Police arrest more than two dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators on UT-Austin campus amid tense standoff

Protesters on Wednesday during a student demonstration in support of Palestinians at the University of Texas at Austin campus. <cite>Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune</cite>
Protesters on Wednesday during a student demonstration in support of Palestinians at the University of Texas at Austin campus. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

A student walkout at the University of Texas at Austin in support of Palestinians turned chaotic Wednesday when police officers tried to disperse protesters using horses and riot gear, resulting in the arrest of at least 34 people. Two members of the media were arrested.

More than 500 students walked out of class Wednesday to demand UT-Austin divest from manufacturers supplying Israel weapons in its strikes on Gaza. The demonstration showed no signs of violence before authorities intervened, though police ordered the protesters multiple times to disperse and warned them they would be arrested for trespassing.

Campus police initially appeared open to negotiating with protesters when they arrived but those efforts fell apart within the first hour. One officer singled out a protest organizer in a gold scarf, saying he would be the “first to go.” That protester was the first to be arrested.

After that, police handcuffed more students using white plastic ties. Officers armed with batons formed a line and pushed protesters back, with many tumbling to the ground. People who identified themselves as legal observers shouted to get the names of those being taken to the Travis County Jail. Students facing arrest used markers to jot down lawyers’ phone numbers on their arms. According to Travis County Jail records, a handful protestors faced criminal trespassing charges, which is being classified as a Class B Misdemeanor.

The student protesters regrouped on the South Mall, where they temporarily set up a handful of tents. Law enforcement drove marchers off the lawn​, forming a perimeter behind a chain-link barrier and pushing them onto the sidewalks. A procession of mounted state troopers and officers on foot then herded students farther using body shields and their horses, which at times came within grazing distance of protesters. Spectators climbed onto trees, people's shoulders and balconies to watch the commotion.

“This is a dark day for UT,” said Cally Hibbs, a University of Texas alum who participated in the protest. “This brings tears to my eyes. We are allowed to peacefully assemble here at a public university.”

In a nighttime message to the campus community, university President Jay Hartzell said it was a "challenging day for many." But he seemed to defend the actions of police and administrators.

"The protestors tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus," he wrote. "People not affiliated with UT joined them, and many ignored University officials' continual pleas for restraint and to immediately disperse. The University did what we said we would do in the face of prohibited actions."

Protesters said that law enforcement was unnecessarily aggressive. One woman said she saw a large police officer place his entire body weight to detain a young woman protesting. Law enforcement was also seen kneeling on individuals’ backs and necks, pulling their hair and in one case punching a protester in the nose.

UT-Austin student Xochimilo Murguia said that while students have every right to assemble, it feels as though Black and brown students aren’t afforded that same right, a sentiment that many other students at the protest echoed.

“This militarization of police is the first step towards dictatorship,” Murguia said. “[UT-Austin President] Jay Hartzell [is not] an advocate for students [and] has no backbone to stand up for students ... His first priority is to students. It’s pathetic, sad and humiliating to UT and the future legacy of UT.”

Protesters face a police line during a student demonstration in support of Palestine on the University of Texas campus Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Austin.
Demonstrators face a line of law enforcement during the demonstration at UT-Austin. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

Authorities on the scene included more than 100 troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which said in a statement had been deployed “at the direction of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in order to prevent any unlawful assembly.” DPS and the University of Texas police department did not respond to requests for comments Wednesday.

On the social media platform X, Abbott cheered the arrests and said students participating should be kicked out of school.

“Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled,” he wrote.

But by Friday, the Travis County attorney's office had rejected all criminal trespass charges filed against 57 people arrested at the demonstration.

Abbott’s comments came after he put out an executive order earlier this month requiring schools to revise their free speech policies to punish what he described as “the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses.” In the executive order, he had singled out groups like Palestine Solidarity Committee, which organized Wednesday’s protest at UT, as potential violators.

UT-Austin spokesperson Brian Davis told student protesters that law enforcement was called in because the Palestine Solidarity Committee had advertised that classes would be canceled. The pro-Palestinian group did not use that language when it encouraged students to participate in the walkout in an Instagram post Tuesday. The group encouraged demonstrators to wear masks, which Davis said is a violation of university policy.

People on campus weaved through the throngs of protesters offering free water, snacks and masks throughout the day. One PhD student brought dozens of tamales from a graduation event for Native American Indigenous studies.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined Abbott in criticizing the protest, pointing to an Instagram post from the organizers about plans to establish "THE POPULAR UNIVERSITY FOR GAZA."

"This is delusional. We have big problems on our college campuses," Patrick said on X. "In Texas, we won't allow antisemitic, pro-Hamas protesters to take control of our universities."

