UT Austin divided over police involvement in pro-Palestine protests following mass arrest

Students at the University of Texas at Austin find themselves at odds following the recent police crackdown, which resulted in the arrest of 57 individuals during protests.

Hundreds of people gathered for a demonstration on Thursday, following the previous day’s event. The purpose of the demonstration was to exert pressure on UT Austin to divest from weapons manufacturers who were making profits from Israel’s war in Gaza. Additionally, the participants aimed to express their opposition towards the university’s crackdown on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

Protesters brandished signs bearing various messages, such as “Save Gaza,” “Jews for a Free Palestine,” and “Jay Hartzell is a Coward,” in reference to UT Austin’s president. The towering presence of the campus and the recent arrests remained ever-present in their minds.

According to students and faculty at UT, the protests on Wednesday escalated into chaos due to the actions of the police. While those in support of Palestine claim that the police response was the cause of the turmoil, pro-Israel students argue that the authorities were responsible for maintaining the safety of the campus.

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza has dropped the charges against 46 out of the 57 protesters who were arrested on Wednesday. According to The Texas Tribune, Garza stated that all but 13 of the cases lacked probable cause. This decision highlights the scrutiny surrounding the arrests and raises questions about the evidence supporting the charges.

According to local media reports, the events on Wednesday initially unfolded peacefully, with no signs of violence. However, the situation took a turn when authorities intervened, resorting to the use of batons to subdue the protesters. Students were handcuffed, and the protesters were forcefully pushed back by the authorities.

Pro-Israel students voiced their approval for the police’s response. According to Etai, a junior at UT Austin, the arrests on Wednesday served as a wake-up call, making people understand that they cannot engage in unruly behavior without consequences. He personally witnessed protesters physically assaulting the police, hurling horse manure, and even telling him to “go back to Poland.”

Raneem, a senior at UT and a member of the school’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, expressed concerns about students gathering on Thursday. She explained that they were afraid of facing the same level of force used against them previously. However, she noted that today, state troopers, helicopters, and mace were not being employed forcefully against the students who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights.

According to Raneem, the chaos on Wednesday was caused by the police’s instigation. As students, they were peacefully protesting, but the police would randomly arrest people without any provocation or physical contact with the officers.

According to her, a student leader was arrested by the police on Wednesday while attempting to disperse the participants. She also mentioned that the police used pepper spray on the crowd and employed excessive force while putting them into police cars.

As students were being pulled into police cars, a wave of nausea swept over many of them. The sight of their peers being detained was both shocking and unexpected. The events unfolding before their eyes were truly unprecedented, leaving everyone in disbelief.

The Faculty Council, representing UT professors, expressed its deep concern about the arrests made on Wednesday.

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

On Wednesday night, as the backlash against the arrests grew, Hartzell expressed that the university remained steadfast in enforcing its rules while also safeguarding the constitutional right to free speech.

According to the statement, the individual emphasized the acceptance of peaceful protests that adhere to the established rules. However, any actions that violate the rules and policies, leading to disruptions in others’ learning, are strictly prohibited.

The university defended the arrests, stating that approximately half of the 55 people arrested were not affiliated 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, which have mostly occurred without any issues. However, this particular protest aimed to disrupt the campus by occupying the lawn below the administrative building.

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

The Faculty Council expressed their dissatisfaction with President Hartzell’s message to the community on Wednesday night, stating that it did not adequately justify the University’s behavior.

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

Professor Kirsten “Kit” Belgum, an expert on the rise of German nationalism, expressed her agreement with this statement. She participated in the demonstration by holding a sign that read “Education Needs Free Speech.” When speaking to The Hill, Belgum shared that she joined the protest due to her strong disapproval of the police’s response on Wednesday, which she found to be highly offensive.

“I’m not a fan of chanting in unison,” she expressed her thoughts, while the protesters echoed phrases like “Free, free Palestine” and “2-4-6-8 Israel is a racist state.”

Even during sporting events, Belgum expressed his discomfort with such shouts, stating that they remind him too much of Nazi Germany. He personally doesn’t engage in such behavior. However, his main concern is with the university’s response to the peaceful demonstration, which involved the use of armed military and horses. He finds this approach contradictory to the principles of education and believes it was unnecessary.

According to Belgum, the police may have worsened the situation, resulting in the protests we see today. This is the sole reason why Belgum is present at the event. He believes that the events of yesterday had a concerning impact on freedom of speech.

Both the pro-Palestine protesters, who made up the majority of those gathered on Thursday, and the pro-Israel counterprotesters expressed feeling unsafe on campus.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee reported that on Wednesday, the police intervened when pro-Palestine protesters attempted to comply with orders to disperse.

Hadi, a UT student who preferred not to disclose his last name, stated that the tense but peaceful protests on Thursday escalated to levels of violence that would have otherwise been avoided if the police had not intervened.

“They tarnished the university’s reputation,” Hadi expressed. “Yesterday could have been more idyllic, with people leisurely sitting on the lawn, reading and taking study breaks. However, the police chose to escalate the situation by deploying riot police and wielding batons.”

Raneem, a senior who supports Palestine, expressed concern about the use of police on Wednesday. According to her, this action should not only instill fear in Texan residents and UT students but also in the entire country. Raneem believes that democracy is at stake and our rights are being violated.

According to The Hill, pro-Israel counterprotesters have expressed concerns about their freedom of speech being suppressed.

According to Gil, a senior affiliated with a pro-Israel organization, he believes that his Middle Eastern studies classes showcase a clear bias against Israel. He specifically mentions his experience in an Israeli history course last year, which was taught by a professor who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

“I believe it is inappropriate for a Palestinian to teach Israeli history. While Israeli history does encompass Arab history, it is primarily focused on the Jewish narrative. Therefore, if an individual identifies themselves as Palestinian first, it may be challenging for them to maintain objectivity and present an unbiased perspective when teaching the history of Israel.”

In that class last year, Gil mentioned how he found himself constantly raising his hand every five minutes. He would do so to correct the teacher whenever they made a slight mistake or forgot to include important details that were crucial to the story.

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

Jewish individuals held different opinions at the protests, showcasing a divided stance. Jewish Voices for Peace, an anti-occupation group, actively participated in both days of protest to show solidarity with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Many individuals in the crowd also expressed their support by wearing kippot or necklaces adorned with the Hebrew word “chai,” symbolizing life.

But like many instances of alleged antisemitism currently under discussion on college campuses nationwide, what made Etai and Gil feel unsafe appeared to be mainly the speech of fellow students. This included statements supporting “intifada,” the Palestinian concept of uprising or resistance, as well as other students referring to Hamas as a resistance movement.

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