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Protests spread as finals and summer break approach

Renata Birkenbuel

As pro-Palestinian student protests and some counter protesters spread to other college campuses and police shut down campus building occupations at Columbia University and UCLA, Native American students are among those preparing for finals and graduation ceremonies.

On Wednesday, police overwhelmed and arrested 300 Columbia University protesters while shutting down campus. More than 1,750 protesters have been arrested over the last two weeks at universities across the U.S.

President Joe Biden defended the right to peacefully protest on college campuses but said vandalism, violence, hate speech and other “chaos” has no part in a peaceful protest.

“Dissent is essential for democracy,” he said at the White House Thursday morning. “But dissent must never lead to disorder.”

The Class of 2024 reaches yet another major kink in its unprecedented college career, as the same students lost a year of in-person learning when the COVID pandemic four years ago sent them home.

Lea Aguino, a graduating senior at the University of New Mexico, said the timing of campus protests is perfect for her and fellow Gen Zers to reclaim their power while also standing up for the Palestines in the ongoing brutal war between Israeli and Hamas leaders in the Middle East.

“We’re upset,” said Aguino. “We haven’t had anyone to look up to. Being a part of this generation has really reinforced and reiterated just how much the individual holds and how much power we hold.”

Activist Lea Aguino, left front and University of New Mexico senior who graduates in a few weeks, stands in solidarity with members of the Albuquerque chapter of the Party of Socialism and Liberation near the campus Pro-Palestinian encampments on Earth Day. Aguino represents the student Kiva Club. She hails from the Santa Clara Pueblo in Northern New Mexico. (Photo Courtesy UNM Kiva Club)

She participates in Kiva Club, an Indigenous student group and a lead organization in the protests. Aguino hails from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.

“We encourage involvement with the community,” she said. “A big portion of that is political issues as well. We all come from tribal, tribal diverse backgrounds and we bring those beliefs and values forward as individuals.”

Building upon a collective of Indigenous students, Kiva Club has joined in solidarity with other University of New Mexico groups to strengthen students’ pro-Palestinian goals with a resolution demanding that the university’s administration divest from companies associated with Israel.

Police have since dissolved the student occupation of the Student Union Building, but Aguino said a fresh round of students continue to camp at the campus’ iconic Duck Ponds. Classes are still in session and graduation remains on the calendar as the semester draws to a close.

New York City

At Columbia University in New York City, police cleared Hamilton Hall – which students now refer to as Hinds Hall – where historic Vietnam War student protests occurred during the turbulent 1960s. Columbia initiated the first student protests and occupations in this round of activism nearly two weeks ago, igniting a storm of nationwide protests.

Kianna Pete, Diné and a Columbia University graduate student from New Mexico, told ICT the police crackdown on April 30 was staggering. She said she watched police corral protesters and “indiscriminately” grab and take into custody many of them, causing injuries and bruises to some.

“Hundreds of police … began tearing down the barricade of protesters holding on to one another in a chain, tables, and chairs that blocked the entrance of the building,” Pete said. “The protesters who were attempting to block the Hamilton Hall doors were roughly thrown around, one rolling down the stairs. Injuries are still being recorded right now. All legal observers, media, journalists, and undergrad students (ones who live on campus) who were filming/watching were forced inside the John Jay building.”

Related: Native students join pro-Palestine campus protests

That was when administration notified students the university was in a state of emergency and ordered them to stay inside or face disciplinary action.

“I would not describe the events I saw last night as peaceful,” Pete said. “I have never seen that many police ever centralized in one place. I have never felt this unsafe on campus, which I have attended for over five years. I saw my peers who were demanding no more war and saying ‘no’ to genocide being harassed and assaulted by entities that say they protect us.

“At the same time, the police enclosed the campus in a 10-block radius while closing down major roads (Amsterdam and Broadway) making it take hours to return home,” Pete said. “Shortly after this activity, follow-up letters from the Columbia administration thanked police cooperation.”

