Skip to content Skip to footer

Facing PR Crisis, UT Austin Administrators Manufacture Myth of Outside Agitators

Organizers say UT is avoiding the truth about its crackdown on students by calling the protesters “outsiders.”

Police arrested at least 79 people after student and area organizers launched an impromptu encampment on the South Lawn of the University of Texas at Austin on April 29 in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and student encampments elsewhere across the country.

Austin, Texas—Although Travis County Attorney Delia Garza initially dropped criminal trespass charges against the first 57 people arrested while protesting in solidarity with Palestine on the University of Texas (UT) at Austin campus on April 24, her office is approaching a second batch of charges stemming from an attempt to reestablish an impromptu encampment on April 29 differently: Garza has yet to say whether she will pursue a second tranche of trespass charges.

Law enforcement provided more detailed documentation of probable cause this time around and, as Austin Chronicle’s Austin Sanders notes, another mass dismissal of charges could spark right-wing actors to launch the same kind of petition to remove her from office that the progressive district attorney, José Garza (no relation), is facing.

After the April 29 arrests, the university released an internal communication alleging that, of the 79 people arrested on campus that day, 45 had no affiliation with UT Austin. “These numbers validate our concern that much of the disruption on campus over the past week has been orchestrated by people from outside the university,” internal communications staffers wrote. The notice goes on to allege that police confiscated knives, bricks, and other weapons from the local organizers, but this reporter didn’t witness any such weapons present during the protest as police plucked demonstrators from their encampment last week.

Protesters at the University of Texas at Austin encampment launched in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and student encampments across the country.

Rather, local organizers and students who had hoped to hold space at UT’s South Lawn on April 29 with a makeshift barricade of chained-together tables and chairs around a handful of tents argue that not only are police the true “outside agitators”; they also allege that detaining officers may have purposefully let some UT students go that Monday in order to falsely generate an “outside agitator” narrative. More than 100 people were initially detained, as this reporter and multiple participants witnessed, but only 79 were ultimately charged.

Sam Law, a Jewish American doctoral cultural anthropology student who was arrested Monday, told Truthout he was moved as a person of conscience to do what he can to stop the ongoing genocide in Gaza by calling on the university to divest its Israel-related holdings.

After UT campus police pulled him from the encircled encampment, he told Truthout that he and other arrestees were given numbers, and that, at one point, he witnessed someone with the number 102. Moreover, he says arrestees were widely commenting on the historic number of people being arrested, with many remarking about the number being over 100. He also says that officers asked him whether he was a student at the time of his arrest, indicating that officers were tracking that data.

Truthout could not independently verify protest participants’ allegations, however, and other possibilities for the numerical discrepancy remain likely explanations, including the possibility of several arrestee escapes and/or crowd-led de-arrests of individuals.

Still, the “outside agitator” approach follows a common script often trotted out by local representatives and police looking to shut down or delegitimize authentic, localized opposition to repressive policing and other area policies.

Department of Public Safety state troopers form a perimeter on the north side of UT’s main lawn on April 29 just before moving in to encircle student and area organizers’ impromptu encampment.

As Truthout recently reported, Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins attempted to use the same playbook to downplay the efforts of North Texans who knocked doors to stop a $50 million bond proposition that will now fund a new police training center at the University of North Texas Dallas campus by accusing them of not being residents of his district. Those organizers are calling the new training center “Cop City Dallas” to link their fight to the ongoing struggle against what would be the country’s largest police training and militarization facility in Atlanta. There, too, local organizers have alleged that police have intentionally released local residents in order to falsely generate an “outside agitator” narrative.

“[UT Austin President] Jay Hartzell called the police to violently crack down on a peaceful protest using an incredibly excessive amount of force and after the fact is trying to generate political cover for this decision, and he’s trying to do it by fabricating lies and crafting the narrative. This can be anything from disseminating false information, like ‘the crowds were throwing rocks,’” Law says. “But [he’s] also trying to fabricate this ‘outside agitator’ narrative, potentially by manipulating the number of students who were finally charged.”

