How to Protest a War Machine: Thoughts on Campus Protests

In recent days, we have seen many university leaders of various titles (president, chancellor, etc) resort to calling the police on their own students and faculty to break up encampments set up by students to protest their schools financial ties to Israel in the wake of the continuing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Various social media sites are filled with video of police in riot gear breaking up these encampments and engaging in violent takedowns of unarmed students and faculty. We’ve even seen still photos of police snipers on the roof of student unions at Indiana University and The Ohio State University. Each and every university leader who has taken this step has failed in their role:

  • By not actually addressing the antisemitism problem, and the real concerns Jewish students have for their physical safety
  • By inviting government interference in the exercise of free speech, and penalizing the exercise of it
  • By adding police willing and able to use deadly force to an already-volatile situation, they increased the danger to everyone on campus

Using government power to quell dissent is not a new mistake. It was used during protests against the war in Vietnam, which ultimately resulted in dead students on the campus of Kent State University.

Responses to the shooting deaths of students by National Guardsmen

This particular clip is notable because of how casually people not just accept, but even approve of what happened to 19 and 20-year-old students. Finding similar sentiments is not difficult, as the same man who called for military force against people protesting George Floyd’s murder by the police in 2020 was joined by Josh Hawley (the cowardly Jan 6th insurrection inciter) in his call to send National Guard troops to Columbia University. These two senators in particular very much want a re-enactment of what happened at Kent State.

Four years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and 2 years before National Guardsmen would kill those Kent State students), police would open fire on unarmed students of South Carolina State University (an HBCU) protesting the whites-only policy of a bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Three students were killed, 28 wounded in the Orangeburg Massacre. To add insult to injury, the few policemen actually brought to trial for their actions were all acquitted. Cleveland Sellers–one of the shooting victims–was falsely convicted of rioting at the bowling alley and served jail time. Inaccurate press coverage and the shift of attention to the Tet Offensive resulted in this massacre nearly being lost to memory.

In the midst of the pandemic, we saw protests of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police spread around the country and overseas. The police responded with arrests and violence, not just against protestors but against journalists covering the protests. Ali Velshi was shot with a rubber bullet by police on live television during his coverage of the protests.

It is no coincidence that government power is employed once again against people dissenting on behalf of an oppressed or marginalized group. It is easy to notice when actual antisemitic & white supremacist groups like Patriot Front–itself an offshoot of another white supremacist group called Vanguard America–march under police protection in Charleston, West Virginia, or when a neo-Nazi group like Blood Tribe marches in Nashville. The stark differences in when (and against whom) government power is used undermines the idea that concern about antisemitism is the main reason. Accusations of antisemitism leveled against university presidents by congressional Republicans are just a convenient tool in the arsenal of those who want to bend higher education to their viewpoint.

As indicated in the April 25th edition of The Daily podcast, Minouche Shafik (president of Columbia University) only dodged the Elise Stefanik-led hit job that would push Claudine Gay (Harvard) and Liz Magill (University of Pennsylvania) out of leadership because of a previous conflict. Having seen her peers fail in front of Congress, Shafik did not hesitate to offer congressional Republicans everything they demanded–only to be exposed as not having the degree of control she claimed when Columbia students set up their protest encampment. The calls for her resignation she thought she would escape by selling out her faculty and the student body have come nonetheless.

That such calls would be led by a man so unequal to his current role as Speaker of the House (and whose grip on that office perhaps even more tenuous than that of Dr. Shafik’s on hers) speaks volumes about the power of culture war in this country to empower the incompetent to such a degree.

Dr. Shafik’s actions in particular make a few things clear:

  1. Calling the police on her students and faculty is not intended to solve an actual antisemitism problem–but to demonstrate control.
  2. The primary audience for this demonstration of control is congressional Republicans.
  3. The goal of demonstrating control is to preserve her job.

The University of Southern California ended up in a similar place via a different route that might be an even more blatant betrayal of the ideas of free speech and academic freedom. They cancelled the valedictorian’s commencement speech due to alleged security concerns. It seems far more likely that the university bowed to internal and external pressure from groups advocating on behalf of Israel expressing concerns about Asna Tabassum’s social media activity. The USC Shoah Foundation, with whom Tabassum worked with as part of her minor in “resistance to genocide”, has distanced itself from her, via the words of a spokesperson. But her academic advisor, Wolf Gruner, backed her to the hilt in this open letter to university president Carol Folt. The cancellation of Tabassum’s speech has since snowballed into the cancellation of its main stage commencement ceremony. As of today, even the smaller ceremonies individual colleges were set to have may be at risk with two scheduled speakers, C Pam Zhang and Safiya Noble pulling out in protest of the cancellation of the valedictorian’s speech and calling LAPD on campus.

One unexpected bright spot in this season of failing to live up to ideals is the DC Police Department, who rejected the request of George Washington University leaders to clear an on-campus encampment of a small number of protestors. HBCUs have not shown up in any news I’ve seen regarding protests of the war, and beyond calls for peace there are numerous reasons for relative silence from leaders of those institutions. While my wife and I are nearly a decade away from higher education decisions for our twins, how a university’s leadership chose to treat students and faculty in this moment will factor significantly into my decisions regarding where to send them. If the recent past teaches us anything, it is that those who stood up for the marginalized and oppressed in the face of government power stood on the right side of history.