Economy 26-04-2024 13:02 12 Views

Criticism, praise of Texas governor after dramatic use of troopers on protesters

AUSTIN — As word got out that pro-Palestinian protesters were planning to occupy a lawn on the University of Texas campus, Gov. Greg Abbott made a dramatic move: calling in more than 100 state troopers with orders to clear them out.

With that decision, which led to dozens of arrests amid video of riot-clad troopers on campus, Abbott sought to reassure his party — and the rest of the country — that Texas would not countenance a replay of the extended protester camp at New York’s Columbia University.

It was the latest move by Abbott (R) to position himself as one of the most assertive red-state governors in America, eager for a fight with the political left under the national spotlight. But the aggressiveness of the response has alarmed students, faculty, Democrats and even some Republicans who have previously sided with Abbott in his crusades to protect free speech on college campuses.

The third-term governor has already staked out a national reputation for his envelope-pushing policies to secure the Texas-Mexico border, including by busing migrants to Democratic-led cities. Former president Donald Trump has mentioned him as a possible running mate, though Abbott has denied interest. And Abbott has moved increasingly to the right in recent years, leading a charge this spring to purge the state house of fellow Republicans who have thwarted his agenda on school vouchers.

On Thursday, however, Abbott found himself in a storm of broader scrutiny. Critics were quick to note, for example, that Abbott proudly signed a law in 2019 that aimed to protect free speech on college campuses by guaranteeing anyone can protest in common outdoor areas as long as they are not breaking the law or disrupting the regular functioning of the school. That is precisely what those arrested Wednesday were doing, they said.

Prosecutors also dropped charges against 46 of the 57 protesters arrested Wednesday, citing “deficiencies” their lawyers had challenged in the probable cause affidavits submitted as part of their arrests, according to Diana Melendez, a spokeswoman for Travis County Attorney’s Office.

“We will continue to individually review all cases presented to our office to determine whether prosecution is factually and legally appropriate,” Melendez said.

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D), whose district includes the Austin campus, said the politics involved in the response “is not going to let this go, and that’s deeply, deeply troubling.”

“I’ve not yet heard any evidence of property damage or personal injury, and so the response — the police response — seems to have been in anticipation of something that didn’t happen, that ultimately didn’t happen,” Eckhardt said.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the rationale for his action nor criticism of it. But on social media, the governor responded approvingly to the law enforcement response, saying the protesters “belong in jail” and that any students taking part in “hate-filled, antisemitic protests” at public colleges should be expelled.

The latter reflected Abbott’s issuance last month of an executive order requiring public universities to revise their free speech policies to curb the “sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts” on campuses.

On Thursday, protesters said the show of force ordered by Abbott was striking but not surprising.

“Gov. Abbott is taking a very political opportunity to enforce his agenda, a very right-wing agenda focused on control, not on governance,” said Chelsea Collier, a doctoral student at the school of information and a native Texan who spent her entire academic career at UT.

Varun Jawarani, 21, a senior from Austin majoring in computer science, said the message he received was “Don’t have a dissenting opinion from state government or we’ll send in the police.”

Not every student found the response unsettling.

Lily Caplan, 19, a sophomore journalism major from Westport, Conn., joined fellow members of Longhorn Students for Israel at a counterprotest next to the pro-Palestinian gathering Thursday, waving Israeli flags and chanting “Bring them home now” — a reference to Jewish hostages in Gaza.

“Yesterday we saw a totally different response than other universities around the country and me, as a Jewish student, I was so grateful for that. Don’t mess with Texas,” she said, echoing a state slogan as she stood in a circle with other counterprotesters. Caplan said she was reassured by support from Abbott and university president Jay Hartzell.

As governor, Abbott has aggressively wielded his executive power to address issues important to conservatives. The biggest example is Operation Lone Star, a vast border security mission that has cost Texas taxpayers billions of dollars and has involved border blockades and masses of state law enforcement in defiance of the federal government’s immigration role.

More broadly, Republicans in Texas have been targeting public colleges more than ever, portraying them as bastions of “wokeness” where conservative views are unwelcome. Last year, Abbott signed a bill into law to ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices at public colleges and universities in Texas — a law that has hit UT especially hard.

Abbott and his GOP allies are unlikely to stop there. The governor said in an Austin speech last month that there are “some scofflaws out there” trying to circumvent the anti-DEI law and that lawmakers will work to crack down harder next legislative session.

“Just know this,” Abbott said, “we’re monitoring what our universities are doing.”

Abbott is not the only red-state governor who is pushing a hard line against protests related to the war in Gaza. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that if he were president, he would “send the Justice Department after” colleges where antisemitic protests are taking place and cancel visas for foreign students participating in the protests.

In Texas, many Republican activists and lawmakers applauded Abbott’s response Wednesday. But it was not universally embraced on the right.

Mark Davis, a conservative radio host in Dallas who has interviewed Abbott multiple times, initially questioned why exactly protesters were being arrested. He later said he had received adequate answers.

He later said he found the response justified after social media users noted UT leadership had told organizers not to proceed with the event, saying it would “violate our policies and rules, and disrupt our campus operations.”

Justin Amash, a former Michigan congressman now running for Senate there as a Republican, challenged Abbott to be more clear about the reason for the arrests.

“If he’s arresting them for their speech, then he’s violating the law, and his actions threaten everyone in the state, including everyone he claims to be protecting,” Amash said on X.

Abbott’s confrontations with higher education are unfolding as the Republican majorities in the Texas legislature grow only more supportive — and combative toward those who do not share their views. The March primary was a triumph for insurgent Republicans, some with Abbott’s backing, with 17 GOP incumbents in the House being defeated or forced to runoffs.

One of the challengers who captured a seat, North Texas attorney Mitch Little, was unapologetic Wednesday about the response to the protests, saying free-speech rights in Texas “do not include an AstroTurfed campsite for terrorist advocacy.”

“If you struggle to live within these simple boundaries, I encourage you to examine your other 49 options,” Little said.

Democrats, who have perennially failed to break the Republican lock on the state, said Abbott’s response to the protest was all about politics. The chair of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement that it was “yet another gross misuse of state-funds for campaign ads at the expense of UT students’ safety.”

The Democrats’ nominee for Senate this year, Rep. Colin Allred, suggested the state’s response to the UT protests was “overly aggressive.” The GOP incumbent, Sen. Ted Cruz, cast Allred’s comments as “explicitly attacking Tex. law enforcement for protecting Jewish students at UT.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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