Police end University of Utah student pro-Palestine rally with riot gear and 19 arrests

Hundreds of U. students had joined nationwide campus rallies in support of Palestine, setting up an encampment outside the university’s administration building.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement stand in front of the University of Utah sign during the pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a new tally provided by the University of Utah of the number of protesters arrested.

What had been a peaceful pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah ended violently when officers in riot gear charged at students — knocking them down with shields, dragging some off by their arms or feet, and ripping their tents from the ground.

The demonstrators who had come together Monday continued to chant as police moved into their encampment: “We will not stop. We will not rest.”

As they were detained or dispersed, the shouts grew quieter. Just before midnight, eight hours after the rally started and one hour into the clash with law enforcement, it was over.

More than 100 officers from agencies across Salt Lake County stood at the edge of the cleared campus, forming a line of black helmets and vests in front of the welcome sign for the state’s flagship university.

It was an unprecedented show of force in recent memory for any campus rally in Utah.

The school’s police department said in a statement that 19 protesters were arrested. One student lay face down on the asphalt of University Street, his wrists zip-tied tight behind his back. An officer told him, “Don’t resist.” The police told students several times that it was an “unlawful assembly” and instructed them to leave — or face “reasonable force” and “criminal consequences.”

They played a warning three times over a loudspeaker. The U. cited a Salt Lake City ordinance that bans camping, as well as university policy.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A protester is arrested by law enforcement during the pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A protester is arrested during a demonstration in support of Palestine at the University of Utah, Monday, April 29, 2024.

By 11 p.m., the officers formed a line, and they forcefully pushed into rallying students, who held up wood pallets and plastic tables as guards. Some screamed. Protesters threw water bottles, garbage and their crumpled rally posters at the officers. Flipping them off, the students shouted profanities and repeated, “Where are your morals?” and “There is no violence here. Why are you in riot gear?”

One protester had a hatchet tucked under her scarf. A group of officers piled on top of her and pried it from her hands. She was among those arrested.

Keith Squires, U. chief safety officer, responded in a statement: “Utah college campuses around the state are not exempt from the significant unrest that currently exists in our country and world. … We honor all voices, but the right to speech on our campus must occur within the confines of state law and campus policies.”

The response from U. police falls in line with the growing pushback against students speaking out about the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. University of Utah students were the latest to join in with those at campuses nationwide, echoing the same chants heard at Columbia University and Yale, in California and Texas and Wisconsin. Hundreds of students across the country have been arrested. Some have also been suspended; the U. said that was among the forthcoming consequences for students who participated Monday.

Like others, the Utah students called on their school to divest its endowment from any ties to Israeli companies and weapons manufacturers benefiting from the war. The U. has $1.47 billion total in its holdings.

The students specifically called on the U. to eliminate holdings from Lockheed Martin, which has a Utah location, and 47G; both are involved in aerospace and defense. The U. also has a research partnership with 47G that was announced in 2023 and which it pays memberships due to be a part of.

“Trustees, you know, there’s blood on your portfolio,” the protesters yelled. Megaphones were spread out through the crowd that started out with at least 800 students and faculty. A handful of professors in the crowd wore their graduation robes.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A protester carries a Palestinian flag during the pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

After rallying on the steps of the school’s administration building in Presidents’ Circle, the students set up more than 20 tents and tarps on the lawn in front of it, vowing they wouldn’t leave until the university’s leadership answered their demands.

Inside is U. President Taylor Randall’s office. The students called on him to come out and negotiate. They wrote “Free Palestine” in chalk, in the hope that Randall would see it from his window.

“Our demands are firm and unwavering,” said U. student Alondra. The Salt Lake Tribune agreed not to include her last name as she fears repercussions from the school for speaking out.

The University of Utah and its campus police submitted reports in December to prosecutors for criminal charges to be filed against eight students. The school said those students disrupted an event critical of the transgender community being held by a conservative club on campus, forcing officers to shut it down. Those students face misdemeanors.

It was the same student group — Mecha, which is largely led by and for students of color — that planned what they called the “emergency” rally and encampment Monday for Palestine.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People form an encampment during a demonstration in support of Palestine at the University of Utah, Monday, April 29, 2024.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People form an encampment during a demonstration in support of Palestine during a rally at the University of Utah, Monday, April 29, 2024.

They held hands and posters. They played hacky sack on the grass. Inside the circle, before it was interrupted, they had first-aid kits, granola bars and megaphones. Backpacks were scattered on the surrounding sidewalks, next to signs made out of pizza boxes that said, “Bombs made in Utah are killing kids in Gaza” and “Cut ties to Israel.”

Students waved small and large Palestinian flags as they sang: “Gaza, Gaza you will rise. Students are by your side.” Their voices cracked from hours of chanting.

Since the Israel-Hamas war started in October — when the militant group Hamas attacked — more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed and 1,200 Israelis.

More tents were pitched as the hours passed in what the students called their “Solidarity Camp.” They wheeled in wagons full of sleeping bags. “This is the people’s university now,” they said. Most wore scarves and masks covering their faces.

Campus police had initially paced around the perimeter, holding bunches of zip ties. More law enforcement arrived, lining up across the street from students in a tense showdown. Some of the officers could be seen instructing others how best to use their plastic shields before the dispersal started.

The sides exchanged shouts. “Go home,” the students said. “Why don’t you go home?” officers responded.

The students said the university should not only divest from “participating in a genocide” with the Israel-Hamas war — but it should also disclose all of its financial connections with its endowment.

“Our university is extremely implicated,” said Christopher Loera-Peña, a fourth-year student.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) People attend a rally in support of Palestine on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 29, 2024.

The school did not issue a statement Monday about divesting from Israel and weapons companies. A spokesperson referred to a previous 2021 divestment report prepared by faculty that examined what it would take for the school to eliminate holdings in oil and gas companies — which the U. has set goals for.

Additionally, the students asked for campus police to be permanently disbanded. They passed around papers listing what rights students have and advising them to stay quiet if detained, and they said there should be amnesty for all protesters participating in the event.

That’s unlikely to happen as several state leaders condemned the protest on social media.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, about the First Amendment not protecting “violence, threats to public safety, property damage, camping or disruptions to our learning institutions. We will protect protestors and arrest those who violate the law.”

The Utah Department of Public Safety said any criminal activity during a protest would be “swiftly addressed.”

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown also joined in. His officers were part of the response. He said the situation was “prolonged, difficult and dangerous.”

The U. has in past decades seen large rallies on campus — with calls to divest from Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. Both of those also came as students at colleges nationwide were speaking out.

“Do not let go of this moment,” said student Julio Irungaray at the rally Monday. “Make it bigger. … You are part of something massive. You are on the right side of history.”

The protest ended on 200 South, near the Pie Pizzeria, where students typically gather in celebration after football games. Abandoned posters and pieces of neon nylon from ripped tents littered the ground.

Officers walked back over the area with flashlights. One said: “If we didn’t have our gear on, it would’ve been a disaster.” Some reenacted where they took students down.

A few students left commenting, “We’ll be back.”