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Campus Revolt: The Perfect Storm

How a live-streamed genocide, clueless college administrators and heavy-handed policing ignited America’s college campuses.

John Tarleton May 16

On May 8, President Joe Biden announced in a television interview that he would withhold the bombs and artillery shells that Israel could use in a full-scale invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip where more than 1.2 million Palestinian refugees were sheltering in tents with little to no food or water and nowhere to go to.

“If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons,” Biden told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

 

The movement’s first encampment at Columbia University occupied one lawn in the campus quadrangle. The organizers were quite intentional in maintaining a chill, peaceful vibe.

After more than seven months of US-sponsored carnage in Gaza, Biden has many good reasons to finally put the brakes on Israel’s war machine and end history’s first live-streamed genocide. It’s alienating key U.S. allies in the Middle East and making a mockery of the “rules-based international order” the Biden administration likes to lecture the rest of the world about. Closer to home, it’s tanking his re-election chances as younger voters abandon him over the war.

If there’s a glimmer of hope at this time, it lies in the encampment movement that began on April 17 at Columbia University and spread like wildfire across the country. The students have responded to the cyncism of their elders with moral clarity and compassion. More than 2,800 people have been arrested in the campus demonstrations, the largest eruption of student-led protest in the U.S. since the height of the Vietnam War. The protesters have faced violent police repression and have been smeared repeatedly by the corporate media as Jew-hating antisemites for the simple act of opposing a genocide. And still they have persisted.

•   •   •

Five of the roughly 100 Columbia students who were arrested on April 18, one day after establishing the first Gaza solidarity encampment on the campus quad. Their mass arrest helped ignite a nationwide movement.
Neil Constantine

Once the encampment movement got underway, I fell into a late-night ritual of scrolling social-media feeds to see where new Gaza solidarity encampments had taken root — their domed tents sprouting like mushrooms following a spring rain shower — and where they were being ripped up and cast aside by authority figures who refused to hear young people’s call for moral clarity in the face of a U.S.-backed genocide. 

The scenes of brutality unfolded in a blur — phalanxes of highly armed robocops marching across idyllic college campuses to trash the encampments, batter any protesters who stood in their way, and haul them off to jail. 

Rampaging police have given us many viral moments to remember — here in New York City, legions of cops gathered outside Columbia University to dismantle the encampment, a reminder of what the City has been spending its money on while funding is cut from other public services that enrich our lives. 

At the University of Texas, state troopers on horseback charged into crowds of student protesters. In Los Angeles, police spent hours firing rubber bullets and flashbang grenades into a barricaded encampment on the UCLA campus. At Indiana and Ohio State, snipers were spotted on rooftops watching for signs of menace below as if they were operating inside an insurgent-held town in Iraq. 

Annelise Orlick, 65, the former chair of Dartmouth College’s Jewish Studies department, was slammed to the ground by police and taken to jail along with 88 others who were protesting on the campus green that night. 

“It was a very minor, mild protest,” she told Huffington Post. “There were multi-faith expressions of solidarity, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian.”

At Emory University in Atlanta, Noëlle McAfee, Chair of the Philosophy Department, was captured on video being led away in zip cuffs by a warrior cop whose face was concealed by a mask — a clear warning about the rise of an authoritarian tendency in this country that runs deeper than Trump.

For the targets of this onslaught, it was a small taste of the brutality the Palestinians have endured for decades. 

•   •   •

A CUNY faculty member shows up to help protect the student-led encampment at the City College of New York.
Neil Constantine

Most universities are sprawling entities. The movement’s first encampment at Columbia University occupied one lawn in the campus quadrangle. The organizers were quite intentional in maintaining a chill, peaceful vibe. It was easy enough for any student to walk by and ignore the encampment on the way to class, or if the political chants were too annoying, put on a pair of air pods. The hundreds of other campus encampments that have been launched  in Columbia’s wake have been similarly peaceful venues where ideas are discussed, food is shared, art is made, poetry is read. They are held, in most cases, on a patch of grass or in a single plaza or building in the middle of the college campus. The violence begins when the police — the real outside agitators — attack the camps and, in some cases, when pro-Israel trolls try to provoke confrontations.

