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Pro-Palestinian Encampments Take Over American College Campuses

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Updated: | Originally published:

As the death toll from Israeli strikes on Gaza rises, encampments led by pro-Palestinian students on American college campuses have spread. Despite disciplinary measures and police involvement, the demonstrations show no signs of stopping. Encampments have started on dozens of campuses, as student protesters demand for their universities to divest from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation.

In one of the latest confrontations, police in riot gear on Saturday cleared an encampment that started two days earlier at Northeastern University in Boston, the Associated Press reported.

On April 18, Columbia University in New York City asked police to enter the campus, resulting in more than 100 protesters being arrested.

Police in New York also arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters at New York University on Monday, after dozens of protesters started an encampment outside the Stern School of Business earlier that day.

Columbia University and Barnard College subsequently suspended dozens of protesting students, citing safety concerns. The NYPD maintained that protesters were peaceful upon arresting them. Barnard College students, including Isra Hirsi—the daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Michigan—lost access to campus housing and meal plans.

“I really am in limbo. We don’t know when we’ll be let back in,” Hirsi says. She has been feeling overwhelmed and sad that she is “stuck on the outside” but notes that she was aware of the risks. “I felt like I had to take a stand,” she says. Hirsi is also feeling inspired by the many universities starting encampments. “It’s not a Columbia moment. It’s a moment for everybody,” she says. “It’s important for all of us as students at prestigious universities to really shed light on what is going on.”

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik gave a deadline of midnight Wednesday for pro-Palestinian student protesters who have set up an encampment on the school lawn to agree to disperse, before considering “alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus so that students can complete the term and graduate.” No agreement was reported after the passage of the deadline, which came hours ahead of a visit by Speaker Mike Johnson to meet with Jewish students at Columbia and address what his office described as “the troubling rise of virulent antisemitism on America’s college campuses.”

The university sent an email to students Friday night which said bringing back police “at this time” would be counterproductive, the Associated Press reported. 

The ongoing demonstrations have sparked strong condemnation from lawmakers. On Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott slammed a protest held at the University of Texas at Austin. “These protesters belong in jail,” he wrote on X, along with a video of state troopers in riot gear dispersing demonstrators. “Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period. Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.” The Texas Department of Public Safety said that 34 people were arrested as of Wednesday night.

The White House condemned antisemitism on college campuses in a statement about Passover on Sunday but did not elaborate on particular institutions or incidents. “Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” said President Joe Biden. “This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous–and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of student organizations leading protests, pushed back against antisemitism allegations. “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” they said. “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students—Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black, and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country.” 

The encampments are the latest in a wave of disruptive pro-Palestinian protests calling attention to what they see as a genocide. Previous demonstrations have temporarily shut down bridges, train stations and airports in protest of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. (Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Gaza’s Civil Defense workers also recently reported a mass grave with hundreds of bodies at a hospital in Southern Gaza. The Hamas attack killed about 1,200 people and took 240 people hostage—of which more than 100 have been released.)

Columbia University

On Monday, dozens of Columbia University faculty walked out to protest the arrest and suspension of students. “While we as a faculty disagree about the relevant political issues and express no opinion on the merits of the protest, we are writing to urge respect for basic rule-of-law values that ought to govern our University,” they said in a letter. 

Inside Columbia’s campus gates, the encampment has been relatively calm. On Friday, Jewish students led a Shabbat service. Later on, protesters surrounded their Muslim peers with blankets while they prayed to give them privacy. They held teach-ins, including one on antisemitism. Students chanted protest slogans, danced and watched movies. Some brought their pets. 

Hirsi, Rep. Omar’s daughter, stressed that organizers “made it pretty clear” that their focus is on “the genocide and actions of the Israeli government.” Generalizing protests as antisemitic is also “disrespectful” to the many Jewish activists who are part of the movement, she says.

“There are folks who will intertwine their identity with the government and there’s not much we can do about that,” she says. “All I have seen from that camp is beautiful acts of solidarity.”

Shiri Gil, a 25-year-old Jewish Columbia University student from Israel who moved to New York as part of the university’s dual degree program with Tel Aviv, says the encampment makes her feel unsafe. She isn’t bothered by protesters raising concerns about Israel’s conduct in Gaza but blames Hamas for the violence. “There is no acknowledgement of the hostages,” she says.

Chants calling for an intifada are jarring for her to hear because she lost relatives to some of the violence, she says. (The two intifadas led to the death of more than 5,000 Palestinians and about 1,400 Israelis.)  For many pro-Palestinian protesters, an intifada refers broadly to Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation.

