LAPD arrests 93 people at USC amid Israel-Hamas war protests

Los Angeles, CA - April 24: Students are apprehended by Los Angeles police officers after a protest against the Israel-Palestinian war at the University of Southern California on Wednesday, April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
More than 90 people were arrested by LAPD officers after a protest against the Israel-Palestinian war at the University of Southern California on April 24. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles police officers arrived in riot gear at USC on Wednesday evening, arresting 93 people on trespassing charges as they cleared an encampment at the center of campus formed in protest against the Israel-Hamas war.

"Shame on you! Shame on you!" demonstrators chanted as police took away students and off-campus activists.

The encampment in Alumni Park — where the university's main-stage commencement is scheduled to take place next month — went up before sunrise and grew by afternoon as students, some wearing kaffiyehs and holding "free Palestine" and "liberated zone" signs, banged drums and chanted.

The protest remained largely peaceful but grew tense at times as officers sought to detain and move people off campus and some in the crowd threw water bottles. The operation lasted for hours, and at 9 p.m. officers had forced protesters and onlookers off campus and arrested those who remained or resisted.

Dozens of LAPD officers were on campus starting at 4 p.m., forming a line around the park. The USC administration said it had closed the gates to campus and was instituting an ID check to make sure only university-affiliated individuals were allowed in. Professors were given the option — which many took — of conducting classes online Thursday.

At 5 p.m., officers from USC's Department of Public Safety gave protesters a 10-minute warning to disperse or face arrest. Protesters then gathered around the officers, drowning out their warnings with chants.

LAPD officers, who had been gathering in the streets nearby, proceeded to march in organized lines toward the campus entrances carrying less-lethal weapons.

Students received another 10-minute warning, followed by an LAPD helicopter loudspeaker blasting a message that said: “Your time is up. Leave the area or you will be arrested for trespassing.”

The protesters held their ground, some moving out of Alumni Park while others remained on the grass, interlocking arms and forming a circle. Thirty minutes later, LAPD officers entered campus and encircled the park.

“All we want is peace!” the protesters chanted.

Some ran when officers pressed forward in an effort to move them out toward a north gate to the campus.

Public safety officers confront pro-Palestinian demonstrators at USC on April 24.
Public safety officers confront pro-Palestinian demonstrators at USC on April 24. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Officers stood in lines around the Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow Center for International and Public Affairs, the classroom building next to Alumni Park. As police moved to detain one woman, protesters threw water at them and chanted, "Let her go!"

One of the officers briefly raised a less-lethal weapon, which prompted shouts of “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” from the crowd.

The LAPD could not confirm whether rubber bullets were deployed, but a video posted by Annenberg Media appeared to show an officer shooting a rubber bullet toward a crowd that was off campus.

By 6:30 p.m., officers began arresting the students and protesters who remained joined in a circle at Alumni Park, detaining them with zip ties one by one.

The arrested protesters were led to an area near the Hahn Plaza fountain, where officers took their information. The protesters were then led inside white LAPD vans and driven away.

Surrounding protesters told the arrested students: “We love you! You’re a hero!”

Some of those arrested remained quiet as they were escorted by officers. Others continued chanting, “Free, free Palestine!”

LAPD officers make arrests after a protest against the Israel-Palestinian war at USC on April 24.
LAPD officers make arrests after a protest against the Israel-Palestinian war at USC on April 24. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

One officer at the scene said the protesters were being taken to 77th Street Community Police Station. It is unclear whether some of those arrested were taken to other stations.

By 9:30 p.m., the crowd had mostly dispersed, and few people remained as officers continued to stand guard, separated from those who remained on the street adjacent to the campus by a locked gate.

The USC encampment was part of a growing number of student-led demonstrations that have sprung up at college campuses since last week, when more than 100 arrests at a camp-in at Columbia University spurred solidarity protests at universities from Massachusetts to California.

Read more: 'We will not move.' Pro-Palestinian encampments, protests grow at California universities

An encampment at UC Berkeley is in its third day, while the campus of Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata is shut down through Wednesday, after students occupied an administration building Monday night. Police have also arrested activists at Yale University, New York University and the University of Minnesota.

Tensions have grown at colleges since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants, who killed about 1,200 people and took roughly 240 hostages. Gaza health authorities say Israel's retaliatory war has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. The health authorities don't distinguish between combatants and noncombatants but say at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women. According to the United Nations, 2 million Gazans are living in near-famine conditions.

On Wednesday, as at least two LAPD helicopters circled above throughout the afternoon, the tents at USC repeatedly went up and down, as officers with the campus Department of Public Safety told students to remove them and, at one point, dragged away lawn chairs. Students picked up their tents and walked with them in circles to avoid being in violation of a university "no camping" policy.

