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Protestors double down at University of Texas-Austin. And so do police


College students across the country continue to hold pro-Palestinian protests on their campuses. And some of their demonstrations, particularly those happening in private universities, have been met with heavy police presence. But in Texas, over 100 pro-Palestinian activists have been arrested at one of the state's largest public universities. NPR's Sergio Martinez-Beltran joins us from the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Hi there.


SUMMERS: Catch us up, if you can, on what's happening there at UT Austin. What have protesters there been demanding?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: So what's happening at the University of Texas at Austin is very, very similar to what's happening in campuses across the country. Pro-Palestinian activists, most of them students, have been demonstrating against the Israel-Hamas conflict. Students have been calling for their universities to divest from business manufacturing weapons for Israel.

And in Austin, students started their protest on Wednesday. And yesterday things got really tense. A group of activists erected a few tents, and that led to mass arrests. Students tried to block the vans transporting the arrestees, and police responded by deploying some chemical sprays and even flash bangs. And let me tell you that didn't deter students. The crowd grew. And now it seems like the movement has transformed a bit.

I talked to Laith (ph). He's graduating in a few weeks. He didn't want to give his last name out of fear of getting doxxed, but he says more people continue to show up because of the police response.

LAITH: So now this protest is not just about Palestine. It's about the failure of the university to protect students.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: There have been some counter-protests by pro-Israel students, although they have been smaller. Ben Sherman, the president of Longhorn Students for Israel, has been leading them.

BEN SHERMAN: They are proud of Israel, and they're proud of their people. So for us, how can we create a safe space for people to gather?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But for a lot of folks on campus, life continues as usual. It's finals week, which means students are focused on the exams. I've also seen students taking their graduation photos just steps away from where people are protesting.

SUMMERS: And at this point, Sergio, what has been the response from university administration? As we've been discussing, this is a public university. So what about students' rights to protest there?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right. UT Austin has said they respect the students' right to protest and their First Amendment rights, but they have said they will not tolerate any disruption. The university has been passing around flyers to protesters that established the rules for them to protest. They say students can peacefully protest, but, again, they cannot make loud sounds that interfere with learning. That's how UT Austin puts it.

Students who get arrested could be charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, although it's important to note that all charges were dropped for those arrested last week. At some point, UT Austin said those arrested were going to be banned from campus. But then they changed their tune a few times, and now they say that students are not going to be restricted but that bans could happen after final exams are over. Some faculty members publicly disagree with the university using police. They say they're worried about the precedent they set for public universities across the country.

SUMMERS: OK. And what about Texas Governor Greg Abbott? Has he responded to these protests?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Yes, a nd he's been pushing for protesters to get arrested. Actually, last month, Abbott asked universities to review their free speech policies and adopt appropriate punishments for antisemitic speech and acts.

SUMMERS: You're there on campus. Is there a sense that these protests will continue?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Definitely. I mean, today there's an event called Palestine 101 on campus hosted by a group that has been suspended. And that's the thing, right? Students are energized. They have continued to show up despite the arrests and the response from the police. And that's what we continue to hear from students across the country. Even though it's the last few weeks of college, they're going to continue to protest. You can look at Columbia University - right? - in New York, where protesters were given a deadline yesterday to disperse, and they're still there.

SUMMERS: NPR's Sergio Martinez-Beltran on the campus of the University of Texas Austin. Thank you.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán (SARE-he-oh mar-TEE-nez bel-TRAHN) is an immigration correspondent based in Texas.