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UCLA: Whose Violence?

Qian Weizhong/VCG/Getty Images

Police preparing to clear the pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, May 2, 2024

Around 10:30 in the morning on Thursday, May 2, a handful of volunteer attorneys stood on a small lawn sandwiched between two jails, waiting for protesters arrested within UCLA’s Palestine solidarity encampment to be released from custody. One of the lawyers made a noise of disbelief and held their phone out to show the others the White House’s official statement on campus demonstrations. “Violent protest is not protected; peaceful protest is,” President Biden had said in the White House Roosevelt Room about two hours earlier. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations—none of this is a peaceful protest…. Dissent must never lead to disorder.”

“Now?” another volunteer asked, sounding incredulous. After police arrested more than a hundred students at Columbia on April 18, student groups at colleges and universities across the country had set up pro-Palestine protest encampments on their campuses. In the ten days leading up to Biden’s statement, violence had indeed escalated at schools including UT Austin, Emory, Columbia, and City College of New York. The violence, however, had overwhelmingly been committed not by the demonstrators but against them, often by armed riot police.

The previous two days at UCLA had offered an especially stark example. For a full week before, hundreds of students and other supporters had gathered in tents on the lawn between Royce Hall and Powell Library, two of the university’s oldest and most recognizable buildings. The night of Tuesday, April 30, pro-Israel counterprotesters had attacked the encampment with fireworks, planks, bear mace, and pepper spray, leaving at least two dozen people injured. The following evening, state, local, and campus police forces raided the encampment and detained more than two hundred people.

At the jail, I watched as an attorney photographed injuries sustained by one young man who’d been roughly subdued by police. His pant leg was torn to the knee, his shoes gone, his socks sodden, his wrists chafed and swollen from the zip ties; abrasions marked his arms, forehead, and neck. It seemed farcical for the president to speak of violence against property, violence in the form of cancelled classes, in the face of actual physical violence. In the face of the carnage in Gaza that had brought students to the encampment in the first place, it seemed obscene.

Later that day, at yet another jail, I watched students process a campuswide email from UCLA chancellor Gene Block, which justified clearing the encampment based on the chaos of the previous night. Block referred to an “attack” without identifying its source. “Several days of violent clashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators put too many Bruins in harm’s way,” he wrote.

“Read it in his voice!” one of the UCLA students gathered outside the jail urged. “Our community is in great pain,” the student holding the phone began, his voice solemn, and they all laughed. They were watching a version of events being assembled in real time. That there was great pain was undeniable; to invoke it while obscuring the university’s part in exacerbating that pain seemed cynical. For the encampment itself had not been “violent” by any reasonable definition of the word. It was a disruption, to be sure: “that’s the whole point, it’s a protest,” Tai Min, a twenty-year-old student in Labor Studies and Sociology who organizes with one of the groups involved in the UCLA divestment coalition, told me. “You take up space.” There was graffiti, there was trash left strewn across the lawn after the police were done, there was minor property damage. But it was clear that Biden and university leaders like Block were calling this wave of campus protest violent not because it posed any inherent threat to anyone’s safety but because they saw it as an intolerable provocation—one that might, in turn, require violence to quell.

*

I had arrived at the UCLA encampment a week earlier, about twelve hours after it went up shortly before dawn. The war in Gaza had passed its two-hundredth day, a ground invasion of Rafah was imminent, and the divestment coalition was demanding that their university—and the entire University of California system—pull its investments from companies complicit in Israeli “occupation, apartheid, and genocide.” They also, they wrote, wanted the university to provide full transparency regarding its financial holdings, end its relationships with Israeli universities, “call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the occupation and genocide in Palestine,” cease repressing Palestinian activism on campus, and sever ties with the LAPD. (Min told me that the administration had previously threatened organizations involved in the coalition with disbandment for protesting and called in several police forces, including the LAPD, to break up a sit-in in March.) The organizers did not explicitly require that anyone entering endorse these demands, and it seemed certain to me that the crowd had some points of political disagreement. What drew them all to the encampment was their dissent from the devastation their country was enabling and their revulsion at their school’s ties to it.

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The encampment was bounded by a short, permeable perimeter constructed of plywood and pallets—whatever people had been able to get their hands on. Two young people near me struggled to put up a roomy camping tent. There was already a makeshift library, and a few tables overflowing with snacks. Students were milling around, doing homework, chanting intermittently, making signs, and chatting with each other about the events of the day. Law enforcement presence on campus was at that point minimal.

