest Vanderbilt Coalition staged a 21-hour sit-in in the administration office. he told CNN and the group had said.

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

All who participated, Petocz said, were subject to temporary suspensions — removed from campus and denied access to their dormitories and dining halls. Within days, after a disciplinary hearing in which Petocz claimed he was falsely accused of assaulting an administrative staff member — he faces misdemeanor assault charges — the university fired him, he said. At least two others have been fired, another suspended and more than 20 students on probation, the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition said.

“It’s very confusing,” Petocz said, noting he has appealed. “I’ll be the first person in my family to have a bachelor’s degree — from Vanderbilt University, of all places. It means a lot to me to go to a college like this.

Vanderbilt University declined to discuss the disciplinary action taken against the student, citing federal privacy laws and referring CNN to an earlier statement about the incident. Students “forcibly entered” the administration building on March 26, the statement said, and three face misdemeanor assault charges for “rejecting a Community Service Officer and a staff member who volunteered to meet” with the protesters.

Separately, the referendum on the BDS resolution “is not moving forward due to potential conflicts with federal and state law,” the university told CNN in a statement.

Petocz has experience with “institutional oppression,” he said: In high school, he was a prominent opponent of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in his home state of Florida and was suspended after handing out Pride flags at his high school, he said.

It’s because of her history as an activist that she believes she was admitted to Vanderbilt in the first place, and she feels the university wants to “make an example out of me.”

‘We’ll do what we have to do’
Other schools that have reportedly suspended students in response to their protests against the conflict in Gaza include Barnard College in New York, Harvard University near Boston and Pomona College, one of seven Southern California Claremont Colleges where at least 19 people have been arrested following early April. sit in

Protests have gone on this academic year largely without administrator intervention with Pomona Divest from Apartheid, a coalition of student groups demanding the college “disclose and divest” its $2.8 billion endowment from “all arms manufacturers and all institutions that support the continued occupation of Palestine.”

But that changed on April 3, when the president of Pomona College sent a message to the university community, denouncing “disruption that targets visitors to our campus” and telling students that continued violations of the student code “are subject to disciplinary action.” The refusal of masked student protesters to identify themselves was also “unacceptable,” he said.

Then school and security staff on April 5 began dismantling the “apartheid wall” where pro-Palestinian protesters had gathered, said Samson Zhang, a student journalist at Pomona College. Shortly after, sitting in Alexander Hall, called Mita Banerjee of nearby Pitzer College, a member of the Faculty of Justice in Palestine who said she saw the arrest.

Banerjee “has never seen this kind of militarized police force used against students and against student protesters who are not a threat,” she told CNN. “It’s understood that this is a legitimate objection and 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 a school administrator, with another arrested for “obstructing/delaying an officer.” Arrests enrolled at Pomona College have been suspended, and while some have successfully appealed their suspensions, others remain suspended, Banerjee told CNN, which contacted Pomona College.

Other US universities, meanwhile, have imposed community-level consequences linked to pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The University of Southern California canceled its major commencement ceremony in May days after it canceled its Muslim representative’s commencement address, citing security concerns.

The president of the University of Michigan reprimanded protesters who in March disrupted the 101st Honors Convocation, saying in a statement that the school is reevaluating rules, asking for feedback on a new draft policy on “disruption of university operations, including academic and social activities,” among events other.

However, that did little to stop student activists with the Transparency, Accountability, Humanity, Reparations, Investment and Resistance, or TAHRIR, Coalition, the group that led the demonstration at the honor event, demanding that the University of Michigan divest all companies and entities that support the military and the economy. Israel.

“It’s horrible to see what’s happening,” said Shubh Agrawal, a spokesman for the group that has held demonstrations since last fall, including one in which students were arrested during a sit-in that Agrawal said was aimed at demanding a meeting with the school. officer on disposal.

The police then became aggressive, Agrawal told CNN. Forty people were arrested for trespassing after forcing their way into a locked building, university spokeswoman Colleen Mastony said, noting protesters were warned repeatedly before being arrested; two police officers were injured, he said.

Still, the group persists: Last week, about 100 students set up camp on campus and plan to stay there until the university is liquidated, Agrawal said, committed to “staying here for the long haul.”

“We’re going to do what we have to do.”

‘Students take their role very seriously’
Civil liberties groups have urged universities to be measured in their response to the protests, emphasizing protesters’ right to free speech: In response to the arrests at New York University last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union said, “City and campus officials should be cautious . to distinguish between controversial speech, which helps students and society grow, and real threats.”

“Officials,” the organization said, “must not conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism or use hate incidents as an excuse to cover up political views they oppose.”

Of course, there are limits to free speech, which “ends in violence,” Greenberg said, noting schools have an “obligation” to preserve safety and security. “It ends with a real threat, a serious intent to commit unlawful violence, it ends with discriminatory harassment,” he said, and the potential for harassment.

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

“Unfortunately, many students who understand want to think and express compassion for the Palestinian people – hopefully they think the same for Israelis, victims of 10/7 and others who have been badly affected – they get it, in my view. point of view, participate in a political movement that, as we’ve seen, has been marked by hate speech, discrimination and violence and the actual harassment and violence that has resulted 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,” said Khalidi of Palestine Legal. However, they “remain unfazed, because they understand what is at stake here.”

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

“We see students taking seriously their role, their moral obligation to speak out and mobilize their own communities, to speak out against injustice,” said Khalidi. “And I think history will judge them well.”

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