WALTHAM — A protest at Brandeis University in support of Palestinians in Gaza ended with multiple arrests Friday after police ordered the dozens of demonstrators, including students and alumni, to disperse and a violent confrontation ensued.
The demonstration came as tensions ran high on campus over protests related to the Israel-Hamas war. The university on Monday banned a pro-Palestinian student group from campus over social media posts they made in support of Hamas, plunging the private institution into a debate over free speech.
The protest lasted about an hour without any disturbances as nearly 100 people, including some who said they were there to support students but are not directly associated with the university, gathered in front of the Shapiro Campus Center in the heart of campus to join the rally. Several speakers took turns using a bullhorn and criticized university administrators for “silencing students” who have spoken out against Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Several held banners that read “Ceasefire” and “Death to Imperialism.”
The rally was promoted on Instagram by a group called “Revolutionary Student Organization - Brandeis.” In one post, the group said it was demanding Brandeis “stop supporting the genocide of Palestinian people through its engagement with the occupation’s economy and institutions.” The group also called for the university to “end the repression of pro-Palestine voices on campus.”
A woman stood holding an Israeli flag about 20 feet from the edge of the crowd. A few people passing by stopped to stand with her, and as the rally attendees chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they chanted along but said “hostages will be free.”
More than 200 people were taken hostage by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and more than 1,400 people were killed, mainly civilians, according to Israeli officials. In Gaza, more than 11,070 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.
The scene began to unravel after police, who surrounded the rally, used a loudspeaker and demanded the protesters leave. In an email to the Brandeis community Friday night, university leaders said an administrator had “warned the speakers that if they continued to use” language that the university has “explicitly described as hate speech,” then the demonstration would be dispersed.
Some protesters began to clear the area as the tension increased, but many remained and continued chanting, with some shouting at the police and saying they were suppressing the demonstrators’ right to free speech. Police, again using the loudspeaker, said the gathering was an unlawful assembly and anyone who refused to disperse could face arrest.
A majority of the remaining protesters then began to march away from the student center while continuing to chant, with some turning back to shout at the police, who followed behind them. Chaos then erupted as one person was seen being taken to the ground by multiple officers who worked to put him in handcuffs as he cried out. Two others close nearby were also forced on the ground by multiple officers and placed in handcuffs.
A Waltham police van pulled up onto the walking path and at least a half-dozen people were placed in the back.
A Brandeis spokesperson said a total of seven people were arrested on charges including assault and battery on a police officer, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, and trespassing. The spokesperson said police moved to dismiss the crowd, “which was chanting threats and harassing language.”
As the scene unfolded, numerous Brandeis students, including some who did not participate in the demonstration, stood nearby and took video with their phones, many with looks of shock on their faces as police loaded people into the van.
Several students who spoke to the Globe declined to share their names, saying they feared retaliation from the university and others for speaking out. Several upperclassmen said they’d never experienced such a level of division in the community until the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October.
“It’s hard to have a voice right now if you’re not part of one group,” said a Brandeis senior who did not participate in the rally but watched as it unraveled.
Earlier on Friday, Brandeis students received an email from administrators that said the university’s principles around free speech and free expression “excludes speech that constitutes threat or harassment.”
“The use of language that invokes violence, death or annihilation - including calling for Gaza to be bombed, chanting ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ or ‘intifada, intifada,’ or taunting that Gazan villages be burned to the ground - intimidates, frightens and silences cohorts of our community, and is therefore beyond our principles of free speech and expression,” the email read.
In the email administrators sent Friday night, they said they “support open dialogue about the difficult issues involved in the war between Israel and Hamas.”
“But today’s demonstration did not encourage thoughtful dialogue - instead it created an atmosphere of intimidation, which is antithetical to a learning environment. In the days to come, we will be sharing opportunities for our community members to reflect and engage respectfully with one another.”
The letter was signed by Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Fierke, and Vice President of Student Affairs Andrea Dine.
Andrea Burns, a woman from Boston who came out to support the students in the rally, said she was horrified by the force used by police.
“These are grown men, and they threw young men on the ground who were doing nothing,” she said. “Shame on Brandeis, shame on the police for their cruel, barbaric tactics. [The students] have every right to speak out.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Nick Stoico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.