Cops and the far right are threats to student safety, not Palestine encampments

7 May 2024
Riley K
Students at UCLA face off against riot police on 2 May PHOTO: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Since the student revolt against Israel’s genocide in Gaza began to spread across the US and the world from mid-April, there has been no shortage of pearl-clutching from politicians and the media over supposed threats to “student safety” on campuses.

In the US, the New York Times has churned out several scolding op-eds, with John McWhorter claiming in one that “what began as an intelligent protest has become, in its uncompromising fury and ceaselessness, a form of abuse”. In Australia, the Murdoch press has called on vice-chancellors to listen to “pleas to stamp out rising hate on campus” while, following a meeting with a small delegation of Jewish community leaders, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posted on X/Twitter that “students must feel safe at university classes”.

The supposed threat to student safety represented by campus protests for Palestine is a complete beat-up. The pro-Palestine encampments on university campuses around the world have been attended, endorsed and sometimes led by a myriad of Jewish students and community groups who rightly reject the conflation of anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.

When faced with questions from the media, students have reiterated their opposition to every form of racism. But despite the complete absence of evidence of anti-semitism at the encampments, the narrative persists, while the media remain silent about the actual threats to student safety: cops and far-right thugs.

Under the guise of upholding “student safety”, universities have mobilised legions of cops to smash up student protests. Take the crushing of the occupation of Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall on 30 April. The NYPD mobilised hundreds of cops after Columbia President Minouche Shafik implored them to deal with the protest after she “determined the building occupation, the encampments, and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger” to students.

The NYPD surrounded the Hall from all sides, including entering a second-story window via a ladder, and drove out the several dozen student protestors with weapons drawn. One student was pushed down the stairs and knocked unconscious. A cop accidentally fired a live round into a wall. A photo posted by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine showed one officer texting, “Thought we fucking shot someone”. More than 100 students were arrested.

This scenario has played out at dozens of campuses around the US. After a peaceful pro-Palestine march of no more than 200 students at the University of Texas in Austin, the administration called in state troopers in massive numbers, including some on horseback, to arrest and disperse the students. A video from Emory University showed three cops kneeling on a zip-tied Black student and tasing him.

At Dartmouth, Annelise Orleck, a history professor and former chair of the Jewish Studies department, was violently arrested and banned from campus as a condition of her release. Images of snipers positioned on a roof at Ohio State University while students were beaten and arrested below sent shockwaves on social media.

Possibly the most appalling example of police violence wielded against students using the excuse of protecting “student safety” has been at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). After the university declared the Gaza solidarity encampment there to be unlawful, the LAPD mobilised hundreds of cops to break it up. They systematically dismantled the students’ barricades while spraying them with teargas, throwing flashbangs and igniting flares. One video shows a cop telling students to move back “for [their] safety” before shooting them with rubber bullets. Twenty-five students were hospitalised. More than 200 were thrown in jail.

Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, wrote that the university sent the cops to break up the encampment out of a desire to “support students, free expression and to minimise disruption”. Talk about doublespeak.

The university crackdown on students peacefully protesting a genocide stands in stark contrast with how they have handled genuinely violent counter-protestors. The night before the LAPD moved in to smash the UCLA encampment, hundreds of extremist Zionists, Iranian monarchists, and other far-right agitators showed up in the early hours and violently assaulted the camp. They wielded sticks, physically beat protestors, sprayed bear repellent and aimed fireworks at the middle of the encampment where hundreds of students were still packed in.

Utterly unsurprisingly, LAPD and campus security idly stood by as the reactionary mob attacked students. UCLA officials later made comments decrying the “horrific acts of violence” that had “occurred at the encampment” but conveniently neglected to mention who the perpetrators were.

Similarly, in Australia, right-wingers wielding Australian and Israeli flags, one of whom claimed to be a member of the Israeli army, attacked the peaceful encampment at Monash University as students slept. They blasted Australian nationalist songs and virulently racist right-wing Israeli music about inflicting violence on Palestinians. The attackers destroyed the students’ marquee and kitchen, including food that the community had donated.

Just like at UCLA, campus security at Monash showed what activists described as “determined inaction”. After the police finally arrived in response to student calls on them to remove the assailants, the cops took down the students’ details and let the counter-protestors leave scot-free.

Clearly, actual student safety matters little to university administrations, politicians and the media. If they genuinely cared about student safety, they would denounce the police and vigilante violence inflicted on students peacefully protesting a genocide rather than hysterically railing against them.

If Albanese truly cared about student safety, he would denounce Israel’s destruction of universities and the murder of thousands of students in Gaza. But the ruling classes in the US and Australia stand four-square behind Israel even as it carries out a genocide and oppose all those who condemn it. To deflect attention from Israel’s crimes, our rulers have to whip up hysteria about non-existent threats to safety posed by a few hundred students sitting in tents, painting banners and making demands of their universities.

As US historian Howard Zinn said: “They say we’re disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we’re disturbing the war”.

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