“Jay Hartzell called the police to violently crack down on a peaceful protest using an incredibly excessive amount of force and after the fact is trying to generate political cover for this decision, and he’s trying to do it by fabricating lies and crafting the narrative.”

A local jail support organizer who requested anonymity told Truthout they initially tracked somewhere between 98 and 105 arrests, but that list was eventually whittled down to 83 after organizers were able to confirm certain individuals hadn’t been booked into jail. The revised list, the organizer notes, doesn’t account for the reason why certain individuals made it home safely that day. The organizer said there were at least three cases in which people were initially taken to the jail, and, rather than being booked, were instead taken to the hospital. Jail support organizers documented between 6 and 10 cases of serious injuries, including a torn rotator cuff, sprained ankles and asthmatics who had been pepper sprayed.

“All I know is that those people weren’t in jail. I don’t know what happened to them. I don’t know why they ended up on our list, like did someone just call because they couldn’t find their friend and so they ended up on our list, or were they arrested and then released?” the organizer said.

In terms of the administration’s “outside agitator” narrative, the jail support organizer pointed out that recent police brutalization of students and young people on campus has presented a PR crisis for the university. “It’s very important for them to make sure that people believe that this was some violent unaffiliated group of people who have nothing but ill intent for their student body because it helps them … avoid the truth, which is that UT administrators, staff, the militarized [Department of Public Safety] went in and beat the shit out of a bunch of 19-year-olds.”

UT Austin Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Amanda Cochran-McCall did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Nationally, university administration officials responding to campus encampments and occupations have likewise employed the narrative to cast doubt on the historic student-led movement to end the genocide in Gaza. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York City police officials have falsely claimed protests at Columbia have been “co-opted” by outside agitators — including at least one retired elementary school teacher who wasn’t even present on campus.

Department of Public Safety state troopers encircled an impromptu encampment on UT’s main lawn on April 29 before campus police moved in to begin arresting students and local organizers.

Graduate student Law points out that the outside agitator narrative was first developed to discredit student activists who wanted to stand up to segregation during the Freedom Rides in the 1960s, and its inherent racism is being echoed today when applied to young people standing up against genocide of Palestinians.

“Solidarity means that everyone everywhere is able to participate in struggles for justice. I reject, totally, the idea that people of conscience and community members who are concerned about students being attacked by police, who are appalled by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, wouldn’t be able to participate in a protest on campus,” Law tells Truthout. “I think that this narrative of outside agitators is just ridiculous. I would say in this particular case, it’s also deeply, deeply condescending. It implies that students themselves are not capable, or don’t have the initiative to take leadership on their own campus, and what we saw on Monday totally disproved this.”

“Solidarity means that everyone everywhere is able to participate in struggles for justice. I reject, totally, the idea that people of conscience and community members who are concerned about students being attacked by police, who are appalled by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, wouldn’t be able to participate in a protest on campus.”

Additionally, he says that, despite officers filing more detailed affidavits this time around, he remains doubtful his charges could possibly stick because he was never once notified that he was criminally trespassing on his own campus, nor did he hear police give a dispersal order. He says other students received a criminal trespass notice for the South Lawn from UT on their phones, but that he did not have his phone on him at the time of his arrest, and that other participants’ phones had died.

“I as a student believe I have the right to free speech on my campus, and I was under that impression until they arrested me,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was in the jail, and people were like, ‘What did you get charged with?’ … that I heard about criminal trespass.”

The organizers behind the April 29 impromptu encampment included students and local area organizers and veterans affiliated with local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, the Palestinian Youth Movement and Veterans for Peace. In solidarity with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which organized the first walkout and occupation event on campus on April 24, they are likewise calling for the university to divest from weapons manufacturers and other funders tied to Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and for the resignation of Hartzell over his handling of recent student protests. A small group of allies and supporters showed up to Hartzell’s residence a day after the arrests, chanting “Hartzell, Hartzell, you’re a clown, we demand that you step down!”

