Pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Berkeley dismantle encampment

Pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Berkeley took down all but a few tents on a central campus plaza Tuesday, appearing to end for now one of the largest and longest student encampments in the country.

The decision to dismantle the encampment, which swelled to more than 180 tents and hundreds of students at its peak, notably included no police presence or arrests at a time when some universities — including UCLA, USC, Pomona College and Cal Poly Humboldt — have faced immense criticism for using police to clear camps or building takeovers of pro-Palestinian protesters. Ongoing turmoil has wracked UCLA since an encampment there came under a violent mob attack two weeks ago.

Pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Berkeley said they dismantled their encampment

Pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Berkeley said they dismantled their encampment and are going to protest at the UC Regents meeting at UC Merced on Wednesday.

(Hannah Wiley/Los Angeles Times)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ resisted pressure to forcibly take down the encampment and instead sought to negotiate with protesters. In an interview with The Times last week, she said the Berkeley encampment had been “largely peaceful, very well run” although some of the protest banners had disturbed her.

“I’ve got a long history of Berkeley, and in my experience protests don’t end with police action” Christ said. “They end with negotiations.”

It was unclear if there was an agreement in place between university officials and protesters on the protesters’ demands, the biggest of which was for the university to divest from ties to Israel and weapons companies involved in the Israel-Hamas war.

“It appears the protesters are in the process of taking down the tents. If that process is peacefully completed, then the university will be happy to discuss the talks we’ve had with the protesters,” said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for executive communications, who was at the site.

A spokesman for the students also would not confirm details of the talks.

Students said their protests are far from over.

At a Free Palestine Commencement Rally at the camp in front of Sproul Hall, activists on Tuesday afternoon said they are going to Merced, where activists from across the state are traveling to protest at Wednesday’s the University of California Board of Regents meeting.

Berkeley organizers also encouraged members who are a part of the UAW Local 4811 academic workers union to support an unfair labor practice strike in a vote that ends Wednesday afternoon. The union, which represents 48,000 workers across the 10 University of California campuses, including graduate students who are teaching assistants and researchers, has filed an unfair labor practice charges against the university system after arrests of pro-Palestinian graduate student protesters at UCLA and the issuing of suspensions and other discipline at UC San Diego and UC Irvine, accusing the university of retaliating against student workers and unlawfully changing workplace policies to suppress pro-Palestinian speech.

Students spent the afternoon collapsing their tents and rolling up sleeping pads as Palestinian solidarity music played on loudspeakers. They packed up their chairs and furled banners, as the makeshift tent city slowly transformed back into a standard campus plaza. Where their tents stood a few hours before, the students had propped up new yard signs: “Off to Merced”

Although the encampment appeared to quietly close, it did not end ongoing controversy at Berkeley. The campus for months has been roiled by deep divisions over pro-Palestinian activism, which some members of the Jewish community said has veered into antisemitism.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education launched a civil rights investigation into UC Berkeley over potential “shared ancestry violations” of Title Vl of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law bans discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, including harassment based on a shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.

The investigation followed a controversial incident in February when protesters targeted a campus event featuring an Israeli speaker who was a former member of the Israeli military. UC Berkeley police evacuated the event when the protest escalated as demonstrators broke open a door to the building and shattered a window. The university also launched its own investigation into the incident.

UC Berkeley pro-Palestinian protesters, a coalition of dozens of university groups, set up the camp April 23, had demanded that the university call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, divest from investments in weapons and military companies tied to the war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, sever ties with Israeli universities, and establish a Palestinian Studies program.

The University of California has rejected calls for divestment. In late April, it released a statement that the university system “has consistently opposed calls for boycott against and divestment from Israel … A boycott of this sort impinges on the academic freedom of our students and faculty and the unfettered exchange of ideas on our campuses.”

Tuesday afternoon, a banner displayed across Sproul Hall read “Free Palestine encampment until UC divests. Glory to the martyrs, victory to the resistance.”

The encampment had resembled an REI catalog of blue, orange, green and beige two- and four-person tents, even some large enough to hold half a dozen people, with a smattering of hammocks and lawn chairs. Meanwhile, students in graduation gowns and caps wandered through campus to take a photo under Sather Gate, roughly 100 yards away. Some stopped to take photos of the tents.

Last week, Berkeley faculty issued a statement backing her Christ’s approach, saying it “strongly endorses Chancellor Christ’s and the administration’s continued leadership in finding a peaceful resolution to the non-violent protest and encampment.”

