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  • Pamela Arjona

Wave Of College Protests Across the United States Highlights Rising Tensions Amidst Israel-Palestine Conflict 

College campuses etched themselves in American history as epicenters of dissent and activism. From sit-ins to marches to strikes, collective action by young adults has proven strong and successful.

On Thursday, April 18, the NYPD approached Columbia students at a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus and conducted over 100 arrests. Students from both Columbia and Barnard participating in the encampment were notified of suspension from the institutions, and many took to social media to share the events that unfolded throughout the day. The protesting students were immediately met with a wave of support from other students and professors, culminating in a rally on campus that evening and a flood of protests across the country.

Columbia University leaders are desperate to disassemble the encampment for the sake of “student safety” and to continue a stable learning environment, hoping to come to an agreement with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia University Apartheid Divest —the two major student groups organizing the protests. Negotiations ended with a gridlock. Students remained steadfast in their claim that they would not remove the encampment unless the university cut all ties with Israel, and the University ensured that if the encampment were not removed voluntarily, reinforcements would be contacted. 

As of April 26, 12 hours after the deadline to clear the encampment on campus, it remains. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams claims that the university asked for the encampment to be removed, for students “do not have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning on campus.” The university continues to offer alternatives to in-person classes, and negotiations between the administration and student groups are ongoing. 

 Since the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict on October 7 2023, universities nationwide have grappled with the ideals of free speech and safety on their campuses. Many schools are home to pro-Israel and pro-Palestine organizations interested in advocating for their cause. 

Over 40 encampments and hundreds of arrests have taken place nationwide, and every continuing escalation has provoked further protests on new campuses. Most organizations and protests have outlined precise demands and remained non-violent, opening the door for a peaceful resolution. Higher education institutions owe it to their students to allow discourse and peaceful dissent in times of crisis. Regardless of the cause, universities and legislators alike should look to the past for insight into the outcomes of suppressing resistance. 

Many pro-Palestine organizations have repeatedly called for higher education institutions to disaffiliate themselves from Israel and outwardly condemn Israel’s attacks on Palestine. In contrast, pro-Israel organizations claim that Jewish students are not safe in campus spaces. Aside from demands from institutions, students are using their campuses to highlight general discontent and U.S. involvement in the ongoing conflict. The past six months have been marked by tension and international escalation, resulting in a recent uptick in collegiate protest unseen since 1970— over 50 years ago. 

On the other side of the country, the University of Southern California has seen its own increase in student activism beginning on April 16, when it announced that the valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, would not be presenting a speech at graduation. The University cited intense feelings over “conflict in the Middle East” and rising tensions that could cause safety concerns at a major ceremony. Specifically, pro-Israel groups on campus were concerned that Tabassum’s support of Palestine on social media would be included in her speech. 

In solidarity with universities nationwide, USC students set up an encampment beginning in the early morning on April 24. Student groups involved in the protest called for the university to cut financial ties with Israel and allow Tabassum to speak at graduation. The protest remained a peaceful occupation; however, the University closed its gates and required student or faculty IDs to enter the campus prior to any escalation. The University clarified that policies limit specific protests, including “erecting tents or other encampments.

By sundown, the LAPD issued a dispersal order to remove the encampment. Protesters maintained their stance and clarified to law enforcement that they would not evacuate the premises. LAPD Captain Kelly Muniz spoke about the altercation, explaining that one area of the protest became more violent and resulted in one arrest for assault with a deadly weapon; however, by the following day, at least 93 individuals had been arrested. 

The university remains closed to the public until further notice and announced on April 25 that the main stage commencement ceremony would be canceled altogether due to security concerns and the events of the previous days. 

Deep in the heart of Texas, over 500 students at the University of Texas campus in Austin walked out of their classes on April 24. Demands from students called for the university to divest funds from manufacturers supplying weapons to Israel. In March, Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) issued an executive order for universities to revise their free speech policies, specifically to “establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the institution" to protect Jewish students from antisemitism. Institutions have 90 days from the enactment date to report changes to the Governor’s office. 

Due to the organized and pre-planned nature of the protest on campus, the Governor and UT administration prepared for the worst. A fourth-year student at the university (who has asked to remain unnamed) shared that on her walk to class—well before the walkout—she saw about “30 law enforcement motorcycles stacked up and state troopers and cops everywhere.” She highlighted that the tension was felt for hours before law enforcement began using batons and approaching the crowd on horseback. The Governor’s office called in state troopers for reinforcements, escalating the tensions further. The same UT student shared that the campus felt like a “military zone” with unnecessary shoving and yelling at students standing down and following orders. 

Campus police began to single out individuals and arrest them with plastic zip ties. Groups of police continued to push protesters back, resulting in many students tumbling onto the ground. Following over 30 arrests, protestors regrouped on the South Mall, where they were once again met with force from university and state officials. In the meantime, Governor Abbott cheered them on from his social media and expressed discontent with protestors

The university claimed that groups involved in the protest violated policies by encouraging students participating to wear masks and advertising that classes would be canceled for the walkout, indicative of one false assumption and one threat to “public safety.” However, the Travis County Prosecutor’s office announced they would not pursue the 46 trespassing cases due to lack of probable cause. 

As ideological disagreements deepen, universities are navigating treacherous waters, torn between providing a haven for academic freedom and securing spaces for supporting students on campus. The consequences of this clash extend far beyond lecture halls and libraries, shaping the landscape of discourse and activism in America today. 


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