American campuses erupt in protests over Gaza, drawing harsh police response and national outrage

As students across the U.S. demand university divestment and an end to military aid for Israel, aggressive crackdowns raise alarms about civil liberties.

Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

American university campuses have become flashpoints for intense confrontations between law enforcement and student activists. At the University of Texas at Austin and other institutions nationwide, students protesting against what they describe as their universities’ complicity in “Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza” have faced violent arrests, escalating a national debate over civil liberties and U.S. foreign policy.

The wave of demonstrations, catalyzed by recent actions in Gaza, has seen students at over a dozen universities calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and for their institutions to divest from Israeli investments. High-profile incidents at Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Columbia University have particularly spotlighted the fierce police responses, including the use of less-lethal weapons and aggressive tactics.

At the University of Texas, approximately 40 peaceful demonstrators were arrested under dramatic circumstances. Eyewitnesses reported that state troopers, aided by local and campus police, used flash-bang grenades, mace, and other chemical munitions against protesters. This response came despite chants from the crowd asserting their peaceful intentions and questioning the need for riot gear. Organizers, including Lenna Nasr of the Palestinian Youth Movement, condemned the university’s investment policies and the police’s tactics as attempts to silence dissent.

Mustafa Yowell, a UT engineering student, emphasized the movement’s focus: “Our main goal is to get the University of Texas to divest. It has nothing to do with antisemitism, or Islam, or being Arab. It’s about human rights, conflict, and oppression that people face.”

The response from political figures has been sharply divided. Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s declaration that “no encampments will be allowed” on campus grounds has been met with criticism for potentially escalating tensions. Conversely, Congressman Joaquin Castro accused Abbott of exacerbating the situation, putting “Texas students and journalists in danger.”

The political discourse has reached the national stage with Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn suggesting that student protesters be placed on terror watch lists, a stance that U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar described as “insanely dangerous.” This controversy highlights a growing rift in how to address domestic protests linked to international issues.

The academic community’s reaction has been mixed. While some faculty members have expressed support for the students’ right to protest, others are concerned about the implications of such demonstrations for campus safety and public order. The broader community’s response has reflected similar divisions, with public opinion polls showing varied levels of support for the students’ causes and their methods.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar has voiced strong opposition to remarks made by Senator Marsha Blackburn regarding the nationwide university protests against U.S. complicity in Israel’s actions in Gaza. Senator Blackburn suggested that protesters who have “promoted terrorism” should be added to the Transportation Security Administration’s No-Fly List. This statement has sparked significant controversy, as it implicates students and faculty in severe national security measures typically reserved for individuals who pose a direct threat to safety.

Rep. Omar criticized these comments as “insanely dangerous,” arguing that such accusations could unjustly criminalize peaceful protesters and infringe on their civil liberties. This debate comes at a time when more than 1,000 students, educators, and supporters have been arrested in connection with protests at various institutions, including Emory University and the University of Texas at Austin. These demonstrations have largely been reported as peaceful until met with forceful police responses.

Adding to the tension, other Republican senators, including Rick Scott and Tom Cotton, have called for stringent actions against the protesters. Sen. Scott has urged the U.S. Attorney General to investigate and potentially prosecute protest organizers for conspiring against Jewish Americans’ civil rights, while Sen. Cotton, supported by Sen. Josh Hawley, has advocated for deploying the National Guard to manage the protests. This proposition mirrors historical precedents where military involvement in civilian protests led to tragic outcomes, such as the 1970 Kent State shootings, raising concerns about the potential for violence escalation.

The protests have ignited calls for significant policy changes, both at the university level and in U.S. foreign policy. Students are pushing for their universities to sever financial ties with Israeli firms and to stop investments that they argue support militaristic actions. Similarly, they are calling for a reevaluation of U.S. military aid to Israel, challenging the long-standing financial and political support that has been a cornerstone of U.S.-Israeli relations.

“Stop sending money to Israel and divest from companies that profit off of war like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin,” says Mustafa Yowell.


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Alexis Sterling is a seasoned War and Human Rights Reporter with a passion for reporting the truth in some of the world's most tumultuous regions. With a background in journalism and a keen interest in international affairs, Alexis's reporting is grounded in a commitment to human rights and a deep understanding of the complexities of global conflicts. Her work seeks to give voice to the voiceless and bring to light the human stories behind the headlines. Alexis is dedicated to responsible and engaged journalism, constantly striving to inform and educate the public on critical issues of war and human rights across the globe.