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Police clear pro-Palestinian encampment at Tulane, students say with ‘excessive’ force

A pro-Palestinian march makes its way along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on November 9, 2023.
Aubri Juhasz
A pro-Palestinian march makes its way along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on November 9, 2023.

Updated May 2, 2024 at 10 a.m.

Tulane University officials called in police early Wednesday to dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment on the school’s Uptown campus, less than 48 hours after it was established.

Police arrested at least 14 people — including six students from Tulane and nearby Loyola University — and cleared tents and a surrounding barricade on Gibson Lawn across from Audubon Park.

Witness videos from social media show dozens of officers in riot gear moving in a line through the encampment, handcuffing protesters with zip ties and loading some into vans.

Tulane officials said in a statement that they spent days coordinating with local and state police with the goal of “keeping the protesters and our community safe while returning campus to normal operations.”

But student protesters said at a press conference Wednesday that the decision to send armed state police, including a SWAT team, to break up an unarmed encampment was “excessive” and “dangerous.”

State police did not use tear gas or other chemical munitions, a spokesperson said, adding that while some officers were armed with department-issued firearms others were “equipped with less lethal devices.”

“These troopers are highly trained in handling such situations and have distinct roles and responsibilities,” he said. “The safety of the community and law enforcement personnel is of utmost importance.”

Juleea Berthelot, a sophomore at Loyola and one of the students arrested, spoke at the press conference and said she could be suspended or expelled under her school’s code of conduct for participating in the protest.

“What did I do? I fought for the people in Palestine. That’s what I did,” she said.

Officials closed three buildings Tuesday and held classes scheduled there remotely due to the encampment. The closure continued Wednesday, the final day of classes for most students, while finals stretch into next week.

Campus and city police had been present at the encampment since it was set up Monday and officers repeatedly warned demonstrators that they were trespassing, even wheeling in a large electronic sign Tuesday afternoon.

“Free speech and the freedom to protest are sacred to us,” Tulane President Michael Fitts and other officials said in a statement, adding that the university has authorized other demonstrations this year.

“Harassment, intimidation, violence and other criminal acts on any of our campuses are not acceptable,” they said. “Organizers of protests need to know we will not tolerate these things.”

Students representing Jewish groups on campus said they felt threatened by the encampment and urged officials to shut it down.

Meanwhile, demonstrators themselves, some of whom are Jewish, stressed they were peaceful. The group said they would stay until their demands — including a ceasefire in Gaza and that both Tulane and Loyola divest from Israeli corporations and those that supply arms, fuel or technology to Israel — were met or they were arrested.

About a third of students at the private, highly selective school identify as Jewish, according to the university's Hillel chapter. The school doesn't track how many students identify as Muslim, or any other religion.

Police cleared a number of pro-Palestinian encampments on college campuses across the country late Tuesday and early Wednesday. In addition to Tulane, students were arrested at the University of California and Columbia University in New York, where demonstrators took over a building.

Two Tulane students were arrested for refusing to leave the encampment, according to the university, and another student was among six people arrested by campus police when tents were first set up on Monday.

Demonstrators pitched tents following a rally sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society chapters at both Tulane and neighboring Loyola University. The groups have jointly held multiple marches and rallies since Hamas' October attack and Israel’s resulting war in Gaza.

Tulane officials said the vast majority of people at the encampment — roughly 200 at its start — were not affiliated with the university, meaning they were not students, faculty or staff.

When asked how the university could tell, a spokesperson said, “We know our students well and can easily distinguish between them and outside protesters.”

Members of Students for a Democratic Society at Tulane and Loyola said in a statement that the university wasn't telling the truth.

"In all formal correspondence regarding our ongoing demonstrations, they blatantly lied. Tulane students, faculty, staff and alumni were present at the encampment," the groups said.

Tulane is taking disciplinary action against students who participated and seven have already been suspended. Officials said they are also looking into reports of employees that participated.

Four Loyola students were also arrested, a spokesperson confirmed.

“If you are arrested during this demonstration, Loyola has no power to intervene in legal proceedings,” Xavier Cole, Loyola's president, warned students. “You will be in violation of the student code of conduct and may face additional consequences.”

Standing outside the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office Wednesday, Kristin Hamilton, a graduate student at Tulane, read the groups’ demands in full and added a new one, “That all charges against protesters be dropped and that both universities reinstate suspended students and refuse to pursue further retaliation against students, faculty and staff.”

With the school year ending, protesters said they don’t plan to stop fighting.

“We can still mobilize whenever we want,” Hamilton said. “There will be another semester.”

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.