Saturday, June 29, 2024

Democratic Protests on Campus: Modeling the Better World We Seek (Annelise Orleck)

As an aging college professor, I found myself in a surprising position on the evening of May 1: face down in the grass of the Dartmouth College Green, with a heavily armored riot policeman kneeling on my lower back, and three others holding me immobile. Police wrenched my arms painfully behind me as they roughly tightened plastic zip ties on my wrist that cut sharply into my skin. “You’re hurting me,” I cried. “Please stop.”

I found myself croaking the words that I have heard so many victims of police brutality say before me: “I can’t breathe.” One of the officers growled at me, “You can talk. You can breathe.” I thrashed and gasped for air, while they threatened to charge me with resisting arrest, then pulled me up hard to my feet and pushed me toward a college van that the administration had provided police to facilitate the only mass arrests I have seen in my thirty-four years of teaching at Dartmouth.

Like many colleges and universities, after student encampments spread across the country calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s war, Dartmouth had banned tents on the Green. College policy violations don’t usually result in arrests, so Dartmouth chose to press charges against protesters for “criminal trespass.” As a recent court order made clear, “the State arrested each named defendant at Dartmouth College’s behest.”

When New Hampshire riot police arrived, there were ten students sitting quietly in five tents, surrounded by maybe 150 supporters, who had linked arms around them. It was a notably diverse protest, with Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist faith communities involved.

Over the years, there have been myriad peaceful student-led protests on the Dartmouth Green: to support campus unions, denounce sexual violence, call for divestment from fossil fuels and, before that, from companies that profited from South African apartheid. There have been rallies decrying racist statements in the famously conservative Dartmouth Review, calling for protection of undocumented students and opposing the incarceration of migrant children. 

Not since the late 1960s has Dartmouth called in riot police to assault protesters. Across the country, student protest has flourished largely unrestrained on college campuses since the disastrous 1970 crackdowns at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi cost six students their lives. Why now are we seeing beatings and arrests of thousands? What moved college administrators this spring to make such a sharp change in how they handle peaceful student protest?

On the night of May 1, eighty nine people, myself included, were brutally arrested by phalanxes of heavily armed men in full body armor with helmets, truncheons, police dogs, and an armored vehicle. They descended alongside several local police forces, apparently called in by the college president and the Republican Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who, hours earlier, had condemned campus protests for peace in Gaza as “100 percent antisemitic.”

A disproportionate number of those arrested that night were students of color. Their own experiences of state violence and discrimination have sensitized them to the suffering of Palestinians. Some of the arrested were, as I am, Jewish. This fact reflects the broader movement for a ceasefire in Gaza, which contains a disproportionate number of Jews who are moved by our religion’s call for tikkun olam (repair of the world) to denounce the genocide being committed in our names. The narrative promoted by politicians, many media pundits and supporters of Israel that these protests are “100 percent antisemitic” is, on my campus and many others, 100 percent untrue.

These violent crackdowns on campuses have been executed in the name of fighting antisemitism, defending free speech and keeping campuses “safe.” Dartmouth’s president and other college administrators have argued that calling riot police and arresting protesters is not an infringement of their rights to free expression. Rather, they insist, there are proper and improper ways to protest. “Occupations,” (the word they use to describe the tent encampments student protesters have used to evoke the situation in which more than a million displaced Gazans are now living,) infringe on the freedom of those who disagree with the protesters, making them uncomfortable and perhaps physically impeding them as they walk to or from classes or dorms. Some Jewish students who have suffered such discomfort have filed class action lawsuits against their universities for not protecting them.

Regardless of where you stand on whether campus officials should arrest peaceful protesters whose speech is making some other students feel uncomfortable, it is crucial to recognize that this new campaign against alleged anti-Semitism on campuses is not instigated by Jewish undergraduates who feel unsafe. It is well-funded and well-coordinated by powerful organizations with international reach – some of them funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by wealthy conservative donors from the U.S. and Israeli state coffers. The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy,closely tied to Israel’s ruling Likud party, has provided research and data to members of Congress and state governments seeking to pass anti-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions laws. ISGAP research was also cited in Republican-led Congressional hearings investigating the so-called rise of “anti-semitism” on college campuses.

While ISGAP has concentrated on government agencies, many suits against colleges and universities have been litigated by the Louis D. Brandeis Center, founded in 2011 to combat civil rights violations against Jewish or Israeli students. The Brandeis Center usually sues for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbids discrimination against or exclusion of anyone on the grounds of race, color or national origin in any program receiving federal funds. It has launched suits and legal complaints against Columbia, Harvard, University of Vermont, American University, Brooklyn College, Tufts, the University of Southern California and many other campuses. The Center has also promised to clean up “the morass of Middle Eastern studies,” mounting complaints against 129 Middle Eastern studies programs and centers on campuses.“When universities fail to comply with their legal obligations,” the Brandeis web site declares, “the center holds them accountable by taking legal action.”