But student organizers say they don’t want the issue of the genocide in Gaza itself to get lost as the local and national story about campus encampments becomes one mostly centered around police repression. They continue to highlight how the oil-rich UT system’s $55 billion endowment is second only to Harvard’s. According to a report from Women for Weapons Trade Transparency, the company managing the endowment held about $52.5 million in debt and equity securities in weapons manufacturers tied to Israel, such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in 2020.

In addition to divestment and an official, university-sponsored call for a ceasefire, they want to dissolve the campus’s U.S. Army-partnered robotics laboratory that designs and tests weapons used by Israel to perpetrate genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

“It is a moral imperative for us to do whatever we can to end that genocide and divestment is such an important piece to that. It’s been a demand from the student movement for many decades now, as it really is so salient in the moment that we’re in.”

“It is a moral imperative for us to do whatever we can to end that genocide and divestment is such an important piece to that. It’s been a demand from the student movement for many decades now, as it really is so salient in the moment that we’re in,” Lenna Nasr of the Palestinian Youth Movement Central Texas told Truthout prior to the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) Rafah evacuation order. “Obviously a ground invasion of Rafah would be horrific. But I think what’s also important to say is that Israel is executing massacres in other places as well. And so I think it’s even more necessary to put economic pressure to end genocide.”

Moreover she points out that the UT administration has failed its Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students by refusing to take action against three men, one of whom claimed to be an IDF soldier, who disrupted a Palestine Solidarity Committee event in October. One of the men called the students “fucking terrorists” and boasted about killing Arabs. UT also invited a Zionist to give a speech titled “Israel’s Moral War” in January of this year, Nasr points out.

Palestinian student and youth demands are being supported by campus faculty and staff, 620 of whom signed a letter indicating they have no confidence in Hartzell over his handling of the students protests and over his firing of the “UT 60” diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program staffers in the aftermath of the state legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 17, which banned DEI trainings and programs at public universities.

Outside the UT’s main building that Monday just before the impromptu encampment arrests, at least 30 faculty members, dressed in academic caps and gowns, held a vigil highlighting Israel’s “scholasticide” in Gaza — the state’s systematic destruction of students, professors and all of the occupied territory’s educational institutions. Roger Reeves, an associate professor of poetry and creative writing in the English Department and a double alum of UT, was among the faculty organizers and told Truthout the vigil was also organized in solidarity with fired DEI faculty as well as students who police violently brutalized the prior week.

Thirty University of Texas faculty members held up signs with the names of slain educators and students in Gaza in recognition of Israel’s systematic “scholasticide” outside the campus’s main building on April 29.

“UT acted within a credible amount of vigor in response to [SB 17] by firing 60 people that they told us in meetings before that they weren’t going to fire, they were going to reassign. So it feels like a betrayal of their word and a betrayal of sort of the university itself and the ethos of the university, which is a diverse educational environment,” Reeves told Truthout outside the main building. He made it clear that he and other faculty members are demanding more than just Hartzell’s resignation. “We’re asking for our administration to be beholden to the ideas of free discourse, intellectual rigor and telling the truth,” Reeves said.

Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe gives a speech during an April 29 rally sponsored by the Texas State Employees Union opposing the UT system’s firing of 60 staffers previously affiliated with diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The faculty were joined by union organizers with the Texas State Employees Union, the Texas NAACP and local city council representatives who organized a simultaneous rally on the west side of the main building that also opposed the firing of the UT 60 and police-perpetrated brutalization of students.

“All of us should know that what happened last week would not have happened if we had a DEI program that was accepted and respected. If we had a program that they would listen to, where there was a dialogue between the students, the faculty and the staff and an understanding, we would have understood that [what] occurred last week was a reasonable, peaceful protest,” Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe told the crowd.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.