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UT faculty hold rally to criticize protest crackdown — without police show of force

Law enforcement form a barrier while arresting students taking part in a pro-Palestinian walkout and protest at UT Austin on Wednesday.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Law enforcement form a barrier while arresting students taking part in a pro-Palestinian walkout and protest at UT Austin on Wednesday.

A crowd of about 500 demonstrators gathered by the UT Austin Tower on Thursday to condemn the university’s handling of a pro-Palestinian protest that resulted in nearly 60 arrests a day earlier.

Unlike on Wednesday, there were no Austin police officers or state troopers at the demonstration and only about 25 UT Police. The National Guard said it was aware of protests, but members had not been sent to UT.

The Texas State Employees Union and the American Association of University Professors organized the demonstration in response to the heavy police presence at the student protest.

In a letter, the Faculty Council expressed "serious concerns" over the decision to request state police presence Wednesday.

"Across the generations, our University has been home to protests of every shape and size, and to a tradition of meeting those protests with understanding and nuance–not with police batons and body shields," the letter said.

Despite the presence of counterprotesters, Thursday’s “teach-in” was peaceful. The crowd listened to speakers condemning UT President Jay Hartzell for calling in law enforcement and offering solidarity to Palestinians in Gaza.

Hartzell said protesters Wednesday were in violation of school rules and that the Forty Acres would not be "occupied." He and Gov. Greg Abbott requested help from state troopers to police the event. At least 57 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested on loitering charges. Charges against at least 46 have been dismissed.

"I feel like Hartzell's statement was woefully inadequate and vague," said Rich Heyman, an urban planning professor at UT Austin, who attended the demonstration on Thursday.

He said the protests on Wednesday were peaceful until law enforcement from multiple agencies made a presence at the protest.

"[Hartzell] didn't explain how the decision was made to call in the riot troops that provoked violence from what was a nonviolent, peaceful protest," Heyman said.

Abbott said Wednesday's protest was "hate-filled" and "anti-Semitic." He called for the students' expulsion.

Heyman said he hasn't been deeply involved in attending pro-Palestinian rallies and events, but as a Jewish man, he hasn't felt targeted.

"I haven't seen any antisemitism here," he said. "The only violence or intimidation I've seen from anybody is from the police and the state troopers yesterday and today as well."

In a statement Thursday afternoon, UT Austin expanded on Hartzell's explanation by arguing Wednesday's protest was particularly disruptive to university operations — and drew a large number of people who were not part of the campus community.

"Roughly half (26) of the 55 people who violated Institutional Rules and were ultimately arrested were unaffiliated with The University of Texas," the statement said. The university pointed out that 13 pro-Palestinian events have taken place on campus since October "without incident," but Wednesday's protest "in particular expressed an intent to disrupt the campus and directed participants to break Institutional Rules and occupy the University."

Ahead of Thursday's protest, UT staff handed out flyers "to remind folks" about university rules.

Executive Vice President and Provost Sharon L. Wood sent an email to the campus community on Thursday outlining the do’s and don'ts of demonstrations on campus.

Wood said people are allowed to assemble and peacefully protest on campus, hand out flyers or brochures and invite guest speakers to common outdoor spaces.

However, according to Wood, UT Austin’s institutional rules prohibit protests that disrupt university operations. Activities that fall under that umbrella include “making loud sounds that interfere with learning,” blocking walkways and vandalism.

Wood said camping or attempting to camp on university property is also banned, as is refusing to identify oneself to university officials or law enforcement. Wearing masks or disguises is also prohibited under UT Austin’s rules.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.