Does all of this make politicians and college administrations tread carefully when students protest Israeli policy? You bet. The massive P.R. campaign to delegitimize criticism of Israel has also powerfully influenced mainstream media coverage of the protests. It has been not just relentlessly negative but wildly alarmist: one CNN anchor compared the campus protesters to Hitler youth on campuses in the 1930s; an MSNBC host compared the protesters to those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, arguing that campus protests are motivated only by hate.

As an historian of U.S. politics and social protest movements, it seems clear to me that we are in the grip of a national mass hysteria – not unlike the Red and Lavender Scares of the post-World War II years, when Hollywood actors, writers, New York schoolteachers and postal service workers, federal employees in Washington, D.C. were called in front of Congressional investigating committees and interrogated about past Communist Party sympathies or hidden gay lives.

In that era, Communists and gay people were painted as threatening to U.S. national security, because Communists were thought to want to give away secrets to our enemies and closeted gay people were seen as vulnerable to blackmail by foreign spies. Now it is critics of Israel’s war in Gaza who are seen as threats to U.S. national security, because they question long-standing agreements to supply billions in weapons annually to our primary ally in the Middle East. The U.S.-Israel relationship makes a few people (some of whom are on the Boards of Trustees of colleges and university campuses) a lot of money. 

In 2022, more than 2/3 of foreign investment in Israel came from the U.S. And Israel’s investments on the tech-heavy NASDAQ exchange are fourth in the world – smaller only than those of the U.S., Canada and China. Seen in that light, we can understand why student protesters’ calls for colleges and universities to divest from companies tied to Israel are being seen by Trustees and politicians alike as an existential threat. Dartmouth’s president is a director of the largest hedge fund on earth, headed by an Israeli tech guru and which invests heavily in Israeli technology.

Money is certainly part of what is fueling the bi-partisan response of politicians to this year’s wave of student protests. Politicians heavily funded by Israel’s premier lobbying firm – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – are more than happy to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Just as members of both parties in Congress -- from the 1940s through the early 60s -- feared being called soft on Communism, now politicians are weaponizing fears of a “new anti-Semitism” to further their own political agendas and line their pockets– bolstering military and technology contractors in Israel and the U.S. as they rile up voters in the 2024 election cycle. Fear sells. It generates both profits and votes.

That’s where the campaign of shock and awe came in. It all happened so quickly it was head spinning. 

On April 27, a student protest at Washington University in St. Louis resulted in 100 arrests. Steve Tamari, a Palestinian history professor from a nearby university, was thrown to the ground by police with such force that he suffered multiple broken ribs and a broken hand. His crime – filming the police action. 

On April 30, the New York Police Department made 300 arrests at Columbia and City College, barricading students into their dorm rooms, jailing protesters without water for 16 hours, holding two in solitary confinement. 

On May 2, the Los Angeles Police Department broke up an encampment of UCLA student protesters. For hours they watched as a right-wing mob (of self-proclaimed Zionists some of whom were armed thugs with ties to actual neo-Nazi and anti-LGBTQ groups) beat them, shot fireworks at them, then sprayed chemical irritants. When the LAPD did step in, officers shot unarmed peace protesters and faculty in the chest, face, arms and legs with “less than lethal” munitions. 

According to one volunteer medic, injured protesters were prevented from seeking much-needed hospital care until police had zip tied and arrested them.

The carnage continued at the University of Virginia where -- seven years earlier – actual neo-Nazis had marched with torches chanting Jews Will Not Replace Us. No police moved in to stop them. But, on May 4, 2024, Virginia riot police called in by UVA’s president pepper-sprayed and violently arrested peaceful protesters, destroying both tents and students’ belongings. 

Two and a half weeks later, on May 21, riot police used gas and chemical irritants to break up a Gaza ceasefire protest at the University of Michigan, on a part of campus that – like our Green - has hosted peaceful protests for decades without incident.

More than 3,100 were arrested at Gaza protests on college campuses from April to June 2024. ACLED (the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project) found that 97.4% of these protests were completely peaceful. Most of those arrested, myself included, were charged with criminal trespass – standing on the property of the institutions where they study and work. Interestingly, prosecutors from Manhattan to Austin have begun to drop charges against hundreds of protesters, for lack of evidence and – as one Indiana prosecutor put it – because the charges are “constitutionally dubious.” So far, New Hampshire has refused that route.

This theater of repression did what it was supposed to: bringing in riot police makes it seem that peaceful protest is actually threatening. And those who cracked down on the threat were lauded. In late June, Dartmouth was cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education as the only Ivy League campus not investigated by Congress for anti-Semitism. Our president continued to insist that she was acting in defense of free speech when she called armed police to arrest peaceful protesters.

Similarly, Republican congressional interrogators gloated over the resignations of the Presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania late last year. In mid-May, as riot police were flooding campuses to “clear” encampments, Elise Stefanik and Virginia Foxx called to Capitol Hill the Presidents of Northwestern University and Rutgers University, where administrators chose to negotiate rather than call police on their own students. The irony of a Jewish, pro-Israel university president Michael Schill, being dressed down by Republican House members with ties to actual white supremacist, homophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic organizations, should not have been lost on anyone. But alas it was. Because that is how mass hysterias work.

