Apr 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Why some colleges aren’t arresting pro-Palestinian protesters

People rally on the campus of Northwestern University to show support for residents of Gaza on April 25

People rally on the campus of Northwestern University on April 25. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Some universities are working with students to set ground rules for pro-Palestinian protests to forestall the violence and police confrontations that marred demonstrations at Columbia University and the University of Texas at Austin.

Why it matters: The protests have spread across the county, placing campus administrations in the difficult position of balancing students' rights to assemble with protecting the safety of some Jewish students who say the demonstrations have made them feel unsafe. The tensions have led some administrations to crack down on protesters.

  • Nearly 1,000 people have been arrested in connection to the pro-Palestine protest movement, per AP.

Driving the news: After students at Wesleyan University set up a encampment Sunday, university President Michael S. Roth issued a letter to the campus community Monday saying it could remain in place for the time being.

  • "The protest has been non-violent and has not disrupted normal campus operations. As long as it continues in this way, the University will not attempt to clear the encampment," Roth wrote.
  • Northwestern University announced Monday that it had reached an agreement with students and faculty that would lead to the dismantling of all tents on campus except one aid tent. In exchange, the school will allow protests to continue until the end of spring quarter classes on June 1.
  • "This agreement represents a sustainable and de-escalated path forward, and enhances the safety of all members of the Northwestern community while providing space for free expression," Northwestern officials wrote in a press release.

After protesters at the University of Chicago set up an encampment Monday, university President Paul Alivisatos said in a letter to the campus community that the school strives to "provide the greatest leeway possible for free expression."

  • "We only will intervene when what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or that meaningfully disrupts the functioning or safety of the University," he added.
  • While an encampment violates certain campus policies, the demonstrators would likely be allowed to remain for a short period "given the importance of the expressive rights of our students," he noted.

Zoom out: Efforts to take a more measured approach to the protesters contrast sharply with the more forceful tactics used at other schools.

  • Pro-Palestine protesters at Tulane University clashed with police Monday after attempting to erect an encampment on campus, local news reported.
  • At the University of Texas at Austin, police allegedly used pepper spray and flash bang devices on Monday to disperse protesters, the Texas Tribune reported. Several protesters were ziptied by police, per The Daily Texan.
  • Protesters at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) were confronted by police in riot gear Monday night who deployed a "chemical agent" to help disperse the crowd, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

At places like Columbia, crackdowns have been followed by an intensification of the protests.

  • More than 100 protesters at Columbia were arrested earlier this month, and on Monday the school began suspending some student protesters after they refused to vacate their encampment.
  • That escalated early Tuesday morning when protesters breached and occupied an administrative building on Columbia's campus.

Context: The college protests have become a potent symbol of the growing unpopularity of the Israel-Hamas war.

  • President Biden has faced growing political pressure over his support for Israel.
  • The College Democrats of America issued a statement Tuesday lauding the protest movement and criticized the White House for its "mistaken route of a bear hug strategy" for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • "We commend the bravery of students across the country who have been willing to endure arrests, suspension, and threats of expulsion to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people," the statement added.

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