Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024



Violence stuns UCLA as counterprotesters attack pro-Palestinian camp

Violence broke out early Wednesday at the pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA, hours after the university declared that the camp “is unlawful and violates university policy.”

Just before midnight, a large group of counterdemonstrators, wearing black outfits and white masks, arrived on campus and tried to tear down the barricades surrounding the encampment. Campers, some holding lumber and wearing goggles and helmets, rallied to defend the encampment’s perimeter.

Videos showed fireworks being set off and at least one being thrown into the camp. Over the next few hours, counterdemonstrators threw objects, including wood and a metal barrier, at the camp and those inside, with fights repeatedly breaking out.

The violence is the worst on campus since counterprotesters, who support Israel, set up a dueling area near where the protesters were camping.

Some tried to force their way into the camp, and the pro-Palestinian side used pepper spray to defend themselves.

Officers line up in the darkness at UCLA.
Officers line up outside the encampment on the UCLA campus on Wednesday morning. (Etienne Laurent / AFP/Getty Images)

A group of security guards could be seen observing the clashes but did not move in to stop them.

One representative of the camp said the counterdemonstrators repeatedly pushed over the barricades that outline the boundaries of the encampment, and some campers said they were hit by a substance they thought was pepper spray.

Some people in the camp were being treated for eye irritation and other wounds. The extent of the injuries was unclear, though The Times saw several people who were bleeding and needed medical attention.

UCLA officials decried the violence and said they had requested help from the Los Angeles Police Department. The situation was so distressing that the university canceled classes Wednesday.

Los Angeles, CA - April 29: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators hold a student- faculty rally at Dickson Plaza at an encampment on the UCLA campus on Monday, April 29, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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“Horrific acts of violence occurred at the encampment tonight and we immediately called law enforcement for mutual aid support. The fire department and medical personnel are on the scene. We are sickened by this senseless violence and it must end,” Mary Osako, vice chancellor for UCLA Strategic Communications, said in a statement.

At around 1:40 a.m., police officers in riot gear arrived, and some counterprotesters began to leave. But the police did not immediately break up the clashes at the camp, which continued despite the law enforcement presence.

At around 3 a.m., a line of officers arrived at the camp and pushed the remaining counterprotesters out of the quad area. The police told people to leave or face arrest.

People carry an injured person along a sidewalk.
A person is carried away after counterdemonstrators confronted a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA. (Ethan Swope / Associated Press)

Some on campus said they were stunned it took so long before officials stepped in to stop the clashes.

Ananya Roy, a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography, condemned UCLA’s lack of response to the counterprotesters.

“It gives people impunity to come to our campus as a rampaging mob,” she said early Wednesday. “The word is out they can do this repeatedly and get away with it. I am ashamed of my university.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass condemned the violence, saying on X it was “absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable.”

Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the UCLA campus, criticized university administration in a statement Wednesday, saying they had failed to protect their students.

“The horrific acts of violence against UCLA students and demonstrators that occurred on campus last night are abhorrent and have no place in Los Angeles or in our democracy,” Zbur said. “No matter how strongly one may disagree with or be offended by the anti-Israel demonstrators’ messages, tactics, or goals, violence is never acceptable and those responsible must be held accountable.”

The nonprofit organization Jewish Federation Los Angeles said in a statement Wednesday morning that it was “appalled” by the violence on campus overnight and placed blame on campus leaders. The group also called for the chancellor to remove the encampment.

“The abhorrent actions of a few counterprotesters last night do not represent the Jewish community or our values,” the group wrote. “We believe in peaceful, civic discourse.”

UCLA is one of numerous universities where students have erected tents as part of a wave of protests by students, faculty members and staffers demanding an end to Israel’s actions in Gaza and divestment from firms that sell weapons or services to the country.

The Westwood campus became the first in the University of California system to move against an encampment. Others have been set up at UC campuses at Berkeley, Riverside and Irvine along with colleges and universities across the nation.

UC has generally taken a lighter touch in handling protests than USC, Columbia and other campuses that have called in police, who have arrested hundreds of students.

