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Law enforcements face off against pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas in Austin on April 24, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES: Columbia University students heckled US House Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday as he visited the flashpoint of nationwide student demonstrations over Israel’s war in Gaza, as the school extended negotiations to end a protest encampment.

Johnson’s visit to the Manhattan campus, which he said was meant to support Jewish students intimidated by some anti-Israeli demonstrators, took place shortly after the university extended a deadline by 48 hours to Friday morning to reach an agreement to remove an encampment that has come to symbolize the campus protest movement.

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Some of the campus protests taking place coast to coast were met with shows of force from law enforcement.

A protester being detained in Austin. Image Credit: Reuters

In Texas on Wednesday, state highway patrol troopers in riot gear and police on horseback broke up a protest at the University of Texas in Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety posted on X that 34 people had been arrested.

The University of Southern California declared its campus closed and asked the Los Angeles Police Department to clear a demonstration. Police arrested students who peacefully surrendered one by one, hours after campus police who took down an encampment were overwhelmed by protesters and requested the LAPD’s help.

A protest at the University of Southern California. Image Credit: Reuters

'Lawless radicals'

The LAPD posted on X late on Wednesday that 93 people were arrested for trespassing and one for assault with a deadly weapon. No injuries were reported.

Students also demonstrated at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and California State Polytechnic in Humboldt.

Protesters have demanded universities divest assets from Israel and seek to pressure the US government to rein in Israeli strikes on civilians in Gaza, which have killed more than 34,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Demonstrators gather after students built a protest encampment in support of Palestinians at the University of Southern California's (USC) Alumni Park. Image Credit: Reuters

Israel’s fierce response followed a deadly October 7 cross-border raid by Islamist militants from Hamas, which controls the Gaza enclave.

At Columbia, the heckling and booing, at times vulgar, that greeted Johnson did not drown him out, though he was hard to hear because he spoke to media microphones, not through loudspeakers.

“As Columbia has allowed these lawless radicals and agitators to take over, the virus of antisemitism has spread across other campuses,” Johnson said from the steps of the university library, calling on violent protesters to be arrested and threatening to cut off federal funding to universities that fail to impose order.

Johnson, whose job as speaker of the House of Representatives has been threatened by ultraconservative Republicans in his caucus, could have expected a cold welcome from students on a campus known as a liberal bastion.

Deeply alarming

In a politically polarized country, conservatives can score points by being seen as standing up to liberal activists, many of whom say the Republican portrayals of antisemitic violence on campus are greatly exaggerated for political purposes.

Before his press conference, Johnson met with about 40 Jewish students on campus, according to students who were there.

They said they were fearful to come onto the campus, citing testimony from Jewish students who said they had been spat on and seen swastikas drawn on the walls.

Students prepare to spend another night maintaining a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus. Image Credit: Reuters

Students at the encampment say their protest has been peaceful and that outsiders not connected with their movement are behind any inflammatory confrontations off-campus.

“We regret that there’s no attention on this peaceful movement and politicians are diverting attention from the real issues,” said Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian student at Columbia who has been part of the negotiations with school administration.

Police arrested more than 45 protesters on Monday at Yale, according to the student-run Yale Daily News.

Police arrested more than 100 students from Columbia on Thursday on charges of trespassing.

More than 100 Columbia faculty joined students on Monday in solidarity at the encampment, where an outdoor seder was planned to mark the first day of the Jewish Passover holiday.

Free speech advocates PEN America called the sudden escalation at the University of Texas “deeply alarming.”

“The administration should be doing everything in their power to keep their students safe and the campus operating, but calling the state police to disperse a peaceful protest that had barely begun does the opposite,” Kristen Shahverdian, PEN’s campus free speech program director, said in a statement.

The political reverberations reached the White House, where press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden believes free speech, debate and nondiscrimination are important on college campuses.

“We want to see this be peaceful,” Jean-Pierre said in Wednesday’s press briefing. “It is important that students feel safe... It should not be violent, it should not be hateful rhetoric.”