UCLA cancels classes after violent clashes between protesters and police

It was an example of a tolerant campus, where a thriving pro-Palestinian encampment could be left alone even as student protesters were arrested across the nation. Free speech will be supported as long as the situation remains peaceful, officials said last week.

But by Wednesday morning the peace at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been shattered. The university canceled classes for the day, postponed midterms and scrambled to address the overnight explosion of bloody violence spurred by dozens of counter-protesters.

The melee, which continued for hours without intervention, was a display of fierce hostility as fights broke out, chemicals were sprayed into the air and people were kicked or beaten with poles. Many participants did not appear to be students.

“They had bear spray, clubs, they were throwing wood-like spears, they were throwing water bottles,” said Marie Salem, 28, a graduate student and pro-Palestinian protester who was part of the encampment. “They set off fireworks directly towards our camp. And so we were all on the bridge, guarding our barricades.”

Now, there is widespread frustration with UCLA’s handling of the incident, and the university is facing scrutiny for its delayed response to the prolonged chaos. Many critics were incredulous that, even after Los Angeles Police Department officers arrived, there were no arrests or suspensions.

On Wednesday evening, campus officials ordered protesters to leave the encampment or they would be arrested. A stream of students left, but hundreds stayed and donated helmets, masks and goggles. Dozens of police officers were positioned around the protest site.

In the early hours of Thursday, police began trying to dismantle the encampment. Their first attempts to enter were repelled by protesters with improvised wooden shields and flashing lights. Police eventually began dismantling the encampment’s main barricade and arresting protesters, while some protesters shouted “Don’t attack the students!” and “Where were you yesterday?”

The school complies with a University of California policy that avoids involving law enforcement unless it is “absolutely necessary to protect the physical safety of our campus community.” The next few days will test UCLA as it grapples with its ideals, the presence of city police recently stationed on its campus, and rising tensions.

“There is a feeling that the other side has immunity,” Ms. Salem said as a police helicopter hovered over the area. Around her, the landscape was littered with trash, splintered wood, trampled clothing. A large Palestinian flag waved in the air. Students and teachers have been asked to stay away from the area.

“The general response from the student body is just frustration,” said Aidan Woodruff, 19, a freshman cello major. He said he knew of at least 50 students who had spent the past two days studying for midterms only to find that the exams had been postponed. Last week had already been a source of irritation for those trying to focus on academics but found themselves faced with protesters using metal gates and human walls to control access to campus walkways.

“There are definitely students who care about causes, but a lot of that is people coming from the general Los Angeles area and organizing a demonstration here that is causing so much disruption,” Mr. Woodruff said.

Friction at the university, where Jewish activists have had a larger presence than at other demonstrations, has been simmering since Sunday, when a pro-Israel demonstration took place about 20 feet from the encampment.

The next day, tensions escalated after reports that a Jewish student had been blocked by the pro-Palestinian group as he tried to reach the nearby library. Campus police had to intervene when around 60 pro-Israel protesters tried to enter the encampment and a fight broke out.

At 4pm on Tuesday, the administration’s approach changed abruptly. Gene Block, the chancellor of UCLA, declared the encampment an unlawful assembly and closed the library and Royce Hall, the two main buildings nearby.

“UCLA supports peaceful protest, but not activism that harms our ability to advance our academic mission and makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid,” Block said in a statement. “These incidents have placed many on our campus, especially our Jewish students, in a state of anxiety and fear.”

A notice informed students and employees that if they remained, they could face serious sanctions, including discipline and potential dismissal.

At about 11 p.m., pro-Israel counterprotesters began trying to tear down an encampment barricade erected with metal gates, plywood and umbrellas, according to city officials. Shortly afterwards they set off fireworks directly above the camp. Videos on social media showed firecrackers exploding near protesters and people spraying what appeared to be chemical irritants on themselves.

Campus police responded to the scene at that time and others arrived, along with university paramedics. But UCLA appeared to wait too long to call the LAPD, whose officers didn’t arrive until after midnight.

Just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, Mayor Karen Bass’ office released a statement that city officials would respond to a request for support from the school. An hour later, she said on social media that the police department, which has no jurisdiction over the campus, had arrived on the scene. Counter-protesters chanted “Back the blue.”

California Highway Patrol officers arrived on campus around 1:15 a.m., according to Officer Michael Nasir, a spokesman.

Around 3:30 am, authorities had entered the fray and the situation began to calm down.

In a statement released 12 minutes after midnight on Wednesday, Mary Osako, the university’s vice-chancellor, said law enforcement was immediately called for mutual support. “We are disgusted by this senseless violence and it must stop.”

But UCLA’s Palestinian Solidarity Camp, which says it is made up of students, faculty and community members, condemned the school’s “pretense of student safety” in a statement, saying campus police, security external and law enforcement failed to protect them from counter-protesters because “we shouted for their help.”

And Katy Yaroslavsky, a city councilor who represents neighborhoods around UCLA, called the campus police response “too slow and ineffective in protecting student safety.”

“By failing to control the situation, students and others on campus have been left vulnerable to violence that has no place on our college campuses,” he said in a statement.

As the mayor called for a thorough investigation and the UC system president ordered an independent investigation, authorities combed through footage recorded on cellphones and other cameras. Others have taken it upon themselves to identify the worst offenders by circulating videos with enlarged still images.

Major Jewish and Muslim organizations condemned the attack. The Los Angeles metropolitan area is home to the second largest concentration of Jews in the nation, with significant Jewish communities in the Westside region, which includes UCLA

Beverly Hills, for example, has one of the largest communities of Iranian Jews in the nation, while the Fairfax District has a community of Orthodox Jews so large that the city created a special contactless “Sabbath” streetlight for them in the 1970s . so that they would not have to disobey religious edicts against turning on electricity.

The Los Angeles Jewish Federation said it was “dismayed” by the violence on campus and that the counterprotesters did not represent the Jewish community or its values. The federation criticized Mr. Block, the UCLA chancellor, and the school’s administration for creating an environment that made students feel unsafe, and called on him to meet with Jewish community leaders to discuss safety measures .

Hussam Ayloush, director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, urged Rob Bonta, the state attorney general, to investigate what he called a lack of response from campus police and the department of the Los Angeles Police Department. .

“UCLA and other schools must ensure that students can continue to peacefully protest the genocide in Gaza without facing attacks from violent pro-Israel mobs,” Ayloush said in a statement.

The extreme change that occurred on campus was difficult for many to understand, and students who watched what happened on social media or were in contact with those on the ground found it devastating to see the situation escalate.

“I think I let myself be lulled into a false sense of good vibes and that people were behaving themselves,” said Benjamin Kersten, 31, a doctoral candidate in art history who organized with the Jewish chapters of Los Angeles and UCLA Voice for Peace. I noticed that the university’s non-interventional approach proved to be a double-edged sword.

On Wednesday morning, Bella Brannon, editor in chief of the university’s Hebrew magazine, was trying to make sense of the footage she had seen.

“What happened was a clearly and blatantly wrong, immoral and deliberate act of violence against students,” he said. “I am particularly concerned that their actions may cloud dialogue with the pro-Israel community.”

Ms. Brannon, 21, is majoring in public affairs and the study of religion and has friends who protest in support of Palestine. In recent days you have been troubled by protests from both sides of the conflict.

“The university campus is a non-stop hub of discourse, even if it is incendiary. I can’t go home, take a bath, relax and forget about it,” she said. “For us there is no separation between school and home – it’s always everything, all at once.”

Reporting contribution was provided by Jill Cowan, Shawn Hubler, Livia Albeck-Ripka, Claire Fahy, John Yoon AND Yan Zhuang.