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Biden: 'Order must prevail' alongside free speech in campus protests over war in Gaza


President Joe Biden delivers remarks about student protests over the war in Gaza, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, May 2, 2024.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks about student protests over the war in Gaza, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, May 2, 2024.

After weeks of pro-Palestinian protests escalating in universities across the United States, President Joe Biden addressed the nation Thursday, underscoring that the right to free speech and the rule of law must both be upheld.

“Order must prevail,” he said from the White House, even as he stressed that dissent is “essential for democracy.”

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” he said. “The American people are heard. In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues.”

Biden said he does not support calls by some Republican lawmakers including House Speaker Mike Johnson to send in the National Guard to quell protests.

He said the campus demonstrations have not caused him to reconsider his approach to Gaza. His administration has criticized some of Israel’s war conduct but continues to support their efforts to eliminate Hamas, despite pushback from progressive Democrats and American Muslim groups.

Biden’s statement was met with criticism from Edward Mitchell, deputy director of the Council of American and Islamic Relations, who said the president’s “vague, both-sides speech failed to specifically mention or condemn the violent attacks that pro-Israel rioters and law enforcement officers have launched against students protesting the Gaza genocide across the country.”

“The White House has repeatedly rushed to condemn any allegation of antisemitism, but repeatedly failed to call out incidents of anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia,” he told VOA.

Republican presidential nominee former President Donald Trump has also criticized Biden’s approach on the protests, suggesting he has been too soft on demonstrators.

“The radical extremists and far-left agitators are terrorizing college campuses,” Trump said Wednesday during a campaign event in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “And Biden’s nowhere to be found. He hasn’t said anything.”

The protests have become a growing political dilemma for Biden ahead of the November presidential election. Republicans accuse the U.S. president of turning a blind eye to lawlessness and antisemitism while progressives and young voters are incensed at police cracking down on unrest over the war in Gaza.

“This is a classic case of a policy issue where a president cannot win,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at University of Virginia.

Biden says 'order' must accompany free speech in campus protests
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The issue is particularly fraught for a Democratic presidential candidate who usually carries the votes of both most Jewish Americans and most Arab Americans, Sabato told VOA.

“The odds are, you're not going to get both this year or at least the percentages will be lower than usual,” he said.

Biden denounced Republican efforts to use the protests as campaign fodder. “In moments like this, there are always those who rush in to score political points,” he said.

Police advance on pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus, in Los Angeles, May 2, 2024.
Police advance on pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus, in Los Angeles, May 2, 2024.

Police crackdown

Earlier Thursday, police moved against a pro-Palestinian protest camp at the University of California, Los Angeles, pulling apart a barricade and arresting multiple people after issuing orders for people to leave.

The police action unfolded over hours, with officers initially standing near the protest camp and briefly pushing into the area before retreating as protesters cheered.

About an hour later, a larger group of officers returned, and while they were initially stymied at one end of a plaza by hundreds of protesters clogging stairs and walkways, officers converged on the main protest camp from another direction and quickly began tearing away plywood, metal fencing and tents.

The protesters, who are demanding the university divest from Israel, chanted “peaceful protest” as police equipped with helmets, face shields and batons worked to push people from the area.

The UCLA protest is one of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations at college campuses across the country, which have resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Police in New Hampshire made arrests and removed tents late Wednesday and early Thursday at Dartmouth College.

A pro-Palestinian protest camp emerged at Dartmouth on Wednesday as administrators warned that such a camp would violate school policy.

At the University of Texas at Dallas, police cleared a pro-Palestinian camp following the arrest of at least 17 people.

In New York, police arrested at least 15 people Wednesday at Fordham University while clearing a pro-Palestinian protest camp.

Columbia University administrators said Wednesday that all remaining academic activity for the semester, which is nearing its end, will be held remotely following protests that included the occupation of a campus building. Police cleared protesters late Tuesday and arrested nearly 300 people.

Israel launched its counter-offensive in Gaza after Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group, launched a surprise attack on southern Israel on October 7. Militants killed about 1,200 people according to Israeli tallies, most of them civilians, and took about 250 hostages.

Vowing to erase Hamas control of Gaza, Israel has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians in the territory along the Mediterranean Sea, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its casualty toll.

VOA United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information came from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.