What do pro-Palestinian student protesters at US universities want?

Protester at UCLA
[Getty Images]

Dozens of college campuses across the US have been taken over by students protesting against the war in Gaza.

More than 2,000 demonstrators have been arrested, as universities struggle to deal with encampments, days before graduation ceremonies.

Police moved in to clear several protests on Wednesday. In Los Angeles, officers have started to dismantle activists' barricades at UCLA after encircling the campus.

Why are students protesting over the war in Gaza?

Since the 7 October attack by Hamas and Israel's retaliatory assault, students have launched rallies, sit-ins, fasts and, most recently, encampments against the war.

They are demanding that their schools, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel.

Divestment means to sell off stock in Israeli companies, or to otherwise drop financial ties.

Student activists say that companies doing business in Israel, or with Israeli organisations, are complicit in its ongoing war in Gaza - as are colleges investing in those companies.

University endowments fund everything from research labs to scholarship funds, mostly using returns from millions - and billions - of dollars in investments.

What is happening at UCLA?

Hundreds of police officers are at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), telling pro-Palestinian protesters to disperse or face arrest.

They have surrounded the campus and started taking down barricades put up by protesters at the encampment.

BBC reporters at the scene say protesters locked arms and took up makeshift riot gear and hard hats as busloads more police arrived.

A day earlier there was violence when masked pro-Israel protesters attacked the pro-Palestinian camp.

The police were criticised by the California governor's office for not intervening early enough to help.

Why did these protests start?

It began last month, as the president of Columbia University in New York City testified before Congress about antisemitism on campus.

Hundreds of students pitched tents on the Upper Manhattan campus and the police moved in a day later, sparking a wave of action at more colleges across the US.

In-person classes at Columbia were cancelled but the protests continued, eventually moving into an academic building.

The police were called in again due to vandalism and risks to public safety, the university said.

More than 100 arrests were made as both the building and encampment were cleared.

Where else are students protesting?

The escalating crisis at Columbia inspired similar protests and encampments across the country, including:

  • Northeast region: George Washington; Brown; Yale; Harvard; Emerson; NYU; Georgetown; American; University of Maryland; Johns Hopkins; Tufts; Cornell; University of Pennsylvania; Princeton; Temple; Northeastern; MIT; The New School; University of Rochester; University of Pittsburgh

  • West Coast: California State Polytechnic, Humboldt; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Berkeley; University of Washington

  • Midwest region: University of Wisconsin; Northwestern; Washington University in St Louis; Indiana University; University of Michigan; Ohio State; University of Minnesota; Miami University; University of Ohio; Columbia College Chicago; University of Chicago

  • The South: Tulane; Emory; Vanderbilt; University of North Carolina, Charlotte; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Kennesaw State; Florida State; Virginia Tech; University of Georgia, Athens

  • Southwest: University of Texas at Austin; Rice; Arizona State

Pro-Palestinian protesters have also gathered over the past week on university campuses in Australia, Canada, France, Italy and the UK.

How have universities handled the protests?

Some are negotiating with student activists while others are issuing ultimatums that have led to police being called in.

An agreement was reached between Northwestern University near Chicago and protesters that limits the size of the encampment.

Another deal was reached at Brown University where school officials agreed to hold a vote on divestment in October in exchange for students removing the encampment.

National politicians have called on colleges to do more, highlighting reports of antisemitism at some of these protests.

Jewish students at several campuses have told the BBC about incidents that made them feel uncomfortable or fearful.

These ranged from chants and signs supporting Hamas, a proscribed terror group, to physical altercations and perceived threats.

How many people have been arrested?

Over 2,000 people have been arrested at the demonstrations across the US, according to a tally compiled by the Associated Press.

In just the first two days of May alone, hundreds of arrests were made at campuses around the country, including Yale, Dartmouth, Stony Brook, Portland State, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas at Dallas.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, over 100 people were reportedly taken into custody after police moved in on a pro-Palestinian encampment.

In New York, 282 were arrested earlier this week after police cleared Columbia's Hamilton Hall - which had been occupied by protesters - as well as the encampment on campus. The figure includes detentions made at the nearby City College of New York.

Has protesting worked?

Pro-Palestinian campus groups have for years called on their institutions to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as a means of pushing back against Israel.

No US university has ever committed to the BDS framework, although some have cut specific financial ties in the past.

While divestment would have a negligible impact, if any, on the war in Gaza, protesters say it would shed light on those who profit from war and help build awareness of their issue.

Why are students recalling protests over Vietnam War?

Activists at Columbia and elsewhere have highlighted the protests at the end of the 1960s against US involvement in the Vietnam War.

Thousands were arrested and there were violent clashes with police.

Four students in Ohio were killed in 1970 when the National Guard opened fire. The National Guard is not being deployed to the Gaza campus protests.

Their deaths triggered a nationwide student strike and hundreds of universities closed.