US police move to clear pro-Palestinian student protest encampment at UCLA in Los Angeles

US police move to clear pro-Palestinian student protest encampment at UCLA in Los Angeles
  • PublishedMay 3, 2024

Hundreds of police have muscled their way into a central plaza at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in an attempt to disperse a pro-Palestinian protest camp.

The pre-dawn police crackdown at UCLA marked the latest flashpoint for mounting tensions on US college campuses, where protests over Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza have led to students clashing with law enforcement and each other.

More than 1,000 arrests have been made across the United States at similar protests in recent days.

Dozens of loud explosions were heard during the clash from flash-bang charges, or stun grenades, fired by police.

A line of police in helmets face a group of protestors in hard hats, goggles and masks
Police moved in on the campus in the early hours of Wednesday morning local time.(Reuters: Aude Guerrucci)

The California Highway Patrol said at least 132 people were arrested at UCLA.

Starting around sunset on Wednesday local time, officers in tactical gear began filing onto the UCLA campus next to a complex of tents occupied by throngs of demonstrators, live footage from the scene showed.

Local television station KABC-TV estimated 300 to 500 people were hunkered down inside the camp, while around 2,000 more had gathered outside the barricades in support.

The assembled police stood by on the periphery of the tents for hours before finally starting to force their way into the encampment around 3:15am to arrest occupants who refused to leave.

The raid was led by a unit of California Highway Patrol officers carrying shields and batons.

Demonstrators, some carrying makeshift shields and umbrellas, sought to block the officers’ advance through sheer numbers, while shouting “Push them back” and flashing bright lights in the eyes of the police.

Police scuffle with protestors in a tight group
Protesters tried to block police from entering the encampment.(Reuters: Aude Guerrucci)

Some protesters had been seen donning hard hats, goggles and respirator masks in anticipation of the siege a day after the university declared the encampment unlawful.

Hundreds of other pro-Palestinian activists who assembled outside the tent city jeered police with shouts of “Shame on you”, some banging on drums and waving Palestinian flags, as officers marched onto the campus grounds.

A much smaller group of demonstrators waving Israeli flags urged the police to shut down the encampment, yelling, “Hey hey, ho-ho, the occupation has got to go.”

Prior to moving in, police urged demonstrators in repeated loudspeaker announcements to clear the protest zone, occupying a plaza about the size of a football field between the landmark twin-tower auditorium Royce Hall and the main undergraduate library.

By sunrise, the plaza was strewn with debris from the destroyed encampment: tents, blankets, food containers, a Palestinian flag, an upturned helmet.

Some buildings were covered in graffiti.

A line of officers carrying batons stood at the plaza’s edge, while a small group of remaining protesters shouted chants at them nearby.

A policeman points a weapon toward something out of shot while standing in front of a barricade
Police officers reportedly used rubber bullets and stun grenades to try and disperse protesters.(Reuters: Mike Blake)

President Joe Biden on Thursday local time defended the right to protest but insisted that “order must prevail” as college campuses across the country faced unrest over the war in Gaza.

“Dissent is essential for democracy,” he said at the White House. “But dissent must never lead to disorder.”

The Democratic president also said the protests have not caused him to reconsider his approach to the war.

Violent clashes preceded crackdown

UCLA had cancelled classes for the day following a violent clash between the encampment’s occupants and a group of masked counter-demonstrators, who mounted a surprise assault late Tuesday night on the tent city.

The occupants of the outdoor protest camp, set up last week, had remained otherwise peaceful before the incident, in which both sides traded blows and doused each other with pepper spray.

Members of the pro-Palestinian group said fireworks were thrown at them and they were beaten with bats and sticks, while university officials blamed the disturbance on “instigators” and promised an investigation.

The confrontation went on for two or three hours into early Wednesday morning before police restored order.

A spokesperson for California Governor Gavin Newsom later criticised the “limited and delayed campus law enforcement response” to the unrest as “unacceptable”.

As the much-expanded police force entered the campus on Wednesday night to clear the encampment, some of the protesters were heard yelling at them, “Where were you yesterday?”

A group of people stand behind a makeshift barricade
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators remained defiant as police moved in.(AP Photo: Jae C. Hong)

UCLA officials said the campus, which has nearly 52,000 enrolled students including undergraduates and graduate scholars, would remain shuttered except for limited operations on Thursday and Friday.

Wednesday night’s police action came a day after police in New York City arrested pro-Palestinian activists who occupied a building at Columbia University and removed a tent city from the campus of the Ivy League school.

Police arrested a total of about 300 people at Columbia and City College of New York, mayor Eric Adams said. Many of those arrested were charged with trespassing and criminal mischief.

Rubbish and tents are strewn across a lawn in front of a red-brick building
What remained of the encampment after it was broken up by police.(AP Photo: Jae C. Hong)

The clashes at UCLA and in New York were part of the biggest outpouring of US student activism since the anti-racism rallies and marches of 2020.

Students have rallied or set up tent encampments at dozens of schools across the US in recent days, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and demanding schools divest from companies that support Israel’s government.

Many of the schools have called in police to quell the protests.

The demonstrations across the country have been met with counter-protesters accusing them of fomenting anti-Jewish hatred.

The pro-Palestinian side, including Jews opposed to Israeli actions in Gaza, say they are being unfairly branded as anti-Semitic for criticising Israel’s government and expressing support for human rights.


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