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Congress grills UCLA Chancellor Block, accuses him of failing to protect students

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block grilled by Congress, accused of failing students
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block grilled by Congress, accused of failing students 01:19

In testimony before Congress Thursday, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block faced a scathing set of questions from lawmakers who accused him of failing to protect Jewish and Palestinian students alike as well as protesters at the campus.

More than 100 students at UCLA are being investigated for allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Oct. 7 attack that led to the war in Gaza, Block told members of a House committee who questioned him and the presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers universities over their schools' handling of protests and discrimination. He also said the pro-Palestinian encampment that drew hundreds of people to the campus earlier this month before violent clashes broke out should have been removed sooner.

He struggled to fully answer lawmakers' questions on the status of students under investigation for disciplinary action — specifically whether there have been any expulsions or suspensions — or where police investigations into allegations of harassment and violence stand. 

Further into the hearing, lawmakers grilled him on how he's handled specific allegations of antisemitism, from a Jewish student being blocked from a campus pathway to a professor being harassed after supporting Israel in a counter-protest. He also faced criticism from lawmakers who said he failed to engage in enough dialogue with protesters before clearing the encampment.

Rep. Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D-MN) accused him of not doing more to protect students when a group of counter-protesters descended on the pro-Palestinian encampment on April 30, leading to violent clashes. "You should be ashamed," she told the chancellor repeatedly. 

UCLA's leadership has drawn widespread criticism over a decision to call in outside law enforcement to dismantle a protest encampment at the campus, a move Block defended during the congressional hearing.

"With the benefit of hindsight, we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment if and when the safety of our community was put at risk," Block said, noting that while he made the decision to act two days before violence broke out on campus the night of April 30, the school was not able to marshal law enforcement and other resources in time.

Hundreds of faculty members have called for Block's resignation. He faced censure and a no confidence vote from UCLA's Academic Senate last week following his decision to call in police from outside the university. Some have criticized the move as an infringement on First Amendment rights.

Block, who has served as chancellor for 17 years, is set to retire in July.

Following the protests, Block delegated oversight of the UCLA police to a new Office of Campus Safety. On Wednesday, UCLA Police Chief John Thomas was temporarily reassigned after investigations were launched by the university and by UC system President Michael Drake, who has appointed an independent security firm that specializes in policing and civil rights to oversee the probe.

On Thursday, UCLA officials called for the dispersal of pro-Palestinian protesters after demonstrators used tables, metal fences, plywood and other objects to create a barricade that blocked off a section of campus between Kerckhoff and Moore halls.

The University of California's policy for handling protests and civil disobedience requires each campus to first seek help from other UC schools before calling in outside law enforcement. Block testified Thursday that he did not initially call the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies, but said increasing tensions at the encampment led to his decision to do so.

Block told the congressional panel that he gave protesters written notice that the encampment was being declared an unlawful assembly and that they would be removed if they did not disperse on April 30. 

The next day, Block said the university gave protesters "a final opportunity to leave." Later that evening, more than 200 people were arrested by police officers dressed in riot gear and carrying batons. Officers from LAPD and other agencies deployed flashbangs as they moved into the encampment, a collection of tents where people had been staying overnight for days and medical volunteers were on hand to treat people wounded.

The officers pulled out tents one by one as they placed protesters in handcuffs and took them into custody.

On Thursday, Block defended his decision to call in outside law enforcement but said the university should have been prepared to remove the encampment "immediately" once it was clear "the safety of our community was put at risk." 

Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), who represents California's 41st congressional district encompassing parts of Riverside County, described what happened at UCLA as an "unfortunate contrast" to Northwestern and Rutgers universities. At those schools, university administration negotiated with protesters to reach an agreement before shutting down demonstrations. 

At UCLA, no such deal was made. 

Block said a vice chancellor sat inside the encampment with protesters and "discussed potential solutions" but that proved unsuccessful. "So there was a real attempt for discussion, but unfortunately, it was not successful," he said.

When Takano asked Block if he would have done anything differently, the chancellor said the school tried to find "an off-ramp" for student protesters so they could leave the encampment. "Safety became an issue for the whole community," he said. "We had to ask the encampment members to leave the encampment."

Several members of the House committee questioned Block and the other university leaders about specific allegations of discrimination. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA), who represents California's 45th congressional district including parts of LA and Orange counties, mentioned one allegation in which a Jewish student was slapped and had a taser pulled on them.

"I hope you found out who that person was," Steel said of finding the assailant. "That should not happen for the Jewish students."

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-CA) played a video that appears to show a Jewish student at UCLA being stopped from walking down a pathway. Kiley asked if the university has identified the people in the video. Block said only that a memo was sent out to the entire campus community. 

"After we learned about that, I sent a message to all our student affairs people to make sure the pathways are open to everyone," he said. 

Block said there were ongoing investigations into the allegations mentioned but did not give details on where those cases stand, such as the outcome of complaints about students being blocked from parts of campus.

"We'll see what happens," he said.

In a scathing series of questioning, Rep. Omar said Block, UCLA leadership and law enforcement "stood by for hours" while a "mob of agitators" gathered near the pro-Palestinian encampment. She held up a photograph of that night, calling that image and others from the evening of April 30 "appalling." 

"This happened in front of your eyes, on your campus, and it was live-streamed for the whole world to see," Omar said, asking why he failed students "at many critical points when you could have intervened."

"Thank you for the question, but I'm sorry. I reject the premise," Block said.

When Omar held up the photograph again, asking why assailants from that night have been not arrested, Block said LAPD investigators are working to identify potential suspects by looking through photos. 

"It's been over a month," Omar said. "Why did you not immediately send the police that were standing by — your campus police, law enforcement — to intervene?"

Block replied: "We tried."

"We notified all our mutual aid partners. We tried to get police there as quickly as possible," he said. "But going to my original points, this encampment was against (university) policy."   

Omar said the protests at UCLA and their evolution into violence would be "weaponized" by House Republicans and more broadly.

"You should be ashamed in the fact that you failed your students. You should be ashamed for letting a peaceful protest gathering get hijacked by an angry mob," Omar said. "You played right into the hands in laying the grounds for attacking institutions of public education, stripping students of their rights and broader repression of movements."

Earlier in the hearing, Block testified about his own experiences with discrimination before speaking about the protests at UCLA.

As he opened his testimony, he recounted the antisemitism he faced growing up and noted that members of his family are Holocaust survivors. While serving as provost at the University of Virginia, Block said, he watched "neo-Nazis riot outside the synagogue where my children were called to the Torah."  

"As we all know, being an American means sometimes being asked to tolerate offensive and even hateful speech protected by our Constitution," Block said. "But there are limits." 

Block said that "at UCLA, we draw the line when speech crosses into intimidation, threats, and harassment of others."

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