UCLA faculty protest at Hammer Museum gala, decrying treatment of pro-Palestinian students

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About 20 UCLA faculty members protested Saturday night outside the UCLA Hammer Museum’s celebrity-heavy gala, calling for amnesty to be granted to pro-Palestinian students arrested on campus this week and demanding that Chancellor Gene Block resign immediately.

As a well-heeled crowd in cocktail attire filed into the museum for the annual Gala in the Garden, sipping bespoke cocktails and noshing on small bites from passed trays, English department professor Jonathan Grossman blamed Block for what he and his colleagues said were dual wrongs done to pro-Palestinian student activists. On Wednesday, they said, students received unnecessarily rough treatment from police as their encampment was cleared. The night before, he said, police failed to protect the same students from violent counterprotesters’ attacks.

Elizabeth O’Brien, a professor in the history department, said she was present Tuesday night and witnessed “a horrifying mob” attack pro-Palestinian students for four hours.

“Along with a colleague, I begged the police to intervene,” O’Brien said. “A police officer threatened us with a weapon in response to our pleas to protect the students from the mob.”

O’Brien showed what she said was an X-ray of broken bones in one of her student’s hands.

“She was just protesting peacefully, and they shot her with rubber bullets,” O’Brien said, adding, “Chancellor Block failed egregiously to protect the students.”

UCLA’s police chief, John Thomas, denied allegations of security lapses and said he did everything he could to keep students safe. In a statement, Block described the attack on pro-Palestinian protesters as “a dark chapter in our campus’s history” and said the university was re-examining its procedures as a result.

The Hammer’s gala, which usually draws one of the starriest crowds in L.A.’s museum fund-raising circuit, had a confirmed guest list that a spokesperson said included Jane Fonda, Ava DuVernay, Keanu Reeves, Will Ferrell, Joel McHale and Owen Wilson. Singer k.d. lang was scheduled to perform.

Jodie Foster was on hand to honor Ann Philbin, the longtime Hammer director who has announced her forthcoming retirement. Before introducing Philbin, Foster acknowledged the Gaza protests at UCLA as well as at other universities around the country. Speaking out, Foster said, is what the arts are all about.

“We’re all so keenly aware of what’s happening in the world and the protests,” Philbin said to the gala crowd, adding that the violence on UCLA’s campus tempered the joy of the evening. “I recognize what a difficult time this is for celebration and I appreciate that you’re all here.”

She added later: “We will defend the sacrosanct right to freedom of expression and the right to protest.”

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

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