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Dueling protesters clash at UCLA hours after police clear pro-Palestinian demonstration at Columbia

Published: May 1, 2024, 8:19am
2 Photos
A demonstrator stands in front of barricades set up to protect an encampment on the UCLA campus Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. Dueling groups of protesters clashed early Wednesday, grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another.
A demonstrator stands in front of barricades set up to protect an encampment on the UCLA campus Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. Dueling groups of protesters clashed early Wednesday, grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dueling groups of protesters clashed overnight at the University of California, Los Angeles, shoving, kicking and beating each other with sticks after pro-Israel demonstrators tried to pull down barricades surrounding a pro-Palestinian encampment. Hours earlier, police burst into a building occupied by anti-war protesters at Columbia University, breaking up a demonstration that had paralyzed the school.

After a couple of hours of scuffles between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators at UCLA, police wearing helmets and face shields slowly separated the groups and quelled the violence. The scene was calm as day broke. UCLA canceled classes on Wednesday and urged people to avoid the area where the clashes happened.

“Due to the distress caused by the violence that took place on Royce Quad late last night and early this morning, all classes are cancelled today,” UCLA said in a statement.

Tent encampments of protesters calling on universities to stop doing business with Israel or companies that support the war in Gaza have spread across campuses nationwide in a student movement unlike any other this century. The ensuing police crackdowns echoed the removal decades ago of a much larger protest movement at the school against the Vietnam War.

There have been confrontations with law enforcement and more than 1,000 arrests. In rare instances, university officials and protest leaders struck agreements to restrict the disruption to campus life and upcoming commencement ceremonies.

The clashes at UCLA erupted as counter-protesters tried to pull down parade barricades, plywood and wooden pallets protecting a tent encampment built by pro-Palestinian protesters. Video showed fireworks exploding over and in the encampment.

People threw chairs and other objects. A group piled on one person who lay on the ground, kicking and beating them with sticks until others pulled them from the scrum.

People outside the encampment, one draped in an Israeli flag, played recordings of a variety of sounds, including a baby crying and sirens.

Authorities have not detailed injuries.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass called the violence “absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable” in a social media post and said city police were on the scene. California Highway Patrol officers also appeared to join. The university said it requested help.

The university tightened security Tuesday after officials reported “physical altercations.”

Later Tuesday, New York City police officers entered Columbia’s campus after the university requested help. They cleared a tent encampment, along with Hamilton Hall where a stream of officers used a ladder to climb through a second-floor window. Protesters had seized the Ivy League school building about 20 hours earlier.

“After the University learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized, and blockaded, we were left with no choice,” the school said in a statement. “The decision to reach out to the NYPD was in response to the actions of the protesters, not the cause they are championing.”

A few dozen protesters at Columbia were arrested after shrugging off an earlier ultimatum to abandon the encampment Monday or face suspension, inspiring demonstrations on campuses elsewhere.

Fabien Lugo, a first-year accounting student who said he was not involved in the protests, said he opposed the university’s decision to call in police.

“This is too intense,” he said. “It feels like more of an escalation than a de-escalation.”

Blocks away from Columbia, at The City College of New York, demonstrators were in a standoff with police outside the public college’s main gate. Video posted on social media by reporters late Tuesday showed officers forcing some people to the ground and shoving others as they cleared the street and sidewalks.

After police arrived, officers lowered a Palestinian flag from the City College flagpole and tossed it to the ground before raising an American flag.

Brown University, another Ivy League school, reached an agreement Tuesday with protesters on its Rhode Island campus. Demonstrators said they would close their encampment if administrators consider divestment from Israel in October — apparently the first time a U.S. college has agreed to protester demands to vote on divestment.

Meanwhile, at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, police in riot gear closed in on an encampment late Tuesday and arrested about 20 people for trespassing. University officials warned earlier that day that students would face criminal charges if they did not disperse.

First-year student Brayden Lang watched from the sidelines. “I still know very little about this conflict,” he said. “But the deaths of thousands is something I cannot stand for.”

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Police also cleared an encampment on Wednesday morning at Tulane University in New Orleans and took down all but one tent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where police with shields shoved protesters, resulting in a scrum and at least a dozen arrests.

The nationwide campus protests began at Columbia in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza after Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. Vowing to stamp out Hamas, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry there.

As cease-fire negotiations appeared to gain steam, it wasn’t clear whether those talks would lead to an easing of protests.

Israel and its supporters have branded the university protests as antisemitic, while Israel’s critics say it uses those allegations to silence opposition. Although some protesters have been caught on camera making antisemitic remarks or violent threats, organizers of the protests, some of whom are Jewish, say it is a peaceful movement aimed at defending Palestinian rights and protesting the war.

Columbia’s police action happened on the 56th anniversary of a similar move to quash the occupation of Hamilton Hall by students protesting racism and the Vietnam War.

The police department had said officers wouldn’t enter without the college administration’s request or an imminent emergency. Now, law enforcement will be there through May 17, when the university’s commencement events are scheduled to end.

In a letter to senior police officials, Columbia President Nemat Shafik said the administration asked officers to remove protesters from the occupied building and a tent encampment “with the utmost regret.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that police had to move into Hamilton Hall “for the safety of those children.”

He again blamed outside agitators for the building takeover — an idea Shafik has also raised, though neither provided specific evidence to back up the contention, which was disputed by protest organizers and participants.

Adams, a Democrat and former police captain, insisted that while students were among those who entered Hamilton Hall, “It was led by individuals who were not affiliated with the university.”

“There is a movement to radicalize young people. And I’m not going to wait until it is done to acknowledge the existence of it,” Adams said. He said that, as mayor, he would “not allow that to happen.”

Pressed, however, about the identities of the “outside agitators” cited by the mayor, officials repeatedly declined to provide details. Police commanders talked generally about tactics demonstrators had used, like using chains to secure doors, saying those strategies must have been taught.

Rebecca U. Weiner, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, simply said that some of the people present at the campus protests were “known” to the department to have participated in past protests.

Adams said revealing those details would be “too sensitive” to an ongoing law enforcement investigation.

The police department’s deputy commissioner for public information, Tarik Sheppard, said 40 to 50 people were arrested at Hamilton Hall and that there were no injuries.

About 300 people were arrested at Columbia University and City College in police crackdowns, Adams said.

Protesters first set up a tent encampment at Columbia almost two weeks ago. The school sent in police to clear the tents the following day, arresting more than 100 people, only for the students to return.

Negotiations between the protesters and the college came to a standstill in recent days, and the school set a deadline for the activists to abandon the tent encampment Monday afternoon or be suspended.

Instead, protesters defied the ultimatum and took over Hamilton Hall early Tuesday, carrying in furniture and metal barricades.

Ilana Lewkovitch, a self-described “leftist Zionist” student at Columbia, said it’s been hard to concentrate on school for weeks. Her exams have been disrupted with chants of “say it loud, say it clear, we want Zionists out of here.”

Lewkovitch, who is Jewish, said she wished the current pro-Palestinian protests were more open to people like her who criticize Israel’s war policies but believe there should be an Israeli state.