Tensions have occasionally flared outside the university’s gates. Videos on social media showed individuals making antisemitic statements but their identity and relation to student protesters remains unclear. 

Jewish institutions on campus are split on their messaging to students. The Orthodox Rabbi at Columbia/Barnard, Rabbi Elie Buechler, recommended that students go home until campus calms down. “It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus,” he wrote on a Whatsapp group chat including many Jewish students. The Columbia and Barnard chapter of Hillel, the largest Jewish organization at the university, issued a statement Sunday, stating that they will remain open. “This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” said Brian Cohen, the Jewish group’s executive director. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students.”

Columbia announced on Monday that all courses on its main Morningside campus will be made hybrid until the end of the semester. This comes after university president Shafik said in a note to students that all classes across the university would be held virtually on Monday to “de-escalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps.”

Yale University

At Yale University, police arrested dozens of people, 44 are currently-enrolled students, just before 7 a.m. Monday. Protest organizers say that on Sunday night more than 600 people came to protect more than 40 tents. They say law enforcement only gave one arrest warning to protestors, despite telling them they would receive three warnings.

Craig Birckhead-Morton, a pro-Palestinian Yale undergraduate student who was arrested, says that Columbia's encampment motivated them to escalate their activism. "We had the idea (for an encampment) before Friday...but I think Columbia was the event that encouraged people," he says. They set up tents later that evening.

Birckhead-Morton, a Black Muslim, says protesters sang chants and songs as they were arrested. "We don't know what the school discipline is but we anticipate it," he says.

Yale University’s President, Peter Salovey, said in a statement on Sunday that many students had protested peacefully but that he was “aware of reports of egregious behavior, such as intimidation and harassment, pushing those in crowds, removal of the plaza flag, and other harmful acts.”

Salovey wrote in a message Monday that for several days faculty and staff gave “resources for free expression” to protesters and reminded them unauthorized use of campus violated university policy and state laws and “those who remained would be subject to disciplinary and legal action.” 

“We then became aware of police reports identifying harmful acts and threatening language used against individuals at or near the protest sites,” Salovey said. “Some of the aggressors are believed to be members of the Yale community while others were outsiders. We will not tolerate such behavior nor any open violation of Yale policies that interrupts academic and campus operations.” 

At about 8 a.m. protests resumed, according to New Haven police. Law enforcement says they have “no current plans to make any arrests of non-violent protesters.”

The Yale Daily News campus newspaper reported that students performed a traditional Filipino dance amid counter-protests and hecklers.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University’s encampment has been the longest-running. It began more than three weeks ago, alongside a sit-in by the entrance of the chancellor’s office in one of the main administrative buildings. 

Twenty-seven students took part in the sit-in, which lasted for almost 24 hours—and ended in the expulsion of three students. The university accused students of forcibly entering the building and allegedly injuring a community service officer. Jack Petocz—one of the expelled students—says he had nothing to do with the altercation and that Vanderbilt “crafted an entirely inaccurate representation of a one-minute interaction (he) had with a chancellor staff member upstairs.”

“You can arrest students on false pretenses, you can suspend them from campus, you can try to silence the movements but you will never be successful because we have had a thriving encampment outside of Kirkland Hall for more than 500 hours,” says Petocz, who is known for his organizing on LGBTQ issues. “We’re on day 26 of continuous protest.”

Vanderbilt University did not respond to a request to comment but has previously said in a statement that “the gravity of this situation and these outcomes weighs heavily on those of us charged with carrying out our responsibility as leaders; we fully understand that student choices and decisions can lead to serious and costly consequences.”

Protesters have pushed back on chancellor Diermeier’s assertions in the New York Times that they are “not interested in dialogue”; they say he has avoided speaking with them.

New York University

Dozens of protesters started an encampment outside the Stern School of Business  at New York University on Monday morning. “Standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing 75+ years of occupation and 198 days of the ongoing genocide, we at NYU refuse to remain complicit,” they wrote in a statement posted to Instagram. Protesters are demanding that NYU end its relationship with Tel Aviv University and shut down its Tel Aviv campus, in addition to divestment. 

Protest organizers say that on Monday afternoon, NYU administration told students and faculty that if they do not clear from Gould Plaza by 2:45 p.m., students will face “severe consequences” and “anything is on the table.”

