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Police move in on protesters at University of California, Irvine

REUTERS
                                Law enforcement officers deployed to the University of California, Irvine approach the encampment, after protesters against the war in Gaza surrounded the physical sciences lecture hall on Wednesday.
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REUTERS

Law enforcement officers deployed to the University of California, Irvine approach the encampment, after protesters against the war in Gaza surrounded the physical sciences lecture hall on Wednesday.

IRVINE, California >> Police on Wednesday took back a lecture hall from pro-Palestinian protesters who for hours occupied the building at the University of California, Irvine, then cleared a student encampment that stood for more than two weeks, witnesses said.

Officers from about 10 nearby law-enforcement agencies converged on the campus after university officials requested help because protesters had occupied the lecture hall, leading the school to declare it a “violent protest,” police and university officials said.

About four hours later, police had ejected the protesters from both the lecture hall and the plaza that had been the site of the encampment, according to the university and Reuters witnesses.

“The police have retaken the lecture hall,” UC Irvine spokesperson Tom Vasich said by telephone from the scene. “The plaza has been cleared by law-enforcement officers.”

Vasich said there were a “minimal number of arrests” and characterized the protesters as “begrudgingly cooperative.”

Hours before midnight, the university said police activity had concluded on the campus and all classes would be held remotely on Thursday, asking employees not to come to campus.

The demonstration at Irvine, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Los Angeles, is the latest in a series of campus protests across the United States over the war in Gaza in which activists have called for a ceasefire and the protection of civilian lives while demanding universities divest from Israeli interests.

UC Irvine protesters had established an encampment adjacent to the lecture hall on April 29 similar to those at other universities that have led to mass arrests and clashes with police elsewhere in the country.

In a letter posted later in the day, University Chancellor Howard Gillman said: “My concern now is not the unreasonableness of their demands. It is their decision to transform a manageable situation that did not have to involve police into a situation that required a different response. I never wanted that. I devoted all of my energies to prevent this from happening.”

On Wednesday 200 to 300 protesters took over the lecture hall at a time when no classes were in session, Vasich said.

Police responded in riot gear and formed a barricade while an officer on a loudspeaker warned the crowd that they had formed an unlawful assembly and risked arrest if they remained, the Orange County Register reported.

Students chanted slogans, banged drums and hoisted banners, with rows of police standing nearby, Reuters witnessed. One banner hung from the building declared the site “Alex Odeh Hall,” in honor of a Palestinian activist who was killed in a 1985 office bombing in the nearby city of Santa Ana.

Four adjacent research buildings with potentially hundreds of people inside were locked down, and those inside were instructed to shelter in place, Vasich said, though the university later altered that instruction and instead advised them to leave.

Shortly before nightfall, police moved in on the lecture hall, then engaged in a tense standoff with protesters at the encampment.

Helmeted police wielding batons formed a line against protesters. Police gradually moved forward, pushing the students back every few minutes, until the officers rushed the crowd and made more arrests.

Before long most demonstrators had retreated, police held the otherwise empty plaza strewn with trash, and a few onlookers remained at the periphery.

Since the day the encampment began, Gillman said the university has been in talks with students but has been unable to reach an agreement to find an “appropriate and non-disruptive” alternative site.

Gillman has said the university cannot selectively decide not to enforce rules against the illegal encampment and that “The University of California has made it clear it will not divest from Israel.”

“Encampment protesters have focused most of their demands on actions that would require the university to violate the academic freedom rights of faculty, the free speech rights of faculty and fellow students, and the civil rights of many of our Jewish students,” Gillman said on Monday.

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