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Biden denounced 'chaos' when speaking on student protests

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Protests over the war in Gaza have engulfed college campuses all over the country. Early this morning, law enforcement clashed with protesters at UCLA.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) You don't care if...

SUMMERS: Videos posted on social media by investigative reporter Sergio Olmos of CalMatters show police clearing out encampment sites.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Back up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey. Hey. Get back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Back up.

SUMMERS: Then later this morning, President Biden addressed the unrest on college campuses for the first time.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's basically a matter of fairness. It's a matter of what's right. There's the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And joining us now in studio is NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram. Hey, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So President Biden spoke from the Roosevelt Room today, right? Can you tell us more about what he said exactly?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. I mean, I'll start by saying that the president didn't speak for a very long time. These were quick remarks, and they were pretty hastily arranged. He said that people have a right to peacefully protest and that the U.S. is not an authoritarian state where the government squashes protests. But he also said order must prevail and that these protests were getting in the way of people's education.

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BIDEN: Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations. None of this is a peaceful protest.

SHIVARAM: Biden went on to say that racism and hate have no place in America. He specifically mentioned antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia and discrimination against Arab and Palestinian Americans.

CHANG: Wait. Is this the first time President Biden has spoken out about these protests?

SHIVARAM: I mean, he's been really quiet on this. He did briefly comment on it, answering a shouted question from a reporter 10 days ago. And at that time he just said, you know, I condemn the antisemitic protests, and I also condemn people who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians. So he was very intentionally trying to touch on everything, but also not say anything very forceful. And since then, you know, it's only really White House spokespeople who have commented on the protests.

CHANG: Oh, that's interesting. Why do you think it has taken this long for the president to speak out on this? Like, why today?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. I mean, this has been dominating the news cycle, right? And the protests have definitely grown since all of the attention on Columbia University in New York specifically. And with that growth, I mean, many of these protests have been met with police crackdown in states like Texas, Arizona, California. And while all of that's been happening, Republican lawmakers are really the ones who have been speaking out more forcefully.

House Speaker Mike Johnson spoke at Columbia University last week. Republican lawmakers gathered at GW University in D.C. yesterday, and Donald Trump has been weighing in, too. He's been saying that all the protesters and encampments should be removed. And he praised New York police after their raid at Columbia. And the White House says Biden's remarks today were not a response to Republicans. But the president did kind of point to this today. He said that there were some people rushing to score political points. And he said this wasn't the time for politics. But, you know, keep in mind the war in Gaza has been a very difficult political issue for Biden and his party.

CHANG: Absolutely. And a lot of these protests have been about demands for President Biden, right? Like, so how much did he address any of those things in his remarks?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. I mean, at the end of his remarks, he was asked by a reporter. He answered a couple of questions - if the campus protests were impacting his Middle East policy. And he was so brief. He just said, no. These protesters have been calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, and that's something that the administration hasn't budged on at all. Biden continues to say that U.S. support for Israel is, quote, "ironclad," though he and his administration are trying to facilitate a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. I will just point out, though, that while there is a lot of focus on college campus protests right now, there have been ongoing protests on this issue calling for ending or limiting aid to Israel for months.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHIVARAM: And these are protesters that have at times interrupted the president, and he can see them from the motorcade as he travels.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thank you so much, Deepa.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.