Across LA Schools, Art Students and Faculty Rally for Palestine

LOS ANGELES — Violence erupted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on Tuesday night, April 30, as counter-protesters attacked pro-Palestine student activists who occupied the campus. Shortly before midnight, agitators wielding sticks descended on the encampment, setting off fireworks and using pepper spray as they attempted to dismantle the barricades surrounding the camp. University security reportedly did not intervene and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers did not immediately attempt to stop them, and the aggressions continued until the area was cleared around 3am.

At around 1:30am on Thursday, LAPD officers wearing body armor and helmets raided the encampment, tearing down the metal and wooden barricades surrounding the camp, dismantling many of the tents, and arresting more than 200 people. According to the Los Angeles Times, police used “flash-bang type devices,” launched flares into the sky, and shot rubber bullets at the protestors, leading to some injuries. UC President Michael V. Drake ordered an “independent review” based on “sufficient confusion” over the night’s events.”  

At UCLA, students’ demands for university leadership echo those heard at schools across the United States. (photo Angella D’Avignon/Hyperallergic)

The incidents marked a significant escalation in tensions over the past week, since students at UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC) joined the wave of demonstrations at colleges across the United States to demand that their schools divest from Israel amid its ongoing attacks on Gaza. Recently, students at other LA universities have set up encampments and staged protests and walkouts, including the Claremont Colleges, Occidental College, Otis College of Art and Design, CalArts, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside.

Students at UCLA established a Gaza Solidarity Encampment on campus at Dickson Court early Thursday morning, April 25. A food kitchen, an arts and crafts section, and a library were set up across the encampment, and faculty took up a zone in the stairwell of Royce Hall in support.

“I’m here as an artist and student to remember the artists and students in Palestine who don’t have the chance to study art, since 11 universities have been destroyed in Gaza,” an undergraduate named Lilah told Hyperallergic. 

Jazzy, an arts student, emphasized the “legacy and role of artists as part of social movements.”

“The recent discovery of mass graves in Gaza at Nasser Hospital makes our commitment all the more urgent,” Jazzy told Hyperallergic. (Both students asked to be identified by first name only.)

News reporters and spectators gathered around the perimeter of the encampment, outfitted with wood pallets, educational signage, and eventually, metal barricades set in place by campus security.

A student sign at the UCLA encampment focuses on the housing crisis. (photo Angella D’Avignon/Hyperallergic)

At UCLA, students’ demands for university leadership echo those heard at schools across the United States: Divest from companies with ties to Israel, disclose financial investments and assets portfolios, abolish policing on campus, and commit to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many schools across the nation have deep ties to weapons manufacturers, including contracts with military and governmental organizations in the defense industry to conscript students. UCLA in particular has ties to Blackrock, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, among other companies.

Several faculty members have joined the students at the encampment and in protest activities. (photo courtesy USC Divest From Death Coalition)

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment expanded by Sunday morning as a massive and crowd-funded “counter-protest” broke into the barricades, allegedly spraying students with pepper spray. By 11am, the counter-protesters, all adults, had set up a stage and an enormous rented LCD screen that displayed the names and faces of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. 

Students and protesters led by the Palestinian Youth Movement overtook the lawn where the counter-protesters set up camp, extended the encampment, and adjusted the barriers. A “buffer zone” between Zionist agitators and the encampment was first created by UCPD in riot gear and replaced by a crowd of pro-Palestine activists, who created a barrier of protection around the encampment. 

Candice Lin, an interdisciplinary artist and assistant professor in the Department of Art at UCLA, joined her colleagues for a faculty walkout on Monday. “I think it’s always important to speak out against a genocide, especially one that our tax dollars fund,” Lin told Hyperallergic.

Tents set up by students at USC (photo courtesy USC Divest from Death Coalition)
Students occupied USC’s Alumni Park last Wednesday, April 24. (photo courtesy USC Divest From Death Coalition)

The encampment at USC began a day earlier than UCLA’s, with a group of students erecting tents at Alumni Park on campus last Wednesday, April 24. Calling itself the USC Divest From Death Coalition, the group is also demanding an end to “displacement from South Central to Palestine,” referring to USC’s expansion into the South LA neighborhood in which it is located.

A former adjunct faculty member at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, who requested anonymity, brought 11 large signs, each with a different letter painted in sumi ink on foam-core panels and spelling out “Let Gaza Live.” The signs were originally made last fall by artist David Horvitz and collaborators for communal protests on the 10 Freeway overpass at 6th Avenue, and two other sets of were later made for autonomous protests elsewhere. 

Since the signs require multiple people to hold them, “there was a beautiful, loose, autonomous flow of sign-holding” at USC, the former Roski instructor told Hyperallergic

The artworks also served as protection for protesters from agitators, they added. “Unintentionally, our wall of letters had become a sort of barrier. Throughout, we would open it up to let supporters in and out.” The signs were eventually confiscated by authorities.

“While you’re learning, Rafah’s burning,” read a sign at USC’s encampment. (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
Signs from the USC student-led encampment (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

That night, LAPD officers in riot gear entered the campus and, after a tense stand-off, arrested 93 protesters, many of them students. The tents were cleared from Alumni Park but reassembled at the nearby Founders Park. 