Almost as soon as the encampment took root, it was contested. Unlike at USC and Columbia, there is no way to close UCLA to the public. By the time I arrived a group of counterprotesters had tried to break into the encampment on the side facing Royce Hall; campus security had kept them away by erecting an impromptu barrier out of bicycles. Now they were clustered around the fountain at the top of the green, waving Israeli flags and filming the crowd with their cellphones. One of them played an ambulance siren from his bullhorn over and over. I watched several of them try to bait the students in the encampment, calling them terrorists or telling them variations on why don’t you go to Gaza if you like it so much. The students largely ignored them.

This was the beginning of a steady escalation in rhetoric and tactics that would, on Tuesday night, tip into violence. Already present were several characters, some students and others not, who would be seen again and again over the following days. One freshman kept staging confrontations with the protesters for his followers on social media. “Ladies and gentlemen, they are not letting me enter public land,” he tells the camera in one video, after protesters have refused to let him inside the encampment. “Let’s get a good look at their faces—you can kiss your jobs goodbye, this is going to go viral on social media.”

This video and others like it got amplified online and picked up by local news, which then reported that Jewish students were being denied entrance to the encampment simply for being Jewish. (The organizers refused entry to people who were, for example, wrapped in Israeli flags or loudly advocating pro-Israel views, but there were many Jewish people in the encampment.) A GoFundMe created to support the counterprotesters called “Fighting antisemitism on campus” raised nearly $100,000, garnering donations from Bill Ackman and Jessica Seinfeld, and the Israeli-American Council held a large event that Sunday that featured Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Each night when the sun went down, the atmosphere in the camp grew more tense. On Saturday Yousef,1 a Muslim undergraduate student from the Middle East, noticed a man ripping down signs created by the encampment. When he confronted him and started filming, he told me, the man pulled a switchblade on him and his friends. They left quickly and told a security guard, who, he said, did nothing in response.

*

On Tuesday evening Nick Shapiro, the thirty-eight-year-old director of the Carceral Ecologies lab at UCLA, was getting ready for bed when he saw videos of masked antagonists launching fireworks directly into the encampment. That Sunday, he told me, he had gone to support the encampment during the rally “as a Jew, worrying about what is being done in my name.” But at that point “the assaults were no longer just sort of taunting and tormenting and maybe small physical assaults,” he said. “It just felt devastating that we weren’t doing anything to protect our students.” He left for campus.

Khadija, a thirty-two-year-old Arab American writer and activist with friends in the encampment, also headed there with her friend Thomas after the two saw videos proliferate across their social media feeds. They arrived around 1 AM to total chaos. Campus security had already fled, according to two independent journalists who were present that night; some guards watched from a distance. A mob of men, some of them later identified as far-right activists, reportedly launched fireworks into the encampment, swung two-by-fours with nails sticking out of them, and uttered death and rape threats. They punched and maced four student journalists, brought one to the ground, and beat him at length. Khadija and Thomas told me that one of the men maced Khadija; another jumped Thomas and choked him out. Nearly a week after the attack, he still found it painful to swallow. Later, he said, someone grabbed his hoodie and threw him to the ground. Khadija had been to many protests over the years, she told me, but “I’ve never, ever witnessed that kind of violence.” 

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It went on for hours. After they arrived on the scene around 1:45 AM, according to The New York Times, California Highway Patrol and LAPD officers waited nearby for around an hour without intervening. “They could see what was happening from afar—the fireworks, the screaming, the yelling,” Khadija said. They did nothing. “It felt like these people were acting with impunity,” she told me. Organizers of the Sunday rally had set up a jumbotron at the bottom end of the green, and the counterprotesters used it to project gruesome footage from the October 7 attacks. They also played, on loop, a children’s song that IDF soldiers have reportedly blasted at Palestinian prisoners for hours on end as a form of torture.

Eventually, after many of the men had left, law enforcement moved in and took control of the area. The sound system had been turned off in the melee, but Khadija recalled that someone turned it back on and put on a song that hadn’t yet played that night: “Bad Boys,” the theme from the TV show Cops. She saw some of the police officers dancing: “I thought that I was dreaming.”

