UT Austin divided on the involvement of police in pro-Palestine protests following mass arrests

Students at the University of Texas at Austin find themselves divided in their opinions following the police crackdown that led to the arrest of 57 individuals during recent protests on campus.

Hundreds of people gathered on Thursday for a demonstration aimed at urging UT Austin to divest from weapons manufacturers who profit from Israel’s war in Gaza. The protest also served as a platform for expressing opposition to the university’s recent crackdown on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

Protesters took to the streets, holding up signs that bore powerful messages. Some signs read “Save Gaza,” while others boldly proclaimed “Jews for a Free Palestine.” One sign caught attention as it called out UT Austin’s president, Jay Hartzell, labeling him as a coward. The towering presence of the school’s campus and the recent arrests added an extra layer of significance to the protest.

According to The Hill, students and faculty members who support the Palestinian cause stated that the protests that took place on Wednesday became chaotic due to the response from the police. On the other hand, students who are pro-Israel argued that the police played a vital role in maintaining safety on campus.

According to The Texas Tribune, Travis County Attorney Delia Garza dropped the charges against 46 out of the 57 protesters arrested on Wednesday. Garza stated that the majority of the cases, 13 in total, lacked probable cause.

According to reports from The Tribune and other local media, there were no incidents of violence until law enforcement officers intervened by using batons to handcuff students and push protesters away.

Pro-Israel students have shown their support for the police response. According to Etai, a junior at UT Austin, the arrests made people realize that they cannot engage in any behavior they want without consequences. He witnessed protesters physically attacking the police, throwing horse manure, and even telling him to “go back to Poland.”

According to Raneem, a senior at UT and member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, students were hesitant to gather on Thursday due to fear of facing the same level of force. However, today, state troopers, helicopters, and mace are not being employed aggressively against the students who are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.

Raneem claimed that the chaos on Wednesday was caused by the police instigating the situation. According to her, they were peacefully protesting as students when the police would randomly apprehend individuals without any provocation or physical confrontation.

According to her account, a student leader was arrested by the police on Wednesday for attempting to disperse the participants. She further mentioned that the police used pepper spray and employed excessively brutal force while pulling them into police cars.

As the chaos unfolded, numerous students found themselves forcefully escorted into police vehicles. The sight was truly extraordinary and caught everyone off guard. The sheer intensity of the situation left many overwhelmed, resulting in a wave of nausea. This unexpected turn of events had taken everyone by surprise, as no one had anticipated such a dramatic turn of events.

The Faculty Council, representing UT professors, expressed “grave alarm” at the arrests made on Wednesday in a letter written on Thursday.

UT President Hartzell’s decision to invite armed and riot gear-clad Department of Public Safety officers onto the Forty Acres to disrupt a nonviolent protest has been specifically criticized.

On Wednesday night, amidst growing criticism over the arrests, Hartzell expressed that the university remained steadfast, upholding our regulations while safeguarding the fundamental right to freedom of speech.

According to the speaker, peaceful protests that adhere to our rules are considered acceptable. However, any actions that violate our rules, policies, and hinder others’ ability to learn are strictly prohibited.

The university, in its statements on Thursday, defended the arrests by stating that approximately half of the 55 individuals who were arrested had no affiliation with the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the statement, there have been thirteen pro-Palestine free speech events at the University since October, all of which have largely occurred without incident. However, the recent protest had expressed its intention to disrupt the campus by occupying the lawn below the administrative building.

According to The Texas Tribune, the faculty council has rejected this response, and there is now a circulating faculty petition calling for a vote of no confidence against Hartzell.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Faculty Council expressed their dissatisfaction with President Hartzell’s message to the community on Wednesday night. They firmly believe that his message does not adequately justify the conduct of the University.

“How can we expect our students or the general public to be tolerant of viewpoints they disagree with if we ourselves cannot model that behavior?”

Professor Kirsten “Kit” Belgum, an expert on the rise of German nationalism, expressed her agreement with the statement. During the demonstration, she held a sign that said “Education Needs Free Speech.” When asked about her presence at the protest, Belgum stated that she found the police response on Wednesday to be “really offensive.”

“I’m not a fan of chanting in unison,” she expressed her opinion, amidst the crowd chanting slogans like “Free, free Palestine” and “2-4-6-8 Israel is a racist state.”

Even at sports events, Belgum expressed his discomfort with such shouts, stating that they reminded him too much of Nazi Germany. He personally refrains from engaging in such behavior. However, his main concern lies in challenging the university’s decision to suppress a peaceful demonstration with the presence of armed military and horses. According to Belgum, this approach contradicts the essence of education, and he fails to understand the necessity for it.

According to Belgum, the police may have worsened the situation, resulting in the protests taking place today. He believes that yesterday’s events had a negative impact on freedom of speech, which is why he is present at the protest.

The protesters supporting Palestine, who made up the majority of the attendees on Thursday, as well as the counterprotesters supporting Israel, expressed a sense of insecurity while on campus.

According to members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the police intervened on Wednesday when pro-Palestine protesters attempted to comply with orders to disperse.

According to Hadi, a UT student who preferred to remain anonymous, the protests on Thursday were more intense than they would have been on Wednesday if the police hadn’t intervened. Despite the heightened tension, the protests remained peaceful.

“They tarnished the university’s reputation,” Hadi expressed. “Yesterday could have been a more idyllic scene with people relaxing on the lawn, reading, and taking study breaks. However, the situation took a turn for the worse when the police decided to escalate matters by bringing in riot police and batons.”

According to Raneem, a senior who supports Palestine, the deployment of police on Wednesday should be a cause for concern for everyone. She believes that this action should not only worry Texan residents and UT students, but also the entire country because it threatens our democracy and infringes upon our rights.

Pro-Israel counterprotesters expressed their concern to The Hill, stating that they are also apprehensive about the suppression of their freedom of speech.

According to Gil, a senior affiliated with a pro-Israel group, he believes that his Middle Eastern studies classes are biased against Israel. He specifically mentions his introduction to Israeli history class, which was taught last year by a professor who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

“I believe it is inappropriate for a Palestinian individual to teach Israeli history. While Israeli history does encompass Arab history, it primarily revolves around the Jewish narrative as it is a Jewish nation. Therefore, if someone identifies themselves as Palestinian first, it becomes challenging for them to provide an objective and unbiased perspective while teaching the history of Israel.”

Gil, in a class last year, expressed his proactive approach by consistently raising his hand every five minutes. He shared that he did so in order to correct the teacher when necessary, pointing out any inaccuracies or crucial details that were overlooked in the storytelling process.

He no longer feels comfortable engaging in this activity. “Now I refrain from doing it because I have experienced people in classes shouting at me and labeling me as a Zionist,” he shared.

Jewish opinion at the protests was split. Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that opposes the occupation, participated in both days of protest to show solidarity with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. It was noticeable that many individuals in the crowd wore kippot or necklaces with the Hebrew word “chai,” which symbolizes life.

But like many of the ongoing discussions about alleged antisemitism on college campuses, what made Etai and Gil feel unsafe was mainly the speech of their fellow students. They were disturbed by statements in support of “intifada,” the Palestinian concept of uprising or resistance, as well as other students referring to Hamas as a resistance movement.

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