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How Campus Protests Could Shape the 2024 Elections — And Not Just the Presidency

With hundreds of arrests and more campus standoffs looming, local law enforcement officials could face consequences at the ballot box.

A photograph shows a large group of students facing toward police wearing riot gear on a college campus. Some police officers are mounted on horses.
At the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, police face student protesters demanding the school divest from companies connected to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Student protesters are camping out and taking over buildings, demanding that their universities divest from companies connected to Israel’s war in Gaza. Police have already arrested hundreds, and university leaders are deciding whether to forcibly eject them ahead of graduation ceremonies. Seeking their own advantage from the moment, politicians are pushing university presidents to resign, calling for more arrests and deportations of foreign students and demanding that President Joe Biden call in the National Guard.

This all may sound familiar, given how calls for law and order on college campuses are part of a long political tradition, particularly on the right. During the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan accused campus “beatniks” and “radicals” of fomenting “anarchy” as he ran for California governor in 1966. Today’s anti-war protests recall demands to divest from South Africa in the 1980s.

But here is a new dynamic: Local prosecutors, now beginning to face questions about how they’ll handle charges against student protesters, may find that their decisions matter when they seek reelection this fall and beyond.

A decade of Black Lives Matter protests against killings by police, and ensuing news coverage, have educated the public about the choices facing prosecutors, judges, police chiefs and sheriffs. District attorneys used to run quiet races with little opposition; now they attract donations from billionaires and endorsements from celebrities.

Add this to the growing generational divide over Israel and the future of the Palestinian people, and efforts in state legislatures to target students involved in pro-Palestine activism. These developments altogether suggest that during the 2024 election, voters may think about Israel and Gaza not only when they consider the presidency or Congress — the people with actual power over foreign policy — but also far down the ballot, where choices about policing and prosecution are made.

These tensions have already flared in Austin, Texas, where I live. Last Wednesday, hundreds of University of Texas students walked out of class to protest the school’s financial ties to Israel’s military. “These protesters belong in jail,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote on X, earning praise from some Jewish students who say they feel unsafe on campus. (Across the country, there is an ongoing debate about whether specific slogans cross a line into antisemitism, but the protesters — some of whom are themselves Jewish — broadly deny antisemitic intent.) The Texas Tribune reported that the demonstration “showed no signs of violence before authorities intervened.” State troopers descended upon the campus with horses and riot gear, wrestling protesters to the ground and zip-tying their wrists.

By that evening, 57 people were in jail on trespassing charges.

But over the next two days, all the protesters walked free.

County Attorney Delia Garza, who prosecutes misdemeanors in Travis County, dropped the charges while citing “deficiencies” in police affidavits. But she also criticized the arrests themselves, saying in a statement, “The overwhelming police response to what appears to have been a peaceful demonstration should be concerning to all who believe in our Constitution.”

Over the weekend, I saw a fundraising text message from Travis County District Attorney José Garza (no relation to Delia) referring with alarm to “crackdowns on protesting students” and criticizing Abbott directly.

A screenshot shows a fundraising text message with a photograph of a group of people holding up signs reading "José Garza."

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, a Democrat, sent a text message to supporters citing the “crackdowns on student protests” as a reason to oppose Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The two have repeatedly clashed, and Garza is up for reelection in November while a Republican-backed lawsuit seeks his ouster.

He defeated a Republican-funded primary challenger in March and is currently unopposed in November. But he is also facing a lawsuit seeking his removal, under a new state law championed by Abbott and other Republicans as part of a larger conflict between blue cities and red states.

Although I have not found more examples of local prosecutors fundraising off the campus protest crackdowns, a few have made statements that appear calculated to appeal to their progressive bases. “This office is not interested in prosecuting people for exercising their First Amendment rights,” a spokesperson for Sam Bregman, the prosecutor for Bernalillo County, New Mexico, told The Appeal. Bernalillo County includes the University of New Mexico campus, where there is currently a student encampment. Although New Mexico State Police have also arrested students, the state’s Democratic governor has not been publicly cheering them on.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recently told the Chicago Tribune her office will not “prosecute protesters arrested for disorderly conduct, unlawful gathering or criminal trespass to state-supported land, among other laws.” But her caveat is that protesters must remain “peaceful,” and that she would set the policy aside entirely for the Democratic National Convention in August, sure to draw massive protests about Israel and Palestine, and much else.

A photo shows a group of people sitting in a circle. In the foreground, a Texas State trooper holds a baton.
A photograph shows a group of more than 10 police officers wearing riot gear and holding batons watch a person standing by a tent.
Police officers in riot gear arrest a person wearing a hijab and a mask.

Students confront Texas state troopers at the University of Texas at Austin on April 29.

New Mexico State Police and campus police prepare to make arrests of students and demonstrators occupying the University of New Mexico Student Union building, in Albuquerque, in protest of Israel’s war in Gaza.

Indiana State Police arrest student protesters at Indiana University on April 25. Students and professors involved in the protests have been banned from the campus for a year.

In the coming months, we’ll see scrutiny of the harshest measures that have been used by police at these protests so far, including the use of a Taser and rubber bullets at Emory University, guns pointed at Ohio State protests and the forcible removal of Muslim women’s hijabs at Arizona State University. The courts will also consider possible felony allegations against protesters.

Beyond criminal penalties, university leaders will have to decide whether to expel or ban student protesters from campus. And there will surely be debates about the choices made to bring police to campus in the first place. Some of these calls are being made by private university administrators, who answer to their own students, faculty, donors and trustees. Others are made at public universities, which are overseen by state governors and legislatures, who officially answer to voters.

But it will be in elections of prosecutors, sheriffs and judges that voting this November could have a direct impact on the fate of campus protesters — and, by extension, the demands they are making.

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.