Biden condemns unrest following Gaza protests after police storm campuses: ‘Violent protest is not protected’

President’s remarks come after police were met with violence while clearing Gaza protest encampments from college campuses nationwide

Andrew Feinberg
Thursday 02 May 2024 20:22 BST
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Biden insists 'order must prevail' as police shut down college Gaza protests

Joe Biden on Thursday condemned the unrest and violence that has disrupted college campuses over the last week, while stressing the importance of the right of Americans to protest peacefully in support of the Palestinians’ treatment during Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

President Biden said peaceful protest is “in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues” because the US is “not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent”.

He said the images of police clashing with protesters put the “fundamental American principles” of free speech and the rule of law “to the test”, as he pointed out the importance of maintaining the latter principle to allow the former.

US president Joe Biden speaks about the ongoing student protests at US universities amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, during brief remarks in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on 2 May
US president Joe Biden speaks about the ongoing student protests at US universities amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, during brief remarks in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on 2 May (Reuters/Nathan Howard)

“Peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues, but neither are we a lawless country. We’re a civil society, and order must prevail,” he said.

Mr Biden also condemned actors who are using the campus unrest and protests to “score political points” and called the protests “a moment for clarity”.

“Let me be clear ... violent protest is not protected, peaceful protest is,” he said.

“Destroying property is not a peaceful protest – it’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations. None of this is a peaceful protest; threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

The president also stressed that while dissent remains “essential to democracy”, it “must never lead to disorder or denying the rights of others”.

“It’s basically a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of what’s right. There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos. People have the right to get an education, the right to get a degree, the right to walk across the campus safely without fear of being attacked,” he said.

Mr Biden’s remarks came just hours after police in Los Angeles were met with hurled projectiles while clearing an encampment on the UCLA campus.

Officers muscled their way into a central plaza of the university on Wednesday evening before forcing their way into the anti-war encampment at around 3.15am, tearing down barricades and arresting occupants who refused to leave.

Live TV footage showed about six protesters under arrest, kneeling on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs with zip ties, as dozens of loud explosions were heard during the clash from flash-bang charges, or stun grenades, fired by police.

The UCLA chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that “a group of instigators” had perpetrated the previous night’s attack, but he did not provide details about the crowd or why the administration and school police did not act sooner.

The clash between protesters and police in California occurred less than a day after New York Police Department officers forcibly removed protesters from the Columbia University administration building in a scene that came nearly 56 years to the day after police cleared a similar occupation by students angry over the Vietnam war.

A statement issued by the university read in part: “The NYPD arrived on campus at the university’s request. This decision was made to restore safety and order to our community.

“We regret that protesters have chosen to escalate the situation through their actions. After the university learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalised, and blockaded, we were left with no choice. Columbia public safety personnel were forced out of the building, and a member of our facilities team was threatened. We will not risk the safety of our community or the potential for further escalation.”

The president had not been expected to address the matter of the protests or the violence that occurred overnight, and White House officials had previously described the protests and police response as matters for state or local law enforcement.

But Republicans have seized on Mr Biden’s apparent reluctance to weigh in by casting it as tacit approval of the worst elements of the pro-Palestinian protesters, some of whom have spouted openly antisemitic rhetoric and have intimidated students and passers-by whom they deemed to be Jewish or “zionists”.

Police break up an encampment on the UCLA campus on Thursday
Police break up an encampment on the UCLA campus on Thursday (AP)

Mr Biden condemned the antisemitism demonstrated by some of the protesters, saying there is “no place” for “hate speech or violence of any kind” on any campus in America.

“Whether it's antisemitism, Islamophobia, or discrimination against Arab Americans or Palestinian Americans, it’s simply wrong. There’s no place for racism in America. It’s all wrong, it’s un-American,” he said.

“I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions in America. We respect the right and protect the right for them to express that. But it doesn’t mean anything goes. It needs to be done without violence, without distraction, without hating and within the law,” he added.

While prominent GOP figures – including former president Donald Trump, Mr Biden’s likely 2024 election opponent – have called for the use of force, including by the military, to remove the protesters from campuses, the president declined to endorse calls for such violent actions, replying “No” when asked if the National Guard should be used to disperse the protests.

He also told reporters that the protests haven’t pushed him to reconsider his support for the Israeli government, even as discontent with the ongoing war has appeared to cost him support in states in which he will need to defeat Mr Trump in the November election.

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