79 arrested amid second crackdown on UT-Austin campus

Protesters chant off our campus to law enforcement at the University of Texas at Austin on Apr. 29, 2024. (Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune)

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Authorities arrested 79 people during the second police crackdown on pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the University of Texas at Austin since last week, according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

The protesters were arrested Monday during a campus demonstration and booked into the Travis County Jail, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said Tuesday. Seventy-eight of the people arrested are charged with criminal trespassing. One of them has an additional charge of obstructing a highway or passageway, while another person has been charged with interfering with public duties.

The protesters began leaving the Travis County Jail Tuesday about 4 p.m. A crowd of friends, family and other students welcomed them with cheers, drums and hugs.

As of 5 p.m., only a handful of the people who were arrested the day before had been released. Bradley Hargis, the executive director of the Capital Area Private Defenders Service, told those gathered outside the jail that the process to book and magistrate everyone who had been arrested was taking a long time, but he expected them to be released by the end of the day.

He said all the clients he has worked with have been charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $2,000 fine, though a diversion program might be an option, depending on the individual’s criminal history.

Hargis said the charges filed against Monday's protesters would likely stick this time.

[Dozens more arrested at UT-Austin as police use pepper spray, flash bangs to break up protests]

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza, who dropped all criminal charges against 57 protesters who were arrested during another demonstration last week, said Tuesday law enforcement provided “more detailed, more substantive” paperwork when they filed charges related to the most recent arrests. Garza has said she dismissed the previous charges because law enforcement lacked probable cause. Probable cause is the reason law enforcement provides to justify arrests.

Garza said she has received 65 charges against 79 of the protesters arrested Monday. She is still reviewing them and didn't say whether she'll pursue them. But she said the rate of arrests from these demonstrations is unsustainable for the local criminal justice system.

“While we understand the safety concerns of the university, continuing to send protesters to jail on criminal trespass charges — one of the lowest level nonviolent crimes our offices is presented with — is putting a tremendous strain on criminal justice resources.” she said. “I am also deeply concerned about how matters will escalate when people believe they are being prevented from exercising the right to participate in non violent protests."

Garza called on university administrators “to be leaders” and find an alternative way to handle the protests, such as coming up with a compromise with organizers.

“What we’re seeing right now does not seem sustainable. And the fear is to have that escalate and that it’s not just criminal trespass, that it becomes more dangerous than criminal trespass charges.”

In a Tuesday statement, University of Texas System Board of Regents Chair Kevin P. Eltife said, "we will make every effort to see that students who violate campus policies and outside individuals and groups that violate state law are fully prosecuted."

"Nothing is more important than the safety of our students, and we will not hesitate again to use all resources available to us to keep them safe and our UT campuses open," Eltife said.

Sam Law, who was among those arrested Monday, was released Tuesday evening and said he was relieved to finally be outside. He said there was a strong sense of solidarity inside the jail despite the harsh environment.

Law, a doctoral cultural anthropology student who has been a regular at campus protests since last week, said he and others who were arrested Monday continued chanting and singing inside an academic building where they briefly held, even after they were handcuffed. He said he was emboldened when he saw other protesters move in front of the bus law enforcement used to transport him and the other people arrested.

He and others recently released from the jail said the severe tactics deployed against protesters are leading more students to get involved.

“Hartzell once again, as the president of the university, sent in militarized police to violently arrest us,” said Law, who is Jewish-American. “This is just a sign of the lack of freedom of speech at the University of Texas campus.”

The latest arrests came after protesters started an encampment at the university’s South Lawn on Monday morning. University officials said protesters created a barricade using tables secured by metal chains and became "physically and verbally combative" when school staff approached. University staff said encampments are prohibited on campus and requested support from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Law enforcement warned protesters they would arrest them for criminal trespassing if they didn’t disperse. Officers eventually marched down on the protesters, dragging dozens of them before deploying pepper spray and flash bang explosives to disperse hundreds of people.

On Tuesday morning, a crowd of nearly 100 people waited outside the Travis County Jail waiting for the release of protesters arrested the day before. Various people brought food and water as students sat around preparing for their finals this week. A feeling of frustration and determination permeated the gathering.

“I have finals, and I don’t know if I can go back to campus again because it feels unsafe due to the people who are supposed to protect us,” said Arwyn Heilrayne, a UT-Austin student arrested during another pro-Palestinian protest last week.

