Hundreds of University Students Arrested in U.S. as Gaza War Protests Spread

Solidarity encampments calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment from companies linked to Israel have spread across university campuses in the United States. Hundreds of students across the country have been arrested over the last two weeks including at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Columbia, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Police have been intervening violently and many arrests have been made forcefully. Altercations have also occurred between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators, specifically at UCLA.   

Mary Osako, UCLA’s Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications, expressed that the university stands “firmly for the idea that even when we disagree, we must still engage respectfully and recognize one another’s humanity” in response to a fight that broke out between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators at the encampment. In Boston, Northeastern quickly shut down its encampment and posted saying that “all campus operations have returned to normal” and the campus is “fully secured”. On May 2, President Biden addressed the encampments, telling reporters that “there’s a right to protest but not the right to cause chaos”.   

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defines what the right to process means in the First Amendment and its context in the modern day. Amidst the surge of forceful arrest numbering in the hundreds, questions arise regarding the justification for such violence and the extent of police intervention. Much of this unrest seems to stem from confrontations between protestors and counter-protesters, underscoring the urgent need to establish clear boundaries to safeguard all participants. Preserving the right to protest is very important in ensuring the integrity of democratic principles, but ensuring safety for those involved should also be a top priority.  

On April 17, 2024, Columbia University students set up a solidarity encampment for Gaza after the university’s president made a comment concerning antisemitism on campus. Since then, numerous encampments have been established at universities across the United States. These actions are a direct response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas War that began in October 2023 and is a part of the Israel-Palestine conflict. With the United States continuing to provide aid to Israel, there is a growing nationwide demand for this support to stop. Additionally, there is a call for institutions to divest from companies that contribute funds to Israel, including many universities. 

These pro-Palestine encampments are very reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam war protests seen at Columbia University in 1964. Though this conflict between Israel and Palestine is incredibly complex, it is important that democratic principles are upheld within the United States and that safety remains a priority. Institutions should critically analyze and reflect why their students are calling for them to divest, while also keeping their campuses safe places where democracy is upheld.