I was in college in the 1980s when activists with tents erected “shantytowns” on their campuses to pressure universities to divest from companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. College administrators weren’t happy about the shantytowns. But the violent repression we’re seeing now was unthinkable then. In time, many universities ended up acceding to demands to divest their financial holdings from companies that did business with South Africa, giving a boost to the global movement to end apartheid. 

So why the massive crackdown this time?

The most immediate reason is that U.S. elites are far more committed to Israel than they were to apartheid South Africa, a Cold War ally that had outlived its usefulness. For Zionists, the students’ demands that universities divest from companies that are complicit in Israel’s repression of the Palestinians is deeply unsettling. 

Israel is an apartheid state built on the belief that the seven million Jews who live between “the river and the sea” have the right to subjugate the seven million native Palestinians who also live there, stealing their land and resources and relegating those who live inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders to a third-class citizenship and imposing military rule on the rest. There’s a reason MAGA leaders like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon adore Israel. 

None of this can be defended in an open and honest debate. Instead, Israel’s critics are routinely denounced as “antisemites,” even Jewish activists who consistently oppose all forms of racism including antisemitism. 

Israel’s supporters are keenly aware that apartheid South Africa’s demise in the early 1990s was spurred by its international isolation. And that, in turn, was the product of decades of activism around the world in support of that country’s Black-led freedom movement. 

For protest-averse campus administrators who are attuned to wealthy donors at private universities and pro-Israel politicians at public university systems like CUNY and SUNY, even partially yielding to the students and agreeing to engage in further discussions of divestment — as a handful of universities have done so far — is to suggest Israel belongs on the same moral plane as apartheid South Africa. 

So instead of taking their students’ pleas seriously to divest from Israel, university presidents call in the cops. In doing so, they are betraying the liberal ideals of free speech and openness to new ideas that they claim are at the heart of their school’s educational mission. 

•   •   •

More than 3,000 arrests have been made at campus-related protests around the United States since the encampment movement began.
Dan Efram

Around 3,000 Americans were killed on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four jet airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an empty field in Pennsylvania. It was widely seen as one of the darkest days in U.S. history. What followed was much worse. The George W. Bush administration responded by funneling the public’s desire for revenge into starting forever wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people in two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, that had little to nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. The government also created a sprawling new Department of Homeland Security, gave the FBI vast new spying powers, and initiated programs to transfer surplus military gear to local police departments. These departments increasingly trained their officers to see themselves as warriors operating in urban battlefields filled with potential enemy combatants who have to be suppressed with overwhelming force at the slightest hint of disorder. As the official response to campus protests shows, the post-9/11 security state has never stopped growing, like a malignant tumor on the body politic.

Meanwhile, politicians and the media have relentlessly conditioned the public to embrace “security” — as they define it — as the ultimate public good. The men and women in uniform who provide it are always to be showered with gratitude for “ensuring” our “freedom.” 

One absurd example of this unfolded a few months ago when New York Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered 1,000 state police and rifle-toting national guardsmen to supplement the NYPD in patrolling the subway system after several high-profile incidents of commuters being pushed off subway platforms by individuals in mental-health crisis. How this action would prevent such random acts of violence was never explained. When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Israel’s supporters are keenly aware that apartheid South Africa’s demise in the early 1990s was spurred by its international isolation.

The massive George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 were supposed to be a moment of reckoning with both America’s structural racism and its violent system of policing. Neither happened. Amid an uptick in crime at the height of the pandemic and hysterical cries about a defunding of the police that never happened, modest reform proposals were shelved and the old status quo reasserted itself. 