Police proceeded to arrest more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters on Monday night. Law enforcement arrived in riot gear while some Muslim protesters were in the middle of prayer. NYU professors linked arms around students to protect them and prevent police from clearing the encampment. Police eventually used pepper spray on protesters, as they tried to block the road for buses carrying arrested individuals, according to journalists on the scene. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

A school spokesperson described protesters as displaying “disorderly, disruptive and antagonizing behavior” in a statement. But several NYU professors argued that “much of their account is false” in a statement given through the American Association of University Professors. They denied any breach in the barriers by non-NYU students, as well as allegations of intimidation and antisemitism. They wrote that the protest was “loud but it was contained” and that “NYU Leadership’s decision to call the NYPD was capricious, unwarranted, and without justification.” 

NYU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Northeastern University 

An encampment protest started at the Boston-based university on Thursday. The university said on X, formerly Twitter, on Saturday that the student demonstration had been “infiltrated by professional organizers” and on Friday night, the use of statements including “Kill the Jews” “crossed the line.”

A video shared on social media and reported by Northeastern’s newspaper The Huntington News and local NPR reporter Tori Bedford appears to show that a counter-protester holding an Israeli flag said the phrase. A university spokesperson told Bedford in response to questions: “The fact that the phrase ‘Kill the Jews’ was shouted on our campus is not in dispute.” 

On Saturday morning, the university’s police department, in cooperation with local law enforcement, cleared the encampment. Police detained around 100 people, releasing students who will face university disciplinary proceedings, but not legal action, the university said. Those who didn’t disclose their affiliation were arrested, the university added. 

TIME has reached out to Northeastern for comment. 

University of Pennsylvania 

An encampment sprung up at the west Philadelphia campus on Thursday afternoon. 

On Friday night, interim university President J. Larry Jameson in an email called for the encampment to disband immediately or the protesters would face sanctions, the university’s paper The Daily Pennsylvanian reported. He listed several violations of university protocol as well as state and federal law, including “harassing and intimidating comments and actions by some of the protesters,” saying vandalism of a statue with antisemitic graffiti was “especially reprehensible and will be investigated as a hate crime.” The student news outlet reported that an encampment organizer covered up the graffiti before university employees washed it off.

A faculty group said in a letter to school leadership they were "deeply disturbed" by the email, the outlet reported. 

"Your statement mischaracterizes the overall nature of an antiwar protest that necessarily involves strong emotions on both sides but has not, to our knowledge, involved any actual violence or threats of violence to individuals on our campus,” the letter from the AAUP-Penn Executive Committee, sent to Jameson and others on Saturday, read. "To the contrary, those involved in the demonstration have worked to maintain a nonviolent space of discussion, debate, and even disagreement, in the spirit of an educational environment."

Around 40 tents remained in the encampment Saturday morning, with little police presence, the school newspaper reported. 

Emerson College 

Students at the Boston institution started an encampment on Sunday night, leading to police arresting an estimated 108 protesters in the early hours of Thursday, according to NPR’s local affiliate. Police and students said they were injured in the confrontation. Eight students appeared in court that day and were given summons for arraignments next month. 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu told reporters Thursday that police cleared the encampment in accordance with a city ordinance that bans tents and tarps on public property. 

“We welcome and uphold and respect the right to peacefully protest in public spaces in our city. The issue was with fire hazards from the tents and the public health and safety risks that encampments, and tents in particular, pose in the city,” Wu reportedly said.

University of Southern California 

Police arrested 93 people on trespassing charges at a protest at the southern California university on Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles Times reported. The university canceled its graduation ceremony the next day, after facing backlash for prohibiting its valedictorian, who has pro-Palestinian views, to speak at the ceremony, claiming security concerns. 

Other colleges

Encampments have also spread at the following colleges: UNC Chapel Hill, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, The New School, MIT, Tufts University, the University of Maryland, and Cal Poly Humboldt.

At Indiana University Bloomington, a tent encampment popped up before police with shields and batons moved into a line of protesters, arresting 33 people Thursday. At Auraria Campus in Denver, Co., which has three universities and colleges, police arrested about 40 protesters on trespassing charges Friday, according to the AP. At Emory College in Atlanta, police arrested 28 protesters, including 15 students, and deployed irritant gas on the crowd and a taser on one individual, student outlet the Emory Wheel reported.

Harvard University has closed its yard indefinitely in anticipation of pro-Palestinian protests and suspended the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee for the remainder of the school term, according to the Harvard Crimson. The announcements came after more than 200 Harvard affiliates staged a protest in Harvard Yard on April 19.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com