Police arrest 47 at UC Irvine after sweeping protest camp, clearing barricaded building

Irvine, CA, Wednesday, May 15, 2024 - Scores of law enforcement personnel from various agencies move hundreds of demonstrating students, faculty and supporters protesting the treatment of Palestinians and the UC system's investments in Isreali interests. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Hundreds of law enforcement personnel descended on UC Irvine to move hundreds of pro-Palestinian students, faculty and supporters protesting the UC system's investments in Israel. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In another dramatic campus showdown, hundreds of police officers in riot gear descended on a pro-Palestinian encampment at UC Irvine in an hours-long siege that led to dozens of arrests.

University officials said they took action after a contingent of demonstrators briefly occupied and barricaded a nearby university building Wednesday, escalating a protest that had been tolerated by officials for weeks.

By nightfall Wednesday, police had herded the demonstrators off-site, dismantled the encampment and arrested 47 protesters, including some faculty members.

But the move did little to ease division on campus over the protests and the university's handling of it.

UCI joins several other California universities, including UCLA, UC San Diego, Cal Poly Humboldt and USC, that resorted to mass police action to clear encampments. Protesters at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley agreed to remove their camps in exchange for concessions from the university.

A UCI spokesperson said most of those arrested were booked on suspicion of failing to disperse, and a few on suspicion of trespassing. Among the 47 were 26 students, two employees and 19 who were unaffiliated with the university, UCI said late Thursday. University officials did not respond to questions about whether students or staff would face additional disciplinary action.

UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said he was "brokenhearted" at the end of the day, explaining that he had been "prepared to allow a peaceful encampment to exist on the campus without resorting to police intervention," despite the setup violating policies and distressing many in the community.

"It was terrible to see that [the encampment protesters] would dramatically alter the situation in a way that was a direct assault on the rights of other students and the university mission," Gillman said in a statement released late Wednesday.

He said protesters decided to "transform a manageable situation that did not have to involve police into a situation that required a different response.

"I never wanted that," Gillman said.

But many protesters considered the forceful response unnecessary, at some points chanting "Peaceful protest!" while others felt the police presence added new safety concerns. One, a global studies professor, shouted, “Shame on them! Shame on them!” while being led away by officers.

UCI announced that all classes would be held virtually on Thursday, and said employees should also work remotely.

Despite the arrests and the presence of as many as 200 helmeted officers carrying batons, the scene at UCI was calmer than some of the confrontations that have occurred on college campuses across the country in recent weeks — when protesters have hurled heavy objects at officers, police have fired "less-lethal" rounds at demonstrators and multiple protesters have been injured.

Over a matter of hours as officers converged around demonstrators at UCI, Times reporters witnessed a few skirmishes between protesters and police at the encampment's barrier and at least one water bottle hurled in officers' direction — but those incidents seemed isolated. One man had a bloody nose after he was swept up and taken away by police.

UCI spokesperson Thomas Vasich said one protester and five officers were injured.

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator walks along a police line at UC Irvine.
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator walks along a police line at UC Irvine. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

University officials said a group of protesters entered campus around 2:30 p.m. and "began surrounding and ultimately barricaded" the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall, a large indoor amphitheater. A few in the group entered the building, the university said.

The building takeover was broadcast live on Instagram by several pro-Palestinian accounts. The videos showed a hectic scene as students clad in kaffiyehs ran to and from the area beside the lecture hall, setting up a wooden barrier, tents, signs and other materials.

According to some students, Wednesday's action was taken after members of the protest negotiating team were suspended by the university. “They forced our hand,” said a student who declined to give her name for fear of retaliation by the university.

The action also coincided with the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, Arabic for "catastrophe," which refers to the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

Protesters at UCI on Wednesday held signs and shared posts on social media referencing the Nakba while similar escalations citing the day's history occurred at other California campuses; some law enforcement officials said that suggested a level of coordination among various activist groups. At UC Santa Cruz, a group of protesters blocked a main intersection not far from its ongoing encampment, and at UC Berkeley, a group occupied an abandoned building on campus — despite university officials reaching an agreement the day before with pro-Palestinian encampment organizers. A UC Berkeley spokesperson said the group “vandalizing an unsafe, boarded-up" building was different from the coalition that agreed to pack up their encampment after a settlement with the university related to its weapons' investments.

With that pact, the school joined at least four other California universities and several across the country that forged settlements with activists to end campus encampments that some Jewish students say have included antisemitic signage and chants. Although no schools have agreed specifically to divest from ties to Israel — among protesters' initial demands — each has indicated that it will explore proposals to tighten investment policies regarding companies that sell weapons.

UC Irvine is not among those. Student representatives met with university leadership two weeks ago to discuss whether the school would agree to their divestment demands in exchange for an end to the encampment. But talks were not fruitful, according to student organizers, and their encampment persisted.

The group had asked for an end to “violent extremism” funding, amnesty for student protesters, a commitment to an academic boycott of Israel and removal of what the group calls “Zionist programming.”

Gillman, in his statement Wednesday, called their requests unreasonable and an "assault on the academic freedom rights of our faculty and the free speech rights of faculty and students."