Patrick has identified combating antisemitism on Texas college campuses, while protecting First Amendment rights, as a priority for next year’s legislative session.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said the arrests were “out of hand” if there wasn’t an actual threat of violence.

“In normal times when I was a student I was in a ‘sit in’ [with Rev. Jesse Jackson] INSIDE the actual UT law school and administration just ignored us,” she said on X.

Protesters gather near a police line during a student demonstration in support of Palestine on the University of Texas campus Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Austin.
Demonstrators near a police line during a student demonstration in support of Palestinians at UT-Austin. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

Wednesday’s arrests raised alarms among free speech groups. Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression legal director Will Creeley said the disproportionate response to the protest was chilling.

“Sending in a phalanx of law enforcement threatens protected speech where it should be at its most free: a public university like UT Austin,” Creeley said. “Unfortunately, Governor Abbott’s public commentary makes his disregard for the First Amendment’s protection of political speech clear.”

Pavithra Vasudevan, an assistant professor of women and gender studies at UT who was at the protest throughout the day, said it quickly became clear that the university and the state had decided to escalate the situation to chill students’ freedom to protest.

The state’s police response was unnecessarily violent, she said, and university administrators did nothing to protect its students.

“It’s so clear that they don’t intend for this dialogue to happen,” Vasudevan said. “It's a very active intimidation and coercion of the situation.”

The arrests at UT-Austin come a day after pro-Palestinian students at the University of Texas at Dallas staged a sit-in with similar demands. After seven hours of occupying the building, UTD president Richard Benson agreed to meet with them, Fatima Ahmed, a fourth-year student, said.

University of Texas at San Antonio students also marched through campus on Wednesday to call for a ceasefire in the Middle East, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

In the six months since the decades-old conflict in the Middle East reignited in horrific violence, tensions have bubbled on campuses across the U.S. between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups.

A protestor is detained by University of Texas Police during a student demonstration in support of Palestine on the University of Texas campus Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Austin.
A protester is detained by University of Texas police during the student demonstration on Wednesday. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

Hamas militants attacked Israel in a surprise offensive in October that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people and the abduction of about 250 hostages. In response, the Israeli military launched a campaign that so far has killed over 34,000 Palestinians and wounded nearly 77,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Two-thirds of the casualties are women and children.

The devastating violence — much of which has been shared over social media — has prompted demonstrations on campuses across the country.

Last week, Columbia University called on the New York Police Department to empty a campus encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters, which resulted in the arrest of more than 100 people. According to the Columbia Spectator, the university’s student newspaper, NYPD did not report violence or injuries.

Some Jewish students have reported feeling unsafe and harassed due to the protests. During the weekend, some protesters who appeared to be unaffiliated with the university verbally attacked Jewish students with antisemitic remarks, The New York Times reported. President Joe Biden on Sunday denounced antisemitism on campuses amid the protests, calling it “reprehensible and dangerous.”

In response to the arrests, Columbia’s faculty senate planned to hold a vote on a resolution to censure President Nemat Shafik. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have called for Shafik’s resignation for what they say was a failure to protect students from antisemitism.

Similar protests have been held at other universities, including New York University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Protests on Texas campuses have already tested administrators’ handling of the fraught subject and their commitment to free speech on campuses. As pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students engage in protests and heated discussions, school leaders have struggled to strike a balance between their roles as moderators and facilitators of intellectual debate on campus.

Universities have also faced pressure from state leaders, who have been public about their support of Israel. Abbott even traveled to Israel in November to reaffirm his support.

University of Texas police officers detain pro-Palestinian demonstrators during Wednesday's student walkout on campus. <cite>Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune</cite>
University of Texas police officers detain pro-Palestinian demonstrators during Wednesday's student walkout on campus. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

Jeremi Suri, a UT-Austin history professor, called the law enforcement response inappropriate and an “attack on students.” He said he did not find the protest to be disruptive when he had class this morning.

“They're not shouting anything anti-Semitic, they're not harrasing anyone, they're standing on the green lawn, expressing themselves,” said Suri, who identified as Jewish. “The appropriate response would be to ask them to be contained in an area, let them stay on the grass and let them shout until they have no voices left.”

Reporter Rob Downen contributed to this story.

The Texas Tribune is reporting on the effects of pushback against diversity, equity and inclusion and free speech efforts on Texas college campuses. To share your experience with us, you can fill out this form.

Disclosure: New York Times, University of Texas - Dallas, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Tickets are on sale now for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin Sept. 5-7. Get your TribFest tickets before May 1 and save big!