In Texas, pro-Palestine university protesters clash with state leaders

Texas, one of the most conservative US states, has implemented laws limiting the ability to protest against Israel.

A police officer in riot gear and a clear plastic face mask stands in front of a group of pro-Palestinian protesters.
Police surround pro-Palestine protesters at the University of Texas at Austin on April 29 [Jay Janner/American-Statesman via Reuters]

Austin, Texas – “It didn’t feel real.” That’s how Alishba Javaid, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, describes the moment when she saw roughly 30 state troopers walk onto the campus lawn.

Javaid and hundreds of her classmates had gathered on the grass, in the shadow of the campus’s 94-metre limestone tower, as part of a walkout against Israel’s war in Gaza.

They were hoping that their school would divest from manufacturers supplying weapons to Israel. Instead, law enforcement started to appear in increasing numbers.

By Javaid’s count, the state troopers joined at least 50 fellow officers already in place, all dressed in riot gear. The protest had been peaceful, but nerves were at a high. The troopers continued their advance.

“That was the first moment I was genuinely scared,” said Javaid, 22.

Dozens of students were ultimately arrested on April 24, as the officers attempted to disperse the protesters. Footage of the clashes between police and demonstrators quickly spread online, echoing images from other campus protests across the United States.

Yet, Texans face a unique challenge, as they contend with a far-right state government that has sought to limit protests against Israel.

In 2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that prohibits government entities from working with businesses that boycott Israel, and the state has since taken steps to tighten that law further.

Abbott has also cast the current protests as “hate-filled” and “anti-Semitic”, amplifying misconceptions about demonstrators and their goals.

In addition, a state law went into effect earlier this year that forced public universities to shutter their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices.

Multiple students and employees told Al Jazeera that campuses have become less safe for people of colour as a result of the law, which forced the departure of staff DEI advocates.

Barricades are erected in front of the limestone tower at UT Austin.
Barricades sit in front of the tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin on April 30 [Nuri Vallbona/Reuters]

‘Using violence to subvert minorities’

The violence has continued at University of Texas campuses as students press forward with their protests.

On the final day of class, April 29, police used pepper spray and flash-bang devices to clear a crowd at the Austin campus, while dozens more were encircled by troopers and dragged away screaming.

Hiba Faruqi, a 21-year-old student, said her knee “just kept bleeding” after she was knocked over during a pushing-and-shoving match between students and police.

Yet she counts herself lucky for not sustaining worse injuries. It was surreal, she said, to think that her own university called in state troopers — and then had to deploy medical personnel to assist students who were hurt.

“There’s a racist element people don’t want to talk about here,” she said. “There’s a xenophobic element people don’t want to acknowledge. There are more brown protesters, which maybe emboldens the police to do things a certain way.”

As calls for divestment continue, students, lawyers and advocates told Al Jazeera they have been forced to navigate scepticism and outright hostility from the Texas government.

“Texas is known for using violence to subvert minorities,” Faruqi said. “The reason this is shaking people this time is because it’s not working.”

A little boy sits atop an adult's shoulders amid a pro-Palestinian protest, where Palestinian flags fly.
Protesters gather at Texas universities to call for divestment from firms linked to Israeli weapons [Tyler Hicks/Al Jazeera]

Scrutiny over university endowments

Many of the protests have zeroed in on the University of Texas’s endowment, a bank of funds designed to support its nine campuses over the long term.

The University of Texas system has the largest public education endowment in the country, worth more than $40bn.

Some of that money comes from investments in weapons and defence contractors, as well as aerospace, energy and defence technology companies with deep ties to Israel.

ExxonMobil, for example, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the system’s investments, and the company has supplied Israel with fuel for its fighter jets.

Those ties have fuelled the protests across the state’s public university campuses, including a May 1 demonstration at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Fatima — who only shared her first name with Al Jazeera, out of fear for her safety — was among the demonstrators. She wiped sweat from her brow as a young child led the crowd of about 100 in a series of chants: “Free, free, free Palestine!”

The divestment protests have largely been peaceful, Fatima explained, raising her voice to be heard above the noise.

“Over 30,000 people have been murdered,” she said, referring to the death toll in Gaza, where Israel’s military campaign is entering its eighth month.

“And our university is investing in weapons manufacturing companies that are providing Israel with these weapons. We’re going to stay here until our demands are met.”

