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Student protesters hunker down as more unrest rocks US campuses

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Students who occupied a Columbia University building vowed Tuesday to fight back against efforts to evict them, as administrators struggled to contain pro-Palestinian protests that have launched dozens of campus demonstrations around the United States.

Demonstrators face off with NYPD officials as they stand in solidarity with the ongoing protests in support of Palestinians happening on the Columbia University campus, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City(REUTERS)

The demonstrations — the most sweeping and prolonged unrest to rock US college campuses since the Vietnam war protests of the 1960s and 70s — have led to several hundred arrests of students and other activists.

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Many of them have vowed to maintain their actions despite suspensions and threats of expulsion.

“We will remain here, drawing from the lessons of our people (in Gaza) that stay put, and hold their ground even under the worst conditions,” a protester wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf and who declined to give her name told reporters outside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall.

Students had barricaded themselves inside the hall before dawn.

As she spoke, protesters were seen using ropes to hoist crates of supplies up to the building’s second floor, apparently signalling the students were hunkering down.

President Joe Biden’s White House sharply criticized the seizure of Hamilton Hall, with a spokesman saying it was “absolutely the wrong approach” as police patrolled street entrances to the prestigious New York university.

“That is not an example of peaceful protest,” the spokesman added.

Protests against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, with its high Palestinian civilian death toll, have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into anti-Semitism and hate.

The unrest has swept through US higher education institutions like wildfire, with many student protesters erecting tent encampments on campuses from coast to coast, after around 100 protesters were first arrested at Columbia on April 18.

At Columbia, demonstrators vowed to remain until their demands are met, including that the school divest all financial holdings linked to Israel.

The university has rejected the demand, with president Minouche Shafik saying talks with students had collapsed.

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” Columbia’s office of public affairs said in a statement, adding that the protesters were provided “the opportunity to leave peacefully” but instead declined and escalated the situation.

In one of the newest clashes, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, police moved in Tuesday to clear one encampment, detaining some protesters in a tense showdown.

“We were disappointed that we had to take action this morning regarding protesters… who violated state law and University policies that provide for peaceful demonstration,” UNC leadership said in a statement.

At the University of Texas at Austin, police also clashed with protesters Monday, arrested nearly 80 people and dismantled an encampment, adding to hundreds detained nationwide over the weekend.

And at northern California’s Cal Poly Humboldt, a week-long occupation was brought to a dramatic end early Tuesday when police moved in to arrest nearly three dozen protesters who had seized buildings and forced the closure of the campus.

‘Free speech?’

Footage of police in riot gear summoned at various colleges has been viewed around the world.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk voiced concern at the heavy-handed steps taken to disperse the campus protests, saying “freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society.”

He added that “incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints — whether real or assumed — must be strongly repudiated.”

Shafik said many Jewish students had fled Columbia’s campus in fear. “Anti-Semitic language and actions are unacceptable,” she said.

Protest organizers deny accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing their actions are aimed at Israel’s government.

The Columbia student group insisted their protest was peaceful, and warned authorities against a crackdown similar to those that marred the anti-Vietnam-war movement.

That included the shooting deaths of four unarmed Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, and of two more students at Jackson State College in Mississippi by police shortly after.

“To Columbia’s administrators and trustees: do not incite another Kent or Jackson State by bringing soldiers and police officers with weapons onto our campus,” the group said. “Students’ blood will be on your hands.”

The Gaza war started when Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,535 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

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