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US police clash with students who demand colleges cut financial ties to Israel

A University of Southern California protester, right, confronts a University Public Safety officer at the campus' Alumni Park during a pro-Palestinian occupation in Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2024.
A University of Southern California protester, right, confronts a University Public Safety officer at the campus' Alumni Park during a pro-Palestinian occupation in Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2024.

Police tangled with student demonstrators in the U.S. states of Texas and California while new encampments sprouted Wednesday at Harvard and other colleges as school leaders sought ways to defuse a growing wave of pro-Palestinian protests.

At the University of Texas at Austin, hundreds of local and state police — including some on horseback and holding batons — clashed with protesters, pushing them off the campus lawn and at one point sending some tumbling into the street. At least 20 demonstrators were taken into custody at the request of university officials and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

A photographer covering the demonstration for Fox 7 Austin was arrested after being caught in a push-and-pull between law enforcement and students, the station confirmed. A longtime Texas journalist was knocked down in the mayhem and could be seen bleeding before police helped him to emergency medical staff who bandaged his head.

At the University of Southern California, police got into a back-and-forth tugging match with protesters over tents, removing several before falling back. At the northern end of California, students were barricaded inside a building for a third day at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. The school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

Harvard University in Massachusetts had sought to stay ahead of protests this week by limiting access to Harvard Yard and requiring permission for tents and tables. That didn't stop protesters from setting up a camp with 14 tents Wednesday following a rally against the university's suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Dozens have been arrested on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

A University of Southern California protester is detained by USC Department of Public Safety officers during a pro-Palestinian occupation at the campus' Alumni Park in Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2024.
A University of Southern California protester is detained by USC Department of Public Safety officers during a pro-Palestinian occupation at the campus' Alumni Park in Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2024.

Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police earlier in the day. The situation there remained tense, with campus officials saying it would continue talks with protesters for another 48 hours.

On a visit to campus, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, called on Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign "if she cannot bring order to this chaos."

"If this is not contained quickly and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard," he said.

Shafik had set a midnight Tuesday deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment, but the school extended negotiations, saying it was making "important progress."

On Wednesday evening, a Columbia spokesperson said rumors that the university had threatened to bring in the National Guard were unfounded. "Our focus is to restore order, and if we can get there through dialogue, we will," said Ben Chang, Columbia's vice president for communications.

Columbia graduate student Omer Lubaton Granot, who put up pictures of Israeli hostages near the encampment, said he wanted to remind people that there were more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas.

A person prays in front of photos of hostages taken captive from Israel on October 7. The fliers are near an encampment at Columbia University in New York, one of many U.S. campuses where students are protesting to show support for Palestinians, April 24, 2024.
A person prays in front of photos of hostages taken captive from Israel on October 7. The fliers are near an encampment at Columbia University in New York, one of many U.S. campuses where students are protesting to show support for Palestinians, April 24, 2024.

"I see all the people behind me advocating for human rights," he said. "I don't think they have one word to say about the fact that people their age, that were kidnapped from their homes or from a music festival in Israel, are held by a terror organization."

Harvard law student Tala Alfoqaha, who is Palestinian, said she and other protesters want more transparency from the university.

"My hope is that the Harvard administration listens to what its students have been asking for all year, which is divestment, disclosure and dropping any sort of charges against students," she said.

Pro-Palestinian protests spread on US university campuses
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Columbia encampment inspires others

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. The move backfired, acting as an inspiration for other students across the country to set up similar encampments and motivating protesters at Columbia to regroup.

On Wednesday about 60 tents remained at the Columbia encampment, which appeared calm. Security remained tight around campus, with identification required and police setting up metal barricades.

Columbia said it had agreed with protest representatives that only students would remain at the encampment and they would make it welcoming, banning discriminatory or harassing language.

On the University of Minnesota campus, a few dozen students rallied a day after nine protesters were arrested when police took down an encampment in front of the library. U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was among the demonstrators arrested at Columbia last week, attended a protest later in the day.

A group of more than 80 professors and assistant professors signed a letter Wednesday calling on the university's president and other administrators to drop any charges and to allow future encampments without what they described as police retaliation.

They wrote that they were "horrified that the administration would permit such a clear violation of our students' rights to freely speak out against genocide and ongoing occupation of Palestine."

Netanyahu encourages police response

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on U.S. college campuses in a video statement released Wednesday, saying the response of several university presidents has been "shameful" and calling on state, local and federal officials to intervene.

Students at some protests were hiding their identities and declined to identify themselves to reporters, saying they feared retribution. At an encampment of about 40 tents at the heart of the University of Michigan's campus in Ann Arbor, almost every student wore a mask, which was handed to them when they entered.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. More than 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

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Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Philadelphia's Drexel University

FILE - Signs lie next to a tent pro-Palestinian students and faculty of Drexel University, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania erected at an encampment at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, April 25, 2024.
FILE - Signs lie next to a tent pro-Palestinian students and faculty of Drexel University, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania erected at an encampment at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, April 25, 2024.

