UNIVERSITY PARK — On Wednesday, April 24, the University of Southern California asked the Los Angeles Police Department to step in and arrest students and faculty who set up a Gaza solidarity encampment at the school’s Alumni Park. LAPD arrested 93 peaceful protestors.

USC joined a growing list of academic institutions around the country asking for police presence at Gaza solidarity encampments, a move many academics and lawyers claim sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarianism on college campuses. Experts, including a tenured professor of genocide studies at USC, say the presence of police at college campuses — where Gaza solidarity encampments are often peaceful — has the potential to escalate the situation and lead to violence. 

Emory University in Georgia experienced intense police brutality when police tackled, tear-gassed, and shot rubber bullets at protestors on April 26. At the University of Texas in Austin, 79 protestors were brutally arrested. At Columbia University in New York, the campus making the biggest headlines that spearheaded the nationwide encampments, 100 protestors were arrested early on. 

In a letter shared with the faculty just prior to the arrests, USC President Carol Folt said, “We will do all that is required to maintain the safety of every member of our community.”

That decision has been heavily criticized by the public as hypocritical, given the well-documented history of LAPD’s misconduct and brutality over the years. One notable critic is tenured professor of genocide studies Wolf Gruner, who teaches on campus and was one of Tabassum’s professors. Gruner is also a specialist on the Holocaust and Central European Jewish history, topics on which he has published ten books.

After the University of Southern California’s decision to cancel their valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech over alleged “safety” concerns on April 15, students and faculty from within the private institution started to plan their response to create the solidarity encampment. 

On April 19, just four days after the school announced Tabassum had been barred from giving her commencement speech, the university’s newspaper the Daily Trojan published a letter from Gruner in which he condemned the school’s decision. “I write to protest in the strongest possible terms your decision,” he wrote. “As a university you are obligated to protect your students — including the valedictorian — and to guarantee academic freedom and the freedom of speech. By canceling the speech, you failed to adhere to all of these principles.”

After the arrests on April 24, Gruner shared his thoughts on the escalating situation in an interview with LA Public Press. “What I found appalling is, to send armed riot police means you practically take into consideration that students might get harmed. So the university, again, kind of failed to protect its students,” Gruner said.

Gruner grew up in East Germany under a dictatorship and feels strongly about the developments he’s seeing on campus. As the founding director of the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, and the co-founder and academic advisor for the Resistance to Genocide minor, he said that from his personal experience and expertise, Folt’s decision, “is the opposite of promoting democratic values, which is the worst you could have done in these fragile times, where we face a rapid development toward authoritarianism.”

After the protest on April 26, Ramsey Judah, a local Palestinian immigration and criminal law lawyer at Judah Law Group said, “I think they just want to make an example of [the protestors] for whatever reason, and it’s just incredible that a university as big as USC would not allow this kind of free speech. It’s incredibly frustrating as a lawyer because you want to tell people, ‘Don’t worry. You have a First Amendment right to free speech.’ But then the police show up and start bashing their heads.”

The 93 protesters were processed at Metro and 77th Street police stations late into the night on April 24, and released in the early hours the following morning after being cited with trespassing. Lawyers representing the protestors are looking into the legality of the arrests. 

“Trespassing is a charge that is brought on to either a private property where you’re not allowed to be on there or a property that is closed. There were no signs up, no barricades saying this is a closed area,” said Judah. “The only barricades that we had were police officers lining up and creating circles around people so that they can arrest them.”

Judah adds that the recent protest was largely peaceful. “Everybody was just drumming and chanting, and they had food, snacks, and the camaraderie between them, between all these students of all different faiths, of all different ethnicities,” he said. “It was incredible. And for them to be smashed the way they were for trespassing was beyond ridiculous.”

On local and national levels, many have claimed to be concerned for the safety of Jewish students on campus and have called the protests antisemitic. “I think it’s really important to distinguish between legitimately criticizing a state and what states are doing in the war. This is not the same as blaming a group of people,” Gruner said. The professor notes that an example of antisemitism would be to blame all Jews for the problems of the world, but that critiquing the actions of a state is not inherently antisemitic. 

The university maintains the narrative that safety is a top priority for the school, but they have been vague about whose safety they are prioritizing. Notably, they have failed to address the safety of Palestinian or Muslim students, something Gruner states needs serious evaluation. “What I find sometimes really difficult is that in this climate right now, all the attention is towards the Jewish students on campuses, but nobody talks about how Palestinian students feel, how Muslim students feel,” Gruner said.

Protests at USC are expected to continue indefinitely, and the organizers of the USC Divest from Death Coalition maintain that they will not stop until the university meets its demands. In a released statement, the group said, “USC’s funding of the ongoing genocide perpetuated by the zionist entity is reflective of maintaining imperialist interests abroad, as well as solidifying the shared ideology of American and zionist institutions in preserving racialized oppression.”

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