At USC, arrests. At UCLA, hands off. Why pro-Palestinian protests have not blown up on UC campuses

So far, the demonstrations by pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been peaceful at UCLA, while across town, the LAPD arrested 93 protesters at USC. <span class="copyright">(Ringo Chiu; Wally Skalij / For The Times; Los Angeles Times)</span>
So far, the demonstrations by pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been peaceful at UCLA, while across town, the LAPD arrested 93 protesters at USC. (Ringo Chiu; Wally Skalij / For The Times; Los Angeles Times)

At USC, Los Angeles police officers in riot gear swarmed the campus, arresting 93 pro-Palestinian protesters and clearing their tent encampment.

Across town at UCLA, scores of Palestinian supporters set up about 20 tents, created a perimeter around their "Palestine Solidarity Encampment" and peacefully protested day and night — all without arrests, suspensions or intervention by campus staff, who watched from the sidelines. Private security guards with bikes separated the pro-Palestinian group from Israel supporters, and UCLA eventually added metal barricades after counter-protesters repeatedly tried to breach the encampment and in at least one case witnessed by The Times entered and shoved a woman to the ground.

The scenes this week illustrate starkly different responses to campus protests, which are sweeping the country as students at more than 20 colleges and universities have launched encampments, demonstrations and other actions to express solidarity with Palestinians, urge an end to Israel's military operations in Gaza and demand divestment from firms that do business with Israel.

USC — along with other private institutions such as Columbia and Pomona — cracked down on violations of campus rules and called in police, who arrested students.

In the public University of California system, by contrast, UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara have used a far lighter hand, tolerating students who flouted bans on overnight camping and other rules as long as they remained peaceful and did not impede campus operations or interfere with teaching and learning.

Part of the difference is rooted in the legal requirement for public universities to honor the 1st Amendment, which does not directly apply to private institutions. But not all public campuses have refrained from an aggressive response. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance, sent in armed state troopers who arrested more than 50 people this week for staging what witnesses said was a peaceful protest. The university president, defending his response as a legitimate action to maintain campus order, is facing a faculty vote of no confidence.

The more permissive UC response has been shaped by decades of experience with high-profile protests and in particular the 2011 uproar at UC Davis, where campus police pepper-sprayed students who were peacefully protesting economic and social inequality during the Occupy movement. Video of the incident went viral, and the widely condemned police actions resulted in the firing of at least one officer, a $1-million legal settlement with the student demonstrators and a UC systemwide review and report on how best to handle campus protests.

The report, noting the need to balance 1st Amendment rights with campus safety and security, made 49 recommendations, placing communication and dialogue as a "cornerstone" of responses, with police force used as the very last resort. In a key underlying principle, the report called for "a substantial shift away from a mindset that has been focused primarily on the maintenance of order and adherence to rules and regulations to a more open and communicative attitude."

"What's so bad about students pitching tents on a green? That doesn't threaten the core teaching and research mission," said Christopher Edley Jr., a UC Berkeley law professor who co-authored the report. "It's messy and appears to create turmoil, but ... you're dealing with a large community of 20-year-olds who we expect to be passionate and who we know are collecting experiences as well as knowledge. It's incumbent on us to be as tolerant as possible without compromising fundamentals."

Even some sharp critics of pro-Palestinian protests, which they see as antisemitic, have refrained from calling for an end to the encampments. Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the UCLA campus, said he was “appalled and disgusted” by calls to destroy Israel and praise for the Hamas militant group and believes UC officials are not doing enough to safeguard Jewish students. But he said he supports the rights to free speech, to peacefully assemble and to protest, and would continue to fight for their protection "no matter how strongly I may disagree."

UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow, who chairs the UC Council of Police Chiefs, said campuses generally favor a lenient approach to protests, including encampments, within reason.

"If people are gathering peacefully and in an area not doing harm or disrupting operations, universities will probably let that go," he said.

By contrast, USC senior administrators directed their campus security officers to clamp down on violations of its rules against overnight camping, said Assistant Chief David Carlisle of the Department of Public Safety, or DPS. He said his team, which numbered about 25 officers, warned students against camping and moved in to remove tents and sleeping bags when their orders to do so were ignored. He said the crowd became "hostile," so campus authorities decided to call in the LAPD, which deployed nearly 100 officers and made the arrests.

USC is now allowing students to stay outside overnight as they continue their protests — but not in tents. Carlisle said the difference is that they are not violating bans on overnight camping.

"When it becomes clear that they are intending to set up a tent city, that would violate university policies," he said.

USC President Carol Folt defended her decision in a message to the USC community Friday.

