The masked men could be seen through the cracks in the wall — their hands snatched through the boards, grabbing at protesters’ faces — all while Israeli children’s music blared across Dickson Plaza. It was April 30, 2024. The mob beat protesters with sticks, sprayed them with bear mace, and tore down the boards forming the eastern barricade of the Palestine Solidarity Encampment at UCLA.

Twenty-four hours later, the boards were being ripped down again — this time by law enforcement. 

For two days the UCLA Palestine solidarity encampment was attacked, first by a coordinated group of masked counter-protesters and second by the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in a violent sweep of the encampment. 

On the first night, law enforcement made zero arrests. On the second night, they made more than 200 arrests.

UCLA students established the camp on April 25 to demand the university divest from companies, including weapons manufacturers, supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its genocidal war on Gaza. In doing so, they joined a wave of similar student occupations following the arrests of protesters in an encampment at Columbia University. The encampment movement is now international

Almost immediately, the UCLA encampment was dogged by counter-protesters. A counter-protester assaulted an encampment resident on the first day the tents went up — grabbing her and throwing her to the ground — while others screamed abuse at the protesters advocating for human rights in Gaza. During the nights preceding the attack, counter-protesters blasted loud sounds into the camp and, at various times, tried to get inside.

Israel has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza since October 7th — when Hamas attacked Israel, killing roughly 1200 and taking hostages — and thousands more Gazans are unaccounted for. More than 200,000 Gazans are now experiencing “full-blown famine,” according to the United Nations, and Israel is bombarding the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering, ahead of a planned invasion.

UCPD did not answer LA Public Press’ request for comment and UCLA’s Vice Chancellor for Communications, Mary Osako, did not reply to a request by publication time.

LA Public Press reporters were on the scene over two extraordinary nights of violence at UCLA last week. This is our account of what transpired. 

Someone in a mask walks around the UCLA encampment.

Tuesday, April 30

Moments before the attack on UCLA’s Palestine Solidarity Encampment that would hospitalize dozens of students over the course of four hours, the sound of a baby crying rang out over Dickson Plaza. 

There was no baby crawling through the tents. It was a recording played by counter-protesters through concert-grade speakers attached to a jumbotron outside the encampment. They milled around the screen carrying signs that said “Islamic caliphate is not welcome on native land” and “Jewish students are welcome on native land.” 

The screen and speakers were first set up for a counter-protest on April 28 and were paid for with a GoFundMe that has raised nearly $100,000. (Jerry Seinfeld’s wife gave $5,000.)

But UCLA administrators allowed the jumbotron to stay up after the rally ended.  Counter-protesters used the setup to play videos from Hamas’ October 7th attack and blast sounds of the violence out of the loudspeakers. 

Earlier in the evening on Tuesday, they were playing the American national anthem on a loop. Around 10 p.m., they began alternating it with the crying baby, demonic cackling, high-pitched tones, and “Mamtera Im Mamtera,” an Israeli children’s song used by IDF soldiers as sound torture on Hamas militants.

Just two weeks before the UCLA attack, Palestinians in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp also said Israeli drones were playing the sounds of crying children to lure them out of hiding. 

“Some men rushed out to the rescue, only to be shot by the quadcopters that kept roaming all night long,” Samira Abu Al-Leil, a member of the camp, told the Middle East Eye.

The barricades of the solidarity encampment are surrounded by people.
Joey Scott / LA Public Press.

Around 10:30 p.m., the baby was still wailing as an encampment media liaison clicked through videos of counter-protesters screaming racial slurs at encampment residents. One video showed someone threatening to sexually assault students with a banana. 

“I don’t want to alarm you guys,” another resident said, scrolling on her phone through a Signal chat. “They’re saying there are men in white masks at the gate?” 

The media liaison jumped up and sprinted toward the eastern end of the camp. 

There were dozens of people at the barricades spraying protesters with mysterious liquids, throwing their bodies into the wall, and trying to rip down the boards. They wielded sticks and wood and metal poles. 

One metal pole whizzed over the students’ heads, thrown like a javelin. 

“Take cover!” someone yelled. “Do not engage!”

A firework followed the pole, landing within feet of LA Public Press and encampment residents, who sprinted away as it exploded. 

“Watch your eyes for projectiles!” someone yelled.

The group pressed into the makeshift plywood for cover and were doused in skunk water, a chemical also used by the IDF: For years in occupied Palestine, Israeli “skunk trucks” have roamed through Gaza and the West Bank, “spraying buildings in retaliation for local residents protesting Israeli occupation and apartheid,” Yara Hawari wrote for Al Jazeera in 2021. 

“In Arabic, we call it the ‘kharara’ – literally ‘the shitter’ – for its putrid smell,” she wrote. “The ‘kharara’ already features prominently in Palestinian jokes. One goes: What would you rather face – bullets or the kharara?”

By 10:53 p.m., the UCLA campus security guards stationed between the encampment and the jumbotron broke into a trot and fled the scene. Some gathered in a cluster a short distance from the fighting at the encampment’s southeastern corner and watched. 

A light can be seen over a building at UCLA, most likely a police spotlight.
Joey Scott / LA Public Press.

“Is there any plan to intervene in this at all?” LA Public Press asked them at 11:14 p.m. 

“There’s a command center being set up,” a guard said, pointing at a paramedics’ van hundreds of feet away from the conflict. “You need to go talk to them.” Within several minutes security guards fled to hide in a nearby building, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Security guards who did stick around, stood off to the side with a front-row view of the violence, refusing to intervene. 

The later the night went on, the more peppery the air became. One person seen rebuilding the encampment was saturated from his face down to his torso in bear mace. The fiery red liquid dripped off of him as he was dragged back into the encampment to receive medical help. 

A student was taken out of the encampment in a makeshift gurney, limp. Students used umbrellas to protect themselves from projectiles as they took him to get formal medical treatment at a hospital. 

But a masked attacker lit a mortar shell firework and threw it at the students trying to protect the injured student. It landed just outside the barriers, exploding in front of people’s faces. The concussive bang that followed popped through the quad.

 When volunteer medics tried to escort an injured protester to Emergency Medical Services, they were also attacked by counter-protesters, according to a UCLA medical student who requested anonymity for her safety.

“That was the only person we were able to take to EMS,” she said. “After that, everyone had to be taken to the hospital by volunteers in their own cars.” 

The medic team treated at least 29 distinct patients, according to another volunteer who requested anonymity. Fifteen people had serious injuries requiring hospitalization and 10 people had suffered blunt head trauma, she reported, and five people had lacerations “large and deep enough” to require stitching at the hospital. 

One student sustained “complex facial and skull fractures” and will need surgery, the volunteer said. 

Another student looked “like she had a chunk of her forehead taken out” and sustained skull and facial fractures, she reported. Many students had facial lacerations.

A video taken that night from within the encampment shows a student rinsing his bloody head with water and saline. Student journalists with the Daily Bruin were later jumped and beaten. One protester was knocked unconscious.

Someone holds up a stick or plank and is facing four others at the barricades at the solidarity encampment.
Joey Scott / LA Public Press.

One of the medics who spoke with LA Public Press said she only learned the cause of certain injuries she treated the next day when she watched footage of the riot online. 

“There was a student in a UCLA hoodie with his head down and bleeding,” the medic said. “I was wondering how he got hurt. Then I saw the video. They were just trying to hold the line, and a Zionist grabbed a two-by-four and hit him. He was already on the floor.”

The fighting would continue without interference for roughly four hours. California Highway Patrol and LAPD began assembling around 1:45 a.m., according to videos analyzed by the New York Times. Those agencies assisted the University of California Police, which typically responds to incidents at UCLA, in separating the two groups only after 30 minutes had passed from when they set up a skirmish line. As police waited to act, objects continued to be thrown and people continued to try to enter the encampment. 

The police eventually moved in and allowed the attackers to leave without arrest. 

Counter protesters shouted “Sharmouta,” the Arabic word for whore, and “terrorists” at students throughout the night, said Abdulla Farooq. a CalTech graduate worker and a member of the union for graduates and postdocs, CGPU-UAW, at CalTech. Abdullah immediately drove over and hopped on the front barriers after seeing what was happening online. 

He was pepper-sprayed directly in the face as attackers tried to pull the plywood boards away from the barricades. He flushed his eyes with saline and water and was treated at the medic tent. 

The medic team and other encampment residents flushed the eyes of more than a hundred students pepper sprayed or sprayed with bear mace, the UCLA medical students estimated.

That treatment requires “forcefully” holding open a spray-victim’s eyes and squirting water onto their eyeballs, a medic said. To create the pressurized jet required to purge the chemicals, medics punctured the caps of water bottles and sprayed water through them. 

Encampment residents studied the medics performing the treatment, and then began treating each other, according to the medic. The next day, hundreds of empty water bottles littered the area where they worked.

“The students weren’t complaining,” the medic said. “They kept saying, ‘I just want to go back to my friends and help them hold the line.’ We had to be very firm with some of them: ‘No, you have to go to the hospital.’”

The students were able to hold off the attackers for over four hours. Students repelled the attackers with a combination of handmade shields and plywood barricades. Helmets and goggles protected them from pieces of wood and other thrown objects. At times they used pepper spray in self-defense.

In a statement following the attacks, Students for Justice in Palestine UCLA said that the school has failed multiple times to protect the students and that they would continue to fight “until the life has been separated from our bodies – to be renewed for generations next.” 

None of the attackers have been arrested. Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that the newly created Campus Safety office, along with assistance from LAPD and potentially the FBI, are investigating the attacks on the encampment. The university said they are reviewing footage, interviewing witnesses from that night, and encourage people to report their experiences. Detectives are using facial recognition technology to identify attackers captured on the scene in photos, videos and livestreams. 

Wednesday, May 1

While the encampment was overwhelmingly peaceful after it formed on April 25, Chancellor Gene D. Block used Tuesday’s mob attack to justify the violent police sweep days later, said UCLA faculty member John Branstetter.

In a campus-wide statement, Block said the encampment had become unlawful and “a focal point for serious violence” that led to an unsafe learning environment.

Martín Macías Jr. / LA Public Press.

“There’s no ambiguity around it,” Branstetter told LA Public Press. “Block said the encampment had to be cleared because it was a safety hazard. So we’re blaming victims for the victim’s own harm. The solution to preventing violence is to use violence on students?”

By Wednesday afternoon, the university’s response had manifested as law enforcement agencies and private security surrounded Dickson Plaza, an open field between Royce Hall and Powell Library where students pitched dozens of tents for their encampment. Police formed skirmish lines in between the camp’s exterior barricades and the thousands of protesters who came to show solidarity with students.

Encampment members could be heard hammering and drilling into plywood as they worked feverishly through the evening to reinforce the camp’s exterior barricades. Some members played music, prayed, or rested inside their tents, while others helped distribute dinner and helmets to people. 

Branstetter and other faculty members were prepared to line themselves up at the camp walls between police and students in case the coming raid became violent. “We hoped our presence might dissuade them from using violent tactics.”

Around 2 A.M., after two dispersal orders had been issued, LAPD officers armed with batons broke through the encampment’s west entrance and had a brief standoff with protesters.

K, a Palestinian student whose identity LA Public Press has agreed to conceal for their safety, said he was frightened at first to see police aggressively break into the peaceful camp.

Martín Macías Jr. / LA Public Press.

“I was internally freaking out but then I turned and saw everyone was very calm,” K told LA Public Press. “Organizers asked people to stand and link arms and when I saw that, I decided ‘I’m gonna stand here, I’m not gonna walk away.’”

Students chanted “peaceful protest” and “we’re not leaving” as more people filled in the defensive line at the camp. LAPD officers ultimately retreated.

But in a second raid, beginning around 3 A.M, police were violent. 

Officers in riot gear with California Highway Patrol (or CHP) began firing loud flashbangs over the encampment. Other officers tore down the plywood and metal gates holding together the makeshift barricade.

After CHP breached the wall, several officers fired rubber bullets at encampment members. The rubber-coated bullets ━ often described as “less lethal” munition ━ are well documented to have caused brain damage, fractured bones, and even death, especially when used at close range, as was done in this instance. 

Students reported multiple serious injuries, including several people shot in the head by CHP with rubber bullets.

K, the Palestinian student, who has family in the West Bank, said he and other students were terrified by the police violence but continued to defend their encampment.

“When I was on the line, the look on their faces, they had this look like they wanted to get us the fuck out by any means possible,” K said. “I wasn’t really processing what was happening, almost like a post-traumatic reaction. When I think about it, I find myself shaking.”

Branstetter also found himself on the frontline, holding in front of him, like a shield, a plastic board a student handed him. His faculty group had been split up.

CHP began making arrests. Branstetter had the plastic board torn from him and his shirt pulled over his face as officers zip-tied his hands and dragged him across the concrete.

“I was bleeding when they took me to the police truck,” Branstetter said. “There’s bruising where they turned my arm back and from when I was dragged to the staging area. They left us on the bus for a long time.”

By 4 A.M, CHP had attacked other students with batons and even aimed weapons at point-blank range but were in another standoff with students who had linked arms to protect what remained of the camp.

By 5 A.M., tents in the encampment were being torn down. Reporters captured scenes of CHP officers taking selfies with the disassembled encampment in the background.

Block has been criticized by students and faculty for violently clearing the camp. The move mirrors a playbook other universities have employed: use any disruption, including aggression against encampments or the alleged presence of so-called outside agitators, to expand the institution’s law enforcement response. 

In a statement Tuesday April 30, Block said people “unaffiliated” with UCLA were part of the Palestine solidarity encampment, again repeating claims other administrators, elected officials, and media outlets have made regarding non-student actors fomenting pro-Palestinian actions on campus.

After the lapses in security leading to the mob attack, Block announced he’d appointed Rick Braziel, a former Sacramento police chief, to lead a new UCLA campus safety office that would also oversee the campus police department.

Branstetter criticized Block’s appointment.

“To take this step is really problematic,” Branstetter said. “Appointing a police chief to make campus safety first and foremost about police forces, sends a threatening message to people and misunderstands the real failings of [UCLA] leadership in the last week.”

Martín Macías Jr. / LA Public Press.

Block has yet to address students’ demands, which include cutting UCLA’s academic ties and financial investments in Israel, whose military has killed more than 34,500 people since October, with another 10,000 believed to be dead under the rubble of buildings it’s bombed, largely with U.S-supplied munitions. 

K, the Palestinian student, said Block’s statements about safety are misguided and that society should examine how U.S. tax dollars are financing Israel’s war.

“Our tuition is contributing to the destruction of life,” K said. “This is the gross underbelly of our fascist government, how they put down peaceful protests. To end fascism abroad we have to end it here at home.”

Jack Ross is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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