UCLA Leadership Under Scrutiny Over Slow Response to Attack on Pro-Palestine Encampment

Facing criticism from California’s political leaders, school faculty and students, UCLA’s chancellor is placing blame for the upheaval that overtook the university’s campus this week on “instigators” and “outside agitators” whose “terrifying” violent acts ultimately ended the weeks of pro-Palestine protests with the removal of an encampment by police and hundreds of arrests on campus.

The arrests of pro-Palestine protesters on Thursday at UCLA, which is estimated at over 200, came after officers in riot gear descended on the campus to dismantle the encampment erected on April 25 by the UC Divest Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA. Flares blasted over UCLA’s Dickson Plaza as demonstrators sprayed fire extinguishers at police in an attempt to fend off their removal by force. About 30 hours earlier, their encampment at the plaza was the scene of a violent attack from pro-Israel counter-protesters that left multiple people injured and led to the cancellation of classes.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

Chancellor Gene Block wrote a letter to the UCLA community on Thursday, openly addressing the “deep pain” seen on campus over the past days. Block referred to the violence at the encampment Tuesday night as a “horrific attack by a mob of instigators” and vowed that an investigation into the incident will continue. In the letter, Block also explained the school’s approach to student direct action campaigns and how the decision was made to have outside forces dismantle the encampment after meetings with demonstration leaders did not bring about the college’s desired result — namely for an agreement on the disbandment of the encampment.

“In the end, the encampment on Royce Quad was both unlawful and a breach of policy,” he wrote. “It led to unsafe conditions on our campus and it damaged our ability to carry out our mission. It needed to come to an end.”

Tuesday’s attack on the largely peaceful encampment began just before midnight. A group of counter-demonstrators in black getups and white masks marched in, some carrying flags indicating solidarity with Israel and reportedly yelling pro-Israel slogans, then swarmed the encampment and began an attempt to dismantle its makeshift barriers. Tear gas and objects including fireworks, water bottles, and a scooter were reportedly thrown at the pro-Palestine group, members of which attempted to defend themselves and the encampment.

California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, on May 2, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, on May 2, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

Demonstrators from the encampment said in a student press conference that the attack went on for hours, with no response from law enforcement or campus police. One student said he was hit in the head twice during the attack, leaving him with 14 staples in the back of his head. UCLA campus newspaper The Daily Bruin, citing a spokesperson with UC Divest at UCLA reported that “25 protesters within the pro-Palestine encampment were hospitalized overnight” on Wednesday.

Deep scrutiny is now being placed on who exactly the masked counter-demonstrators are but also on the slow response to an attack on students at one of the most prominent state schools in the nation. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s representative said the “limited and delayed” response by police was “unacceptable” and he tweeted a statement that “the right to free speech does not extend to inciting violence, vandalism, or lawlessness on campus.”

Meanwhile, UC President Michael V. Drake has announced an independent review of the university’s actions and law enforcement’s response. In his letter to the UCLA community, Block briefly detailed campus leadership’s actions in those terrifying moments on Tuesday as he wrote that he is grateful to Drake for demanding the probe.

Chancellor Gene Block
Chancellor Gene Block

“When physical violence broke out that night, leadership immediately directed our UCPD police chief to call for the support of outside law enforcement, medical teams and the fire department to help us quell the violence,” the chancellor wrote. “We are carefully examining our security processes that night.”

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that requests for additional police resources had been made five days before the attack on the encampment, but were quickly canceled for reasons that are unclear. The Times spoke with the head of the UC police officers union, who said that had the orders not been canceled, about 80 members of UCPD’s System Wide Response Team would have been deployed to UCLA from Sunday to Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Federated University Police Officer’s Association released a statement assuring that within the UC system, police take orders from school chancellors. “When protests erupt on campus, the decisions regarding the response of the UC Police rest firmly in the hands of campus leadership,” the union said.

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Chancellor Block for a response but did not immediately hear back on Friday. On August 3, 2023, Block announced that he will be stepping down as UCLA’s chancellor after this academic year; July 31 is set to be his final day in the leadership role.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter