Photos: Police dash University of Arizona protest over Gaza with gas, pepper balls, rubber bullets

For the second time in two weeks, protesters took over a small corner of the olive grove on the University of Arizona campus and refused to leave until police used rubber bullets, pepper balls and gas to force them out.

Last Tuesday, May 1, dozens of protesters built a temporary camp on the UA campus demanding the university divest from companies that sell arms and invest in Israel. Hours after a 10:30 p.m. deadline, hundreds of police officers use rubber bullets and pepper balls to break up the protest.

On Thursday evening, protesters returned to the same site, and established a new camp, marching from from Catalina Park on Fourth Avenue to the UA where they built a new ad-hoc fort with pop-up awnings, wooden cargo pallets, and yellow plastic construction barriers liberated from a nearby construction site—as well as a metal “road closed” sign. 

UA officials delivered two warnings, part of a hard line against protests on the UA campus just before the university’s primary convocation held at the football stadium on Friday evening.

“The University of Arizona Police Department is enforcing our campus use policy to remove an unauthorized encampment,” university spokesman Mitch Zak tweeted as officers began to move against the protest. “A structure made from wooden pallets and other debris was erected on campus property after 5 p.m. in violation of the policy. University officials issued warnings to remove the encampment and disperse. The warnings were ignored.”

“This evening, police vehicles have been spiked, and rocks and water bottles have been thrown at officers and university staff. Those who have violated the law are subject to arrest and prosecution. University officials have taken action to ensure the safety of Centennial Hall convocation attendees,” he said.

Last week, UA President Robert Robbins said through May 15, University of Arizona Police Department will take a zero-tolerance approach, acting “swiftly and decisively to enforce our campus use policy, which can include issuing no warnings before taking action,” UA President Robert Robbins said in a press release.

“While freedom of speech and free expression are encouraged at our university, we will not allow students, faculty, staff, or outside agitators to violate the law or our policies and put anyone at risk,” he said. “We will strictly enforce our campus use policies,” including a ban on shade structures and un-permitted large gatherings.”

Robbins, himself under fire and being pushed out of
his position due to the UA’s budget mess, said last week that “law
enforcement had little choice but to take significant measures” such as
firing rubber bullets and using pepper balls to quell the crowd.

Thursday night, UAPD officers on motorcycles stopped and cited at least four drivers for stopping on Park Avenue to drop off materials, such as water and furniture, for the protesters.

At times, the protesters Thursday night were jovial, laughing and singing. People drove by and honked or played music in support.

However, before midnight, dozens of police, including UAPD officers, deputies from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, members of the regional SWAT team, and Arizona State Troopers decamped from Old Main and assembled a skirmish line in front of the Arizona State Museum.

There, a UAPD sergeant repeatedly asked protesters to leave, announcing with a bullhorn that police would use pepper spray and other “munitions” to clear the area. 

“I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly,” said Sgt. Andrew Valenzuela. “You have been given several warnings this evening, we are prepare to use munition such as gas and pepper spray and pepper ball.”

“Leave the area now. If you don’t wish to be harmed by chemical weapons, leave the area now,” he said.

“This is a peaceful protest, why would you want to hurt peaceful people. Shame on you!” yelled back members of the group “Keeping Students Safe.” The cry echoed a similar one made last week, when students said “We keep us safe” in response to UAPD and other officials.

At 12:02 a.m. UA officials sent out a text push alert that police were at an “unlawful assembly.”

“Avoid/Leave area. Deploying loud munitions.”

Later, at 12:14 a.m., UA officials announced “Police instructing an unlawful assembly to disperse. Chemical munitions deployed.”

At 12:52 a.m., the UA announced the area was clear. 

No one from the UA administration appeared late Thursday night. While last week multiple UA officials appeared and spoke with students, on Thursday evening there were no apparent discussions between administrators and protesters at the site.

While Valenzuela continued speaking to the east, Arizona State Troopers marched from the north, flanked by two MRAP-style armored vehicles—a Lenco Bearcat and a hulking Lenco Bear. The protesters held their line for moments before breaking over the volcanic rock wall along Park Avenue, deciding to hold the street. Water bottles flew through the air at times, some with an addition of yeast thrown at the armored vehicles.

Protesters also brought barriers into the street, and police pushed them away from the camp, unleashing salvos of pepper balls and sending canisters of CS gas arching into the crowd. One man picked up a CS canister and hurled it back, and another man tried but was hit by fusillades of pepper balls.

The protesters were pushed through the intersection of Park and University Boulevard, outside the UA campus, as clouds of CS gas hit protesters and reporters. One CS canister arched over the crowd and nearly hit two press photographers. Soon the clouds of gas were overwhelming, sending people coughing and retching as they retreated.

At least one reporter was hit with munitions by police. Police also shot at bystanders, a group of four later told the Tucson Sentinel.

A small cluster of protesters reassembled in front of Gentle Ben’s, and as they chanted, someone tossed ceramic planters into the street, shattering them. Some people berated the protesters, with one man yelling “Fuck Gaza, go Israel!” 

Other men picked up the shattered pots. 

The protesters retreated along University and someone used spray paint to graffiti “Free Gaza” on a brick wall.

Back among the olive trees, UA staff cleared out the camp, tossing tents and food into a garbage truck and spraying water into the grass in preparation for events as early as 9 a.m.