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik decried protesters’ break-in, barricading and occupying the building. She said university academic leaders spent eight days engaging “in serious dialogue in good faith with protest representatives.”

Administrators, Shafik added, considered new proposals on divestment and shareholder activism, but talks broke down.

“Our efforts to find a solution went into Tuesday evening, but regrettably, we were unable to come to resolution,” said Shafik, adding that safety remains her first priority.


Classes have been canceled at UCLA, where violence and fighting have broken out between counter protesters and pro-Palestinian demonstrators. UCLA administration declared a student encampment illegal on what is considered to be one of the most tolerant campuses in the U.S.

Thursday morning, police moved into the encampment, dismantling tents, pushing out protesters and arresting more than 200 people.

On April 25, the University of Southern California canceled its May 10 main stage commencement ceremony after nearly 100 people were arrested on campus during a pro-Palestinian protest.

The same day, USC students gathered outside for an end-of-year banquet for the Native American Student Assembly and the Pacific Islander Student Association as several police helicopters whirred overhead. Two student leaders said it was a surreal experience.

Nizhoni McDonough, Navajo, a junior and Native American Student Assembly co-director, said the police presence on campus has been “disheartening” and that intercom announcements warned that anyone camping out would be arrested.

“It was definitely scary, with all the helicopters circling around campus,” said Daniel Williams, Navajo, also a junior and Native American Student Assembly co-director.

“Before the Department of Public Safety and Los Angeles Police Department came in, it was entirely peaceful,” McDonough said.

Later on the night of April 25, Lani Dawn, a Jewish-Native American woman, was allegedly attacked by anti-Israel protesters at UCLA as she held a sign reading, “Hamas supporters are not welcome on native land,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

“Last night I was violently assaulted by @UCLA ‘pro-Palestine’ students,” wrote Dawn on Instagram, posting a video showing the protesters attacking her and other pro-Israel protesters.


UNL (0:57)

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, hundreds of students, faculty and local residents participated in an all-day pro-Palestine rally Wednesday. Many called on the university to stop funding businesses tied to Israel.

Tom Gannon, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe citizen and an associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he attended the rally after a student asked him to be there to represent faculty.

Tom Gannon, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe citizen and an associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, attended a pro-Palestine rally at the university on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Kevin Abourezk, ICT)

He said Israel’s response to the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on southern Israel has been an extreme overreaction. Still, he said, the conflict is complicated and difficult to judge.

“The number of victims on one side to me cries injustice, but in general the whole political situation is so fraught it’s really hard to take sides,” he said. “We’re talking two ethnicities that have been demonized, racialized – for a millennium at least – by Western civilization. Here they are in conflict.”

Sophie James, an Isanti Dakota citizen and nutrition sciences major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she came to show support for Palestinians, who she considers to be fellow victims of colonialism.

Sophie James (left), an Isanti Dakota citizen and nutrition sciences major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, attended a pro-Palestine rally at the university on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Kevin Abourezk, ICT)

“I feel as though we face a lot of the same challenges when it comes to settler-colonialist values and Zionism,” she said. “I think if we all come together as Indigenous people and make our voices heard we’ll be able to create a good relationship with Palestinians and fight for their justice.”


University of Montana students stand in front of Main Hall at a pro-Palestine protest in Missoula on May 1, 2024. (Kolby KickingWoman, ICT)

At the University of Montana in Missoula, around 150 students gathered to stand in solidarity with Palestine and other student protests taking place across the country.

One Native student taking part in the protest, Alexander Tohee, Otoe-Missouria, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma and Navajo, held a sign that read, “Colonialism must die!”

The 19-year-old freshman from New Mexico said the reason they were there was simple.

“I don’t stand for genocides, it’s that simple,” Tohee said. “I feel an obligation to use my voice because I have been granted it.”

Similarly, Zach Rides At The Door, Blackfeet, came to support those suffering in Gaza.