Shapiro, a former street medic, tended to students through the night. Many were choking on pepper spray; one man had been bashed in the head by a plank. “He was gripping my arm harder than maybe anyone’s ever gripped it,” he said. As he went to leave at around 3 AM, he realized that his hands were covered in the man’s blood. There were no arrests that night.

*

I arrived at UCLA the following afternoon to widespread rumors that the police planned to clear the encampment by evening. “There was a gloom through the air that whole day,” Yousef said. The UCLA divestment coalition was in negotiations with the administration, but they quickly fell apart. (Min told me that all the vice chancellor offered was the creation of a Palestinian Study Center.2) Roughly thirty sheriff’s vehicles were parked on the lawn below the steps adjacent to the north end of the encampment; students on the outside milled about. Around 6 PM, hearing a call for support, they rose, gathered on the steps, and formed a human barrier to protect their classmates inside the camp. 

Shortly after, I made it back inside. The hours just before dark, after it was deemed illegal for protesters to be there, were strangely calm. Cops and counterprotesters assembled outside, but those of us inside the encampment couldn’t see them. A few people climbed the scaffolding around Powell Library and remarked at the crowds of students rallied at both ends of the encampment in support. Standing there as the light faded, as some of the protesters worked to reinforce the barricades, I felt a hush fall over the camp: the helicopter overhead had turned tail and left. A muezzin ascended to the very top of the scaffolding and gave a call to prayer. The next time the police declared an unlawful assembly, he chanted again, briefly blotting them out.

But the helicopter came back, and in the end four different forces—the university police department, the sheriff’s department, the LAPD, and the California Highway Patrol—faced off against hundreds of unarmed students. At one point Khadija found herself behind the barricades as officers pushed against them. The students pushed back, chanting: We’re not scared. Khadija looked at the girl next to her and admitted: I’m a little scared. Later, just before the mass arrests began, she linked arms with two very young male students. One of the boys was shaking. When the rubber bullets started flying, she grabbed him and his friend and fled.

Elias, a thirty-year-old Muslim American graduate student at California State University Long Beach, had come to campus that evening after seeing the videos of the night before. He told me that he went to the front of the barricades and tried to stop police from grabbing the girl next to him, so they grabbed him instead, ripping his helmet and protective goggles off; one seized his thumb and bent it back. Around 2 AM, he was thrown to the ground and taken into custody. “They were very, very brutal,” Yousef told me. Elias and Khadija both remarked on the students’ physical bravery. “They decided to stay and a lot of them decided to be on the front lines, and a lot of them got beat up much worse than I did,” Elias said.

Those arrested that night were charged with unlawful assembly, which is normally a cite-and-release offense. Some were indeed merely cited and released, between 8 AM and 11 AM that morning, but others, including Elias and everyone else taken to LAPD’s metropolitan jail, were booked, had their eyeballs scanned, and were held as late as midnight. I watched as protesters left throughout the afternoon, some of them dazed, injured, or sobbing.

Three days later, in a snub to the organizers’ demands around campus policing, the administration announced that it would create a new campus safety office to coordinate its law enforcement and emergency management activities. The following morning police made another round of arrests, detaining forty-four people, including students, a well-known police critic, and an independent journalist, in a university parking garage. A LAPD spokesperson told the press that they were initially stopped for violating a campus curfew—from which students are supposed to be exempt—and appeared to be on their way to occupy a nearby building. The severity of criminal punishment, too, is escalating: nearly all of those arrested were later charged with conspiracy to commit burglary.

If all these arrests were meant to quell the protests, they have hardly succeeded. “It’s really galvanized the student community, the faculty, the grad student workers, facility workers,” Min told me. Over a thousand faculty and staff from across the UC system issued an open letter on May 1 condemning the counterprotesters’ violence and demanding “no police actions” against the encampment; subsequently, nine individual academic departments released statements denouncing the university’s role in the events of both nights. As of this writing, nearly seven hundred UCLA professors and staff members are demanding financial disclosure and divestment, the resignation of Chancellor Block, and amnesty for everyone arrested at the protests—and threatening to withhold their labor if these demands are not met. Separately, the United Auto Workers’ local that represents some 48,000 University of California grad student employees is planning a strike vote across all UC campuses, to be held early next week. If student workers vote to strike, it could open up official channels for a faculty “sympathy strike,” meaning that many more professors might join them. More campus protests and sit-ins are planned. “As long as there’s a genocide still happening in Gaza,” Min said, “we’re still going to fight.”

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