Flare-Ups in Pro-Palestinian Protests Across U.S College Campuses


Since the break-out of the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Hamas-led militants and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in October 2023, effects and reactions have spread across the globe, notably throughout college campuses in the United States (U.S.), many of which have seen recent flare-ups in protests for the Palestinian cause, some of which have turned violent. American universities have famously been hotbeds for political – and particularly anti-war – movements, and the past several months have been no exception. 

The main escalations have taken place on the grounds of Columbia University, located in New York City, and have spread across the country. On 17 April, students on the university’s campus established the ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment,’ equipped with tents, food supplies, makeshift restrooms, along with a marquee. The occupation was set up as a pre-emptive response to a testimony given by the university’s President, Minouche Shafik, before the U.S House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, who used her words to strongly condemn antisemitism in all its forms, particularly on college campuses. The following day, members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) were officially called in, briefly conversing with protesters “before bursting through the barricades and making arrests” and could be seen “pinning some people down and taking at least six away in zip-ties.” Days later, the city’s mayor, Eric Adams, said of the encampment, “New Yorkers have every right to express their sorrow, but that heartbreak does not give anyone the right to harass or threaten others or to physically harm someone they disagree with,” referring to hostile scenes at the university campus which prompted a Rabbi affiliated with the University to urge Jewish students to ‘return home’ for their safety.

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Protestors Occupied the South Lawn of Columbia University in mid-April, in what was called the ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment.’

By the following week, the protest tactics employed by the students at Columbia had spread elsewhere, all the way to the West Coast – on 24 April, nearly 100 individuals were arrested at the University of Southern California (USC), as Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers cleared an encampment – similar to the one established at Columbia – which was labeled ‘unlawful’ by law enforcement. The following day, students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) set up their own occupied zone, prompted in part by a national call to action by the National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) in conjunction with the Palestinian Youth Movement. The UCLA movement, however, met a similar fate to the other two protests – on 30 April, the university declared the encampment unlawful, directing individuals to leave, with threats of facing disciplinary action if they did not. That night, scenes turned ugly and violent, as “a large group, wearing black outfits and white masks, arrived on campus and tried to tear down the barricades surrounding the encampment.” According to a New York Times analysis of the situation, the “violence ebbed and flowed for nearly five hours, mostly with little or no police intervention,” and had been “instigated by dozens of people who (were) seen in videos counterprotesting the encampment.”

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The Occupation-Style Protests Popularized at Columbia Spread Across the Country, as far as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The pro-Palestine movements have been observed up and down the country, with “more than 2,700 people” either arrested or detained throughout the U.S. The Interim President of Boston’s Harvard University threatened “involuntary leave” for participants in the on-campus encampment, the continuation of which he said “presents a significant risk to the educational environment of the University,” and has “disrupted (…) educational activities and operations.” Washington DC’s George Washington University (GWU) was raided and cleared by law enforcement, leading to the arrest of 33 individuals, as well as the cancellation of a planned testimony by the District’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, in front of the House Oversight Committee. Yale University and the University of Connecticut (UConn) have also seen encampments dismantled, while a number of protestors were arrested on the campus of Ohio State University, with similar events taking place at the University of Texas at Austin. Likewise, on 10 May, a pro-Palestine encampment was dismantled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with 10 protestors taken into custody.

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U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance event on 7 May, condemned the “vicious surge” in antisemitism that has been observed in recent months.

The protests have also prompted a significant amount of domestic political reaction – President Joe Biden offered up a relatively balanced take, saying that although “dissent is essential for democracy, it “must never lead to disorder,” while also denouncing what he called a “ferocious surge” in antisemitism, both domestically and abroad. Former President and current Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s take was more controversial, remarking that the white supremacist ‘Unite the Right’ rally that took place in North Carolina in 2017 – at which attendees chanted “Jews will not replace us” – was “a little peanut” compared to the demonstrations being observed across American college campuses, adding that “the hate wasn’t the kind of hate that you have here, this is tremendous hate.” The protests have similarly drawn ire from House Speaker Mike Johnson, who said in a CNN interview – later doubling down on social media – that “Hamas backed these protests at Columbia,” later adding that higher education institutions across the U.S have become “hostile places for Jewish students and faculty,” having “succumbed to an antisemitic virus.”

Cover Image: Protesters and Law Enforcement Face Off Outside of Columbia University, in New York City on 18 April 2024.

Toby Tilley
Toby Tilley
Hi! I'm Toby, a 2nd-Year International Relations student, currently in Segovia. My family is mostly from the United Kingdom, but I was born and raised in the United States, just outside of New York City.

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