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Israel Palestinians Campus Protests
New York City police officers arrested more than 100 protesters on Tuesday evening. Craig Ruttle/AP

Democrats Don’t Want to Talk About the Police Response to Campus Protests

The reports of violence by police at protests were met with mostly silence from Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Many Democratic lawmakers want little to do with the debate over how police are handling the campus protests over Gaza, quick to say they either don’t know the details or don’t think there’s any space for them to meaningfully weigh in.

At Columbia University, police officers with the New York Police Department reportedly threw a protester down the stairs in front of a building, slammed protesters with metal barricades and pushed some of them to the ground. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a professor said she was injured by police. At the University of California-Los Angeles, where counterprotesters reportedly attacked protesting students, police officers didn’t show up for hours.

Hardly any Democratic lawmakers have put out statements or spoken out about how police have handled the protests. And when NOTUS asked more than a dozen Democrats about the reports of violence, most either said they knew too little to comment or tepidly defended the response.

“I know there was some police action on, I think, Columbia and UCLA campuses,” Sen. Chris Coons said. “I don’t know enough about the details of who was actually precipitating the violence, who called them in, what the conduct was to give you any assessment of [if police behavior was] appropriate or inappropriate.”

Many Democratic lawmakers are “holding back” on commenting on the campus protests in general, Rep. Annie Kuster told Axios. The same seems to be true for reports of police escalation, even for those who spoke out against police brutality and law enforcement crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protesters in the past.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Wednesday that he had not had “the opportunity to take a look at what happened” at UCLA. But he was overall complimentary of how the NYPD handled the arrest of more than 100 protesters who had occupied a Columbia University building.

“The efforts by the NYPD were thorough, professional, and they emphasized a degree of calm in a very tense situation,” he said. “I didn’t see the NYPD use excessive force yesterday.”

Democrats are grappling with intraparty tensions over the war in Gaza, including young progressives, Arab Americans and others outraged by President Joe Biden’s largely unconditional support for Israel. And unabashedly backing the student protest could come with its own political complications, given reports of antisemitism and actions like the building takeover at Columbia, which many Democrats said necessitated some level of response from authorities.

Many Democrats have focused on condemning the actions of that subset of protesters. Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer began his floor remarks Tuesday morning by discussing Columbia, calling the building takeover “lawlessness, and those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist.”

It is unclear whether the police responses over the past day or so are what he meant; he did not speak about the situation when he delivered remarks on Wednesday.

Others gave vague defenses of the response to protests. “I don’t have any personal knowledge about what the police have done or haven’t done,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. He added, “I think everyone has been given a lot of warning about what they’re going to do before they do it.”

Some wouldn’t engage at all. “I gotta run, and I’m not going to talk about any of this shit today,” Rep. Dean Phillips told NOTUS.

A few Democrats were more willing to engage in discussion about the police response.

“It’s never OK to throw somebody down stairs. Period,” Rep. Jasmine Crockett said. “Is it OK for law enforcement to come in because the campus says, ‘Hey, we had a break-in?’ … Absolutely. But at the end of the day, we still treat people with human dignity, and they still have rights.”

“I hope that the police use the minimum amount of the tools that they have at their disposal necessary to contain the situation without escalating the violence,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth said.

Sen. John Fetterman was more direct. At Columbia University, for instance, he’s “glad that they chose to have the police come in and take charge.”

Nuha Dolby and Tinashe Chingarande are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.