New York arrests, violent attack in California as Gaza campus protests rage

Demonstrations against Israel’s war on Gaza have continued to rage at universities across the United States, in a night capped by mass arrests in New York and an attack by counter-protesters in California.

In New York, the NYPD said it had arrested 282 people at Columbia University and the City College of New York into Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. That came as police cleared students who had occupied Columbia University Hamilton Hall since April 30.

The building had been dubbed building “Mandela Hall” when students took similar action in support of South African liberation in 1985. This time around, protesters named the building “Hind’s Hall” in honour of six-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed alongside her family by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Columbia University student journalist Meghnad Bose told Al Jazeera he was inside the university gates when he witnessed the police “arresting pro-Palestinian protesters who had lined up right [in front of] the gates to prevent the NYPD from coming in”.

“I saw firsthand how the police dispersed those protests, arrested them and sometimes got pretty aggressive in making sure the protesters went away,” he said.

In a post on X, Kaz Daughtry, the deputy commissioner of operations at the New York Police Department (NYPD), said that Columbia University had requested the police to help “take back their campus”.

He said the police were “dispersing the unlawful encampment and persons barricaded inside of university buildings and restoring order”.

Meanwhile, at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), pro-Israel counter-protesters sought to tear down a pro-Palestine encampment, with witnesses saying the assailants threw objects at those taking part in the demonstration.

Sergio Olmos, an investigative journalist reporting from the UCLA campus, told Al Jazeera that he witnessed several hundred counterprotesters as they tried to tear down walls set up by the pro-Palestine encampment.

He described counterprotesters trying to hit the pro-Palestine protesters with sticks and in some cases throwing glass bottles.

Witnesses said the incident went on for about two hours. In a post on X, the Los Angeles Police Department said it had responded to the scene “at the request of UCLA, due to multiple acts of violence within the large encampment on their campus”.

Reporting from Los Angeles, Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds said despite the violence “the encampment is still there, and the student protesters, despite this attack, have stood their ground. They haven’t fled”.

“This has happened before, although on a smaller scale; for example, over the weekend, particularly on Sunday night, the camp was attacked in a similar fashion,” he said.

Ongoing protests

Protests have been common across US campuses since the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, and throughout the nearly eight-month Israeli war in Gaza, which has killed 34,568 Palestinians and left the enclave on the brink of famine.

However, the latest surge in demonstrations began nearly two weeks ago amid outrage over Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s testimony to a US congressional committee, in which critics alleged she kowtowed to lawmakers while sidelining students at the university.

Among an array of demands, several protest movements have called for their schools to divest from Israel or weapons manufacturers related to the war. They have accused administrators across the country of weaponising public safety and disingenuous claims of “antisemitism” to crack down on protests.

The most recent bout of arrests also included at 14 protesters at Tulane University in New Orleans, as well as arrests at the University of South Florida and University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The protests have resonated far beyond US borders.

On Wednesday, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territory, said she was “horrified by the violent actions of police at US universities smashing protests against an ongoing genocide perpetrated by a foreign country”.

In a post on X, she said: “such a dystopian reality. May students and faculty members be safe. May the genocide end. May justice and reason prevail.”

In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass called the UCLA violence “absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable”.

For his part, New York City Mayor Eric Adams defended the police crackdown, claiming the protest at Columbia was “led by individuals who were not affiliated with the university”, a claim the police have yet to back up.

“There is a movement to radicalise young people. And I’m not going to wait until it is done to acknowledge the existence of it,” Adams said.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) group condemned both the NYPD and Columbia University’s actions.

Stefanie Fox, the group’s executive director said, the school was on the wrong side of history once again as it was “in its oppression of the student anti-war movement of 1968, and wrong again in its oppression of the student movement against South African apartheid in 1985”.

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