Some of the loudest self-appointed Congressional defenders of American Jewry supported the January 6, 2021 assaults on Capitol Hill, where some protesters wore Camp Auschwitz shirts and others wore clothing with the logo 6MWE – which means 6 Million Wasn’t Enough. Those same members of Congress are now convening hearings to “investigate” how anti-Semitism is allegedly running rampant on college campuses and in K-12 schools.

There’s another piece to this perfect storm. Calling in armed state police to beat and jail teenage protesters may be seen as an alarming new stage in a 70-year-war by conservative politicians and intellectuals to “retake” higher education from “tenured radicals” who, allegedly, poison students’ minds by radicalizing them. Israel and its supporters have their agenda right now regarding campuses but so too do conservative educators and politicians.

The war on campus radicals can be traced at least as far back as William Buckley’s 1951 polemic, God and Man at Yale. It heated up with Roger Kimball’s 1990 screed, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. In 1994, Lynn Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, rejected the American History Standards she had commissioned (and which were worked on by actual American historians) as paying too much attention to “obscure” figures like Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and embarrassing topics like Red Scares and the KKK, and not enough to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee or inventors like Orville and Wilbur Wright, the so-called fathers of aviation.

Those first battle cries were alarming at the time. They seem almost quaint now. The assault on education has intensified mightily since 2010, with the passage of book bans,bans on trans children competing in team sports and “divisive concepts” laws in more than 20 states that forbid teachers to discuss anything that makes students or, more likely, parents uncomfortable. In some districts this has meant a ban on teaching the history of slavery, systemic racism, sometimes the Holocaust, and certainly anything positive about LBGTQ people. Along with riot police on campus, have come new policies ending or drastically limiting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, and calls for an end to Middle Eastern Studies programs, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Programs and more.

The bans on teaching the history of minority communities in the U.S. being waged in Florida, Texas and other states, go hand in hand with a spate of laws introduced since the racial justice protests of 2020 to criminalize protest in general. Teaching “divisive concepts” – conservative education officials assert, fuels protests. Post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation is now being adapted so that all kinds of acts of civil disobedience–blocking pipelines, roads and bridges for example – can be prosecuted as terrorism and protesters can be harshly punished.

A series of steps now being considered in Washington, D.C. (and state capitols) will take us farther down that slippery slope. H.R. 6408, which has already passed the U.S. House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate, will give the Secretary of the Treasury unilateral power to terminate the tax-exempt status of any organization that provides “material support” – and that includes speech acts – to any terrorist organization.

This helps to explain why Columbia University suspended its campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace. While there is zero evidence of any links between those groups and Hamas, Israeli government-funded campus surveillance agencies such as Canary Mission, along with the Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, have repeatedly charged campus activists with providing aid and comfort to Hamas. That charge has been echoed ad infinitum by some vehemently pro-Israel faculty, students and administrators. 

If H.R. 6408 becomes law, we will undoubtedly see numerous colleges and universities suspending or banning student groups engaged in protest – not just of Israeli policy but also of U.S. foreign policy. Student protesters talk of a “Palestine exception” to free speech protections. But if these bills become law, protest for any reason will be subject to harsh punishment.

As part of the crackdown on recent calls for ceasefire in Gaza, Congress reauthorized an expanded version of Section 702 in April. This post-9/11 program of warrantless mass surveillance (including private communications) has already been used against Black Lives Matter activists and journalists. A proposal to reform Section 702 to require warrants for surveillance of U.S. citizens was defeated, with the ADL and other pro-Israel groups arguing that it would hamstring surveillance of “pro-Palestinian” movements.

There has been, without doubt, a rise in anti-Semitism in this country and around the world. But the most worrisome antisemitism is not coming from student protesters calling for an end to the horrific war in Gaza. In the age of Trump we have seen the rise of a vast network of violent white supremacist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic groups. Frighteningly, most of them are armed to the teeth with actual weapons of war. Continued erosion of any kind of gun control makes them more dangerous than ever.

But I want to go one step farther and say that - like the Red Scare of the 1950s, the violent crackdown on student and faculty protest over the past few months is itself antisemitic. It has targeted Jews disproportionately, seeks to enforce through state violence, surveillance, and legislation, a particular political stance that all Jews must adhere to, and insists that if Jewish students and faculty ally with Muslims, Christians and Buddhists to oppose Israeli policy, we can all be charged with supporting terrorism.

It seeks to eviscerate the rich array of Jewish identities – which have always included people critical of Zionism. There is no room in this view for Jews whose identity is rooted in the long tradition of Jewish support for minority and worker rights, democratic pluralism and social justice.

It is ironic, even tragic, that campus protesters have been so demonized. Because, in some very real ways, the student encampments have modeled the new world that we must bring into existence if there is to be peace, in Israel/Palestine and beyond. At encampments across the country, Jewish and Muslim students have broken bread together, prayed together and shared insights and rituals from their religious traditions. These students—the very same ones we are targeting for arrest, beatings, suspensions and expulsions—may just be leading us toward new visions of what is possible. And, in these dark times, we need that if we are to move forward.

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