1,000 UCLA students amassed on the steps to defend the Encampment by blocking the police.  Photos by Ed Rampell

“Biden Biden, Whattaya Say? How Many Kids You Kill Today?”

This was one of the militant chants of hundreds of students on May 1 at UCLA. I went to the university after covering the May Day rally in Hollywood, arriving around 4:00 p.m., and this is what I witnessed at the frontlines of the class struggle in Westwood:

I made my way on foot across the sprawling campus towards the epicenter of the unfolding action, the UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment, led by Students for Justice in Palestine and UC Divest Coalition at UCLA. The first thing I noticed was the sound of helicopters hovering overhead and a heavy security presence. The latter included the LAPD, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, UCPD and CSC, a private firm specializing in crowd management. Upon reaching Dickson Plaza, the rather large area was cordoned off with metal barricades.

In the distance, flanked by august collegiate buildings, I could see the encampment and hear speeches being made with bullhorns (although I couldn’t make out what speakers were saying). In the foreground I could see a jumbotron flying two Israeli flags in front of the nearby tent city behind plywood walls, from which pro-Zionist propaganda had been blared, but was at that time quiet. When I approached yellow vest-wearing CSC guards controlling checkpoints, they refused to allow me in without an official press pass (which, by the way, are issued by LAPD and/or the Sheriff’s Department), and refused to consider stories I’d written under my byline as proof that I was, indeed, a journalist.

Determined to cover the students, I kept walking around Dickson Plaza; CHP vehicles lined the street. At another checkpoint I asked to speak to a media liaison for the UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment and pro-Encampment individuals summoned a young woman who appeared after a few minutes, calling herself “Mona.” To prove my bona fides, I showed her articles I’d written, including an interview with independent presidential candidate Cornel West (wherein he called for a ceasefire at Gaza as far back as early November – see: Mona was friendly and disputed that police had given the occupiers a legally valid dispersal order to abandon their “tent-in” (my term) by 6:00 p.m. She gave me a print out of the Encampment’s five bullet-pointed “demands” to the university, including:

“Divest: Withdraw all UC-wide and UCLA Foundation funds from companies and institutions that are complicit in the Israeli occupation, apartheid, and Genocide of the Palestinian people.” The demands went on to call for UCLA to: “Disclose… full-transparency to all UC-wide and UCLA Foundation assets including investments, donations, and grants.” “Abolish Policing: End the targeted repression of pro-Palestinian advocacy… and sever all ties with LAPD” and “Boycott” ties to Israeli universities. The antiwar students also demanded that UCLA “call[s] for “ceasefire and end to the occupation and Genocide in Palestine.”

  I gave Mona my business card (I haven’t heard back from her as of this writing – Mona, if you read this, LMK how you’re doing) and proceeded to the southern end of Dickson Plaza. There I encountered hundreds of multi-racial students with locked arms blocking the steps leading up to the Encampment, which I had a better – if not close-up view – of. Walls of protective plywood surrounded a village composed of tents and tarps, with Palestinian flags.

Many of the unarmed demonstrators on the steps wore helmets, hijabs and keffiyehs and flew the Palestinian flag. They seemed disciplined, determined, resolute and unafraid. Their chants included: “Israel Bombs, USA Pays!”; “Israel Israel, Whattaya say? How many kids you kill today?”; “Ho ho, hey hey, We will not stop, We will not rest: Disclose, Divest!” “Stop Bombing Gaza Now!”

There was no anti-Semitic sloganeering per se; absolutely no ethnic slurs or demeaning of Judaism or specifically pro-Hamas statements. The students did, however, chant: “Palestine will live forever, From the Sea to the River.” Some in the pro-Zionist camp do read into this a threat to wipe out Israel’s Jewish population. Pro-Palestinian activists, on the other hand, regard this as a call for full human rights for Palestinians, all the way from the West Bank and East Jerusalem across what is now Israel to Gaza. (During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Sept. 22, 2023 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he displayed a regional map that did not demarcate any Palestinian territory.)

The crowd kept growing up to about 1,000 protesters and someone with a bullhorn announced that a 6:00 p.m. “dispersal order was only for the encampment. It is not for us on the outside… If you stand on the steps, you defend the encampment.”

I walked around hilly ground slightly west of the steps with the multitude of linked arm demonstrators. On the other side, a young man with a bullhorn announced: “If you’re not willing to be arrested please leave. A dispersal order has been given.” I could see some young people filing down a flight of stairs to the guarded entry point to depart the Encampment on my right. But to the left, astonishingly, were hundreds of protesters lined up in order to join their comrades upstairs at the frontlines, inside the Encampment.

Down the hill, in a parking lot, as it was still sunny, I could clearly see law enforcement vehicles arriving and parking, preparing their entrapment of the Encampment. But as 6:00 p.m. came and went without a police invasion, it seemed to me that the solidarity of masses of demonstrators defying the authorities and their order to run with their tails tucked between their legs prevented the police from acting as their deadline came and went. Courageous antiwar students – armed only with their sense of righteous outrage – boldly faced down five heavily armed if outnumbered law enforcement entities, creating a standoff that lasted until about 3:00 a.m., May 2, when armed police finally assaulted, dismantled the tent city and busted reportedly 200-plus resisters, just days before the 54th anniversary of the Kent State shooting of anti-Vietnam War protesters. 

The steadfast moral stance of students bravely opposing the carpet bombing of civilians that has murdered 35,000 people, mostly civilians, women, children, and babies (Yes! “And babies” too, as a famous poster decrying the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War put it) reminded me of Mario Savio’s 1964 speech on the steps of Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement at another University of California campus, Berkeley:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! …and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it – that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all!! …One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not [letting] anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine! And it will stop!!”

Earlier that May 1 I went to the May Day rally at Sunset Blvd. where hundreds of pro-union demonstrators, many of them Latino, listened to speeches from leftists and labor activists. The throng was beneath a huge sign for Paramount Pictures, and after about an hour of pro-working class, pro-immigrant and antiwar remarks, they marched up to Hollywood Blvd. and down the Fabled Walk of Fame, joined by colorful Indigenous Aztec dancers and an African drum group. 

 In 1952, Hollywood showman Cecil B. DeMille directed the blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth, which was produced by Paramount. But in fact, that day, the greatest show on Earth was taking place far below Paramount’s sign – on streets filled with marching workers, and across town at a college campus, where undaunted students stood up against a U.S.-funded war as the conscience and consciousness of America.

When I left UCLA around 6:30 p.m., there were still helicopters hovering overhead, and I wondered: How long would it be before they played “The Ride of the Valkyries” and the Iron Heel of the State attacked pro-peace pupils at the barricades?

Photo by Ed Rampell 1. Demonstrators march on Sunset Blvd. with banners proclaiming "Hands Off Rafah!" and "Palestine to Mexico, The Walls Got To Go" 2. The well-armed police arrive to prepare their entrapment of the Encampment below the steps leading up the "tent-in", blocked by masses of brave, unarmed students. 3. The canvas and wood UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment in front of Royce Hall. 4. 1,000 UCLA students amassed on the steps to defend the Encampment by blocking the police. 5. Below the "Paramount" sign, a speaker addresses the May Day rally from a truck parked on Sunset Blvd.