Riot police drag away protesters at University of Texas as Gaza tensions flare

State troopers in riot gear moved on Monday afternoon to clear out students attempting to occupy a quad at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dozens of protesters were arrested on site, escalating tensions that began Wednesday when the pro-Palestinian protest movement sought to establish a camp on the South Mall, immediately below the looming UT Tower, which houses campus administration.

University President Jay Hartzell has taken a notably hard-line position toward the protests, which have erupted on campuses across the country, spurring a backlash among hundreds of faculty who have moved to hold a no-confidence vote seeking his removal. 

Dozens of protesters were arrested by state police Wednesday. Thursday featured renewed protests — but no occupation, minimal police and no arrests. 

But Monday, tensions flared once again after students moved quietly and without warning to university administration to set up a small protest camp in the shadow of the Tower.

Protesters brought tents and umbrellas to shield themselves from the suffocating heat, and other students surrounded the encampment and linked arms to keep police back.

State troopers arrived early in the afternoon, and by 3 p.m., a line of police with face shields, body armor and billy clubs stood in a circle around the slowly shrinking encampment, as other officers — including university and city police — slowly pulled or cajoled protesters out of the camp.

With temperatures nearing 90 degrees, sweat-stained police officers negotiated with students sitting or lying prone on the grass, dragging off those who would not leave willingly.

Every time a student was grabbed — many of them going limp, so that two or three officers were needed to remove them — hundreds of students surrounding the small encampment erupted in shouts of “Let them go! Let them go!” and “We are peaceful! You are violent” and, simply, “Shame.”

But the dominant shout, as police dragged away student protesters one by one, was “Off our campus! Off our campus!” and “We don’t see a riot here! Why are you in riot gear?”

Protest leaders are pressuring the administration to divest from arms manufacturers and Israeli companies.

But Hartzell’s decision to call Texas state police onto campus last week opened another axis of controversy — forcing a debate over whether campus administration should enlist law enforcement to quash student speech or dislodge a student occupation.

On Monday, 539 faculty members wrote that Hartzell “needlessly put students, staff and faculty in danger. Dozens of students were arrested for assembling peacefully on their own campus.”

Fifty-seven people were arrested at Wednesday’s protest, but city prosecutors dropped all charges, citing lack of probable cause.

Hartzell, the faculty wrote, “has shown himself to be unresponsive to urgent faculty, staff, and student concerns. He has violated our trust.”

Faculty announced intentions to hold a no-confidence vote, which could potentially lead to Hartzell’s removal.

The campus protests — and the faculty letter — dovetailed with another flash point in Texas state politics: the state government campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. 

Earlier this month, staff wrote in their letter that Hartzell “capitulated to political pressure in shutting down” the university DEI office, despite himself arguing that the office was in compliance with state law.

“At least forty staff — predominantly women and people of color — were fired after working hard to comply with SB 17 at the President’s request,” the faculty wrote.

The mood Monday was jagged and tense. Protesters chanted “F‑‑‑ you, fascists” and “APD, KKK, IDF you’re all the same.”

One Black student addressed one of the few Black Department of Safety officers. “As a Black man, why are you here?” she asked as he turned away. “You think they care about us?”

Despite the profane chants and heckling, The Hill didn’t witness any violence from the demonstrators.

At one point, officers stood back so volunteer medics could run water and Gatorade to a student who appeared to be suffering from heat exhaustion.

But in a statement to the public, the university accused the students of coming prepared to fight — and said many were not students at all.

“Baseball size rocks were found strategically placed within the encampment,” the university administration wrote.

The university communique noted further that “the majority of protesters are believed to be unaffiliated with the university. On Saturday, the University received extensive online threats from a group organizing today’s protest.”

While The Hill could not confirm this claim, those arrested appeared to be of college age or in their 20s. Protest organizers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

In a statement Monday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) — who has faced his own backlash from libertarians over Wednesday’s arrests — told Texans that “No encampments will be allowed”

“Instead, arrests are being made.”

One state trooper sought to explain to students why the arrests had happened. “The University said we were having a protesting issue — come help us take care of it.”

“If we escalate, we get in trouble,” he said. “That’s what y’all don’t see.”

Another officer told a student that this encampment had been removed, while other protests had been allowed, because it was an attempted occupation — and one run by outside groups.

“That’s bullshit. There are students in there I knew,” the student said. 

“You have to follow the money,” the officer said.

“I will,” the student said. “Just like the money at this university is tied in with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.”

By 4 p.m., Department of Safety officers surrounded an empty field of crushed pizza boxes, trash bags, and water bottles, as university maintenance workers dragged away the ruined tents. 

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” a woman said, walking by with her middle finger raised.

After the dust settled on the day, a number of the protesters remained at the would-be encampment site, cleaning up trash that was left behind.

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