Bear spray fired at riot police as officers clash with pro-Palestinian protesters at US university

2 May 2024, 12:28 | Updated: 2 May 2024, 12:31

Protesters at UCLA have been detained by police, after a stand-off that lasted many hours
Protesters at UCLA have been detained by police, after a stand-off that lasted many hours. Picture: Getty

By Asher McShane

Huge numbers of police have smashed through barricades set up by pro-Palestinian protesters outside an encampment at a US university.

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Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters set up behind barricades on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus despite police orders to leave.

A melee broke out today between pro-Palestinian protesters and police, with protesters firing bear or pepper spray at police as they tried to stop them advancing to break up their protest.

One of UCLA’s professors was detained, according to the university’s local-run newspaper.

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Pepper spray has been used by protesters to deter police officers attempting to break up the encampment
Pepper spray has been used by protesters to deter police officers attempting to break up the encampment. Picture: Getty

Police had started to detain protesters, with the local paper reporting many had been restrained with zip-ties. Police had warned the protesters that they face serious injury and arrest if they did not withdraw immediately as they moved to break up the encampment.

Huge numbers of police began arriving on Wednesday afternoon, and empty buses were parked near UCLA to take away protesters who do not comply with the order.

Protesters were caught in a melee with police at UCLA
Protesters were caught in a melee with police at UCLA. Picture: Getty

The tense stand-off came one night after violence instigated by counter-protesters erupted in the same place.

A small city sprang up inside the barricaded encampment, full of hundreds of people and tents on the campus quad.

Some protesters said Muslim prayers as the sun set over the campus, while others chanted "we're not leaving", or passed out goggles and surgical masks.

They wore helmets and headscarves, and discussed the best ways to handle pepper spray or tear gas as someone sang over a megaphone.

A few constructed homemade shields out of plywood in case they clashed with police forming skirmish lines elsewhere on the campus. "For rubber bullets, who wants a shield?" a protester called out.

Meanwhile, a large crowd of students, alumni and neighbours gathered on campus steps outside the tents, sitting as they listened and applauded various speakers and joined in pro-Palestinian chants.

A group of students holding signs and wearing T-shirts in support of Israel and Jewish people demonstrated nearby.

The crowd continued to grow as the night wore on as more and more officers poured onto campus.

The law enforcement presence and continued warnings stood in contrast to the scene that unfolded the night before, when counter-demonstrators attacked the pro-Palestinian encampment, throwing traffic cones, releasing pepper spray and tearing down barriers.

Fighting continued for several hours before police stepped in, though no arrests were made. At least 15 protesters suffered injuries, and the tepid response by authorities drew criticism from political leaders as well as Muslim students and advocacy groups.

Elsewhere, police in New Hampshire made arrests and took down tents at Dartmouth College and officers in Oregon came onto the campus at Portland State University as school officials sought to end the occupation of the library that started on Monday.

The chaotic scenes at UCLA came just hours after New York police burst into a building occupied by anti-war protesters at Columbia University on Tuesday night, breaking up a demonstration that had paralysed the school.

An Associated Press tally counted at least 38 times since April 18 where arrests were made at campus protests across the US. More than 1,600 people have been arrested at 30 institutions.

UCLA chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that "a group of instigators" perpetrated the previous night's attack, but he did not provide details about the crowd or why the administration and school police did not act sooner.

"However one feels about the encampment, this attack on our students, faculty and community members was utterly unacceptable," he said. "It has shaken our campus to its core."

The nationwide campus demonstrations began at Columbia on April 17 to protest Israel's offensive in Gaza, which followed Hamas launching a deadly attack on southern Israel on October 7.

Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. Vowing to stamp out Hamas, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to health officials there.

Israel and its supporters have branded the university protests antisemitic, while Israel's critics say it uses those allegations to silence opposition.

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