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Mass arrests roil college campuses amid pro-Palestinian protests

Updated April 25, 2024 at 18:05 PM ET

Mass arrests, outrage and turmoil rippled across U.S. college campuses as authorities clamped down on a growing number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

Students at Emory University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, George Washington University, Princeton University and the City College of New York set up solidarity encampments on Thursday morning, the latest to join a fast-growing list of prestigious institutions.

Students are calling for an end both to the Israel-Hamas war and their universities' investment in companies that profit from it or, more broadly, do business with Israel.

Dozens of protesters have been arrested since Wednesday night, including at the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin and Emerson College.

As more arrests were made at Emory University and Princeton University on Thursday morning, some charges were being dismissed against detainees elsewhere.

In Texas, Travis County Attorney Delia Garza told member station KUT that charges have been dismissed against 46 of the protesters arrested at UT Austin on Wednesday, and that her office is reviewing more cases.

"Legal concerns were raised by defense counsel, we reviewed each case individually and agreed there were deficiencies in the probable cause affidavits," she said.

Here are other developments as of Thursday:

Protesters at the University of Southern California push and shove university police officers as tempers get heated during a pro-Palestinian occupation on the campus on Wednesday in Los Angeles.
Richard Vogel / AP
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AP
Protesters at the University of Southern California push and shove university police officers as tempers get heated during a pro-Palestinian occupation on the campus on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

USC's main commencement ceremony is canceled

The University of Southern California said Thursday that it was canceling its mainstage commencement ceremony.

Other graduation activities will still happen, including commencements from individuals schools.

"We understand that this is disappointing; however, we are adding many new activities and celebrations to make this commencement academically meaningful, memorable, and uniquely USC," the university said in a statement.

Thursday's announcement came after dozens of arrests Wednesday evening.

The Los Angeles Police Department said it showed up at about 4 p.m. Pacific Time, and had arrested 93 people by 10 p.m. for trespassing, a misdemeanor offense. One arrest was made for assault with a deadly weapon, though the department did not say what the weapon was. No injuries were reported.

The protests follow the school's decision last week to cancel the commencement speech for valedictorian Asna Tabassum, who posted pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel content on her social media. USC said it scrapped the speech for safety reasons.

Authorities arrest activists gathering at Emory University

A couple dozen protesters were detained at an encampment on Emory University's Atlanta campus just hours after it was set up, the school said in a statement.

Activists launched the encampment to demand divestment from Israel as well as "Cop City," the nickname given to the controversial police and fire department training center under construction in a nearby forest, member station WABE reported.

Two protesters detailed the coalition's motivations in an op-ed published Thursday in the Middle Eastern-focused news site Mondoweiss, writing that "we are students across multiple Atlanta universities and community members" demanding divestment "at all Atlanta colleges and universities." Social media posts suggest that activists explicitly encouraged "non-students" to participate.

An account belonging to the activist movement "Stop Cop City" posted onX (formerly Twitter) that within two hours of the encampment being set up on Thursday morning, Emory officials had issued a "final warning" to protesters.

A university spokesperson told NPR in a statement that "several dozen protesters trespassed" onto campus and set up tents on the quad, describing them as "not members of our community" but "activists attempting to disrupt our university as our students finish classes and prepare for finals."

A statement from the Atlanta Police Department said officers were "met with violence" while trying to secure the campus.

Social media posts, including from the Emory Wheel, and local media reports show law enforcement officers using handcuffs, tasers, tear gas and pepper balls on people in the crowd. The police department confirmed using chemical irritants, but says it did not use rubber bullets.

Witnesses reported seeing people detained and loaded into police vans.

Protesters arrested at Princeton sit-in

Nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton attended a sit-in in a campus courtyard on Thursday morning, with some setting up tents despite the university's warnings.

Protesters called on the university to — among other demands — divest from companies that profit from or engage in Israel's war effort and refrain from associating with Israeli academic institutions and businesses, according to The Daily Princetonian.

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber had warned in an op-ed that the school's free expression policy includes a "clear and explicit prohibition upon encampments."

And Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun wrote in an email to undergraduates Wednesday that any student participating in an "encampment, occupation, or other unlawful disruptive conduct who refuses to stop after a warning will be arrested and immediately barred from campus."

A Princeton spokesperson told NPR that a "small number" of participants began erecting "about a half-dozen tents."

"After repeated warnings from the Department of Public Safety to cease the activity and leave the area, two graduate students were arrested for trespassing," the spokesperson said, adding that the students have been barred from campus pending a disciplinary process.

Protesters voluntarily took down the remaining tents, the spokesperson added.

Boston police move to arrest pro-Palestinian supporters who were blocking the road after the clearing of Emerson College's encampment early Thursday morning.
Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Boston police move to arrest pro-Palestinian supporters who were blocking the road after the clearing of Emerson College's encampment early Thursday morning.

Boston police broke up an Emerson College encampment

Boston police tore down a pro-Palestinian encampment at Emerson College in the early morning hours, clashing with protesters and ultimately taking more than 100 into custody.

Emerson College students had been camping since Sunday night in Boston's Boylston Place Alley.

President Jay Bernhardt warned earlier this week that the alley is not solely owned by the college and has a "public right-of-way requirement to access non-Emerson buildings, including the State Transportation Center, and is a fire alley that is under the jurisdiction of the Boston Police Department."

Emerson sophomore Kyle Graff described the arrests to NBC Boston.

"The big vans, they came in, they parked right in front of this alleyway and the cops came up and they started arresting students, forcing their way into the encampment and everything, pushing students to the ground," Graff said. "I saw one student get shoved into the pavement and their hands forced to be put behind them."

NBC Boston reports that police cleared the alley within 30 minutes.

Boston Police Department spokesperson Sgt. John Boyle told local media that 108 people were arrested and are expected to be arraigned in Boston Municipal Court. He said four police officers were injured, one seriously.

Similar encampments have been set up at several other Boston-area schools, including MIT and Tufts. Harvard students set up tents in Harvard Yard — which is temporarily closed to the public — on Wednesday.

Texas State Troopers on horseback work to disperse pro-Palestinian students protesting the Israel-Hamas war on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday.
Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Texas State Troopers on horseback work to disperse pro-Palestinian students protesting the Israel-Hamas war on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday.

Texas state troopers responded to protests in riot gear

At the University of Texas at Austin, hundreds of people protested in support of Palestinians. University officers and Texas state troopers responded to the scene in riot gear, and arrested dozens of students who did not leave, according to NPR member station KUT.

"These protesters belong in jail. Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott posted on X. "Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled,"

UT Austin President Jay Hartzell commended the school and law enforcement for showing "extraordinary restraint," and said the organizers of the protest intended to violate school policies.

"The group that led this protest stated it was going to violate Institutional Rules," Hartzell said. "Our rules matter, and they will be enforced."

Pro-Palestinian protests are spreading across the country

Students at Cornell University and George Washington University set up solidarity encampments on Thursday morning.

Columbia University has twice extended its deadline — originally midnight on Tuesday — for students to clear their campus encampment.

Officials first delayed the deadline until Wednesday morning, and said later in the day that they would continue conversations for another 48 hours in light of "constructive dialogue" with student representatives.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.