Set to graduate with a degree in Native American Studies in a little over a week, Rides At The Door said he sees a correlation with what happened to Native people in the United States and what is happening to the Palestinian people.

“It’s just the same thing, different time, different place,” he said. “They’re going through so much of the same type of hurt.”

Both students feel that tribal leaders should be doing more to speak out about what is happening in Gaza.

“I think that it’s our job as Indigenous people to be allies to Palestinian people, especially because they’ve been such good allies to us as well,” Tohee said.


Native protesters (left to right) Rico Del Oro, Michael Bruno and Cera Topaha pose during a pro-Palestine rally at Vanderbilt University on May 1, 2024. (Sierra Dempsey, ICT)

Of the student encampments sweeping the nation, Vanderbilt’s is one of the longest running, having begun after more than two dozen students occupied the chancellor’s office on March 26. The university issued three expulsions, one suspension and put 22 protesters on probation and has faced backlash for its harsh response to the occupation.

Dante Reyna, Tzotzil Maya/Tarahumara, is a doctoral student at Vanderbilt and a member of Indigenous Scholars. On May 1, Reyna attended a pro-Palestine demonstration there because it is clear to them that a genocidal, colonial endeavor is taking place in Palestine much like the devastation wrought upon Native Americans for centuries.

“This genocide, this apartheid state, this whole situation is something that has no business in our future, and we’re here to build a better future,” Reyna said.

New Mexico

Siihasen Hope, Diné and a 2019 University of New Mexico graduate, sits handcuffed after New Mexico State Police and the University of New Mexico Police arrested pro-Palestinian protesters who occupied the Student Union Building on April 30, 2024. (Courtesy of Chancey Bush, The Albuquerque Journal).

After walking in the May 11 University of New Mexico graduation, Lea Aguino plans to continue protesting, even as tensions between students and university President Garnett Stokes build.

“Definitely there’s a height of emotions that continuously builds momentum, for myself as an individual, but also with the Palestinian Liberation Movement and what we’re seeing across the country, across universities, with these different encampments,” said Aguino, adding, “which also includes my personal life, my scholarly life (since) I’m going to graduate in a couple weeks.”

The timing of the new wave of activism is no coincidence, said Aguino, who graduated high school in 2020, just as the pandemic hit. Gen Z started college rough during COVID and now have book-ended their experience four years later with widespread protests.

“It’s definitely a multi-generational issue,” Aguino said. “Different multi-generations have been speaking up on this issue for decades. I think there is something unique in particular about Gen Z.”

Gen Z – those born between the late 1990s and early 2002 – dealt with routine active-shooter drills in school so educational disruptions have become the norm for them.

While some university administrators choose to handle on-campus encampments and ongoing protests internally, most have called in local police or state troopers to disperse students.

Both University of New Mexico and University of Southern California students released proclamations of solidarity with Palestinians as a way to demand that their university administrators and the U.S. military stop funding businesses tied to Israel.

The University of New Mexico student leaders sent a divestment resolution letter to President Garnett Stokes, demanding the university cut ties with any entity connected to Israeli businesses – a common demand across the nation on college campuses.

“Our President Stokes continues to remain silent,” said Aguino. “But we’re seeing an influx of military presence here at the university, at the camp. So that’s about as close as any word we’re getting from anybody at power here at UNM.”

Protesting in solidarity with the Palestines seems perfectly normal to Aguino and opportune for her activist generation.

“There’s a lot of us, the Class of 2024 from the universities who are gonna graduate,” Aguino said. “It’s the mark of these times, what’s happening in Palestine. That’s how I’m gonna commemorate this time. I know others will as well, thinking, ‘When I graduated in 2024, when Palestine was occupied and we were here at the camp, we’re here protesting, rallying, you know, supporting our right to self determination, our right to our individual power.’”

Kevin Abourezk, Kolby KickingWoman and Sierra Dempsey contributed to this report.

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