Campus safety officers try to confiscate tents
USC public safety officers try to confiscate tents from pro-Palestinian demonstrators. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

"Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!" said the crowd, which billed itself in a statement as the "USC Divest from Death Coalition."

"Carol, Carol, you can't hide! You're supporting genocide!" went another chant, a reference to USC President Carol Folt.

Protesters included members of pro-Palestinian groups such as Trojans for Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Jewish groups condemned the protests, and Muslim groups condemned the evening's arrests.

"While students have a right to protest, they do not have the right to intimidate or threaten Jewish students," said a statement from USC's Hillel. "Today's events on campus included a protest action that again employed antisemitic chants including 'there is only one solution, intifada revolution' and 'long live the intifada.' These actions reflect a disturbing and quickly escalating situation nationally and on our own campus at USC."

In another statement, the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations spoke out against police arrests of rallygoers.

"It is deeply concerning that USC’s response to students demonstrating peacefully in solidarity with Palestine is forcible suppression of free speech and assembly," said CAIR-LA Legal Director Amr Shabaik. "This mirrors a nationwide trend of colleges and universities attempting to censor pro-Palestine advocacy on campuses."

The arrests Wednesday evening followed several clashes with campus safety officers earlier in the day as LAPD officers began to line up outside campus.

Around noon, several campus officers surrounded and grabbed a protester during a confrontation. As students yelled for officers to let go of the person, the officers pulled out their batons but did not hit anybody. It is unclear what led to the clash.

Officers and demonstrators clash
Officers and demonstrators clash on campus Wednesday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Officers detained the person in a white vehicle as protesters followed and demanded the person's release. The protesters gathered around both sides of the vehicle, chanting, "Let him go!" and "Shame on you!"

After roughly 30 minutes, the officers released the protester as the crowd moved back to Alumni Park, where they stood with white signs that read "Let Gaza live."

Off-campus groups circulated video of the protests and called on the public to show up at USC. "Los Angeles get here now!! We need bodies!!!" said social media posts by the People's City Council.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the university sent out a text message alert saying it closed the campus gates.

"Anyone coming to campus should be prepared to show an ID at the gates for class or for business. Please continue to avoid the center of campus unless you have a class," it said.

By 2 p.m., Provost Andrew Guzman sent a campus-wide email saying protesters "threatened the safety of our officers and campus community."

Guzman said protesters were "repeatedly asked by security personnel to remove their tents and other prohibited items and relocate to a compliant location. In each case, protesters refused. Their actions have escalated to the point of confrontation and have threatened the safety of our officers and campus community."

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators join a sit-in on campus.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators join a sit-in on campus. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The protest at USC comes after more than a week of campus tensions that began when Folt canceled a speaking engagement by valedictorian Asna Tabassum that was supposed to take place at the May 10 main-stage commencement, which is expected to draw 65,000 people.

The decision came after on- and off-campus pro-Israel groups criticized Tabassum for posting a pro-Palestinian link on her Instagram bio that they said was antisemitic. USC said the cancellation was not tied to Tabassum's political views and was instead in response to unspecified threats to campus safety targeted at her speech. The university has also canceled a main-stage commencement address by film director Jon M. Chu and appearances by honorary degree recipients including tennis legend Billie Jean King.

"Everyone, from our valedictorian Asna Tabassum all the way to any student who speaks up against genocide, should have the full support of the university, contrary to what we are seeing, which was incredible repression," said Ahmad, a Palestinian American protester with the Palestinian Youth Movement who would not give his last name. "The university has to this date not said a word about our families, the genocide we are experiencing in Gaza."

Several professors also joined the protest Wednesday, holding a sign that said, "USC faculty against the genocide in Palestine." One of them was Amelia Jones, a professor at the Roski School of Art and Design.

"This is about what's happening in Gaza, but it's also about what's happening here," said Jones. "They pulled a student from commencement for nothing she actually said or did. Yet a university is supposed be a place of free speech. We haven't heard a word from our president about anything. We feel unheard and disconnected."

Josh Raghavachary, a USC sophomore, said he heeded the administration's call to avoid the demonstration but supported its cause.

"Students should be able to speak their voice as long as they are [doing so] peacefully," the psychology major said. "USC likes to say it supports free speech. But then it cracks down on it."

In a statement, the university administration said it believed the demonstrators — most of whom appeared to be undergraduate age — were not from USC.

"The university has a policy that prohibits camping on campus, which is in the Student Handbook. About 10-15 people came to campus at 4:30 a.m. today with tents. [Department of Public Safety] officers advised them of the policy, and the people took the tents down," the statement said.

"The people remain in Alumni Park — most appeared to be unaffiliated with the university," the statement continued. "Our students, faculty and staff are allowed to express their views and have been doing so throughout the school year."

Times intern Jenna Peterson contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.