Violent and unnecessary repression of students and faculty

The student protests over what is happening in Gaza have spread all over the country with nearly 2,000 arrests made at over 40 campuses. You can see a map of the nationwide protests. The harshest crackdown seems to have been in New York City where the mayor Eric Adams (a former police chief) and the university president of Columbia Nemat Shafik unleashed a massive assault on the protestors, throwing them to the ground and tying their hands with zip ties and arresting many students and faculty. Adams justified his harsh tactics by saying that the protests had been infiltrated by ‘outside agitators’ but when pressed by reporters to give numbers, was highly evasive, suggesting that he was lying.

Reporter Natasha Lennard that while she has often seen violent police responses to protests, this one was unhinged, and that the justifications for it was ludicrous.

I have been reporting on political dissent and violent policing for 15 years, particularly in New York City. Compared to Tuesday night, I have never witnessed, at the scene of a protest, the use of police power so disproportionate to the type of demonstration taking place.

Make no mistake: This is an authoritarian escalation.

Brutal policing and groundless excuses are nothing new, nor is bipartisan support for the crackdowns.

What is new, though, is a most pernicious constellation coming together: far-right attacks on education; white supremacist police repression, further escalated and enabled since 2020; a time of grasping U.S. hegemony abroad; Islamophobic and anti-Arab racism sanctioned in public since the war on terror; and, crucially, an enfeebled left, at least on the electoral level.

These conditions set the backdrop for the one unassailable excuse, a claim beyond challenge and ripe for manipulation and weaponization: the charge of antisemitism.

Conscientious observers have become all too aware of how this allegation is cynically deployed against anti-Zionist speech and twisted to permit every manner of authoritarian abuse — including a genocidal war.

It is no accident that this indefensible police crackdown comes in service of an indefensible war. The very extremity of protest repression speaks to desperation on the part of institutions of the American establishment.

Israel’s decimation of Gaza has — at least for millions more people — given lie to the redemptive myths of the post-World War II political liberal order. Young people, even the children of the elite, even children of Zionists, are standing with Palestine. Their peaceful acts of protest count as disruptive because they count as un-American — which should be a badge of honor amid a U.S.-backed genocide.

Columbia University president Shafik is being largely blamed for the violent militarized response.

On Tuesday night, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik made the stunning decision to call upon the notorious Strategic Response Group of the New York Police Department to descend upon the campus. After New York Mayor Eric Adams announced that the protests had been “co-opted” and threatened Columbia students himself that they should leave “before the situation escalates,” more than 100 cops swept the campus and arrested the university’s nonviolent student protesters for the second time in two weeks. Student journalists—the only journalists allowed on campus due to the university’s crackdown—reported that the cops were forcibly dragging students from Hamilton Hall, the building they had briefly occupied, entering the building with guns drawn and using tear gas during the raid, which resulted in at least one student becoming unconscious. Shafik also requested that the NYPD remain permanently on campus until at least May 17, two days after this academic year’s commencement ceremony.

There were violent clashes between rival groups at UCLA as well.

Violent clashes broke out on the campus of the University of California in Los Angeles early on Wednesday morning when counter-demonstrators attacked a pro-Palestinian protest encampment.

The violence at the southern California campus came hours after New York City police cleared pro-Palestinian protesters out of an academic building that had been taken over at Columbia University.

The chaos started just before midnight, when a masked group descended on an encampment that pro-Palestinian protesters had erected on the campus. Aerial footage showed people wielding sticks or poles to attack wooden boards that had been put up as a makeshift barricade to protect the encampment , some holding placards or umbrellas. At least one firework was thrown into the camp.

Fights between both groups ensued, with people grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another. People threw chairs and other objects and at one point a group piled on a person on the ground, kicking and beating them with sticks until others pulled them out of the scrum.

The LA Times reported that a group of security guards could be seen observing the clashes, but that they did not intervene.

It was not clear how many people had been injured. Nor was it clear who the attackers were. Footage showed mostly male counter-demonstrators, many of them masked and some apparently older than students.

Some yelled pro-Jewish comments as pro-Palestinian protesters tried to fight them off.

“They were coming up here and just violently attacking us,” said one pro-Palestinian protester, Kaia Shah, a researcher at UCLA.

“I just didn’t think they would ever get to this, escalate to this level, where our protest is met by counter-protesters who are violently hurting us, inflicting pain on us, when we are not doing anything to them.”

Universities and police did not have to react with force. Some colleges have negotiated with student protestors and ended protests peacefully.

At Northwestern, the university will permit “peaceful protest” on Deering Meadow, two acres of green space on campus, until the end of their fourth quarter, on June 1. After maintaining 80 tents for over 100 hours, student leaders agreed to take down all but one tent used for aid purposes and otherwise follow university protest policies.

In return, the university will form an advisory committee made up of student, faculty, and staff members to “provide a conduit to engagement” with its investment committee; answer questions “to the best of its knowledge and to the extent legally possible” about its investments held currently or in the last quarter; build a community space for Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim students; and fund two full-time Palestinian faculty members for two years and the full cost of attendance for five Palestinian undergraduate students, with a pledge to raise funds for the long-term sustainability of the program. The university also agreed to “engage students in a process dedicated to ensuring additional support for Jewish and Muslim students” through its student-affairs office.

Agreements at Brown and Evergreen took similar tacks. Students at Evergreen removed their encampment in exchange for four task forces that will examine questions about socially responsible investments, grant requirements, police presence on campus, and alternative crisis-response models. Contingent on dismantling the encampment at Brown and refraining from further violations of the conduct code through the end of the academic year, the university agreed to assign a committee the task of developing a recommendation on divestment by September 2024 and, regardless of that recommendation, vote on whether or not to divest from holdings in Israel at a governing-board meeting in October 2024. The agreement also stipulates that anyone affiliated with Brown who was involved in the encampment and related protests won’t face “retaliation” from the institution, though students could still potentially be charged with violations of the institution’s code of conduct.

Despite the uphill battles to reach agreements on campuses, open dialogue with student protesters is what the American Association of University Professors has promoted as the best route forward in this heated moment, said Irene Mulvey, president of AAUP.

Instead of responding to multiday demonstrations by issuing suspensions or bringing in the police, Mulvey said, colleges should strive to communicate with students and use the negotiating table as an educational opportunity. “The way forward is through education — to talk to each other, to understand each other, even in disagreement,” she said. “I think [the agreements are] modeling what should be done everywhere.”

Protests at Rutgers and the University of Minnesota were also settled peacefully.

In all such cases, what it took was for university administrators to talk with the students about their demands and negotiate a way forward.

I have spent almost my entire working life at universities and have a pretty good idea of how they operate. In the US they have become basically businesses, riddled with a corporate mentality, and their top university administrators, with a few exceptions, tend to be bureaucratic careerists, largely seeking to please those in power, especially their Boards of Trustees and wealthy donors, and constantly having an eye on how to climb up the career ladder. The quality of education and encouraging the idealism of students tend to be low priority for them. When students rise up en masse like this all over the nation, it is almost always because of a just cause. Hence in conflicts such as these, my sympathies are always with the students.

Seth Meyers discusses the protests and the violent police reactions.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    “Unnecessary” from whose perspective?

    The media and the pro-Zionists find the current violence vital to (a) raise ratings, (b) justify more crackdowns, and (c) distract from the atrocities continuing in Palestine.

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