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Editorial: Actions of law enforcement, UCLA admin reveal unwillingness to protect students

By Editorial Board

May 17, 2024 10:15 p.m.

This post was updated May 19 at 7:40 p.m.

“Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!”

This chant by pro-Palestine protesters echoed through UCLA’s campus as the institution responsible for protecting students failed them during consecutive nights of terror.

On April 30, around 100 aggressors brutally attacked students in the Palestine solidarity encampment by spraying them with tear gas and bear mace, beating them with metal and wooden planks, throwing bricks and sparking fireworks into the encampment.

The encampment participants had nothing but the strength and courage of their community to protect themselves.

At an institution whose duty is to “protect and serve,” where were the police when a violent mob terrorized protesters, leaving many injured and hospitalized? Despite calling law enforcement to plead for help more than 100 times – according to one student’s estimate – police did not intervene for several hours, leaving students to fend for themselves in a life-threatening assault. Instead, law enforcement and private security stood idly by and watched aggressors continue attacking students.

Every single participant in the violent mob went home that night without criminal charges or arrests after the vile atrocities they committed against UCLA students.

On May 2, a drastically different response from law enforcement jolted our campus as over 200 protesters at the encampment were arrested. Peaceful protesters were met with brutality by hundreds of officers from LAPD, UCPD and the California Highway Patrol who were ordered by Chancellor Gene Block to sweep the encampment after it had been declared unlawful.

Suited up in riot gear and armed with less-than-lethal weapons, stun grenades, tear gas and batons – along with a sniper on the roof of Royce Hall – police attacked students who were, yet again, unarmed and who only had wooden barricades, umbrellas, makeshift shields and each other to protect themselves.

The punitive response from law enforcement selectively directed toward Palestine solidarity encampment participants is unacceptable.

The ensuing violence inflicted upon peaceful protesters at the hands of the police was abhorrent and should not be tolerated – neither now nor ever.

Students were left bloodied, bruised and traumatized as our campus turned into a war zone within hours. UCLAs administration must be held accountable: It allowed its own students to be brutalized April 30, then facilitated another exertion of excessive force on its own community members through the use of law enforcement May 2.

The administration’s role in the unfolding violence is especially worthy of condemnation because it had so many opportunities to prevent it and did nothing.

Even before the attack on the encampment the night of April 30, counter-protesters had already made several attempts to physically confront protesters and break into the encampment, often without any clear response from law enforcement on-site.

Tensions escalated even further April 28 when pro-Israel groups organized a large rally on campus across from the encampment, bringing a large screen that would later be used to broadcast footage of the Oct. 7 attacks, with permission from UCLA’s administration.

It is difficult to believe it wasn’t a coincidence that the attack began only hours after UCLA administration declared that the encampment was illegal. But on the exact same day, before the message from the administration or the ensuing violence, UCLA officials were also requested to testify in front of Congress on their handling of the encampment by U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.

In her statement demanding testimony from UCLA’s leaders, the Republican representative declared, “we have come to take our universities back.”

And then counter-protesters did.

They tried that night, tearing through barricades and using weapons prohibited on campus by UCLA’s own safety policies.

And when they failed to breach the encampment, on the very next night the administration sent in riot police to achieve what counter-protesters could not.

Ironically, Block claimed in a campuswide email that the police sweep of the encampment was executed “to preserve campus safety.”

But whose safety was preserved when pro-Palestine protesters were directly shot with rubber bullets while at least five students were struck in the face, resulting in serious injury and hospitalization?

Whose safety was preserved when hundreds of students were running away in terror as the piercing sound of stun grenades filled our campus? Whose safety was preserved other than the violent mob that had violently harassed students the night before with no punishment whatsoever?

It is evident that the university administration does not prioritize the safety of all its students but rather picks and chooses which groups to protect or disproportionately target and treat like criminals. Further, it is clear that, in UCLA’s eyes, the right to freedom of expression by those in the encampment was not worth protecting from the violent counter-protesters or from law enforcement.

