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Campus Protests Over Gaza Escalate Nationwide

As students occupied buildings at multiple college campuses and police cracked down from coast to coast, the pro-Palestinian protest movement has appeared to enter a more dangerous phase.


The momentum has accelerated in the past week and a half, sparked by arrests at Columbia University on April 18, an analysis by the Washington Post of Crowd Counting Consortium data shows. The outbreak of nearly 400 demonstrations is the most widespread since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. From the Ivy League to small colleges, students have set up encampments and organized rallies and marches in response to civilian deaths in Gaza caused by the Israeli military's retaliation.


While police in New York stormed a Columbia University building where protesters had barricaded themselves, arresting hundreds in clearing the building, police and protesters clashed at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at other campuses.


In New York, Columbia officials said they had "no choice" but to invite police back to campus, where they made dozens of arrests, the New York Times reports. The takeover by police came 56 years to the day after a student occupation at Columbia was violently cleared by New York Police. Mayor Eric Adams held a news conference with top police officials, where he blamed "professional outside agitators" for the situation. Hundreds of officers later began entering the campus and the occupied building.

Columbia University said it has asked police to remain on campus at least until May 17, after the university's May 15 commencement, citing "serious safety concerns" and threats to the continued normal operation of the campus.


In Los Angeles, violence broke out at protesters' encampment after UCLA declared the camp "is unlawful and violates university policy," the Los Angeles Times reports. Counter-demonstrators tried to tear down barricades surrounding the encampment, leading to violent clashes with protesters.


Some experts say the increased pressure on administrators could help the protesters secure some of their demands or gain more public attention. But it could also backfire, shifting more attention to their tactics than to their cause, the Christian Science Monitor reports.


“Civil disobedience consists of demonstrating why a rule isn’t a good rule,” said Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civic Discourse at American University. She added, “We are seeing students saying, ‘We’re going to be in places you’ve told us we shouldn’t. Because your attempts to suppress our message are wrong.’”


“We ... have seen that institutions engaging in tactics where their action is to suppress student speech or punish it, or punish student groups or ban student groups, have seen an increase in students saying, ‘Well, we’re going to use our voices more. Our voices are going to get bigger,’” she said.


How the hundreds of arrests get handled by local prosecutors could affect those prosecutors' reelection campaigns this fall and beyond, The Marshall Project reports. Those tensions already are apparent in Austin, where prosecutors have criticized state authorities for calling in troopers to make arrests on the University of Texas campus.


In this roiling mix of politics and emotions are complex legal questions about free speech, which can be governed by the timing and location of protests, along with the behavior of protesters and police. Experts told The Hill that whether a school is public or private, and whether protests take place indoors or outdoors, are among the critical factors in weighing rights and restrictions.

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