Arrest and expulsion of pro-Palestinian protesting students reveal ugly face of U.S., touted as world’s oldest democracy

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – Hundreds of students have been arrested across universities in the United States of America following the intense protests against the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, in which the demand has been raised for an immediate ceasefire and divestment from the companies linked to Israel. The students are sitting on protest in the tent encampments, starting from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

The peaceful Gaza solidarity protests have spread from UCLA to the University of Texas in Austin and several other university campuses across the U.S. After the counter-protests by the pro-Israeli elements and scuffles between the two sides, the police in different states of the country have arrested the demonstrators at multiple universities, including the University of South Florida, Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On May 2, the police started dismantling the wooden barriers and encampments after arresting their inhabitants in a swift action to clear the university campuses. The police response to the protests has been perceived as far more aggressive than it has been towards the political demonstrations in the past. The political observers in the U.S. have stated that this is a disturbing level of intolerance toward pro-Palestine views.

Dozens of arrests were made at Columbia University in New York after the university authorities called in police to quell a protest encampment to which some Jewish students raised objection. As students and other demonstrators have camped out on school quads, occupied university buildings and disrupted campus activities, universities have affirmed their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson told journalists in Columbia that the demonstrations had placed a target on the backs of Jewish students in the U.S. and added that the National Guard could be brought in if the protests were not contained soon. U.S. President Joe Biden has denounced “blatant anti-Semitism” in the protests which should have no place on college campuses.

But the White House has also said that the President supports freedom of expression on U.S. campuses.

Student protesters say they are expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, where the death toll has crossed 34,300, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The protesters have also called upon the universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Contrary to the US. President’s claims, the police action against the protesting students indicates that there is no freedom of expression in the country if the theme of protest clashes with the government’s policies. It also reveals an ugly face of the U.S., which is often touted as the world’s oldest democracy.

The colleges across the U.S. have asked the pro-Palestinian student protesters to clear out encampments with rising levels of urgency, as police arrested more demonstrators at the University of Texas and Columbia University. The universities have announced that they will suspend students who defy an ultimatum to disband the encampment there.

At Columbia, student activists defied a 2 p.m. deadline to leave an encampment of around 120 tents on the school’s Manhattan campus. Instead, hundreds of protesters marched around the quad, clapping, chanting and weaving around piles of temporary flooring and green carpeting meant for graduation ceremonies which are supposed to begin next week.

Three hours after the deadline passed, school spokesperson Ben Chang said Columbia had begun suspending students. Chang said while the university appreciated the free speech rights of students, the encampment was a noisy distraction interfering with teaching and preparation for final exams. The protests also made some Jewish students deeply uncomfortable, he said.

The number of arrests at campuses nationwide has touched 1,000. The protests have even spread to Europe, with French police removing dozens of students from the Sorbonne university after pro-Palestinian protesters occupied the main courtyard. College classes are wrapping up for the semester, and campuses are preparing for graduation ceremonies, giving schools an extra incentive to clear encampments.

The University of Southern California cancelled its main graduation ceremony, but students dug in their heels at some high-profile universities, with standoffs also continuing at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and others. Protesters at Yale set up a new camp with dozens of tents on April 28, nearly a week after police arrested nearly 50 and cleared a similar one nearby. They were notified by a Yale official that they could face action, including suspension, and possible arrest if they continued.

Yale said in a statement that while it supports peaceful protests and freedom of speech, it does not tolerate policy violations such as the encampment. School officials said that the protest was near residential colleges where many students were studying for final exams, and that permission must be sought for groups to hold events and put up structures on campus.

In a rare case, Northwestern University said it reached an agreement with students and faculty who represent the majority of protesters on its campus near Chicago. It allows peaceful demonstrations through the June 1 end of spring classes, requires removal of all tents except one for aid, and restricts the demonstration area to allow only students, faculty and staff unless the university approves otherwise.

At Brown University in Rhode Island, school president Christina H. Paxton offered protest leaders the chance to meet with officials to discuss their arguments for divestment from Israel-linked companies in exchange for ending an encampment. In the letter to student protesters at Columbia, school officials noted that exams are beginning and graduation is upcoming.

Columbia’s handling of the protests has prompted federal complaints. A class-action lawsuit on behalf of Jewish students alleges a breach of contract by Columbia, claiming the university failed to maintain a safe learning environment, despite policies and promises. It also challenges the move away from in-person classes and seeks quick court action requiring Columbia to provide security for the students.

On the other hand, a legal group representing pro-Palestinian students has urged the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office to investigate Columbia’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for how they have been treated. The plight of students who have been arrested has become a central part of protests, with the students and a growing number of faculty demanding amnesty for protesters.

Across the U.S., university leaders have tried, and largely failed, to quell the demonstrations, which have often seen the police intervening violently, with videos emerging from different states showing hundreds of students, and even faculty members, being forcefully arrested. The protesters have also demanded amnesty for students and faculty members disciplined or fired for protesting.

The protests against the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza have also spread to universities in Canada, Europe and Australia. Canada’s first campus protest camp for Gaza appeared at McGill University in Montreal. The protesters demanded that McGill and Concordia Universities divest from funds implicated in the Zionist state as well as cut ties with Zionist academic institutions.

Tents were also set up on the front lawn of the University of Sydney. Vice Chancellor Professor Annamarie Jagose said the university, which is Australia’s oldest, was committed to the right of protesters to assemble peacefully and express their views. But she said there was also zero tolerance for any form of racism, threats to safety, hate speech, intimidation, threatening speech, bullying or unlawful harassment, including anti-semitic or anti-Muslim language or behaviour.

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