Police Converge on UC Irvine, Make Arrests After Protesters Occupy Science Building

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies at the University of California, Irvine, Wednesday. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

IRVINE, Calif. (Los Angeles Times/TNS) — Police began making arrests Wednesday evening on the campus of UC Irvine several hours into a pro-Palestinian demonstration in which protesters occupied and barricaded a university building.

The university said that around 2:30 p.m. “a group of several hundred protesters” entered the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall, a large indoor amphitheater. UCI faculty on hand to observe the protest said, however, that that figure was inflated and fewer than a dozen protesters entered the building.

Some time later, at nearby John Croul Hall, chants of “Free Palestine” went up among the protesters gathered there, and “divest from genocide” was written on the ground by the front entrance of the building. The words were accompanied by a drawing of a watermelon, a frequently used symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Signs propped up along the barrier of the encampment read, “I can learn the history, educate myself and others” and “I can protest.”

In the hours after the protest broke out, social media was flooded with images of the large contingent of law enforcement that had converged on campus.

Meryem Kamil, an assistant professor of film and media studies, said she was late in arriving to the demonstration because she had to finish teaching a class. But when she arrived, she quickly joined the group of students gathered near the lecture hall, she said in a phone interview. As she spoke, she said police in tactical gear were “kettling” the group she was with — or corralling protesters into a smaller space.

She said she had seen or heard about at least 15 people being arrested so far, including other professors, graduate and undergraduate students and city residents. Although her research focuses on Palestine, Kamil said her primary reason for being at the protest was to ensure the safety of students.

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

Earlier in the day, the university had alerted students to instruct them to shelter in place. That order was rescinded by about 6 p.m., with officials urging those who had remained in buildings near the protest site to exit and avoid the area.

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

As many as 200 law enforcement officers were on campus. In helmets and carrying batons, they formed lines at the protest site. By around 5:30 p.m., several demonstrators had been taken into custody, and officers were ripping down some of the tents and barriers. A group of officers also began to enter the lecture hall.

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

Law-enforcement officers from across the region responded to a call for support by UCI police. Agencies included the California Highway Patrol, Orange County Sheriff’s Department and police departments from Santa Ana, Fullerton and the city of Orange.

According to students, Wednesday’s action by protesters 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.

Sarah Khalil, a fourth-year student at UCI, said she was prepared to stand her ground and face arrest. “This cause is way bigger than any of us,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Police gave a dispersal order shortly before 4 p.m., students said.

The Orange County district attorney’s office said Wednesday evening that any person who was arrested for failing to disperse would be charged.

“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,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said. “Any evidence of criminal activity, including failure to obey lawful orders to disperse, will be investigated and thoroughly reviewed to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.”

“We are not trying to get arrested today,” a woman said as she advised protesters to leave certain areas as police moved in.

Student demonstrators began to take down protest materials while others chanted, “The students united will never be defeated,” and “We are students. Peaceful protest!”

As police advanced, some protesters started running, while others stood their ground and filmed.

The moves by UCI police came after authorities removed camps at UCLA, Cal Poly Humboldt and USC. Protesters at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley had agreed to end their camps in exchange for concessions from the university.

Irvine’s mayor spoke out, 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 wrote on social media. “UCI leadership must do everything they can to avoid creating a violent scenario here.”

Law enforcement officials reported that similar protest actions had sprung up Wednesday on other campuses, including at UC Santa Cruz, where protesters blocked a roadway on the school’s hilly campus. This, they said, suggested some level of coordination among various activist groups.

At UC Berkeley, protesters occupied Anna Head Alumnae Hall, a condemned building on campus, just a day after demonstrators removed tents on a central campus plaza as a result of an agreement with university officials that appeared to end one of the largest and longest student encampments in the country.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Wednesday, “This is an active crime scene, it is not nonviolent civil disobedience.”

He said protesters were “vandalizing an unsafe, boarded-up, fire-damaged building.” UC Berkeley officials confirmed, however, that “the coalition with whom the university reached an understanding yesterday did not initiate today’s action.”

As part of the Berkeley agreement, Chancellor Carol Christ said she would initiate a discussion about the university’s investments in weapons companies and the possible divestment from them.

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, each has indicated that it will explore proposals to tighten investment policies regarding companies that sell weapons.

Student representatives met with UC Irvine leadership two weeks ago to discuss whether the university would agree to their demands for divestment from companies with ties to Israel and weapon manufacturers in exchange for an end to the campus encampment. But talks were not fruitful, according to student organizers.

Protesters have 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.”

UC Riverside Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox signed off May 3 on an agreement to end the encampment at his campus. It was the first such agreement at a UC campus and said that the university would publicly make a “full disclosure” of the companies and size of its investments.

It also said that UC Riverside would form a task force that includes students and faculty to “explore the removal of UCR’s endowment from the management of the UC investments office and the investment of said endowment in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university with consideration to the companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery.” The task force would present its findings to the board of trustees by March 21, 2025.

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