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Across the U.S., pro-Palestinian campus protesters risk arrest and suspension

Updated April 27, 2024 at 20:53 PM ET

Pro-Palestinian encampments and demonstrations have cropped up at dozens of college campuses across the U.S., many turning chaotic as police arrived to disperse crowds and take protesters into custody.

Still, student activists nationwide appear determined to show their support for people in Gaza and push their universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel or who otherwise profit from its war with Hamas.

Hamas' Oct. 7 attack killed 1,200 Israelis and resulted in another roughly 240 being taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities, while Gaza's health ministry says Israel's military response has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, a majority of them women and children.

This latest wave of campus protests was sparked last week at Columbia University, where more than 100 people were arrested after the administration called in New York City police to clear out a pro-Palestinian encampment. Undeterred protesters then built a larger encampment on an adjacent quad, prompting the school to switch to hybrid learning for the remainder of the semester.

Columbia officials and students have been in negotiations over clearing the encampment, with talks continuing past their Friday morning deadline.

The administration originally set a deadline of midnight Tuesday for protesters to dismantle the setup, but repeatedly extended it due to what it described as constructive dialogue.

Columbia officials said Thursday that protesters had agreed to take certain steps, including removing a significant number of tents, limiting the protests to Columbia students only, complying with fire department requirements and prohibiting discriminatory or harassing language.

Officials announced just before midnight that "the talks have shown progress and are continuing as planned."

"For several days, a small group of faculty, administrators, and University Senators have been in dialogue with student organizers to discuss the basis for dismantling the encampment, dispersing, and following University policies going forward," the statement read. "We have our demands; they have theirs. A formal process is underway and continues."

University President Minouche Shafik — who is facing criticism from faculty, donors and lawmakers for her handling of the protests — has said that if discussions are not successful, the school will have to consider "alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus so that students can complete the term and graduate."

"I am deeply sensitive to the fact that graduating seniors spent their first year attending Columbia remotely," she said. "We all very much want these students to celebrate their well-deserved graduation with family and friends."

Columbia bars student protester from campus

On Friday, Khymani James, a student leader in the pro-Palestinian encampment, was banned from campus, according to a Columbia University spokesperson.

That was after comments made by James in January, during a disciplinary hearing with Columbia administrators that he recorded and posted on Instagram, received new attention. James said in that video that "Zionists don't deserve to live" and that "Zionists, along with all white supremacists, need to not exist, because they actively kill and harm vulnerable people."

In an online statement early on Friday, James walked back his comments by saying, "What I said was wrong. Every member of our community deserves to feel safe without qualification." James clarified that "CUAD and the Gaza Solidarity Encampment have made clear that my words in January, prior to my involvement in CUAD, are not in line with the CUAD community guidelines. I agree with their assessment. Those words do not represent CUAD. They also do not represent me." In his Friday statement James also added that "Zionism is an ideology that necessitates the genocide of the Palestinian people. I oppose that in the strongest terms."

USC cancels its commencement ceremony

On Thursday, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles announced it would cancel its main commencement ceremony, citing the need for additional security measures. It had already canceled its valedictorian's speech because of safety concerns stemming from the backlash she received over her social media posts about the Israel-Hamas war.

Ninety-three people were arrested Wednesday at USC for trespassing, a misdemeanor offense. One arrest was made for assault with a deadly weapon, though the department did not say what the weapon was. No injuries were reported, the Los Angeles Police Department said.

In an update Friday, USC President Carol Folt defended the university's decision to summon the LAPD to the protests.

At Columbia, student protesters still have their tents set up and are in negotiations with university officials.
Nikita Payusov / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
At Columbia, student protesters still have their tents set up and are in negotiations with university officials.

"Alumni Park became unsafe," she said. "No one wants to have people arrested on their campus. Ever. But, when long-standing safety policies are flagrantly violated, buildings vandalized, DPS directives repeatedly ignored, threatening language shouted, people assaulted, and access to critical academic buildings blocked, we must act immediately to protect our community."

Protests at GWU

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a third day of protests was underway on Saturday. Protesters continued to flout the university's order to clear the encampments inside the campus's University Yard.

The Washington Post reported that GW officials called on city police to clear the encampment early Friday morning, but that police officials refused.

After the university closed off and restricted access to University Yard on Friday, dozens of demonstrators left the encampment, many rejoined the chants from the opposite side of the barricades. As of Saturday evening, about 200 people remained in the crowd of protesters outside the barricades, according to the Hatchet.

GW Law School Dean Dayna Bowen said in a video message on Thursday that the school is working to move law students' final exams, which are currently underway, to more quiet and secure locations because of the protests.

Thousands of people sit silently while fellow demonstrators pray during a rally at George Washington University on Thursday night.
Allison Bailey / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
Thousands of people sit silently while fellow demonstrators pray during a rally at George Washington University on Thursday night.

"Now let me emphasize, there is nothing threatening your safety that's going on at this moment," she said. "But yet you are our primary concern. To protect your safety and the integrity of our academic program we are relocating student final exams."

More than 600 protesters have been arrested

At Boston's Northeastern University early Saturday, dozens of police in riot gear cleared students from a pro-Palestinian encampment, member station WBUR reported. Police detained 100 people, according to the student newspaper, The Huntington News.

"What began as a student demonstration two days ago, was infiltrated by professional organizers with no affiliation to Northeastern," Northeastern spokeswoman Renata Nyul said in a statement. "Last night, the use of virulent antisemitic slurs, including 'Kill the Jews,' crossed the line. We cannot tolerate this kind of hate on our campus."

At Indiana University in Bloomington on Saturday, state police removed the tents of a Gaza solidarity encampment and more than 20 protesters were arrested, Indiana Public Media reported.

On Thursday, protesters were arrested at other schools including The Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and Indiana University, joining the fast-growing list of demonstrators who have been detained by police nationwide.

Police officers arrest a protester as pro-Palestinian students demonstrate at Emory University on Thursday.
Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Police officers arrest a protester as pro-Palestinian students demonstrate at Emory University on Thursday.

That same day, two graduate students were arrested at Princeton University for setting up encampments in violation of school policy, while more than two dozen people were arrested at Emory University in Atlanta, where participants were also protesting a police training facility nicknamed "Cop City."

At Emory University in Atlanta, protesters — including students from other Atlanta universities and area activists — clashed with state, city and university law enforcement on campus. Videos on social media show officers using tear gas, tasers and handcuffs to detain protesters, including faculty members.

Cheryl Elliott, Emory's vice president for public safety, said in a statement Thursday that the university called in Atlanta police and Georgia State Patrol officers to disperse the crowd after protesters ignored multiple warnings for trespassing. During subsequent confrontations, she said, law enforcement "released chemical irritants into the ground" after protesters threw objects at them.

She said 28 people had been arrested, including 20 members of the Emory community, "some of whom have been released."

"We are working with responding agencies to expedite the release of any Emory community members who remain in custody," Elliott added.

More than 100 people were arrested at Emerson College in Boston early Thursday morning after police tore down an encampment there. The school subsequently added Boylston Place Alley, where the encampment was located, to its list of campus locations where demonstrations are not allowed.

At The University of Texas at Austin, almost 60 people were arrested Wednesday for loitering. The following day, faculty members gathered at a rally and called for the school's president, Jay Hartzell, to resign after he praised the school and law enforcement for exercising restraint against the protestors, KUT reported.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.