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Podcast/Radio Transcript

Insights into Campus Protest at University Campuses

Scholars' Circle

Scholars' Circle is a weekly syndicated public affairs radio show and podcast (aired weekly on Pacifica Radio KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California). They seek to elevate the discourse of contemporary issues and discuss the globe's challenges with scholars and researchers from all over the world. They cover political, legislative, constitutional, environmental, social, and historical issues. The following excerpts are from the May 26, 2024 episode with host Douglas Becker, featuring Mark LeVine and David Meyers (both UC Irvine faculty), Jeremi Suri, and Mark Leff. Thanks to Scholars' Circle for permission to share this transcript of a recent show of particular interest to the editors and readers of Orange County's unlikeliest online literary arts journal. We've made only modest edits toward presenting the audio in written format.


DB: Welcome to Scholars’ Circle, I'm Doug Becker.

This spring, universities throughout the United States and as well as throughout the world have seen growing student protests. In most cases the students are demanding their universities divest from companies that are invested in Israel. They seek to use their leverage to support the recognition of an independent state of Palestine. In response, university leaders have aligned with local law enforcement to break up the protests. On today's show, we will explore the nature of the protests and how the university and law enforcement have aggressively and in many cases violently been responding to protesters and attempting to break up these protests.


Our panel is:


Mark LeVine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History and the Chair of Global Middle East Studies at UC Irvine. He's the author of We’ll Play till We Die: Journeys Across a Decade of Revolutionary Music in the Muslim World and the co-editor of One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.


Jeremi Suri, professor at the Department of History in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership and Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office and Civil War by Other Means: America's Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy. He also hosts the podcast This is Democracy.


David Meyer is professor of sociology at UC Irvine. He's the author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America and How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter, and the co-editor of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.


And Jack Leff just earned his PhD from Virginia Tech in Science and Technology Studies. His dissertation is titled An Alchemy of Smoke and Flame: The Politics of Tear Gas Use Against Social Movement in the United States. He's been a political organizer for close to a decade with racial, environmental, and labor justice movement groups and currently works for Virginia Tech as their climate action fellow.


Thank you all very, very much for joining us. Mark LeVine, we’ll start with you. These protests have been all over the news, but part of what I want to cover today is how different the experiences actually are from the way in which the news has been covering them so, first of all, you're at the University of California Irvine. You've had some protests there.

Can you describe the nature of the protests and how this fits or doesn't fit national narratives about these protests?


ML: Well, I think we have to look at this from multiple ways. First of all, there's maybe several hundred universities where there have been encampments and protests. That's out of uncountable thousands in the US. Someone put up a story recently saying that while you could see protests at UCs, at Cal States there haven't been many protests because people are too busy working, trying to infer there's a class element to these protests. So on campuses that have upper class people that don't have to work or aren't first-generation people, they can afford to protest and waste their time on silly things.


Of course, this isn't true, especially in Irvine's case, where we're a very big first-generation school and we have a lot of people who are the first person in their family to come, and it’s actually quite heartening to see how many people from a diverse set of backgrounds have been part of the protests.

So that being said, there certainly are places where for cultural or other reasons there have been --- or economic reasons --- less protests because people couldn't invest the level of time necessary to sustain an encampment and that's the other issue. You know, there are places where there have been protests and there are places where there have been actual encampments. So UCI had an encampment for several weeks. It was really one of the most incredible things I've seen in twenty-two years there. The students really self-managed this but also in collaboration with faculty advisors who mediated at least until the day when it was destroyed by the police; mediated with the administration and the police. They were learning as they went. These kids are eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old at most. So this is the first time they're doing this. They're even too young for BLM, for George Floyd, for the last round of protest, never mind the Occupy movement.


You know, certainly a lot of this is about the Israeli invasion, and destruction of Gaza which many people, myself included, believe is genocidal in its nature and in its extent, but it's beyond that. It's beyond just Israel. I think a lot of young people realize that how the Biden administration and the entire political establishment has backed Israel despite going so far beyond what is allowed by international law or even any sense of ethics or morality has made them realize how much more vulnerable they are in an era where everyone feels increasingly vulnerable because of climate change, changes in the economy that make work more precarious and more difficult.


So I think these protests --- the energy, the kindling for these protests that have made them so sustained --- goes beyond just the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict or the occupation or response to the brutal invasion of Gaza which is why they've been able to sustain themselves. They relate to larger changes in the university, in the value of an education, and the diminishing especially of the humanities but also the loss of a moral grounding for the sciences.


And when you put that all together, I think this generation of students has seen this come together as a moment to assert themselves. And a lot of faculty feel similarly because the role of the faculty…we are becoming more precarious, even those with the luxury of tenure in leading R1 universities.


