USC protests remain peaceful after campus is closed; LAPD calls off tactical alert

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27, 2024 - USC students, who protest the war in Gaza, spend time at the tent camp they erected at Founders Park on the USC campus in Los Angeles on April 27, 2024. The campus gates are closed to the public and the marquee 65,000-attendee "main stage" commencement ceremony has been called off. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
Students protesting the war in Gaza gathered at Founders Park on the USC campus on Saturday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Tensions appeared to have eased Sunday at USC after pro-Palestinian protesters returned with tents and reestablished an encampment in Alumni Park, prompting a large police response as officials closed the campus to the public Saturday night.

USC officials said campus property, including the Tommy Trojan statue, was vandalized.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, the campus was closed to all except residents and their registered guests, with access over the weekend restricted, according to USC alerts posted to social media sites and campus web pages.

“Earlier Saturday, campus property — including the Tommy Trojan statue and a fountain in Alumni Park — was vandalized by individuals who are part of the group that has continued to illegally camp on our campus," Joel Curran, USC's senior vice president of communications, said in an emailed statement. "Despite repeated warnings, this group has also continued to disrupt our campus operations and harass students and others, in violation of numerous university policies.

"While the university fully supports freedom of expression, these acts of vandalism and harassment are absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated. President Carol Folt has made numerous attempts to meet with the students but they have declined these offers," Curran wrote. "We are hoping for a more reasonable response Sunday before we are forced to take further action. This area is needed for commencement set up early this week.”

The school said the disturbance was at the center of campus and urged people to “please avoid that area until further notice.”

Ninety-three people were arrested on Wednesday in Alumni Park, in the center of campus.

The arrests were warranted by reports of vandalism, Mayor Karen Bass said Sunday, as she also endorsed the university's decision to cancel main graduation ceremonies earlier last week.

"People have a right to free speech. But hate speech, antisemitism, all of that is unacceptable. All students on the campus need to feel safe," Bass said on CNN.

The Los Angeles Police Department, which had issued a tactical alert Saturday evening, sent dozens of squad cars to the campus Saturday night. They arrived with lights flashing, and students said the officers had handcuffs and zip ties.

Read more: 13 days that rocked USC: How a derailed commencement brought 'complete disaster'

Later, students said they saw the police leave the area, while dozens of protesters ate dinner and settled into their tents.

“Things have been quiet. Nothing has escalated. We’re anticipating it might, but it has been quiet," Anusha S., a journalism student who posted updates on a live blog for USC Annenberg Media, said in an interview.

The student journalists reported that LAPD officers unfurled yellow caution tape next to the Seeley G. Mudd building and said the area was being turned into a potential “command post.”

Late Saturday night, LAPD confirmed that their "tactical alert" had ended.

The protests are aimed at supporting Palestinians in Gaza who have been suffering since Israel launched a retaliatory war on the territory in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people, with another 240 taken hostage. Gaza health authorities say Israeli forces have killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, and the United Nations says roughly 2 million civilians there are now living in near-famine conditions.

Students who belong to a group called the Divest From Death Coalition have made demands that include an immediate cease-fire, divestment from Israeli companies and protection of free speech on campus.

Earlier this week, a masked USC student who self-identified as Jewish said during a news conference with other coalition members: “We will continue to call for an end to USC’s ties to Israel and investments in militarism abroad.”

Read more: UC rejects calls for Israel-related divestment, boycott driving pro-Palestinian protests

The USC campus has been roiled by bitter controversy over the rescinding of a graduation speaking slot for valedictorian Asna Tabassum and the subsequent cancellation of the "main stage" commencement ceremony.

Amid the protests, a symbol of the university was vandalized on Saturday. Photos appeared on social media showing the words "Say no to genocide" in bright red on the granite pedestal of university’s Tommy Trojan statue, and a video appeared to catch the spray-painting as it happened.

(In an initial photo posted Saturday afternoon, the word genocide was missing the final “e.” It was apparently added later.)

A man who witnessed the tagging recorded a video of a masked woman leaving the area. As she was walking away, he followed her and asked, “Why’d you tag Tommy Trojan, huh?”

She held up her middle finger and said, “Because I can.”

He replied, “No, that’s called vandalism.”

“I don’t really care,” she said as she walked away.

Times staff writer Jaweed Kaleem contributed to this report.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.