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Drexel University in Philadelphia over the weekend, prompting a lockdown of school buildings, a day after authorities thwarted an attempted occupation of a school building at the neighboring University of Pennsylvania campus.

After several hundred demonstrators marched from Philadelphia's City Hall to west Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, Drexel said in a statement that about 75 protesters began to set up an encampment on the Korman Quad on the campus. About a dozen tents remained Sunday, blocked off by barricades and monitored by police officers. No arrests were reported.

Drexel President John Fry said in a message Saturday night that the encampment "raises understandable concerns about ensuring everyone's safety," citing what he called "many well-documented instances of hateful speech and intimidating behavior at other campus demonstrations." University buildings were "open only to those with clearance from Drexel's Public Safety," he said.

Authorities at Drexel, which has about 22,000 students, were monitoring the demonstration to ensure it was peaceful and didn't disrupt normal operations, and that "participants and passersby will behave respectfully toward one another," Fry said.

"We will be prepared to respond quickly to any disruptive or threatening behavior by anyone," Fry said, vowing not to tolerate property destruction, "harassment or intimidation" of students or staff or threatening behavior of any kind, including "explicitly racist, antisemitic, or Islamophobic" speech. Anyone not part of the Drexel community would not be allowed "to trespass into our buildings and student residences," he said.

On Friday night, members of Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine had announced an action at the University of Pennsylvania's Fisher-Bennett Hall, urging supporters to bring "flags, pots, pans, noise-makers, megaphones" and other items.

The university said campus police, supported by city police, removed the demonstrators Friday night, arresting 19 people, including six University of Pennsylvania students. The university's division of public safety said officials found "lock-picking tools and homemade metal shields," and exit doors secured with zip ties and barbed wire, windows covered with newspaper and cardboard and entrances blocked.

Authorities said seven people arrested would face felony charges, including one accused of having assaulted an officer, while a dozen were issued citations for failing to disperse and follow police commands.

The attempted occupation of the building came a week after city and campus police broke up a two-week encampment on the campus, arresting 33 people, nine of whom were students and two dozen of whom had "no Penn affiliation," according to university officials.

On Sunday, dozens of George Washington University graduates walked out of commencement ceremonies, disrupting university President Ellen Granberg's speech, in protest over the ongoing siege of Gaza and last week's clearing of an on-campus protest encampment that involved police use of pepper spray and dozens of arrests.

The ceremony, at the base of the Washington Monument, started peacefully with fewer than 100 protesters demonstrating across the street in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture. But as Granberg began speaking, at least 70 students among the graduates started chanting and raising signs and Palestinian flags. The students then noisily walked out as Granberg spoke, crossing the street to a rapturous response from the protesters.

Students and others have set up tent encampments on campuses around the country to protest the Israel-Hamas war, pressing colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. Tensions over the war have been high on campuses since the fall but demonstrations spread quickly following an April 18 police crackdown on an encampment at Columbia University.

Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested on U.S. campuses over the past month. As summer break approaches, there have been fewer new arrests and campuses have been calmer. Still, colleges have been vigilant for disruptions to commencement ceremonies.

President Joe Biden told the graduating class at Morehouse College on Sunday, which included some students wearing keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes, that he heard their voices of protest and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking. Biden said given what he called a "humanitarian crisis" there, he had called for "an immediate cease-fire" and return of hostages taken by Hamas.

The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian militants still hold about 100 captives, while Israel's military offensive has left more than 35,000 people in Gaza dead, according to the territory’s health ministry, which doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants.

update

Biden tells Morehouse graduates that he hears their voices of protest over war in Gaza

President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking.

"I support peaceful nonviolent protest," he told students, some who wore keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. "Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them."

The president told the crowd that it was a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that's why I've called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting" and bring home the hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The comments, toward the end of his address that also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it, were the most direct recognition to U.S. students about the campus protests that have swept across the country.

Morehouse's announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the school's faculty and supporters who oppose Biden's handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and soliciting signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter claimed that Biden's approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse's most famous graduate.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel's offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to local health officials.

Some members of the graduating class showed support for Palestinians in Gaza by tying keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. One student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. On the stage behind the president, academics unfurled a Democratic Republic of Congo flag.

Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The country has been mired in an ongoing civil war that has plunged the nation into violence and displaced millions of people. Many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict and for greater attention in the US to the conflict as well as American aid in ending the violence.

"Thank you God for this 'woke' class of 2024 that is in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times," the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said during a prayer at the start of the commencement.

The class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said at the close of his speech that it was his duty to speak on the war in Gaza and that it was important to recognize that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered.

"From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children, while calling for the release of all hostages he said. "It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip."

Biden stook and shook his hand after Fletcher finished.

The speech, and a separate one Biden is giving later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

After speaking at Morehouse in Atlanta, Biden will travel to Detroit to address an NAACP dinner.

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November's expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the "Divine Nine" Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

In Detroit, Biden was set to visit a Black-owned small business before delivering the keynote address at the NAACP's Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an "uncommitted" effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state's Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden's visit are planned for Sunday afternoon in Dearborn. Another protest rally is expected later that evening outside Huntington Place, the dinner venue.

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