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Some campuses are going virtual and canceling commencement as protests continue

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been a tumultuous few weeks on college campuses around the country with crackdowns on pro-Palestinian encampments and thousands of arrest. President Biden spoke all about it on Thursday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is. It's against the law when violence occurs.

RASCOE: Some universities have closed or gone virtual. At least one has canceled commencement, and a few have reached a deal with pro-Palestinian protesters. Still, new protests keep popping up. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look at how the movement has spread since Israel went to war after the bloodshed by Hamas on October 7.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Almost immediately, college campuses became flashpoints with faceoffs between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators. On October 12, the national group Students for Justice in Palestine called on campus chapters to act.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We asked our team. Shawnte Passmore is live there on campus with more on what's being called a national day of resistance. Shawnte?

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ELLIOTT: Dueling protests emerged at campuses all around the country, including at the University of North Carolina, Harvard, UCLA, Indiana University and Columbia, where officials closed the New York campus to the public over safety concerns. Columbia sophomore David Lederer remembers being moved to respond back then and, along with his twin brother, has been demonstrating with an Israeli flag.

DAVID LEDERER: We made a promise to ourselves that on October 12, we were furious, infuriated when we saw the students, you know, like, chanting on - for Hamas. And so we want to stand here and say, like, for Jewish students who feel intimidated off campus, we shouldn't be.

ELLIOTT: Then in November, twenty students from the Brown University group Jews for Ceasefire Now were arrested during a sit-in at the Providence, R.I., campus. Another 41 students there were arrested in December. As Israel's war escalated, resulting in a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the protest at Brown grew.

ARIELA ROSENZWEIG: The urgency of the situation in Palestine calls me, calls my university, calls my community to be doing something now, not to be waiting.

ELLIOTT: Senior Ariela Rosenzweig was part of a hunger strike in February aimed at getting Brown to vote on a proposal to divest from companies they say profit from injustices against the Palestinian territories.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Brown, divest. Brown, divest. Brown, divest.

ELLIOTT: But this spring marked a turning point, says, Lauren Lassabe Shepherd, a historian of American higher education at the University of New Orleans.

LAUREN LASSABE SHEPHERD: I think that we are at the beginning of something.

ELLIOTT: She says a key moment came at the end of March when four protesters participating in a sit-in were arrested at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. More than two dozen students were suspended, and larger protests ensued.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) Resistance is our demand.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Resistance is our demand.

SHEPHERD: Once students were arrested, that's when you see other college students sort of, like, sit up a little bit straighter and go, wait a minute.

LUMISA BISTA: For me, it sparked fear. Vanderbilt took some of the strongest action against students that I had ever heard of.

ELLIOTT: That's Lumisa Bista, a junior astrophysics major at Yale and organizer with Occupy Yale.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Free, free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Free, free, free Palestine.

ELLIOTT: The group has erected several Gaza solidarity encampments at Yale since mid-April only to have them dismantled by authorities. She says the planning for this action began in late fall with a meeting in her living room.

BISTA: This encampment has been a long time in the making, and it's not enough. Nothing is enough, but it feels like the most tangible thing that I can do as a student.

ELLIOTT: She says they model their movement after similar protests in the 1980s demanding that Yale divest from apartheid South Africa. Pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia - in media central, New York City - have drawn a lot of attention and become the most politicized. The speaker of the U.S. House even made a visit to denounce protests there as antisemitic and call for the university's president Minouche Shafik to resign. Shafik was in Washington, D.C., defending her response to the unrest at a congressional hearing on April 17 when protesters back at Columbia erected a Gaza solidarity encampment. It was cleared a day later, and police arrested more than 100 demonstrators, but the protests persisted.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest. Disclose. Divest.

ELLIOTT: Similar scenes were playing out on campuses around the country. I asked Yale's Lumisa Bista if student organizers were acting in unison under the direction of a larger group.

BISTA: Umbrella organization, no. Communication, yes. There are these, like, threads in between these occupations that sometimes are explicit, and sometimes, they are implicit.

ELLIOTT: Bista says, just as students feed off each other, she sees university administrators doing the same, emboldened to use police force to quash protests. Campus administrators argue it's a matter of public safety, trying to keep campuses clear for academics as the spring semester comes to a close. It's final exam week on some campuses. Police actions escalated on April 25, a day that saw authorities move with aggressive tactics and mass arrests.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stay. Stay (ph).

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ELLIOTT: That was the scene at Indiana University in Bloomington as state troopers in riot gear clashed with protesters, arresting more than 50 people. At Emory University in Atlanta, police and state troopers used pepper balls and stun guns.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God.

ELLIOTT: On April 29, there was a second round of arrests at the University of Texas in Austin.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let them go. Let them go.

ELLIOTT: Rawan Channaa, an organizer with the Palestine solidarity Committee at UT, told NPR, the use of force is alarming.

RAWAN CHANNAA: I think the students on this campus are realizing that, you know, if the police can silence Palestinian voices, then what's keeping them from silencing, you know, any other of our political beliefs? And then again seeing, like, the very physical violence on top of that, the students have had enough. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: The crackdowns have continued. New York police arrested 300 people Tuesday night after using an armored vehicle to push into Columbia's Hamilton Hall, which demonstrators had occupied the night before. Mayor Eric Adams says the university called for help clearing the building.

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ERIC ADAMS: At their 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 antisemitism and anti-Israeli attitudes were pervasive.

ELLIOTT: Wednesday, SWAT teams helped remove an encampment at Tulane University in New Orleans. And in the predawn hours Thursday, officers in riot gear clashed with protesters as they cleared an encampment at UCLA a day after violence broke out between countering groups of demonstrators. For all the scenes of chaos and clashes with law enforcement, one campus cleared its encampment voluntarily.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) I ain't going to study war no more. I ain't going to study war no more.

ELLIOTT: Students at Brown University who'd been protesting for more than six months celebrated last Tuesday. They reached a deal for the school's board to schedule a vote on divestment. Rita Feder is an Israeli American senior at Brown.

RITA FEDER: This is a historic move to change the American narrative around what is appropriate regarding Israel, Palestine.

ELLIOTT: Brown students say their progress can serve as inspiration for this student movement elsewhere. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

RASCOE: This piece was produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.