“This approach is consistent with Berkeley’s values, principles of community, and long tradition of allowing members of our campus community to protest peacefully on our campus.”

In California, three other universities have reached agreements with pro-Palestinian protesters who have dismantled encampments: Sacramento State, Occidental College and UC Riverside. None of those schools have agreed specifically to divest from ties to Israel, but each has indicated that it will explore proposals or tighten investment policies regarding companies that sell weapons.

Also on Tuesday, Harvard University activists who had set up for 20 days in Harvard Yard said they would end their protest. The university did not agree to divestment. It said in a statement that it would “pursue a meeting between encampment participants and the chair of the corporation committee on shareholder responsibility and other university leaders for a discussion regarding students’ questions related to the endowment.”

Harvard also said it would reinstate at least 22 student protesters who had been put on involuntary leaves of absence.

“We are under no illusions: we do not believe these meetings are divestment wins. These side-deals are intended to pacify us away from full disclosure & divestment. Rest assured, they will not,” said a statement from the encampment group, Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine.

The recent agreements between colleges and student protesters in California share similarities with the Harvard pact, although some go further on divestment.

UC Riverside Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox signed off May 3 on an agreement to end the encampment at the campus. It was the first such agreement at a UC campus and said that the university would publicly make a “full disclosure” of the companies and size of its investments.

It also said that UC Riverside would form a task force that includes students and faculty to “explore the removal of UCR’s endowment from the management of the [University of California] investments office and the investment of said endowment in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university with consideration to the companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery.” The task force would present its findings to the board of trustees by March 21, 2025.

“It has been my goal to resolve this matter peacefully and I am encouraged by this outcome — which was generated through constructive dialogue,” Wilcox said in a statement.

“This agreement does not change the realities of the war in Gaza, or the need to address antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bias and discrimination,” Wilcox said. “However, I am grateful that we can have constructive and peaceful conversations on how to address these complex issues.”

At the UC Berkeley campus, pro-Palestinian protesters said they dismantled their encampment

A sign on the site of the UC Berkeley encampment signals protesters’ next move.

(Hannah Wiley/Los Angeles Times)

Sacramento State President Luke Wood announced May 8 that the university had agreed with protesters to change its investment policy for its five auxiliaries managed by the university — including a philanthropic and fundraising arm — to focus only on “socially responsible investment strategies which include not having direct investments in corporations and funds that profit from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and activities that violate fundamental human rights.”

The policy would apply to Associated Students Inc. — which focuses on programs for students — University Enterprises Inc., University Union, University Foundation at Sac State and Capital Public Radio. The university also said it did not have direct ties to funds related to the Israeli military.

At Occidental College, a pro-Palestinian encampment came down on Friday after an agreement was signed that said the college’s board of trustees would vote by June 6 on whether to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

“Demonstrators agree not to cause or promote substantial disruption of Occidental’s Commencement ceremony on May 19, 2024, which would create safety concerns for attendees, violate any College policies, or require pausing, canceling, or relocating of the event,” the agreement said.

Encampments at several other universities were dismantled by police.

At USC, police arrested 93 protesters last month as they cleared a pro-Palestinian encampment. Later, the university installed metal detectors and fencing around campus ahead of school and department-level commencement ceremonies after the main campus graduation ceremony was canceled.

At UCLA, the administration and campus police face intense scrutiny of their handling of a pro-Palestinian camp and counterprotest that erupted in violence and took police hours to quell. Police made more than 200 arrests on May 2 and dismantled the camp. UC President Michael V. Drake has announced an external investigation into UCLA’s response, which UCLA Chancellor Gene Block says he welcomes as he conducts his own internal review.

At Cal Poly Humbolt in Arcata, police last month arrested dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters who had barricaded themselves in campus buildings. The university, which had shut down campus, then moved its its graduation ceremonies off campus to locations that included a high school and a casino.

Campus tensions have grown since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and took about 240 people hostage before Israel began its retaliatory war in the Gaza Strip. Gaza health authorities say the war has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians.

The encampments across U.S. campuses rapidly multiplied last month after Columbia University President Nemat Shafik called in police to arrest at least 100 students who refused to leave their camp. Police later arrested at least dozens protesters who occupied a campus building. Columbia has said it will not divest.

The student movement for divestment, part of the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement against Israel, has also come under renewed fire by national Jewish organizations even as many Jewish students lead the protests. Jewish groups have called the BDS movement antisemitic because they say it aims to isolate and delegitimize the only Jewish nation.

Kaleem reported from Los Angeles, Watanabe from Merced and Wiley from Berkeley.

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