So I think there's been a coincidence of interest and at the same time university administrations have been so freaked out by these protests because they realize things are only going to get worse in years to come with more austerity, with more cuts.


If Trump wins and there is an even more hostile federal environment for protest, they, I believe, feel they need to assert control at any cost now to stem the tide of protest, especially that could come in the fall. So all these things are clashing together and that, I think, accounts for the behemoths of the encampments and the protests. But that being said, and I've been in California --- I've been through most of the ones in New York at NYU at Columbia at City College at the new school where they even have a faculty encampment. I've been in Sydney at the one at the University of Sydney for several weeks---the most important and beautiful thing about this is how the young people are creating on their own these incredible zones of not just free speech but free inquiry and learning. And engaging and learning how to deal with conflicts and manage them within groups. And learning how to deal with a potentially hostile public. And learning what is worth fighting for and putting your freedom---never mind your ability to finish your degree---on the line for. This is incredibly valuable, and each generation seems to have to learn anew. And this is the time where this generation is starting to learn that.


DB: And David Meyer, I think, that's going to be a theme I want to take on, about how similar, how different is this wave of protest from previous protests because Mark had mentioned Black Lives Matter. Immediately what also came to mind was the Occupy movement that seemed to be about one very specific issue initially but became about something much larger it was going on. So in what ways is this protest movement inspired by, educated by, these recent waves of protests like those two or any others you might want to cite?


DM: Well, I certainly agree with Mark that students are continuing to learn. And they learned about their admini-strations, and they learned a little bit about policing. Some students were surprised the police would be rough while arresting them, which probably none of us older folk would be surprised about. I think you want to look at the strategic dimension to it. Now the starting point is our students saw on their phones on TV on the internet. Pictures of tremendous violence against Palestinian civilians. Children being killed. Bodies. This is horrifying. Students were understandably appalled. And they wanted to stop the killings. Some of them came in with an elaborated understanding of Israel, Palestine. But I would suggest that most of them were just horrified by the death and the violence. And they were looking for some way to try to stop it.


And as far as that goes I think we should be heartened that young people across the United States, indeed around the world, thought that it was important to try to stop horrific violence. That's a good starting point. Now, what do you do? The levers that the students could push weren't really very closely connected to what was going on in Israel-Palestine. So the students were trying to find some way to mobilize in which they could try to make a difference. And divestment proved to be that lever. Now, in real life, the Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine is not a war criminal.

He did not apply for the job and expect to interview on foreign policy altogether, much less military targeting. So what's the trick? The trick is you have to find a way to raise your issues against a target that is local, which is what they did by talking about divestment. It's very indirect. It's very attenuated. If the University of California sold all of its stocks tomorrow and bought treasury bonds it wouldn't do much about what's happening in Israel now. But it's a vehicle for students to express their concerns and to do some public education.


And some of the education went inside the camp. And some of the education went around the periphery of the camp. It certainly crept up in my classes. Whether they knew about the encampment or not, students wanted to know what was going on. And the harsh reaction from administrations---not just at the University of California but in lots of places---offered a nearby or approximate target for the students. So certainly they can't do much about the Israeli election whenever that comes, or Benjamin Netanyahu. But now they have a local target who has offended their sensibilities and their rights, and it's easier to organize against a local target than against a distant one. And that's a matter of strategy.


And the harsh reaction of administrations---not just at UCI, but certainly at UCI---basically expanded the universe that students were talking to, students who didn't go to the encampment, who were not particularly about Israel-Palestine, are now concerned about their liberties on campus. They now have a local target, a local enemy and that's going to likely have a longer term impact in the way those young people approach the world.


DB: And speaking of harsh reactions, Jeremi Suri, you are at UT Austin and there was definitely a harsh reaction to the protests that were seemingly were at least partially driven by national politics, by the man sitting in the governor's mansion but, first of all, could you describe what happened at UT Austin? And then in the context of how different is this than the previous university leadership's reactions to protests on universities in previous campaigns?


JS: It's a great question, Doug, and I think what I'll say will echo what Mark and David said, but it has its own particular Texas characteristics as everything does that happens in Texas. Following October 7, our campus was relatively quiet. There were some small stirrings of one kind or another, but in comparison to other campuses that I was visiting and lecturing at throughout the semester, UT was pretty quiet. And then, really what kicked off a great deal of anger on campus was not something that happened in the Middle East, but a requirement from the governor that we end all DEI programs. This had actually been in the prior legislature’s legislation. The university had complied, but it had not fired any of the staff who had done DEI. We had moved DEI staffing into other areas. We had limited DEI programs. We had complied, but we were trying to still maintain some diversity programs on campus that didn't violate the legislation. And the governor and members of the legislature leaned on our president to basically summarily purge all of those who had worked on diversity, who are staff members, who are vulnerable. Of course, they're not tenured faculty. And that happened in March, April. And then in early May, that and rising concern about the Middle East---more images of what was happening in the Middle East---came together and really fueled a combination of student and faculty anger about the ways in which the university was not responding to the concerns of faculty and students. And that's really what the protests have been about.


