Analysis. Their suppression with an iron fist is throwing the country back in time, recalling other major historical protests and the role they played in moments of profound social instability, as well as progress.

From coast to coast, US students revolt – and militarized police crack down

On Wednesday night, 200 days since the start of the war, the situation on the U.S. domestic front spoke volumes. While the votes on the new military funding package were being counted in the Senate, dozens of new arrests were being made at the rally at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, where 3,000 Jews (including Nan Goldin and Naomi Klein) were taking part in a sit-in near the residence of Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (the highest institutional office held by a Jewish politician), who at that time was overseeing the passage of the bill.

The side-by-side news footage gave a snapshot of a divided America, fully invested now in the consequences of the policy of support for the ongoing endless slaughter in Gaza, led by a president who keeps calling for restraint (at this point regarding the Rafah offensive) while delivering new shipments of bombs to Netanyahu.

The same schizophrenia can be seen on the issue of anti-Semitism, which has inevitably come to take full focus when discussing the rising university protests. From their epicenter on the East Coast – where there have been hundreds of arrests at Columbia, Yale and NYU – occupations and protests have spread from Minnesota, Tennessee and California to virtually every state. Their suppression with an iron fist is throwing the country back in time, recalling other major historical protests and the role they played in moments of profound social instability, as well as progress.

The police interventions and zero tolerance are being justified by the need to ensure the safety of students even at the cost of restricting their freedom of expression, while the alleged “danger” to Jewish students is widened into a generic “unease” that can be applied to any expression of solidarity with Palestine.

However, this notion is belied by the peaceful nature of the occupations. This week, the Pesach Seder has become a main instrument of protest, in which the narrative of the Passover liberation meal is turned toward Palestinian solidarity (stressing that the freedom of one people cannot depend on the oppression of another).

These days, the rituals have been celebrated almost everywhere among the movement, which from the beginning has been led by a strong Jewish youth element (as we have seen in the IfNotNow circuit, which held a Jewish anti-racist workshop in Rome on March 28).

The image of these peaceful rituals clashes strongly with the one of “pro-terrorist bubbles” put forward by the right, which is calling for all-out militarization, and even by the White House, which has said “calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community” are unacceptable. However, despite tensions and rare slogans with an actual anti-Semitic tint, there have been no attacks reported in the hundreds of cities where protests have taken place. To date, the incidents of violence supported by evidence are those in which the victims were Palestinians: the three students gunned down in Vermont in January and the six-year-old boy stabbed to death in Illinois in October.

A delegation of the students from Columbia University and its Barnard College sister campus, who were threatened with National Guard intervention on Wednesday before the university administration took a step back and extended negotiations until Friday, spoke to the press before the Seder: “The ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ is a reflection of the Jewish tradition of togetherness and liberation,” said Sarah Borus, one of the students arrested and suspended this week on the Columbia campus. “I’ve never been more proud to be Jewish than when I was arrested and taken off campus” together with 107 other students, including 15 Jews. The equating of protest and anti-Semitism is a distraction from the carnage in Gaza, she added on the day mass graves were discovered in Khan Younis and new Israeli airstrikes took the lives of unarmed civilian victims.

The manipulative conflation of pacifist protests with anti-Semitism is also anti-historical, if we look at the role of Jewish activists in progressive coalitions such as the African American community’s civil rights coalition. The current movement aims to reinforce those historical ties. On Tuesday, during the Pennsylvania primary, IfNotNow activists worked for the victory of Summer Lee, a Black and pro-Palestinian congresswoman who faced a challenge from an opponent funded by pro-Israel lobbies.

Mariann Hirsch, a professor of Holocaust studies and daughter of Holocaust survivors, was one of the signatories, together with many of her colleagues, of a letter from the Association of University Professors at Barnard and Columbia condemning “in the strongest possible terms the Administration’s suspension of students engaged in peaceful protest and their arrest by the New York City Police Department” and demanding that “suspensions and charges be dismissed immediately and expunged from the students’ records, and that all rights and privileges be restored to them immediately.” These measures taken against students, they argue, “violate the letter and the spirit of the University Statutes, shared governance, students’ rights, and the University’s absolute obligation to defend students’ freedom of speech and to ensure their safety.”

Many faculty allied with the protests have been arrested in recent days along with students; some have been fired by administrators who had been threatened in turn with career-ending hearings before the Committee against anti-Semitism. It all amounts to an atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyism, including calls for self-denunciation and charges of being “fellow travelers” hurled at alleged Hamas sympathizers, just as was done against those with Communist sympathies 70 years ago.

Above all, the protests at universities against a bloody colonial war are forcing the country once again to come face-to-face with its past. The repression of free speech harkens back to the free speech movement that arose in Berkeley in 1964, with clashes with police and the occupation of the presidential building, the same Sproul Hall surrounded today by the peaceful Free Palestine solidarity encampment. By ’68, that movement had broadened to fight for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam and had spread to all colleges in America, and Columbia would see some of the fiercest clashes with the authorities. Notably, in April of that year, police made more than a thousand arrests on campus.

At the same time, in California, repressing the movement was what built the career of a young governor named Reagan, and the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago contributed to Nixon’s law-and-order campaign and his victory at the polls. In a striking coincidence, Biden’s party will once again meet in Chicago this year to try to unify a base that is just as divided.

For the protesters, the lesson to be learned from the past should not be to “not overdo pacifism,” as some have suggested. Instead, it should be to take note of the civic and political maturity that would develop starting from those events. For instance, in the 1980s, the student movement coalesced around the demand for withdrawal of support from the South African apartheid regime. After years of struggle, 155 universities ended up joining the initiative.

This is the goal of this movement as well, against the backdrop of an extraordinarily uncertain and dispiriting presidential election – and of a global reactionary acceleration.

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