College protests over war in Gaza reach Utah; 19 arrested

Apr 30, 2024, 5:42 AM | Updated: 3:45 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Police arrested 19 people who participated in a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Utah on Monday night and confiscated a hatchet, while dismantling around a dozen tents, according to a statement released by the school’s chief safety officer in the very early hours of Tuesday morning.

“Utah college campuses around the state are not exempt from the significant unrest that currently exists in our country and world,” said Keith Squires, chief safety officer at the U, after the protesters were cleared off the campus shortly before midnight on Monday. “Campuses serve as a stage and forum for not just students, but for members of the community who want their voice to be heard. We honor all voices, but the right to speech on our campus must occur within the confines of state law and campus policies.”

About 300 students and community members participated in the protest Monday, picketing outside the University of Utah administration building while adding their voices to a national wave of student activism against the war in Gaza.

They called on the university to disclose and divest investments in defense contractors that manufacture weapons used by Israel.

Following a number of student speeches and chants among those gathered on the steps of the Park Building, the group moved onto the lawn on Presidents Circle and erected nearly 20 tents.

“This is not the University of Utah. This is the people’s campus,” they shouted.

Police from multiple agencies watched from a distance as the crowd swelled to about 300 people but began to dwindle about 2½ hours into the event. Rain fell intermittently, which further thinned the crowd.

The University of Utah issued a statement at 9:20 p.m. Monday, more than five hours into the protest.

“As a public institution, the University of Utah preserves and protects the right to free speech on our campus,” the statement read. “There are reasonable limits under the First Amendment for the times and places of these expressions. Students, faculty, staff and community members, you have the right to express your viewpoint and we have heard you. You do not, however, have the right to set up structures or camp overnight. You are violating Utah state law and University of Utah free speech policy.”

After stating the laws protesters could be violating, the statement continued: “Please take your tents down immediately. If your tents are not taken down, they will be removed by law enforcement.”

At just before 10 p.m., the protesters were given 15 minutes to disperse. Police officers, some in full riot gear, said they would use reasonable force if necessary.

The remaining protestors linked arms and continued to chant about conditions in Gaza but also to taunt police, at times likening them to the Ku Klux Klan and Israel Defense Forces.

They chanted, “There is no violence here. Why are you in riot gear?”

About 11 p.m. and after multiple warnings, police moved in on the protesters, with several heeding the warnings about arrest. Police removed the tents and took some people into custody. The crowd was moved off of campus, for the most part, before midnight.

College students on several campuses across the country have been protesting since mid-April, which has led to more than 800 arrests, academic sanctions and the removal of encampments.

The protests on college campuses across the country come on the heels of the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups that has been going on for more than six months. It began when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of civilians, as well as taking hostages. The Israeli military responded with an extensive aerial bombardment of Gaza beginning on Oct. 27, before launching a ground invasion, killing thousands in the months since.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox responded to the protests at the university in a tweet on Monday: “We hold dear our First Amendment rights to protest and peaceably assemble. The First Amendment does not protect violence, threats to public safety, property damage, camping or disruptions to our learning institutions. We will protect protestors and arrest those who violate the law.”

The protest was organized by the student organization Mecha de U of U, a self-described “anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, socialist student organization.” Demonstrators chanted “Free Palestine” and “Disclose, Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest.” Another chant called out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide,” the crowd chanted.

Some carried signs that said “Cease fire now” and “Divest from Israel.”

Rabbi Alan Scott Bachman of Salt Lake City said the protests across the country are “another sign of how polarized we are as a society where people tend to go on one side or the other. Too many people are interested in talking and not enough people are interested in listening. Colleges and higher ed are places where people go to learn and you can’t learn if you don’t listen,” Bachman said.

Rabbi Sam Spector of Congregation Kol Ami said the ongoing conflict has received a “disproportionate amount of attention compared to other conflicts in the world. We don’t see college students advocating for Ukraine this way or any other global conflict.”

He continued, “For a lot of people in the Jewish community, like much of the anti-Israel sentiment out there, why is there such an intense focus on Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, and not on other conflicts taking place around the world that people should also be focused on.”

Police break up the demonstrators gathered at the University of Utah to show support for Palestine in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Some students spoke about the University of Utah students’ support of students elsewhere in the country who have been arrested and their encampments taken down by authorities.

Others said as they approached their graduation later this week, they were mindful of students in Gaza whose colleges had been destroyed in the ongoing conflict.

Throughout the event, there was a significant law enforcement presence but for more than seven hours, officers did not directly engage with the students. The event was not formally scheduled with the university and University Public Safety learned about planned protest about 24 hours in advance.

Students stated their intention to camp on President’s Circle until their demands were met. Under a Salt Lake City ordinance, camping on public grounds is unlawful.

It is unlawful for any person using or benefiting from the use “items of camping equipment to fail to remove the same for more than five minutes after being requested to do so by any police officer,” the ordinance states.

It also violates university administrative rule.

A tweet by the Utah Department of Public Safety also noted that camping was illegal.

“We fully support everyone’s civil right to express themselves through freedom of speech. Yet, we do not tolerate the acts of any criminal activity, including but not limited to: property damage, unlawful assembly or camping, threats, or violent acts.”

Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz sent a message on X on Monday night that read, in part: “Universities are centers for education, not arenas for disruptive protests. We uphold the right to free speech and peaceful assembly, but when demonstrations interfere with learning, threaten safety, cause damage or violate the law, we must act decisively. The state will enforce rules rigorously and take strong measures to stop protests that cross the line.”

Contributing: Gitanjali Poonia and Suzanne Bates

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College protests over war in Gaza reach Utah; 19 arrested