From left, University of Texas at Austin students Ana Maria, Piper Leleus, Daniella Alfonso and Eliza Sommers camp outside of the Travis County Jail as they await the release of pro-Palestinian protesters who were arrested Monday from an encampment on the UT campus on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Austin.

From left, University of Texas at Austin students Ana Maria, Piper Leleux, Daniella Alfonso and Eliza Sommers camp outside of the Travis County Jail on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, as they await the release of pro-Palestinian protesters who were arrested Monday from an encampment on the UT-Austin campus. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Piper Leleux, a UT-Austin sophomore who was also in the crowd outside the jail waiting for her boyfriend to be released, said they hadn’t initially planned on being at Monday’s protest.

Leleux had just gotten off work at Urban Outfitters and was planning to meet her boyfriend for dinner when she got a text about the protest. It was a hot day, so they first met up to bring some water to protesters.

When they arrived, they were greeted by a chaotic scene that ended with her getting hit in the face and her boyfriend in handcuffs.

[Gov. Greg Abbott and UT-Austin shift from championing free speech to policing protesters’ intentions]

Leleux said she found herself stuck in a crowd of people when police started to pepper-spray the area. She said she accidentally ran into a cop and was trying to apologize when the officer elbowed her in the face.

“I fell to the ground and hit my head and then I was just angry because I was being polite,” Leleux said.

She then noticed her boyfriend being arrested, and the pain disappeared.

“I just started running towards him not even realizing I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be,” Leleux said. “One of my friends grabbed me and pulled me back or I might have been arrested, too.”

Leleux said she spent the next 24 hours outside the Travis County Jail.

“Once he is released, I will go to the hospital to make sure I don’t have a concussion. It hasn’t been fun, but it’s a lot better than what he is dealing with right now,” Leleux said.

Multiple students were released Tuesday after spending over 24 hours in jail. Aaliyah Pozo, a St. Edward's University student, said shortly after she was released that the opportunity to protest the ongoing violence in Gaza was worth her arrest, boredom inside the jail and criminal charges.

“This was a good 24 hours spent,” she said.

Inside the jail, Zoninia Pray said she and others had to shout to get officers to provide medical attention in one of the holding rooms. She said they arrived at the jail Monday at 5 p.m. but some didn’t get medical attention or water until midnight. Without a cup, they “had to drink straight out of the faucet,” Pray said.

Pray, who lives in Georgetown, is not a UT-Austin student. Pray told The Texas Tribune she came to Austin to take part in the teaching session and discussions organizers had planned to hold on campus on Monday. When she arrived at the school, it was clear police planned to arrest those assembled on the South Lawn.

Daniella Alfonso, another UT-Austin student outside the jail, said she went to the protests Monday when she learned one of her friends had been hit by a law enforcement officer on a bicycle. She said when she arrived she saw the cops had started to circle around protesters.

“I noticed one of my friends get pepper-sprayed and the skin on her arm starting turning red and burning,” Alfonso said.

Alfonso said she felt like she was in the middle of a television scene.

“I wasn’t expecting someone we know to get arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. We pay to be there,” Alfonso said.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators returned to the university's South Mall on Tuesday, but the crowd and police presence were smaller this time.

Protesters sat on the grass and chanted without table fortifications used the day before. Law enforcement officials observed from a distance but there was no signs of the pepper spray or flash grenades that sent the campus into chaos 24 hours earlier. The group of about 50 students sat in a circle and painted pro-Palestinian signs and talked about poetry. Most of the group's discussion was about the fate of the protesters who were arrested Monday and were slowly being released Tuesday.

The event wasn't conflict-free. At some point pro-Israel demonstrators traded words with the pro-Palestinian group, sometimes trying to out-yell each other.

Monday’s arrests came days after another police crackdown on protesters at UT-Austin last week. There was no indication of violence before police intervened in that protest. UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell justified the university’s response Wednesday by saying officials had reason to believe that protesters planned to set encampments and disrupt school activities, as it has happened with demonstrations at other universities across the country.

"The University strongly supports the free speech and assembly rights of our community, and we want students and others on campus to know that protests on campus are fully permissible, provided that they do not violate Institutional Rules or threaten the safety of our campus community," a statement from university officials said Tuesday.

Some people outside the jail on Tuesday said the university’s response so far would not dissuade them from continuing to participate in the protests.

“I am still going to protest because if I stopped they win,” Leleux said. “They are using scare tactics to try and intimidate us, and we can’t let that happen.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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