One “reform” the police and their allies agreed on was that the cops needed better training. But training in what? The answer has emerged most dramatically in Atlanta. There, activists have waged a multi-year struggle to stop the razing of a forest to build a massive complex known as Cop City to train police in more urban battlefield techniques so that future revolts can be more quickly suppressed. While the struggle in Atlanta has drawn national attention, scores of other cop cities are now being built across the country. 

America’s universities are increasingly led by people who have little to no background as educators. Columbia’s President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, for example, is a baroness from England who has spent much of her professional career working as an economist at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In hindsight, we can see the encampment movement as the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. 

An idealistic, left-leaning generation of young people watched in horror as history’s first live-streamed genocide unfolded over months on their phones. A president and a political class slavishly devoted to Israel ignored months of protests in the streets; he ignored historic electoral efforts like the “Uncommitted” vote in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary and other states that followed suit. With nowhere left to turn, college students threw down their tents on the campus lawn and demanded that their colleges cut ties with Israel and the companies that profit from the mass murder and oppression of the Palestinians. 

Neoliberal university presidents, disconnected from the communities they lead, panicked and called the cops on their own students. The police, imbued in years of warrior-cop ideology and eager to show off their military toys, acted like they were in a combat zone with predictably appalling results. Any fool with an ounce of common sense could have anticipated that the campuses would erupt. Each new encampment that went up and police crackdown that followed inspired students at other schools to also stand up for their beliefs, regardless of the consequences. 

•   •   •

The City University of New York’s Gaza Solidarity Campus was erected on the City College Campus on Convent Ave. in Upper Manhattan. Students and faculty from across the the CUNY campuses went up to City College to participate in the protest encampment during the five days (April 25–30) it existed.
Neil Constantine

The events of the past month have given tens of thousands of young people an education in how power works and how to organize against it — something that no classroom could have provided. The establishment is responding to the upsurge in dissent with draconian new laws to suppress criticism such as the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which, as The Indy goes to press, passed the House with strong bipartisan support and awaits Senate action. 

So what comes next?

After being battered by the police and facing down their university overlords, pro-Palestinian student activists will have the summer to regroup and make their presence felt in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 

They will face a president who, given a choice between preserving his fragile electoral coalition that prevailed in 2020 or supporting a genocide and risking Donald Trump’s return to power, has consistently chosen the latter. 

At this late moment it may have finally dawned on Team Biden that this is an unsustainable course. After all the death and destruction in Palestine, there will be protests at the convention in Chicago regardless. But if the war on Gaza grinds on through the summer without a ceasefire — if there is bloodbath in Rafah or the war expands to other countries, as Israel’s leaders have signaled they would like to do — the size and intensity of the Chicago demonstrations could make this spring’s campus protests look like a garden tea party. And that would likely be followed by more campus unrest in the fall as the presidential race reaches its crescendo. 

•   •   •

I recently had lunch with an old friend who was surprised when I ticked off the many pro-union initiatives coming from the Biden administration and its appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. She was happy to hear the news, but it wasn’t going to change how she voted in the fall. “If I vote for him,” she lamented, “I would be supporting a genocide.”

Biden has lost many many voters, like my friend, who don’t want to have to walk over the bodies of dead children to get a president who supports unions, is willing to enforce antitrust laws against monopolies and who will support a woman’s right to choose in post-Roe America. These are just a few of the accomplishments of the most progressive president on domestic issues since the 1960s. With the exception of abortion rights, Biden’s domestic record is barely noticed. 

Taking an off-ramp from Gaza would allow him to make his case to disenchanted supporters. He could also start mending the fractures in the broad coalition that’s needed to defeat Trump and the openly fascist movement that has coalesced around him.  

In his long political career, Biden learned that no U.S. politician has ever suffered for having supported Israel while many have seen their careers abruptly ended when they didn’t. The rules of that game are fast changing. For both moral and political reasons, Biden should acknowledge that the kids are right and act accordingly. 

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper, website and weekly radio show. All of our work is made possible by readers like you. During this holiday season, please consider making a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home

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