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Violence erupts at UCLA as protests over Israel's war in Gaza escalate across the U.S.

Updated May 01, 2024 at 13:51 PM ET

Violence erupted at the University of California, Los Angeles on Tuesday night, after pro-Israel demonstrators attempted to forcibly dismantle an encampment of dozens of tents set up by pro-Palestinian protesters who have been camping on the school's Dickson Plaza, a central green space on campus.

Protesters in the encampment sometimes fought with the counterprotesters, which witnesses say ranged from about 100 to more than 200. People set off fireworks — and journalists and protest organizers say pepper spray or other irritants were used — before police were able to get the situation under control.

"The violence unfolding this evening at UCLA is absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable," Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, at 1:47 a.m. local time. "LAPD has arrived on campus."

The confrontation quickly became a flashpoint among dozens of university protests against the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that have broken out on campuses across the U.S. A high-profile protest at Columbia University in New York was shut down Tuesday night after police entered a school building occupied by pro-Palestinian protesters.

UCLA has canceled classes on Wednesday.

School newspaper calls out delay in calming violence

As news of the violence spread, so did questions about why administrators and police weren't able to prevent it, or mitigate it more quickly.

Hours before the confrontation, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement saying his administration had "taken several immediate actions," including significantly boosting security by "adding greater numbers of law enforcement officers, safety personnel and student affairs mitigators."

And as member station LAist reports, UCLA said on Wednesday that Block's request for the city to send in police got "an immediate response."

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator, center, is beaten by counterprotesters during violence on the UCLA campus early Wednesday.
Etienne Laurent / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator, center, is beaten by counterprotesters during violence on the UCLA campus early Wednesday.

But media reports from the campus describe an hours-long delay between the first clashes erupting and police intervening. Student newspaper the Daily Bruin accused the school of failing to protect students on its campus.

"Fireworks, tear gas and fights broke out just after 10:50 p.m. Tuesday night," the newspaper reported. It added that the school issued a statement at 12:40 a.m. saying it had called police. Police arrived slightly after 1 a.m., the paper said.

There was apparently another delay: After the LAPD and California Highway Patrol officers reached the campus, they moved to separate and disperse the groups around 3 a.m., according to local TV station ABC 7.

Colleges are tearing down protest encampments

Pro-Palestinian tent camps have been popping up on college campuses around the country — and now, so are reports that universities are taking action against them.

Like the organizers of the UCLA encampment, many other campus protesters say their chief demand is for their university systems to disclose all financial ties with Israel-based groups, and divest from companies that do business there.

University of Wisconsin, Madison

Police moved against a pro-Palestinian encampment in Madison shortly after 7 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, resulting in at least 12 arrests and several injuries.

A student showed reporters a gash he said came from being stuck by a police shield, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Campus police say four officers were hurt, including a state trooper who was hit in the head by a protester's skateboard.

"But two hours later, protesters began setting up a new encampment with at least 15 tents. Leaders of the demonstration held trainings on how to resist further arrests and made plans for a march and rally for Wednesday afternoon," WPR reports.

Tulane University in New Orleans

On the last day of classes for most students, campus, city and state police officers converged on an encampment — an operation that student newspaper The Tulane Hullabaloo says began before dawn on Wednesday.

At least 14 protesters were arrested, including two students, Tulane announced. Earlier, the school had announced six arrests on Monday — including one student — and said it had suspended at least seven students for participating in what the university said was an "unlawful demonstration."

University of Arizona in Tucson

Violent conflicts played out in and around campus in the early hours of Wednesday, after police tore down an encampment near the school's north Main Gate Square.

"Around 2:00 a.m. law enforcement officers in gas masks and riot gear stormed a pro-Palestinian encampment on the University of Arizona campus," reports Arizona Public Media, which adds that hundreds of protest supporters were in the area and that the move came after a 10:30 p.m. deadline for protesters to leave.

Police made at least four arrests, AZPM reports, adding that people on the street heard a warning of "police deploying chemical irritant munitions."

UCLA's buffer zone was overrun

Images from the scene at the UCLA campus showed a large crowd of pro-Israel protesters pulling at metal barricades and wooden pallets the pro-Palestinian group had erected around their encampment.

In addition to calling for divestment, the UCLA protests are meant to show solidarity with people in Gaza. The Israel-Hamas war has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, while Israel says some 1,200 Israelis were killed by Hamas in an assault last October. Israel says Hamas is still holding 133 hostages.

A crowd of counterprotesters had initially gathered near the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on Tuesday afternoon.

As the evening wore on, members of the group "began wrestling with protesters inside and [private campus] security hired by UCLA," according to the Daily Bruin.

From there, the violence continued to escalate.

The clash erupted days after the Israeli-American Council, an advocacy group, mounted a competing demonstration on Dickson Plaza, adjacent to the encampment. Despite heightened tensions, that large rally on April 28 ended without major clashes.

Images of that Israeli-American Council-organized event showed two large groups separated by a buffer zone.

But on Tuesday night, the buffer zone was overrun.

NYPD clear protesters from Columbia University building

Police ousted pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University from Hamilton Hall on Tuesday night — a school building they had been occupying since Monday. The New York Police Department mounted a large operation to remove the protesters, using an armored vehicle and a mechanized drawbridge to convey officers into the building.

"Approximately 300 people were arrested," New York Mayor Eric Adams said on Wednesday. That figure includes people who were on the Columbia University campus, as well as others arrested at City College — an institution in the City University of New York system that was a destination for a crowd of demonstrators who marched from Columbia University.

Adams stressed that the police operation took place at Columbia's request.

"We went in and conducted an operation to allow Columbia University to remove those who have turned the peaceful protest into a place where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes were pervasive," Adams said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.