UT faculty hold rally to criticize protest crackdown — without police show of force

Despite the presence of counterprotesters, Thursday’s “teach-in” was peaceful. Speakers condemned UT President Jay Hartzell for calling in law enforcement Wednesday and expressed support for Palestinians in Gaza.

By Andrew Weber, KUT NewsApril 26, 2024 9:24 am, ,

From KUT News:

A crowd of about 500 demonstrators gathered by the UT Austin tower Thursday to condemn the university’s handling of a pro-Palestinian protest that resulted in nearly 60 arrests a day earlier.

Unlike on Wednesday, there were no Austin police officers or state troopers at the demonstration and only about 25 UT Police. The National Guard said it was aware of protests, but members had not been sent to UT.

The Texas State Employees Union and the American Association of University Professors organized the demonstration in response to the heavy police presence at the student protest.

In a letter, the Faculty Council expressed “serious concerns” over the decision to request state police presence Wednesday.

“Across the generations, our University has been home to protests of every shape and size, and to a tradition of meeting those protests with understanding and nuance–not with police batons and body shields,” the letter said.

Michael Minasi / KUT News

Protesters at the rally say Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and called on UT to divest from all financial support of the country.

Despite the presence of counterprotesters, Thursday’s “teach-in” was peaceful. Speakers condemned UT President Jay Hartzell for calling in law enforcement, belted chants of “Hartzell out!” and expressed support for Palestinians in Gaza.

“We have lost confidence in those who call themselves leaders, who abandoned their community and their campus after inviting the police state to take over this campus,” Pavithra Vasudevan, an assistant professor at UT, called out to the protesters, who repeated after her.

Pauline Strong, president of the UT chapter of the American Association of University Professors, read a statement calling for Hartzell’s resignation.

Hartzell said protesters Wednesday were in violation of school rules and that the Forty Acres would not be “occupied.” He and Gov. Greg Abbott requested help from state troopers to police the protest. At least 57 people were arrested on loitering charges. Charges against at least 46 have been dismissed.

“I feel like Hartzell’s statement was woefully inadequate and vague,” said Rich Heyman, an urban planning professor at UT who attended the demonstration Thursday.

He said the protests on Wednesday were peaceful until law enforcement from multiple agencies arrived.

“[Hartzell] didn’t explain how the decision was made to call in the riot troops that provoked violence from what was a nonviolent, peaceful protest,” Heyman said.

Abbott said Wednesday’s protest was “hate-filled” and “anti-Semitic.” He called for the students’ expulsion.

Heyman said he hasn’t been deeply involved in attending pro-Palestinian rallies and events, but as a Jewish man, he hasn’t felt targeted.

“I haven’t seen any antisemitism here,” he said. “The only violence or intimidation I’ve seen from anybody is from the police and the state troopers yesterday and today as well.”

Patricia Lim / KUT News

The atmosphere on campus was markedly different at Thursday's demonstration, with only a handful of UT police standing by.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, UT Austin expanded on Hartzell’s explanation by arguing Wednesday’s protest was particularly disruptive to university operations — and drew a large number of people who were not part of the campus community.

“Roughly half (26) of the 55 people who violated Institutional Rules and were ultimately arrested were unaffiliated with The University of Texas,” the statement said. The university pointed out that 13 pro-Palestinian events have taken place on campus since October “without incident,” but Wednesday’s protest “in particular expressed an intent to disrupt the campus and directed participants to break Institutional Rules and occupy the University.”

Seven of the 11 people still charged are listed as students in the UT directory, a Texas Newsroom and KUT analysis of court cases shows.

Executive Vice President and Provost Sharon L. Wood sent an email to the campus community on Thursday outlining the do’s and don’ts of demonstrations on campus.

Wood said people are allowed to assemble and peacefully protest on campus, hand out flyers or brochures and invite guest speakers to common outdoor spaces.

However, according to Wood, UT Austin’s institutional rules prohibit protests that disrupt university operations. Activities that fall under that umbrella include “making loud sounds that interfere with learning,” blocking walkways and vandalism.

Wood said camping or attempting to camp on university property is also banned, as is refusing to identify oneself to university officials or law enforcement. Wearing masks or disguises is also prohibited under UT Austin’s rules.

Patricia Lim / KUT News

Counterprotesters wave Israel's flag near a demonstration in support of Palestinians on UT campus Thursday.

Hadi, a third-year UT student who would not give his full name, said the tone from law enforcement Thursday was markedly different between from the day before. Only UTPD officers were visible, with roughly 25 officers watching at the base of the UT tower.

“There’s police presence here today, but they did not come in with cavalry, they did not come in with riot gear, with mace,” he said. And look how peaceful it was. Everybody is fine … there was counterprotesters and there was no escalation.”

Becky Fogel and Michael Minasi contributed to this report.

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