"This week, Alumni Park became unsafe. No one wants to have people arrested on their campus. Ever," she wrote. "But, when long-standing safety policies are flagrantly violated, buildings vandalized, DPS directives repeatedly ignored, threatening language shouted, people assaulted, and access to critical academic buildings blocked, we must act immediately to protect our community."

But many USC students and faculty members condemned the university’s decision to call in LAPD officers, saying their presence escalated tensions. One Palestinian American student, who did not want to be named due to safety concerns, said the aggressive actions of police and campus security were unexpected and unwelcome but "nothing compared to a genocide, to occupation, to apartheid” that she said Palestinians are suffering.

Former UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal said that decisions over how to respond to campus protests aren't easy. At least a few times a year, he said, he tussled with the tricky issue of what to do when student protests blocked the only two entries to campus. He generally allowed them to shut down the campus for a day, despite backlash from some "furious" faculty who wanted him to more quickly restore access. Then he got more criticism when he did call in police to reopen the campus.

"It's easy to overreact too quickly," he said. "When you bring in police and start arresting students, there is definitely an aftermath."

In a newly issued open letter, nearly 600 faculty and staff members across all nine UC undergraduate campuses expressed support for students who nonviolently demonstrate, saying the right to do so needed "active protection" after Columbia University leaders called in New York police to arrest more than 100 peaceful student protesters, suspended them from courses and evicted them from campus housing. The letter called out UC's own controversial history involving protests, including the pepper-spray incident, the 2015 arrest of UC Santa Cruz students protesting tuition hikes and the 2020 firing of graduate student workers involved in a wildcat strike.

"Arresting or punishing students who protest peacefully and nonviolently on our campuses is antithetical to our university’s highest ideals of learning and scholarship and violates our university’s fundamental values of decency and respect," the letter said. "Especially during difficult moments of intense political contestation, it is essential that all members of our university community respect each other and not engage in authoritarian power plays."

UC's more tolerant approach played out at the three campuses where students staged protests this week.

At UC Berkeley, nearly 100 tents remained up in the "Free Palestine Camp" by Sproul Hall, the historic home of the campus’ free speech movement. With the last day of instruction Friday and finals starting after that, the campus is prioritizing the academic interests of students, said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for executive communications.

He said the campus has refused demands to shut down the encampment, along with a two-month protest at Sather Gate. Students have complied with campus directives to take down signs hanging on the gate but have needed repeated reminders against using amplified sounds. Last month, Chancellor Carol Christ decided to post monitors at the gate to reduce conflict after receiving complaints about the activities there.

"We're dealing with these protests in the exact same way we have dealt with nonviolent political protests in the past and that is in line with the UC systemwide standard that instructs us not to request law enforcement involvement preemptively and only when there is a direct threat to the physical safety of the campus community," Mogulof said. "We've seen at our own campus and others that calling in law enforcement can have unintended consequences."

Berkeley's measured response, while criticized by some, has been praised by others on both sides. In a social media post, the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area affirmed the protesters' right to free speech even though their words were "abhorrent" and said UC Berkeley administrators were "committed to ensuring Jewish safety and participation in campus life."

Hundreds of UC Santa Barbara students completed a daylong occupation of the student resources building without mishap this week. The event featured workshops, art projects and other actions to express solidarity with Palestinians, call for a cease-fire and demand an end to Israel-related investments. No encampment was set up.

Bishnupriya Ghosh, a professor of English and global studies and member of Academics for Justice in Palestine, credited collaboration and communication for the peaceful outcome, including regular discussions with Chancellor Henry Yang and other senior leaders.

The campus response "has not been draconian at all because of open channels of communication to administration, which have been very productive," Ghosh said.

UCLA's response to the protest activities also drew mostly favorable reviews. Saree Makdisi, an English professor of Palestinian heritage, said he appreciated the respectful tone of the Bruin Alert that went out Thursday, announcing that the school would "support a safe and peaceful campus environment that respects our community’s right to free expression while minimizing disruption to our teaching and learning mission." He said he only wished UCLA had acted earlier to set up barricades around the encampment to protect those inside from what he said was physical and verbal aggression from Israel supporters who appeared not to be students but outsiders.

Edley, the UC Berkeley law professor, said his biggest critique of the overall campus response was a failure to more creatively use the moment to help deepen understanding of the fraught, complex and contested history of the conflict. Faculty might have bought space in student newspapers, for instance, to publish essays from all perspectives "in a vigorous search for shared truth."

"This is a great university, and the opportunity to deeply inform students about this problem is profoundly important," he said. "So I hate to see it reduced to a problem of law and order."

Times staff writers Jaclyn Cosgrove and Angie Orellana Hernandez contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.