Pro-Palestine Campus Protests Meet Violent American Cops

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From New York to Austin, and Los Angeles to Atlanta, university presidents have summoned campus police, city riot cops, and even state troopers to answer the civil disobedience of students who have set up campus tent encampments to protest the U.S.-backed Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The behavior of law enforcement has — once again — shined a stark spotlight on police brutality and disregard for First Amendment rights protecting freedom of assembly, speech, and the press. As cops have gone ham on protesters, and engaged in dubious mass-arrests, they’ve also roughed up journalists and even smashed college professors to the ground. 

The images of rooftop snipers and militarized police subduing protesters may be satisfying for domestic hardliners — who have blasted the protesters as antisemitic — but they’ve also given aid and comfort to America’s geopolitical foes like Iran, which is promoting footage of violent campus crackdowns as part of anti-U.S. propaganda. International human rights observers are also calling out U.S. colleges for depriving students of their “right to peaceful assembly.”

At Emory University, where Greg Fenves is president, the university’s police moved aggressively last week to clear a student protest encampment on the quad of the Atlanta campus. To students and the public, Emory police have held themselves out as a paragon of post-George Floyd policing. The university’s Vice President of public safety writes that campus police are “redefining what it means to serve, protect, and lead by example — creating a safe and inclusive campus for everyone.”

But such high-minded rhetoric gave way to violent tactics against protesters and educators alike on April 25. After campus police failed in their initial effort to clear the encampment, the university called on Atlanta police and the Georgia State Patrol for more muscle. And as seen in a video captured by CNN, the situation quickly became chaotic as cops and troopers dogpiled one protester in a keffiyeh. 

The footage shows that the protester was pinned to the ground by a scrum of cops, and that a Georgia trooper, wearing a light blue shirt, used his knee to force the young man’s head into the concrete walkway — darkly reminiscent of the maneuver that killed Floyd. Per their use of force manual, Emory university police have a “duty to intervene” against incidents of “excessive force.” But this violent arrest was proceeding apace when an Emory economics professor, Caroline Fohlin, came upon the scene. 

In the video, Fohlin can be seen yelling at the officers in distress at the rough treatment of the arrestee: “What are you doing?! What are you doing?!” As the professor leans toward the police pile-on, a cop for Emory’s own force runs up on Fohlin and grabs her roughly by arm as the kneeling state trooper shouts, “Get her ass!” 

The campus cop’s duty — per the Emory manual — is to “use de-escalation techniques”; “to attempt to avoid the use of force”; and “to minimize the level of force required.” The cop instead barks at the professor to get on the ground, and when Fohlin does not instantly comply, tosses her into the grass by yanking her elbow violently behind her back. 

When Fohlin hits the ground, her red glasses flying, the campus officer calls for backup, and a second policeman in a different uniform then jumps on her back, slamming her head into the sidewalk. Fohlin was booked that morning and jailed for nearly 12 hours — after being arrested by her own university. Her alleged crimes? “Disorderly conduct” and “battery” against a police officer. (Fohlin could not be reached for comment. None of Emory’s president, police chief, nor vice president for public safety returned calls from Rolling Stone.)

Fenves had initially characterized the encampment protesters as outside agitators. Yet those arrested reportedly included more than a dozen students. In a statement Sunday, Fenves apologized for the earlier “mischaracterization,” but defended the decision to dismantle the “highly disruptive” encampment. Despite commanding the crackdown, Fenves professed he was “devastated that members of our community were caught up in law enforcement activity.” 

The incident at Emory is hardly isolated. Columbia University kickstarted the current raft of police confrontations when it summoned the New York Police Department to clear a campus encampment on April 18, after the university’s president, Minouche Shafik, suspended the participants — transforming students into trespassers — and alerted the cops that the encampment posed “a clear and present danger.”

Similar police actions have since roiled the campuses of the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and Washington University in Saint Louis — a list that is growing by the day. At the Ohio State and Indiana University campuses, snipers have been spotted atop university buildings, raising the alarm of students and free speech advocates. 

The pro-Palestinian protesters are demanding an end to the U.S.-backed Israeli war on Gaza that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and pushed more than 1 million to the brink of famine. The Gaza war is itself a reprisal for the ghastly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants, who killed roughly 1,200 in Israel and abducted scores of Israeli hostages. 

