May 24, 2024 9:00am

Power Poll seeks input on law enforcement response to protests at the University of Texas at Austin

The pro-Palestinian protests at the University of Texas

Photo of Ken Herman
Austin, TX Correspondent
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The Austin community was left divided over the law enforcement handling of the recent Middle East-related protests on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

More thn 100 people were arrested, resulting in a variety of protest-related charges stemming from the pro-Palestinian rallies.

Some area residents believed law enforcement - including the use of local and state police - was overly aggresive and encroached on constitutionally protected free speech. But other locals believed the efforts prevented encampments such as those that became lingering problem on other campuses around the nation.

The local Power Poll of political, business, governmental and civic leaders found a divided survey group. The largest single group, 41%, said the situation was “properly handled” by authorities. But a majority said it was not properly handled, with 23% saying it was “absolutely not” properly handled and 36% saying it could have been handled better.

Responses from two Power Poll participants reflected the division over how the protests were handled. Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of Culturati, said “Gov. (Greg) Abbott and the (University of Texas) regents overreacted in their militarized response to the nonviolent, non-threatening students” who expressed their pro-Palestinian beliefs.

“As we’ve seen around the country, most of the violence and threats against students have been from outside agitators from the extreme right and anarchists,” Sepulveda said. “Students should find their civic voices while in school. Protesting, even occupying buildings, is a sacred, nonviolent form of student expression during extreme national and international crises.”

But John H. Robinson, chief executive officer of Capitol Services, summed up the opposing view briefly and thusly: “I went to college to get an education, not to protest and occupy buildings.”

Lionel Felix, CEO of Felix Media Solutions, said the protesters included “students who have no actual understanding of the way Arab states, particularly Hamas as a puppet of Iran, have been openly seeking the murder of Jews and the elimination of the Jewish State.”

“The (Hamas) attack on 10/7 and slaughter and rape of innocent people was a step too far.,” Felix said, adding, “These college students have been informed by Islamist propaganda.”

“This is not a revolution, this is entitled children brainwashed by targeted social media. I’m so liberal, but I’m also a citizen of a nation of laws,” Felix said.

To get a feel for underlying thoughts about the Israel-Hamas conflict that has roiled the region and threatened to ignite a wider war, Power Poll respondents were asked which side harbors greater blame for the violence. Only 7% of participants said Israel shoulders greater blame. Fifty-three percent said Hamas. Forty-one percent said both sides share blame.

Joshua M. Hoeft, director of General Dynamics Information Technology, said, “The blame question is a little difficult to answer since there are always so many nuances to every conflict, and it's human lives we're talking about. That said, these really aren't true protests and were handled as best as could be, right up front before they turned into bigger deals.”

The aftermath of the campus demonstrations produced calls for the firing of UT President Jay Hartzell, who defended the university’s response to the protests. An overwhelming 79% of respondents said Hartzell should not be fired. Just over one in five said he should be dismissed.

An overwhelming 93% predicted Hartzell will face no disciplinary action. UT Regents, at a recent meeting, expressed solid support for Hartzell and the overall response to the campus protests.

Among other demands, pro-Palestinian protesters called for the university to divest any investments in businesses related to the manufacture of weapons used by Israel. Two-thirds of Power Poll respondents oppose such divestment. Only 10% support such a move. And 23% said it’s worth consideration.

UT regents have said it will not be considered.

Arrests on April 30 led to criminal trespass charges against 78 campus protesters. Also filed was one charge of obstructing a highway or passageway and one charge of interfering with public duties.

A UT statement said 45 of those arrested on April 30 “had no affiliation” with the university.

“These numbers validate our concern that much of the disruption on campus … has been orchestrated by people from outside the university,” the statement said, “including groups with ties to escalating protests at other universities around the country.”

A previous campus protest on April 24 resulted in criminal charges against 57 people. But Travis County Attorney Delia Garza dismissed those charges as inadequate.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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