USC student protesters join national pro-Palestinian camps

More than 100 USC students erected tents, banners and signs in the center of campus Wednesday, joining in a growing national sit-in movement across college campuses, as pro-Palestinian activists demand that universities call for a permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and divest from ties to weapons manufacturers with ties to Israel.

The encampment in Alumni Park — where the university’s main-stage commencement is scheduled to take place next month — went up before sunrise and grew into the late morning as students, wearing keffiyahs and holding “free Palestine” and “liberated zone” signs, banged drums and chanted.

“Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!” said the crowd, which billed itself in a statement as the”USC Divest from Death Coalition.”

“Carol, Carol, you can’t hide! You’re supporting genocide!” went another chant, a reference to USC President Carol Folt.

Protesters included members of pro-Palestinian groups such as Trojans for Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The USC encampment joined a growing number of student-led demonstrations at college campuses since last week, when more than 100 arrests at an ongoing camp-in at Columbia University spurred solidarity protests at universities from Massachusetts to California.

An encampment at UC Berkeley is in its third day, while the campus of Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata is shut down through Wednesday, after students occupied an administration building Monday night. Police have also arrested activists at Yale University, New York University, and the University of Minnesota.

Tensions have grown at colleges since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages. Gaza health authorities say Israel’s retaliatory war has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. According to the United Nations, 2 million Gazans are living in near-famine conditions.

On Wednesday, the tents at USC repeatedly went up and down, as officers with the campus Department of Public Safety told students to remove them and, at one point, dragged away lawn chairs. Students picked up their tents and walked with them in circles to avoid being in violation of a “no camping” university policy. At least two L.A. Police Department helicopters circled above Alumni Park.

The protest at USC comes after more than a week of campus tensions that began when Folt canceled a speaking engagement by valedictorian Asna Tabassum that was supposed to take place at the May 10 main-stage commencement, which is expected to draw 65,000 people.

The decision came after on- and off-campus pro-Israel groups criticized Tabassum for posting a pro-Palestinian link on her Instagram bio that they said was antisemitic. USC said the cancellation was not tied to Tabassum’s political views and was instead in response to unspecified threats to campus safety targeted at her speech. The university has also canceled a main-stage commencement address by director Jon M. Chu and appearances by honorary degree recipients, including tennis star Billie Jean King.

“Everyone, from our valedictorian Asna Tabassum all the way to any student who speaks up against genocide, should have the full support of the university, contrary to what we are seeing, which was incredible repression,” said Ahmad, a Palestinian American protester with the Palestinian Youth Movement who would not share his last name. “The university has to this date not said a word about our families, the genocide we are experiencing in Gaza.”

Several professors also joined the protest on Wednesday, holding a sign that said, “USC faculty against the genocide in Palestine.” One of them was Amelia Jones, a professor at the Roski School of Art and Design.

“This is about what’s happening in Gaza, but it’s also about what’s happening here,” said Jones. “They pulled a student from commencement for nothing she actually said or did. Yet a university is supposed be a place of free speech. We haven’t heard a word from our president about anything. We feel unheard and disconnected.”

In a statement, the USC administration said it believed the demonstrators — most of whom appeared undergraduate aged — were not from USC.

“The university has a policy that prohibits camping on campus, which is in the Student Handbook. About 10-15 people came to campus at 4:30 a.m. today with tents. DPS officers advised them of the policy, and the people took the tents down” the statement said.

“The people remain in Alumni Park — most appeared to be unaffiliated with the university,” the statement continued. “Our students, faculty and staff are allowed to express their views and have been doing so throughout the school year.”

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