The campus activists broadly seek university divestment and academic disengagement from Israel. The encampments have been largely peaceful — and many include Jewish students. However several high-profile incidents of rank antisemitism have marred the protests — including some by outside agitators that have glommed onto the movement. The encampments have also drawn pro-Israel and Christian Zionist counter-protesters, who have muddied the waters by taunting the pro-Palestinian side with mocking anti-Jewish jeers, or holding up easily misconstrued protest signs featuring Nazi emblems. 

The current harsh response to the pro-Palestinian protests recalls the most turbulent anti-war conflicts of the Vietnam era — including the May, 1970, slaughter at Kent State where four anti-war protesters were shot dead by Ohio National Guard troops summoned to bring order to campus. And it is raising troubling questions about viewpoint discrimination.

Columbia has a dark history of bringing cops to campus; the university’s own website recounts that the “fallout” from a bloody, 1968 crackdown on Vietnam war protesters “dogged Columbia for years.” Nevertheless president Shafik summoned the NYPD — with what she wrote was “great regret” — to clear the campus encampment. 

The NYPD, rarely known for subtlety, mobilized a counterterrorism unit to confront the pro-Palestine protests, and arrested 100 students, physically hauling many away, before demolishing tents of the so-called Gaza Solidarity Encampment. 

In the aftermath of the police sweep sweep, several university students have filed a civil rights complaint with the department of education accusing Columbia of fostering a “top-down, extreme anti-Palestinian environment” and enacting “discriminatory anti-Palestinian actions.” It describes dozens of student sit-ins since 1968 for other causes that were never met with police action, and accuses Shafik of invoking “racist stereotypes” by characterizing the nonviolent encampment as “somehow inherently dangerous or violent.”

Heavy-handed crackdowns on pro-Palestinian protesters are also taking place at public universities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) — who had previously posed as a champion of free speech on college campuses — sicced state troopers on protesters at the University of Texas in Austin last Wednesday. On X, the governor quote-tweeted a poster calling the activists “Pro-Hamas idiots,” and Abbott himself added that “these protesters belong in jail” and “should be expelled.”

Texas state troopers arrived in riot helmets and were filmed not only roughing up student protesters but tackling Carlos Sanchez, a journalist for a local TV station, who was working as a cameraman to document the encounter. Sanchez said he was pushed into an officer, leading to his arrest. Fox7 Austin, the cameraman’s employer, reports he’s now been charged with second-degree felony assault against a peace officer. (His arrest has been decried by the Society of Professional Journalists as “a dangerous escalation” by Texas authorities that appears intended to “send a message to journalists” covering the campus conflicts.)

Nearly 60 students were also arrested on criminal trespassing charges that day. The charges, however, were soon dismissed en masse over “deficiencies” in the probable cause affidavits, which the Austin American Statesman reported appeared to have been copy-and-pasted by campus police, rather than individualized to each alleged wrongdoer as required by law.

When Longhorn protesters recreated a pro-Gaza encampment Monday, state troopers and riot cops returned, this time wielding flashbang grenades and pepper-spray to subdue protesters, who were again arrested by the dozen.

Similar scenes of militarized police forces descending on college campuses have taken place in Southern California. Dozens of Los Angeles Police Department cops with riot helmets and batons stormed the USC campus last week, and arrested 93 for trespassing at an encampment on campus. USC has also canceled its large-scale commencement service as tensions have risen on campus, following the university’s decision to bar its own valedictorian, a Muslim student, from delivering a speech at graduation. 

The rough police crackdowns on student speech have predictably not lowered the temperature. In fact, campus encampments continue to spread. Over the weekend, student protesters at Washington University in St. Louis clashed openly with cops — leading to nearly two dozen student arrests.


After instigating a police response against his own students, WashU Chancellor Andrew Martin issued a statement that typifies the contradiction of university administrators selectively calling the cops on First Amendment conduct they find selectively objectionable. 

“At WashU, we fully support free expression,” Martin insisted, before the other side of his mouth added: “We’ve all watched as protests have spiraled out of control on other campuses across the country in recent months. We are not letting this happen here.”

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