Twenty-one students and staff members were arrested that day in Dallas. Members of the group Students for Justice in Palestine, of which Fatima is a member, spent the night outside the county jail, waiting for their friends to be released.

One protester wryly noted outside the jail that they had been arrested for trespassing on their own campus, a seemingly nonsensical offence.

In the background, a thunderstorm was beginning to rear its head, so the protesters huddled closer together under the awning.

Protesters applaud one another as they exit a jail in Austin. One woman is surrounded by two friends who wrap themselves around her, as her eyes close with emotion.
Student protesters applaud one another as they are released from the Travis County Jail in Austin, Texas, on April 30 [Nuri Vallbona/Reuters]

Protesters receive community support

Texas officials and university administrators have justified the police crackdowns, in part, by citing the presence of outsiders with no present affiliation with the campuses involved.

But 30-year-old activist Anissa Jaqaman is among those visiting the university protests, in an effort to lend supplies and support.

Everyone has a role to play, Jaqaman explained: Her role is sometimes that of the communicator, but more often that of the healer.

She has brought water to the student demonstrators at the University of Texas at Dallas and hopes to provide a space for people to “come over and talk about how we heal”.

“This is a healing movement,” she said time and again as she spoke to Al Jazeera. “We have to carry each other.”

Jaqaman is Texas through and through: She was raised in the Dallas suburbs and is a strong advocate for her state.

“I’m a proud Texan,” she said. “I actually think that Texans are some of the nicest people in the country.”

But back when she was in college, from 2012 to 2016, Jaqaman started to use her voice to bring awareness to the plight of Palestinians.

Rights groups have long warned that Israel has imposed a system of apartheid against the ethnic group, subjecting its members to discrimination and displacement.

In college, Jaqaman’s friends often laughed at her passion. She often smiles, exuding optimism, but her voice grows serious as she talks about Palestine, as well as other issues like the scourge of single-use plastics.

“They just thought I was a tree-hugger, but for human rights,” she explained, speaking in a soft yet confident voice.

But the current war has amplified her concerns. The United Nations has signalled famine is “imminent” in parts of Gaza, and rights experts have pointed to a “risk of genocide” in the Palestinian enclave.

Jaqaman has sported her keffiyeh scarf ever since the war began on October 7, despite feeling anxious that it could attract violence against her.

“I wear it because I feel like it protects my heart, honestly,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing the Palestinian people injustice by not wearing it.”

But she has struggled to get public officials to engage with her concerns about the war and divestment from industries tied to Israel’s military. For months, she attempted to persuade her local city council that “this is a human issue, an everyone issue”, to little avail.

“Everything that we’re seeing right now is about shutting down the discussion,” she said. “If you say anything about Palestine, you’re labelled anti-Semitic. That’s a conversation-ender.”

A little boy speaks into a microphone at a pro-Palestinian protests, as "Free Palestine" flags wave.
A boy leads a crowd in pro-Palestinian chants at a demonstration in Dallas, Texas [Tyler Hicks/Al Jazeera]

Youth protesters look to the future

Students like Javaid, a journalism major in her final semester, told Al Jazeera that they are still trying to figure out what healing looks like — and what their futures might hold. In many ways, she and her friends feel stuck.

They recognise they need to take a break from scouring social media for information about the war, and yet it is all they can think about.

The usual college rites of passage — final exams, graduation and job hunting — just don’t seem as important any more.

“How are we supposed to go back to work now?” Javaid asked after the protests.

While she has treasured her time at the university, she is also highly critical of its actions to stamp out the protests. Part of the blame, she added, lies with the government, though.

“The root issue in Texas is that the state government doesn’t care,” she said.

Born and raised in the Dallas area, Javaid plans to stay in Texas for at least a little while after she graduates this month. She has mixed feelings about staying long term, though.

She would like to work in social justice, particularly in higher education, but she worries such a job would be tenuous in her home state.

Still, she feels a sense of responsibility tying her to the state. The political climate in Texas may be challenging, she said, but she has a duty — to her fellow protesters and to Palestine — to keep playing a role.

“I don’t want to jump ship and just say, ‘Texas is crazy,’” Javaid said. “I want to be a part of the people trying to make it better. Because if not us, who?”

Source: Al Jazeera