The crackdown came on the same day that the U.S. House committee investigating antisemitism announced UCLA Chancellor Gene Block would appear to testify about his campus actions to stop bias and harassment against Jewish students. The May 23 hearing is also set to include the presidents of Yale and the University of Michigan. The hearings have derailed the careers of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. Block has already announced he is stepping down as chancellor on July 31.

A masked protester pours milk on another man's face.
A pro-Israeli demonstrator has milk put on his face after an altercation between dueling protests at UCLA. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

In a statement Tuesday, UC President Michael V. Drake said he “fully” supported UCLA’s action. UC must be “as flexible as it can” in matters of free speech, he said, but must act in cases where student learning and expression are blocked, university functions disrupted and safety threatened.

“The University of California campuses will work with students, faculty and staff to make space available and do all we can to protect these protests and demonstrations,” he said. “But disruptive unlawful protests that violate the rights of our fellow citizens are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”

He did not specify what behavior at UCLA he found unacceptable.

On Friday, the UC Board of Regents has scheduled a closed-door meeting to discuss the student protests.

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UC guidance — developed after widespread furor involving a 2011 incident at UC Davis, when police pepper-sprayed students who were peacefully protesting social and economic inequality during the Occupy movement — has led campuses to use a flexible approach in allowing protests as long as they are peaceful and don’t impede campus operations, learning or teaching. Police action should be a last resort, the guidance says.

But Block said Tuesday that, while many demonstrators have been peaceful, others have used tactics that have “frankly been shocking and shameful.”

“We have seen instances of violence completely at odds with our values as an institution dedicated to respect and mutual understanding,” Block said in a message to the campus community. “In other cases, students on their way to class have been physically blocked from accessing parts of the campus.

Los Angeles, CA - April 25: Pro-Israeli protesters with their flags gather near an encampment set up by pro-Palestine protesters on the campus of UCLA at UCLA Thursday, April 25, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Ringo Chiu / For The Times)

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“UCLA supports peaceful protest, but not activism that harms our ability to carry out our academic mission and makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid,” he wrote. He added that the incidents had put many on campus, “especially our Jewish students,” in a state of anxiety and fear.

High levels of fear also have been reported by pro-Palestinian students, which Block did not mention — an omission that outraged some campus members.

Demonstrators clash overnight at UCLA.
Demonstrators clash at an encampment at UCLA early Wednesday morning. (Ethan Swope / Associated Press)

“It is quite shocking and demoralizing that the chancellor notes only the antisemitism faced by Jewish students when in fact there has been a significant number of incidents of racism and violence against Palestinians, Muslims and in fact anyone considered a supporter of Palestinian rights,” said Sherene Razack, a professor of gender studies.

The “Palestinian Solidarity Encampment,” which was set up Thursday, said in a statement that “Zionist aggressors,” most of them not UCLA students, had been “incessantly verbally and physically harassing us, violently trying to storm the camp, and threatening us with weapons.” But campus security did nothing to protect them, the statement said.

The group decried UCLA’s move to end the encampment as a “cowardly intimidation tactic” and a “continuation of a long history of attempts to shut down student activism and silence pro-Palestinian voices.”

Dan Gold, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, supported the university’s action, saying Jewish students have been bullied, harassed and intimidated around the encampment — including at least 10 who said they were denied access to nearby walkways after encampment monitors asked them if they were Zionists. A Star of David with the words “step here” was drawn in the area, he said.

“This encampment violates a long list of university policies, and the result of not enforcing these rules that every other student and student group follows to a T is chaos and unrest — and worse, it allows for even more intense forms of hate to persist and grow,” Gold said.

Block said the campus was aiming to keep all sides safe by “significantly” increasing the security presence with more law enforcement officers, safety personnel and student affairs staff. Law enforcement is investigating recent acts of violence, and barriers that demonstrators used to block access to buildings have been removed, Block said. Students involved could face suspension or expulsion.

UCLA added that it “encouraged” students to use established university procedures to find appropriate locations to gather and protest.

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez and photographer Michael Blackshire contributed to this report.

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