Fri. May 31st, 2024

Texas Gov. Abbott faces backlash after mass arrest at UT Austin pro-Palestine protest

Emily Hudson By Emily Hudson May24,2024

After Texas state troopers arrested more than 50 people at a University of Texas at Austin protest, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is facing accusations that the state went too far.

On Wednesday, police in riot gear broke up an unsanctioned but nonviolent demonstration at the state’s flagship university. 

Among those arrested was a journalist with local Fox 7 news affiliate, who the news organization said has been charged with criminal trespassing.

Demonstrators have scheduled a second day of protest for Thursday.

The students had called on UT to divest from arms manufacturers and U.S. and Israeli companies profiting off the country’s war on Gaza. The University endowment has an estimated $52.5 million invested with arms manufacturers. 

Students and off-campus supporters had begun to gather before noon in a protest the university had forbidden them to hold. They chanted slogans like “Free, free Palestine. Killing children is a crime,” according to Texas Public Radio.

Jews on campus were divided over whether this constituted an offensive act.

Texas Hillel, the Jewish student union, called the protests “hateful,” noting they took place on the second day of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom.

Others disagreed. “They’re not shouting anything anti-Semitic, they’re not harassing anyone, they’re standing on the green lawn, expressing themselves,” Jeremi Suri, a Jewish UT-Austin history professor, told The Texas Tribune.

“The appropriate response would be to ask them to be contained in an area, let them stay on the grass and let them shout until they have no voices left,” Suri added.

Instead, Abbott called in the state troopers.

In a post on Tuesday on the social platform X, Abbott declared the protests antisemitic and called for the university to expel students who participated. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), meanwhile, has made suppressing alleged campus anti-Semitism a key priority for next year’s legislative session.

“Today, Greg Abbott’s [Department of Public Safety] has more courage to arrest peaceful student protesters than when an active shooter entered an elementary school in Uvalde,” state Democrats wrote in a statement Wednesday evening.

The party called the crackdown an Abbott “campaign ad.”

A Democratic state representative from Austin called the response “out of hand.” 

“In normal times when I was a student I was in a ‘sit in’ [with Rev. Jesse Jackson] INSIDE the actual UT law school and administration just ignored us,” state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, (D-Austin), wrote on X.

A group of UT professors issued a statement condemning university president Jay Hartzell’s  decision to call in the police.

The administrators noted that the event “was to have included teach-ins, study sessions, pizza, and an art workshop. There was no threat of violence, no plan to disrupt classes, no intimidation of the campus community.”

In response, they wrote, “we have witnessed police punching a female student, knocking over a legal observer, dragging a student over a chain link fence, and violently arresting students simply for standing at the front of the crowd.”

Local journalists called out the arrest of the Fox photographer.

“If he’s guilty of criminal trespass, then I am too, as are a dozen other credentialed, on-the-clock journalists who were peacefully recording on a public lawn,” Ryan Chandler of KXAN wrote on X.

Similar criticism came from libertarian and right-wing groups that had previously supported Abbott’s campaign against Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs — which the state government had called anti-free speech.

“Sending in a phalanx of law enforcement threatens protected speech where it should be at its most free: a public university like UT Austin,” Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) legal director Will Creeley wrote after the arrests.

FIRE, a longtime critic of DEI, said Abbott’s use of police to break up the demonstration “makes his disregard for the First Amendment’s protection of political speech clear.”

The crackdown followed Abbott’s controversial March executive order that critics characterized as a reversal of sweeping free-speech protections he had previously signed into law in 2019. 

In March, the governor signed an executive order directing universities to change their free speech policies to properly punish “anti-Semitic” speech — a category which state Republican leadership apply to criticism of the war in Gaza.

“I am committed to the fight against antisemitism on campus, but I am concerned about the highlighted provisions in Governor Abbott’s executive order,” right-wing activist Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who has been a longtime critic of DEI, safe spaces and pro-Palestine campus protests, wrote at the time.

“How is such a policy different from DEI programs promising to prohibit “anti-black speech”? And why not include “anti-white speech,” which, as I have shown in my reporting, is institutionalized at University of Texas?” Rufo asked.

Writers at the far-right magazine The Federalist called Abbott’s March executive order an endorsement of “the DEI cult” with its “demands for Jewish safe spaces.”

Muslim students told press that the university hasn’t protected them from abuse and assault on campus.

Earlier this month, three men assaulted a Muslim student wearing traditional dress while mocking him in “fake Arabic,” according to a complaint filed by the Council of American Islamic Relations.

Texas Republican leadership has long combined dogged support for Israel’s right-wing government with a more complicated relationship with anti-Semitic groups on the state’s far right. 

Last year, a leading state PAC aligned with Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) changed its name and fired its director after video surfaced of him meeting with white nationalist Nick Fuentes, a vocal fan of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and a proponent of a “holy war” against Jews.

After the video came to light, Republican recipients of the PAC’s donations in the state legislature countered criticisms and calls to donate the funds by espousing their support for Israel, as The Hill reported.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had received $3 million from the PAC in the leadup to the impeachment of Paxton, a Patrick ally. 

In the face of criticism over the donation, Patrick announced he would use it to buy Israeli bonds.

In December, the state Republican committee voted 39-32 to continue permitting members to meet with groups “known to espouse or tolerate antisemitism, pro-Nazi sympathies or Holocaust denial” from a statement of support for Israel, according to The Texas Tribune.

Half the board also voted not to keep any record of that vote. 

In voting down a measure that would have restricted such meetings, members raised concerns about free speech. A ban on such meetings was reminiscent of “Marxist” tactics, members said. 

Banning them “could put you on a slippery slope,” committee member Dan Tully told the Tribune.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s arrests, a local journalist with the left-wing Texas Observer called out the apparent contradiction between the state’s broader response to antisemitic speech and its crackdown on the college demonstrations.

“I’ve seen no credible reporting of actual antisemitic incidents at the UT Austin protest,” wrote Steven Monacelli on Twitter.

“What I can tell you is that I’ve reported on numerous neo-Nazi events and Greg Abbott never once tried to put any of them in jail.”

Emily Hudson

By Emily Hudson

Emily is a talented author who has published several bestselling novels in the mystery genre. With a knack for creating gripping plotlines and intriguing characters, Emily's works have captivated readers worldwide.

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2 thoughts on “Texas Gov. Abbott faces backlash after mass arrest at UT Austin pro-Palestine protest”
  1. As a resident of Texas, I find the actions of Gov. Abbott in this situation to be deeply concerning. It is important to respect the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. The state troopers’ reaction seems excessive and raises questions about protecting civil liberties in our state.

  2. As a Texan, I believe Governor Abbott should address the excessive use of force by state troopers. Protesting peacefully is a constitutional right that should be protected.

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