Boston police officers arrested 108 protesters during an overnight sweep of a pro-Palestinian encampment on the Emerson College campus in Downtown Boston. Both students and police say they were injured during the aggressive clash.

Multiple students provided GBH News with photos of injuries they sustained during the sweep. City crews were dispatched Thursday morning to clear blood and graffiti from the Boylston Place alleyway, according to footage obtained by GBH News. Four police officers sustained non-life-threatening injuries, three minor and one serious, according to Boston Police Department spokesman Detective Sergeant John Boyle.

Officers surrounded the block during the sweep, according to a student who was arrested and asked to remain anonymous.

“We were trapped, so there wasn’t any way in or out for us,” they said. “They stormed both sides of the alley in full riot gear, with batons. Students were dragged, ripped from the front line. I was thrown to the ground with a knee on my back. Somebody that I was thrown into the wagon with had a bloody nose and wasn’t given medical attention until we were at the precinct. It was horrific. People were screaming that they couldn’t breathe while they were being arrested.”

Students began protesting at Emerson earlier this week, demanding transparency about the use of the college’s endowment and divestment from any companies that support Israel’s military action in Gaza. Police issued dispersal warnings to protest organizers at around 1:38 a.m., according to Emerson student newspaper The Berkeley Beacon. Around ten minutes later, arrests began.

Eight students appeared in Boston Municipal Court Thursday morning, facing charges ranging from unlawful assembly to disturbing the peace. Because Boston Municipal Court judges were attending a conference at the time, all eight were released on their own recognizance and given summons to appear for arraignments early next month.

“It was terrifying. They beat students to the ground. I was pushed to the ground. That statue right there, they pressed me up against it, and I was like, ‘We’re being peaceful,‘” said a second-year Emerson student, who was arrested and also asked to remain anonymous. Their court date is next week.

“They had knees on the backs of students’ backs. They used zip ties on me instead of handcuffs because they didn’t have enough handcuffs — and it really, really hurt. They had black batons and wooden sticks, just, that looked like it could be a chair leg that they were using to beat students,” the student continued. “When I was taken in the cop car, there were students that had gashes on their face.”

First-year student Nadine, who did not give her last name, recalled leaving the alley before arrests started.

“I quickly ran upstairs so I could at least still see what was happening. And, people were just being thrown down to the ground. I mean, they went to all the tents, dragged people out, like, pushed them to the ground. It did not have to escalate to this. … Boston police were brutal. They were so brutal.”

Multiple students remain in jail with dates to appear in court next week on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

“What these students are doing is specifically what we've been telling people that we're all about as a country, that when we see injustice, we speak out, generation after generation,” Antonio Viana, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who represented the eight students Thursday. “They were peacefully protesting until the Boston police came, dozens of police officers. It’s important for us to remember ... no one can deny that a lot of people are being killed, no one can deny that. So what are we doing about it? Are we going to just stay silent?”

Officers cleared the encampment in accordance with the city’s ordinance banning tents across Boston, according to authorities. At a press conference Thursday morning, Mayor Michelle Wu — who enacted the ordinance to address homeless encampments across the city — said that the Emerson encampment presented a hazard to public safety by blocking a public alleyway.

“We welcome and uphold and respect the right to peacefully protest in public spaces in our city. The issue was with fire hazards from the tents and the public health and safety risks that encampments, and tents in particular, pose in the city,” Wu said.

Wu told reporters that she had been in “close communication” with the school, emphasizing that she had “no issue” with the protests.

In police camera footage provided to GBH News by the Boston Police Department, an officer is shown reciting the city’s ordinance against encampments through his vehicle’s PA system, warning the crowd that “unlawful camping” is in violation of city laws.

Body camera footage shows Captain Sean Martin addressed the crowd before the clearing began, facing hundreds of students standing together in a blockade across the entrance of the alleyway.

“We don’t want to arrest anybody. We support your right to protest. I’m indifferent, OK? I don’t have a side either way. I want you to be able to peacefully do this — however, with the blocking the street, I can’t have that,” Martin said, citing fire code violations and resident complaints. “... We don’t want anyone to get hurt. We don’t want anyone to get screwed up in school with, with grades or whatever, missing finals. So I’m trying to work with you all. Trust me, we’re not the enemy on this. We’re indifferent.”

Martin told the crowd that police were supposed to clear the encampment at 10 p.m. on Wednesday but gave them “several hours extra” while receiving “a lot of complaints.”

In response to a request from GBH News for all body camera footage within a four-hour span of the sweep, the Boston Police Department did not provide videos of the clearing or arrests.

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Boston City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune said Thursday that her office is closely monitoring student protests. She called for any cases against peaceful protesters should be dismissed.

“I caution against heavy-handed responses to protest. While there are legitimate public safety concerns, the presence of tents alone does not transform a peaceful protest into an unpeaceful one,” she posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that students who choose to exercise their right to protest are met with dignity and respect.”

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, released a statement Thursday morning in response to the arrests, which she said “risked the safety and well being” of everyone in the surrounding area.

“There is a distinction between removing encampments to ensure safe access to a public right of way and using physical violence against students engaging in peaceful expression,” she said. “City and campus officials should take great care to distinguish between the two; if the alley is considered a public way for purposes of Boston’s anti-tent ordinance, then it is also a public way for purposes of free speech. Students and other Boston residents should be able to voice their support for Palestine or Israel without fear of becoming a target of the Boston Police Department.”

The removal of the Emerson encampment came hours after Harvard students set up an encampment of their own in Harvard Yard, despite the university’s efforts to limit protests by restricting access to campus.

Similar encampments have been established at MIT and Tufts University.

Updated: April 26, 2024
This story was updated Friday with details from body camera footage obtained by GBH News.
Updated: April 25, 2024
This story was updated to include comments from student protesters, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune.