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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Erum Salam and Joanna Walters in New York, Chris Stein in Washington, Coral Murphy Marcos in Berkeley and agencies

Student Gaza protests: top Republicans call on Biden to send in federal officers

line of protesters in front of line of police wearing helmets in the dark
Pro-Palestinian students and activists face police officers as they protest the Israel-Gaza war on the campus of New York University on Monday. Photograph: Alex Kent/AFP/Getty Images

Senior Republican US senators on Tuesday waded into growing tensions at leading universities over the Israel-Gaza war, demanding the Biden administration send in federal law enforcement officers to curb pro-Palestinian protests that have led to hundreds of arrests.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and John Thune, his deputy, wrote to Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, and Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, calling demonstrators “antisemitic, pro-terrorist mobs”.

Police arrested about 150 protesters at pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Yale and New York University on Monday night, while Columbia University announced that classes would be taught remotely for the rest of the semester, as anger boiled over following more than 100 arrests there last week.

Some university leaders, most notably at Columbia, are facing fierce criticism and calls for resignation this week from those outraged at the protests and those outraged at the crackdown on the protests.

On Tuesday afternoon, 25 Republican senators led by McConnell wrote: “The Department of Education and federal law enforcement must act immediately to restore order, prosecute the mobs who have perpetuated [sic] violence and threats against Jewish students, revoke the visas of all foreign nationals (such as exchange students) who have taken part in promoting terrorism, and hold accountable school administrators who have stood by instead of protecting their students.”

The Missouri senator Josh Hawley and Arkansas senator Tom Cotton on Monday called for Joe Biden to send national guard troops on to campuses.

On the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut, authorities arrested at least 47 protesters on Monday evening, the university said in a statement. Students who were arrested will be referred for disciplinary action.

Several hundred people had been protesting at Yale, including hunger strikers, demanding the university divest from military weapons manufacturers and other companies with ties to Israel.

Craig Birckhead-Morton, 21, who participated in the encampment protest at Yale’s Beinecke Plaza, said his arrest surprised him.

“We were very surprised. We had built a very peaceful, safe community space where students could engage in discourse with each other, where New Haven and Connecticut community members could come onto the campus and engage with us.”

He said the university is still in possession of his belongings from the encampment.

“As a Muslim student, my prayer rug is still in the possession of the university – I have not received that back yet. And I know that’s the case for several other of the students who were arrested Monday.”

And in downtown Manhattan, police clashed with protesters at New York University. There were reports of officers using pepper spray as demonstrators tried to block a police bus from leaving the scene with detained students. More than 100 people were arrested.

An NYU spokesperson, John Beckman, in a statement said “that there were intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents reported”.

NYU professors wrote an open letter signed by the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at the university denying that any NYU-affiliated protesters had engaged in antisemitism or intimidation of others via the demonstration, and decrying heavy-handed tactics by the police.

The letter said NYU leadership’s decision to call the New York police department was “capricious” and noted that many protesters were people of color and that the NYPD had a history of brutality against this demographic.

The letter said: “The point of the protest was to express support for the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank,” accused NYU of being complicit “in the genocide of the Palestinian people” and referred to “NYU’s investment in the weapons manufacturing that facilitates such genocide”.

Protesters tussled with officers on Monday night and chanted: “We will not stop, we will not rest. Disclose. Divest.”

The police crackdowns came after Columbia witnessed a huge walkout by faculty on Monday in solidarity with students who were arrested last week after setting up a protest camp.

Bassam Khawaja, a lecturer at Columbia law school and supervising attorney at the school’s human rights clinic, said he was “shocked and appalled that the president went immediately to the New York police department”.

“This was by all accounts a non-violent protest,” he said. “It was a group of students camping out on the lawn in the middle of campus. It’s not any different from everyday life on campus.”

After the crackdown at Columbia, the latest round of demonstrations spread, including tents being pitched on campus for round-the-clock protests.

Students from Columbia also held a press call on Tuesday about the arrests.

“It’s very important to remember that being uncomfortable is different than being unsafe,” said one Jewish student on the call, who did not give her name.

“Months ago, I was sprayed a noxious chemical on this campus. Multiple of my friends were hospitalised for the attack. I was bed-ridden for a couple days. I felt extremely unsafe on my own campus. I feel unsafe when Columbia professors like Shai Davidai tell me I’ll be on the last train to Auschwitz.”

Students at Brown, Princeton and Northwestern held protests on Friday and over the weekend.

Birckhead-Morton, the Yale student who was arrested, called encampment protests at other universities across the US like Columbia, and the University of Maryland “inspiring”.

“It was only after Wednesday, when the Columbia encampment came up and Thursday, when it came down, and the arrest of students that we really felt the necessity to escalate here in New Haven and on Yale campus. And so that’s exactly what we did the following day. And so, lots of credit to the students at Columbia. They really are the leaders of the student movement right now.”

And in an open letter written on Monday in support of the Columbia student protesters, faculty and staff at Princeton University, in New Jersey, called on Columbia to remove the NYPD from campus and immediately reinstate students “wrongfully” suspended for “right to speech and peaceful assembly”.

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson College and Boston University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are protesting.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, a public university in Arcata, California, students barricaded themselves in a building for a sit-in, prompting the campus to close.

At the University of California, Berkeley, known as the birthplace of the 1960s free-speech movement, about 40 tents were set up on the steps of Sproul Plaza on campus on Tuesday, where students listened to speakers calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for the university to divest in holdings with companies doing business with Israel.

“We are demanding a direct acknowledgment and condemnation of this genocide [in Gaza],” said Matt Kovac, a member of the UC Berkeley Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine, adding that they stood in solidarity with protesters at Columbia and Yale.

One of the students camping out was Malak Afaneh, a law student and a Palestinian activist who was recently at the center of a controversy after pro-Palestinian students disrupted an event at a law professor’s house.

“We have continued to show that we are standing with the people in Palestine who deal with much worse, and we will not stop until divestment is achieved,” Afaneh said.

Meanwhile, Robert Kraft, a major donor to Columbia University and the owner of the New England Patriots, who funded the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life at Columbia, on Monday announced he would pull his support “until corrective action is taken” on campus.

In contrast, Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, wrote to the institution president, Nemat Minouche Shafik, saying many aspects of the handling of pro-Palestinian protests was “unjustifiably harsh”.

Amid a diversity of views, some Jewish students have joined the pro-Palestinian protests, others are staying away and some have said they feel unsafe.

Shafik called in police last week and has come under criticism from many parties, including calls from some members of Congress to resign.

Léonie Chao-Fong, Reuters and Associated Press contributed reporting

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