Students told Hyperallergic that they were awoken at 3am by a man with a bullhorn informing students that they were in violation of university policy for distributing food without a proper permit, camping, and holding a non-permitted event.

“The use of LAPD to interrupt student protest has been deeply disturbing and incredibly inappropriate,” said Patrisse Cullors, an artist, abolitionist, and Roski alumna. “Students have the right to protest and should be supported without law enforcement intervention and brutality.”

Roski Professor of Art and Design Amelia Jones told Hyperallergic that “the students are not being heard.” 

“This is their campus,” Jones said. “The administration is being guided by legal, financial, and neoliberal concerns, rather than the ideas and values that they constantly say USC is about. It’s maddening.”

“Let Gaza Live” signs at USC on Wednesday, April 24 (photos by Susie Melchor, composite Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

Several faculty members have joined the students at the encampment and in protest activities such as making signs and protest graphics, including Andy Campbell, associate professor of Critical Studies at Roski. He cited as inspiration the work of Sister Corita Kent, a progressive nun, educator, and artist whose prints fused a Pop Art sensibility with radical activism. 

“There are so many ways to be guided by one’s ethics, morals, and religion, and Corita was such an excellent example of that,” Campbell told Hyperallergic. He added that he is working with USC Library’s special collections department to dedicate “some space to collecting protest graphics from this important time on our campus.”

On Friday morning, Jewish Voice for Peace held a Passover Seder in conjunction with the student protesters just outside the gates of campus, which had been sealed off. Later in the day they staged a “die-in” at Founders Park, not far from the office of university President Carol Folt, who released a letter that day to faculty and students — her first public comment since the demonstrations began.

A “Little Gaza” tent at UCLA, covered with signs including the names of Palestinians killed since Israel began its bombardment. (photo Angella D’Avignon/Hyperallergic)
Jewish Voice for Peace members gather for a Passover Seder outside the USC campus. (photo by Kim Silverstein, courtesy JVP)

Folt has since met with Divest From Death Coalition members twice, on April 29 and 30. In an April 30 letter to the USC community, she touted the university’s “unshakeable commitment to free speech, with a designated Free Speech Area for peaceful protests.” On Instagram, the coalition wrote that they were “deeply disappointed” in the meetings, adding that Folt refused to “acknowledge the genocide in Palestine” and “the excessive police violence her administration continues to enact on its own student body.”

On Saturday morning, the encampment was a calm cluster of tents surrounded by colorful signs. A small group formed a circle for yoga and meditation. Others began planning the day’s programming — talks, workshops, a vigil, and a screening of the 2024 documentary Exploring Modes of Resistance

There was little sign of the tumult that had taken place days earlier, except for a few campus security vehicles that drove slowly past every 10 minutes or so. 

Earlier in the month, USC abruptly announced that this year’s valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, would no longer be speaking at commencement, citing security concerns after she expressed solidarity with Palestine on social media. On April 18, hundreds of students marched in protest, demanding that she be allowed to speak. The following day, university administration canceled the May 10 commencement ceremony altogether.

USC’s President Folt met with Divest From Death Coalition members twice, though the coalition wrote on Instagram that she refused to “acknowledge the genocide in Palestine.” (photo courtesy USC Divest From Death Coalition)

“Every university has an obligation to support their chosen commencement speakers and guarantee their freedom of expression,” Lauren Bon, environmental artist, founder of Metabolic Studio, and part-time faculty at Roski, told Hyperallergic

“This obligation includes the adoption of any measures needed to guarantee the security of speakers,” Bon continued. “While on campus, Tabassum pursued a minor in genocide studies, and her recent comments demonstrate that she espouses exactly the kind of universalist values that USC claims.”

With just days left in the school year, the campuses will soon be shifting to the off-season, as most of the students and faculty pack up for the summer. The students in the Divest From Death Coalition, however, have no intentions of leaving. “We are not the ones stopping this encampment from ending,” they told Hyperallergic. “We plan to remain here until divestment.”

On Saturday morning, the USC encampment was a calm cluster of tents surrounded by colorful signs. A small group formed a circle for yoga and meditation. (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
A food kitchen, an arts and crafts section, and a library were set up across the encampment at UCLA. (photo Angella D’Avignon/Hyperallergic)
The USC student encampment’s sign dubbing the space “The People’s University” (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
A string of posters and signs hung between tree trunks across the edge of the student encampment (photo courtesy USC Divest From Death Coalition)
“$95k for this?,” read one sign, referencing the university’s annual tuition rate. (photo courtesy USC Divest from Death Coalition)
Programming at the student encampment for the day included talks, workshops, a vigil, and a screening of the 2024 documentary Exploring Modes of Resistance. (photo courtesy USC Divest from Death Coalition)

Editor’s note 5/2/24 5pm EST: This article has been updated with new information regarding the police raid on the UCLA campus on Thursday, May 2.

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Matt Stromberg and Angella dAvignon