It is especially heinous that UCLA and law enforcement weaponized their own inaction in the face of the atrocious violence that was broadcast across the globe in order to justify their own brutality, both during the raid on the encampment and after.

On May 6, over 40 students were arrested in Parking Structure 2 prior to a pro-Palestine sit-in planned to take place in Moore Hall at 7 a.m. Police accused protesters of conspiring to vandalize the building before unjustly arresting them, according to organizers. This abhorrent abuse of power by police should not become normalized on campus nor disguised as public safety.

In response to the recent violence, Block announced a new Office of Campus Safety to conduct an investigation of the April 30 mob attack and hold perpetrators accountable. While Block boasts of the expertise of Rick Braziel, the appointed associate vice chancellor and chief safety officer, it is essential to acknowledge his background as a former police chief of Sacramento.

While the results of the investigation have yet to be released, it is hard to believe that Braziel would seriously condemn the failed response from law enforcement at UCLA.

In order for the Office of Campus Safety to be an effective and productive entity, however, its leaders must be willing to hold officers rightfully accountable for their explicit disregard for student safety during both the mob attack and the police sweep of the encampment.

In the aftermath, our campus now emulates a prison as it has become militarized with campus security and police officers roaming around. The harsh reality is that police do not make many students feel safe given their well-documented track record of criminalizing students of color – and more recently, those wearing keffiyehs, or scarves that serve as a symbol for Palestinian liberation.

How can students trust the police – who had just brutalized hundreds of students – to promote public safety?

Every day that passes seems to prove more and more that the unfathomable police response at UCLA was not only morally reprehensible but also unnecessary. Instead of realizing this by listening to the community and acting accordingly, Block’s “tough-on-crime” decision-making has only worsened the atmosphere.

In the aftermath, civil rights and policing experts have been especially critical of UCLA’s decision to bring in riot police to respond to the peaceful protests May 2 and have argued that police officers and the administration violated California state law.

In stark contrast, institutions of higher education across the country have managed to peacefully negotiate with protesters to take down encampments. The list of these universities, now including Brown University, Northwestern University, Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota, continues to grow.

The most recent universities to broker such deals with encampment organizers are Harvard University and UC Berkeley, highlighting the fact that peaceful options have always been possible.

At a recent meeting of the UC Board of Regents Investments Committee, UC chief investment officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher stated that if all the divestment-related demands of student protesters were met, the UC would have to sell $32 billion worth of assets, or almost 20% of its portfolio’s total value.

But the successful negotiations at UC Berkeley demonstrate that even though the UC Regents control such substantial investments in arms manufacturers and other companies that the protesters oppose, a diplomatic option was and still is more than feasible at UCLA.

While the substance of negotiations between UCLA administrators and encampment organizers has not been disclosed, the last-minute public negotiations between encampment organizers and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt, who entered the encampment May 1 as a police raid was obviously imminent, seem to highlight the administration’s lack of willingness to effectively engage in the kinds of diplomatic processes that prevented outbreaks of violence at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

One of the central justifications that Block and his administration levied for the clearing of the encampment was the defense of UCLA’s academic mission. But the heightened police force has only escalated the potential disruptions to learning.

The recent vote by United Auto Workers Local 4811 – the union that represents UC academic student employees and graduate students, academic and postdoctoral researchers – to authorize a stand-up strike provides clear evidence of that fact. According to a memorandum sent by the union’s leadership, 79% of members who participated in the strike vote, held in response to the police repression of protests at UCLA and other campuses, voted in favor of authorization.

With academic workers at UC Santa Cruz set to go on strike Monday, the result of the vote is a stark reminder of the consequences of the UC’s use of police power on campuses across the state.

But UCLA administration and Block’s betrayal of students, workers and campus activists alike will not be easily forgotten.

As the world watched, the administration blatantly inflicted violence on its own community members, exposing its lack of humanity and empathy for all students’ safety and well-being. The physical, emotional and mental trauma that community members have experienced will live on far beyond the violent events that occurred on our divided campus.

As our campus community attempts to heal, the university must work toward building an environment that upholds the safety of all Bruins – but this time, without excessive force from the police.

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