Police Pepper Spray Protesters After Dispersing Impromptu Encampment for Palestine

State troopers spray protesters on 22nd Street with mace as clashes between students and law enforcement reach a breaking point. (Photo by Lina Fisher)

Monday saw another day of protest at UT-Austin, and once again, state troopers and city police escalated an initially peaceful protest into a chaotic and violent clash between students and law enforcement.

Unlike last Wednesday, today’s impromptu encampment was not organized by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, who told the Chronicle it was “supportive of the encampment but not the organizers.” During a faculty-planned vigil at the UT Tower at noon to condemn “scholasticide” in Gaza – the systematic destruction of universities – a group of around 50 people set up tents on the South Lawn and blockaded themselves in a circle with tables and signs reading “divest from genocide.” At first, only about 10 UT cops were at the scene, but by 1pm, hundreds of police, including UTPD, city police, and state troopers, had surrounded them, along with a supportive crowd.

State troopers, many in riot gear, faced the crowd encircling the protesters and arrested people in the encampment one by one. As the day wore on and got hotter, medics brought in water bottles and escorted protesters who were either unconscious or experiencing heat exhaustion and dehydration out of the encampment. Troopers and APD issued multiple orders to disperse and continued arresting people in ones and twos, sometimes dragging them on the ground or in the air out of the encampment. Protesters chanted “you failed Uvalde” and “free Palestine.” Sen. Sarah Eckhardt and Rep. Gina Hinojosa were at the protest asking questions of APD. Eckhardt told the Chronicle she was trying to observe for herself and deescalate the situation by aiding communication between protesters and law enforcement.

That communication broke down catastrophically after the last encampment protester was arrested around 4:15pm. As the first crowd dispersed and legal aid volunteers began cleaning up trampled tents, another crowd was forming further down 22nd, attempting to block the Guadalupe entrance and prevent law enforcement vans carrying the arrested from leaving. A crowd of law enforcement and students began pushing against each other. APD then sprayed the crowd with cans of what looked like pepper spray, and the crowd roared, “Fuck you fascists,” retreating to pour bottles of water into the eyes of those who were sprayed and then pushing back. As the crowd screamed and pushed harder, law enforcement set off flash-bangs, which caused the crowd to disperse slightly. But as the smoke cleared, enraged students pushed police back up 22nd toward the tower, chanting “off our campus.”

When they passed the UT Tower and the South Lawn, they found a bus full of state troopers attempting to leave campus. After some protesters tried to block the bus, state troopers on foot dispersed the blockade and the bus was able to back slowly down 22nd. Around 5pm, it finally left and turned onto Dean Keeton to applause from the protesters. At 6:30, some protesters were still trying to block police from transporting arrestees off campus.

Around 3pm, before the worst of today’s violence, the university released a statement justifying arrests, writing that “protesters ignored repeated directives from both the administration and law enforcement officers to comply with Institutional Rules and remove tents assembled on the University’s South Lawn, then physically engaged with and verbally assaulted Dean of Students staff who attempted to confiscate them, UT and partner law enforcement agencies dismantled an encampment and arrested several protesters. Baseball size rocks were found strategically placed within the encampment. The majority of protesters are believed to be unaffiliated with the university.”

As of publication, UT had not responded to a request for comment from the Chronicle.