Issue Brief: Analysis of U.S. Campus Encampments Related to the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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Executive Summary

Students at colleges and universities across the United States have established protest encampments over an array of issues related to the Israel-Palestine conflict, prompting a wide range of responses from school officials, law enforcement, counter-protesters, and local communities. This Issue Brief – Analysis of U.S. Campus Encampments Related to the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Action, Reaction, and Engagement in Dialogue – analyzes the latest data on the campus protests to map key trends in demonstration activity and responses to the encampments as of May 12, with a specific focus on incidents of physical violence and destructive activity, such as assaults, clashes, substantial property damage, and use of force by police. The Brief also reviews ongoing dialogue and de-escalation efforts to manage tensions among campus communities, as well as the protest movement’s trajectory going into the summer.

Other analyses of the encampment protests have focused on the types of claims and statements made by protesters and counter-protesters, including important and at times significantly divergent assessments of forms of speech that rise to the level of hate speech, threats, harassment, or incitement to violence. This Issue Brief does not contribute directly to that critical debate and its implications for the wider risk environment. While there have been multiple incidents of escalatory behavior like invasions of personal space and derogatory or hateful speech involving protesters, counter-protesters, and bystanders in the vicinity of encampments, cases where no physical contact was made are beyond the scope of this analysis. This analysis instead focuses solely on explicit acts of physical violence and related activity in and around encampment protests, in an effort to fill a gap in available research on physical threats and de-escalation opportunities, with a view toward providing a firmer foundation for policy responses on campus aimed at addressing the risk of immediate physical harm and preserving essential rights to free speech and assembly.

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Key Trends

  • Encampment actions have spurred a new wave of Israel-Palestine demonstrations. At least 3,700 demonstration events related to the Israel-Palestine conflict have been reported in the United States between the October 7 Hamas attack and May 12. 
    • While demonstrations declined at the beginning of 2024, mass arrests at the Columbia University encampment in April sparked a new wave of protests. 
    • BDI analysis of ACLED and CCC data finds that there have been approximately 1,150 encampment-related demonstrations at nearly 150 colleges and universities, spanning at least 35 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. 
  • Most demonstrations have not been violent or destructive. At the vast majority of encampment demonstrations – 95% or almost 1,090 events – there were no reports of encampment protesters engaging in physical violence or destructive activity. 
    • Of these events where no violent or destructive activity by protesters was reported, law enforcement was present or intervened in more than 200 cases. 
    • Of the approximately 60 events that did include reports of violent or destructive activity, these incidents involved physical confrontations with law enforcement, physical confrontations with counter-demonstrators, the throwing of projectiles (e.g. bottles, cans) at law enforcement, or damage to occupied buildings.
  • Encampment demonstrations have attracted a significant level of counter-protests. At least 13% of encampment protests – over 150 events – have been met with counter-protesters. 
    • Of these events, some type of physical confrontation between opposing groups was reported at nearly 40.
    • Incidents of car rammings or attempted car rammings at encampment protests and other pro-Palestine demonstrations have also risen, with at least 5 cases reported across 5 states in recent weeks.
  • Encampment demonstrations have seen a high level of law enforcement engagement. Law enforcement has been involved in over a fifth of all encampment demonstrations, at 23% of events, or over 260. 
    • In approximately 75 events, law enforcement intervened but did not make arrests, including issuing warnings and declaring unlawful assemblies, rousing protesters throughout the night, setting up barriers, restricting entrances, or removing things from encampments.
    • In approximately 100 events, or 9% of all encampment demonstrations, law enforcement intervened and made arrests. Over 3,000 people have been arrested or detained on campuses so far.
    • In at least 24 events spanning 22 institutions, law enforcement used “less-lethal” munitions, like beanbag rounds, tear gas, and/or pepper spray, while in at least 11 additional events they used batons, most often when clearing encampments. 
    • In at least 5 instances, law enforcement appeared to place snipers on rooftops overlooking campus protests. Multiple cases occurred within a week of the 1970 Kent State shooting anniversary.
  • Individuals associated with groups like the Proud Boys and white nationalist movements have renewed limited engagement with demonstrations related to the war. These actors have largely sought to capitalize on media attention and to take advantage of social and political tensions to promote their agendas. 
    • Such groups have engaged in counter-protests at encampments and alternative demonstrations near encampments in states like New York, California, and Illinois. 
    • In multiple cases, including in Georgia and Arizona, protesters have successfully identified attempted co-option and taken action to reject or sideline these actors.
  • Dialogue and de-escalation efforts have had an impact at multiple campus encampments, including initiatives led by faith leaders and other community groups.
    • At least 20 schools in more than 10 states have come to agreements with protesters to end encampments, at times as the result of a dialogue process, though some agreements have faced push back or criticism.
    • Open lines of communication between protesters, community members, law enforcement, and administration officials often identified alternative approaches to address tensions surrounding encampments without escalation.

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