Police grab a kneeling protester as they break up a demonstration at UC Irvine.
Police grab a kneeling protester as they break up a demonstration at UC Irvine. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When protesters escalated their campus demonstration to the physical sciences hall, UC Irvine officials reacted swiftly. Just after 3 p.m., the university issued a shelter-in-place order for anyone on campus near the protest, and UCI police put out a call for support. Law enforcement agencies from across the region responded, including the California Highway Patrol, Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Ana, Fullerton and Orange police departments, eventually joining together to form lines at the protest site and slowly marching forward.

As police advanced, some protesters started running, while others remained and filmed.

Sarah Khalil said she was prepared to stand her ground and face arrest. “This cause is way bigger than any of us,” the fourth-year student said, fighting back tears.

“I’ve never seen a mobilization like this,” Lorenzo Love, a Laguna Beach resident, told a Times reporter while visiting the protest to support students speaking out about the Israel-Hamas war.

“These kids were peaceful,” Love said.

By around 5:30 p.m., several demonstrators had been taken into custody, and officers were ripping down some of the tents and barriers. Arrests continued as a group of officers made its way into the previously-barricaded lecture hall.

Protesters had chained and tied the doors shut, a law enforcement source said.

Police remove pallets and furniture set up as a barricade.
Police remove pallets and furniture set up as a barricade while clearing protesters from outside the UCI physical sciences building. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Meryem Kamil, an assistant professor of film and media studies, said she arrived late to the demonstration because she had to finish teaching a class. When Kamil arrived, she quickly joined the group of students gathered near the lecture hall, she said in a phone interview.

As Kamil spoke, she said police in tactical gear were "kettling" the group she was with — corralling protesters into a smaller space.

Although her research focuses on Palestinians and she felt an affinity with those suffering in the Gaza Strip, Kamil said, her primary reason for being at the protest was to ensure the safety of students.

A large contingent of police wait to move in near a banner reading 'Free Palestine'
Hundreds of law enforcement personnel from various agencies descended on UCI to move protesters Wednesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

"Their bodies are on the line; my position is to make it as safe as possible," she said.

By about 8:30 p.m., the second of two unlawful-assembly orders was given by police officers. At that point, several dozens protesters remained, most of whom were standing on the grass or slowly walking away. “Where is the unlawful assembly?” said one student organizer.

People flee the protest area at UC Irvine ahead of advancing police.
People flee the protest area at UC Irvine ahead of advancing police. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County district attorney’s office said Wednesday evening that any person who was arrested would be charged with failing to disperse.  It will be at least a week before any charging decisions are made for those arrested, the office said; all those detained have been released.

“The right to peaceful assembly is a constitutional right and we encourage protesters to exercise their right to peaceful assembly; however, criminal activity which transcends peaceful assembly, including violence and vandalism of any kind, will not be tolerated," Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said.

But not all local leaders were supportive of how the evening played out. Irvine's mayor took to X, saying the students' actions did not present a threat.

"Taking space on campus or in a building is not a threat to anyone," Mayor Farrah N. Khan posted. "UCI leadership must do everything they can to avoid creating a violent scenario here."

Read more: UC Irvine protest: Newport Beach mayor claps back at Irvine mayor's tweet over 'violent scenario'

Her sentiment drew a rebuke from Will O'Neill, the mayor of Newport Beach, who responded that numerous officers from his city were "currently in Irvine providing assistance at the request of a mutual aid call."

"Your careless wording makes it appear that you are preemptively accusing our officers, and officers from the many law enforcement agencies who responded, of violence," he wrote.

Don Wagner, the chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, thanked the multiagency response Wednesday, saying the officers showed restraint by "giving protesters hours to peacefully remove themselves from the premises, regularly warning them through a loudspeaker system, gradually moving in and removing tents, canopies, trash and barriers from the encampment, all without the violence we have seen recently on other campuses."

"I am relieved to hear that the situation did not escalate," Wagner said in a statement Thursday.

A weeks-long pro-Palestine protest at UC Irvine demanding the university divest from Israel
Onlookers film as police descend on the Irvine campus Wednesday afternoon. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Orange County Sheriff's deputies with helmets and batons forming a line
UC Irvine police called in multiple agencies to help clear the demonstration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Pro-Palestinian protesters with masks and helmets linking arms to form a blockade, some holding open umbrellas
Pro-Palestinian protesters link arms to form a blockade to UC Irvine's Physical Sciences Lecture Hall. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

After arrests started breaking up Wednesday's protest at UCI, maintenance workers began picking apart what remained of the weeks-long encampment — which by then was just a pile of debris: wooden pallets, homemade signs and various camping items — and placing them inside a moving truck.

Meanwhile, a small group of demonstrators continued its standoff with police, waving Palestinian flags and chanting, “Peaceful protest,” as officers stood watch and a police helicopter circled above.

“Community came out,” one student said, standing in the middle of Aldrich Park, several hundred feet away from the police line. “We did successfully take over the building even if it was for a short period. We held our ground for hours. That’s a big win.”

Times staff writers Jaweed Kaleem, Teresa Watanabe and Libor Jany contributed to this report.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.