Before dawn on Thursday, April 25, anti-Israel protesters set up a camp in the main quad of UCLA, where I am a professor of sociology. This was no surprise, as similar tactics had been used at Columbia and other campuses nationwide. It especially wasn’t a surprise to me, as one of my research area’s classics is Sarah Soule’s 1997 Social Forces article, “The Student Divestment Movement in the United States and Tactical Diffusion: The Shantytown Protest.” While Soule chronicled how anti-apartheid shantytown protests in the 1980s had spread on campuses over two years, however, the anti-Israel shantytowns of 2024 appeared in just a few weeks.

On Friday, April 26, the campus was quiet except for the news helicopters. From my office by the quad outside Royce Hall, I heard little, save for faint singing late in the afternoon. If you didn’t look at the news or walk up to the camp, you’d never know there was anything unusual happening. Things felt less political, actually; I saw fewer keffiyehs, presumably because those students so adorned were now in the camp rather than wandering around campus.

On Monday, April 29, a pro-Israel group set up a giant television on the Royce quad’s eastern half. The TV faced away from the main protest but directly toward the street, which (thanks to the detour necessitated by the protester barricade) was the main route for pedestrian traffic through campus. October 7 footage played on the TV all day, effectively saying, “this is what the creeps behind us stand for.” The videos were not exactly pleasant to witness, but the television and the handful of people attending it took up a small footprint in the middle of a lawn and did not impede walkways.

The same could not be said for the anti-Israel camp on the quad’s western half. By Tuesday morning, the protesters had erected a crude plywood blockade, next to which the university placed a shorter metal barrier. These makeshift fences, unlike the pro-Israel group’s television, did obstruct pedestrian traffic, already impeded by construction west of Powell Library and university barricades southeast of Haines Hall. The protesters had barricaded Royce’s portico and blocked access to the quad from the Janss Steps and the parallel stairs at the Fowler Museum.

These barricades prompted multiple conflicts, often involving Jewish students seeking and being denied entry into Powell or Royce. In one video, a Jewish young man shows his university ID and demands to be allowed passage to his classes. In another, a young man who had apparently tried to break through the barrier by Powell was chased down and surrounded by anti-Israel protesters. While these incidents were widely interpreted as the protesters specifically excluding Jews, they excluded from their territory everyone who didn’t agree with them.

The Los Angeles Times was among those praising UCLA’s restrained approach of yielding territory and rerouting traffic around the camp in contrast to the send-in-the-cops response at USC, UT Austin, and Columbia. Such praise would prove premature, however.  

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday April 30, the university sent two messages. The first, a “BruinALERT” bulletin, announced that Royce and Powell would be closed for the rest of the week. The second, a message from the chancellor, announced that the protesters would no longer be allowed to block access to campus buildings and that their barriers had been removed. This must have happened minutes before the chancellor sent the message; I saw barricades blocking every approach to the main entrance of Royce Hall an hour earlier.

The official pushback, however, came too late. Shortly before the two university messages, an Instagram user posted a video of a woman being lifted off an asphalt road by a sizable group of pro-Israel protesters, with the caption claiming that the video depicted the aftermath of an assault by five people wearing keffiyehs. As best I can tell, the video takes place by the flagpole at the east end of the Royce quad. I heard later rumors describing the woman as a Persian Jew and claiming that she had a concussion so severe that she did not initially recognize her family upon waking in the hospital. It’s worth being skeptical of such gossip, though, given past exaggerations on both sides of the conflict.

While the veracity of the rumor is what matters for this young woman’s health, what mattered for the campus was the rumor itself. Seemingly in response, around midnight Wednesday, a large group of pro-Israel protesters massed at the Royce quad, launched fireworks into the anti-Israel camp, and attempted to destroy their plywood barricade. At that point, a melee ensued between the pro-Israel and anti-Israel protesters, with demonstrators using bear spray and similar irritants and all parties using bits of the barricade as clubs. Security guards fled to the safety of Kaplan Hall on the other side of the quad, which they locked without admitting student journalists, and it took hours for enough cops to mass to break up the riot.

The anti-Israel protest, which had garnered most of the public attention, had vandalized the grounds and obstructed pedestrian traffic; UCLA, a public university, could choose to suppress it on time, place, and manner grounds. The practical impact of this disruption was a few minutes of extra walking time and power-washing the façade of Royce. That’s not nothing, but the midnight actions of pro-Israel protesters unleashed significantly more chaos. 

The pro-Israel riot late Tuesday night was counterproductive. Just hours before, the university had clearly indicated that the protesters would no longer be allowed to block buildings and that protesters who violated this would be suspended or expelled. If the anti-Israel protesters had acquiesced to this demand, their continued presence would be tolerable, stripped as it would be of its most noxious aspect. If they had defied it, this would have provoked a response by the legitimate authority of the state. Either would have been preferable to vigilantism that dissipated some of the moral high ground that pro-Israel protesters had achieved through videos of a leftist mob barring students from the library.

On Wednesday, following the Tuesday night pro-Israel offensive, the anti-Israel encampment’s population swelled to a substantial multiple of its former size. Another large crowd formed halfway down the Janss Steps to defend the camp as the quad at the bottom of the steps turned into a parking lot for cop cars, with a convoy of jail buses waiting a few blocks away. Early Thursday morning, the camp would be raided again—this time, by police.  

Photo by Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images


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