May 26, 2024

Tensions are high at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus where hundreds of police in riot gear have deployed in force, ordering peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters to leave or face arrest, less than 24 hours after their encampment was attacked by a violent pro-Israel mob.

But hundreds of students, surrounded by police, were refusing to budge as the standoff continued into early Thursday.

“The posture inside the camp is defensive,” UCLA professor Danielle Carr told Al Jazeera. “The students know that we are facing the possibility of serious violence from the police and counter-protesters, but … my understanding is that they will not resist arrest.”

On Wednesday evening, campus authorities had broadcast a message to student protesters inside the Gaza solidarity camp telling them that they were in an illegal encampment and they had to disperse immediately or face arrest, said Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reporting from the scene.

“It might look peaceful, but it is pretty tense,” Reynolds said. “It looks like the police are going to start arresting the students who haven’t actually committed any violent acts whatsoever.”

Lines of armed police with batons and wooden clubs were seen patrolling sections of the campus in large numbers.

Buses were parked nearby to ferry arrested students away, but Reynolds said there would be no resistance.

“The entire emphasis of the encampment has been on peaceful protest. Even when they were attacked by several hundred Israel supporters … they defended themselves, but did not take offensive action against their attackers.”

Police stage on the UCLA campus near an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles
Police on the UCLA campus near an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, on May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles [Ryan Sun/AP Photo]

The violence started with the pro-Israeli mob hurling fireworks into the pro-Palestinian encampment. Masked and carrying Israeli flags, they tried to tear down the camp, assaulting students with pepper spray, sticks, stones and metal fencing. As police stood by, students used the metal fencing thrown at them to shield themselves.

Police only intervened several hours after the attacks, allowing the assailants to leave without making any arrests.

“It took several hours for the university to respond and secure the students’ safety and so, the irony that, in the name of the students’ safety, the encampment will be facing a militarised police invasion, probably including tear gas … it’s hard to say fully just how disgusting many of the faculty are finding this,” said Carr.

Following the cancellation of classes on Wednesday, students spent the day reinforcing the barrier surrounding their camp to defend themselves from any further attack. More than 100 people were injured in the attack, some admitted to hospital, according to the protest organisers.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators build makeshift shields in preparation for the possible clearing of an encampment by authorities on the UCLA campus Wednesday, May 1, 2024
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators build makeshift shields in preparation for the possible clearing of an encampment by authorities on the UCLA campus, on May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles [Ethan Swope/AP Photo]

Reynolds said the mob, which appeared to come from outside the university community, had been present on campus for days. It was “puzzling”, he said, that the police had taken hours to arrive.

“There are Los Angeles Police Department vehicles and policemen, as well as the California Highway Patrol, at the disposal of the mayor and the governor to respond in very quick order to these types of disturbances,” he added.

Independent review

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that “a group of instigators” perpetrated the previous night’s attack, but he did not provide details about the crowd or why the administration and school police did not act sooner.

“However one feels about the encampment, this attack on our students, faculty and community members was utterly unacceptable,” he said. “It has shaken our campus to its core.”

The head of the University of California system, Michael Drake, ordered an “independent review of the university’s planning, its actions and the response by law enforcement.”

The university faculty has harshly criticised the administration, with 200 members signing a letter making a series of demands, including that the police not be unleashed on the student encampment and that no student be disciplined for exercising their right to free speech.

Muslim organisations in the US have also blasted university officials and police for failing to intervene and protect them from pro-Israeli attackers. “The community needs to feel the police are protecting them, not enabling others to harm them,” said Rebecca Husaini, chief of staff for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

US political analyst Eric Ham, co-author of The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party, said the student-led university protests are just the latest sign of public disdain for the Biden administration’s role in Israel’s war on Gaza.

“We have already begun to see the impacts that these protests, that these demonstrations [are having], but more importantly, the backlash that many people are feeling about President Biden’s handling of this conflict,” Ham told Al Jazeera.

The chaotic scenes at UCLA came just hours after New York police burst into a building occupied by antiwar protesters at Columbia University on Tuesday night, breaking up a demonstration that had paralysed the school.

A tally by The Associated Press news agency counted at least 38 times since April 18 where arrests were made at campus protests across the US. More than 1,600 people have been arrested at 30 schools.

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