They have been protests in some cases for Free Palestine, but they've really been protests demanding that the university take some account of the moral positioning and the programmatic interests of students and faculty. These were still relatively small protests and the first day of the police crackdown on campus, which was April 24, I happened to be teaching my last graduate seminar of the semester in Garrison Hall, which is right near the center of campus. And I happened to walk out of my office a little after one o'clock after some meetings with some students and I saw what was a relatively small protest. I understand there were things that had happened earlier, but I can only comment on what I saw: a relatively small protest, less than 200 students with a few signs saying “Free Palestine,” nothing more offensive than that, in that setting at that moment. And before my eyes, the Russian army arrived on campus wearing state police uniforms, on horses, on motorcycles. And it appeared to me that there were more police than there were students. And then very quickly the police assembled and started going into the crowd and pulling students out to arrest them. These were students who were standing on a grass area of campus that we call the South Mall. They were not blocking any buildings. I know because I had come out of my building, gone back into my building. I know my colleagues were teaching their courses at exactly the same time. They weren't interrupting class. They were shouting. Maybe they were making noise. Welcome to a college campus, right?


And the police started arresting people in incredibly violent fashion and to this day I don't know how they decided who to arrest in the crowd and who not to arrest in the crowd. This was clearly a police overreaction. It's what those of us who have written about the Sixties would call a police riot, when the violence actually comes from the police, not from the protesters. And the extraordinary thing---and Mark and David already referred to this---is that once it became a police matter, it then became a bigger demonstration. So what were 200 students became a thousand students, And the students who had been shouting, maybe, “Free Palestine” and other things now started shouting anti-police things. In fact, they were accusing the very state police who were there of being the people responsible for the shootings, or not dealing with the shootings, in Uvalde.


And it was interesting how Uvalde came up. This was the same state agency that had messed up the response in Uvalde, when many children were killed and this became a much larger conflagration then and within a few hours, I think, thirty or forty people had been arrested. There was no violence I saw from any students. Sure, there was shouting of all kinds of things. And that really made things a lot worse. It brought violence to what had not been a violent situation and that's where we were. We had another event like that on April 29. Since then we haven't seen the same use of police force thankfully on campus. But it was terrible to watch, I have to say.


DB: And by DEI you mean Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Those are programs that are meant to address historic and traditional discrimination. You are listening to Scholars’ Circle. I'm Doug Becker. We're talking about the protests on university campuses and the police response, the military response with Mark LeVine of the University of California, Irvine; Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas, Austin; David Meyer of the University of California, Irvine; and Jack Leff of Virginia Tech. Mark, you wanted to respond to some of Jeremi's comments.


ML: Just very quickly before you get to Jack, just because I think the violence is so key here. At UC Irvine it was clear that, first of all, the Chancellor has put out the monstrously false tweets and zotALERTs, things that, you know, really were incongruous completely with what was happening on the ground at the time. There is evidence that there was a premeditated attempt or desire to bring huge numbers of police in that day that would then basically demolish an encampment which everyone knew was coming to an end very soon anyway because, you know, people were running out of energy and they had to get back to their lives and so on.


And this was even after the first time he called in six police agencies including the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who was on record as having been investigated by the state for brutality and other abuses of civilians. So to call them in, it was so ridiculous and over the top that the mayor of Irvine, even publicly, when she got to the site the first day, when they were establishing the camp and rebuked him and told all the cops to stand down and leave and then publicly put out a tweet explaining that.


Even after that, I will say that we reached some of the university leadership and said, “This is crazy, you need to stop this, and you need to investigate how this happened.” They refused to do that. And we warned them, if you don't put out a statement now, if you don't stop the train before it starts going downhill, you're gonna wind up with a much bigger disaster, which of course was inevitable in exactly what happened. And I think when you look at Columbia, when I was at NYU right when they were arresting my professors, some very well-known people, there is clearly, seemingly, a realization, however wrong it might be to many of us, by senior college administration officials that they need to stop this movement at any cost.

Even at the cost of completely alienating their own professoriate and colleagues, never mind students. And we need to be thinking about why, what's the larger context.


David is absolutely right. The, you know, the, the investment is not, you know, isn't, is more symbolic. It raises awareness. It's not going to fundamentally change things, but it does point to a core aspect of the so-called liberal university, which is that it's never really been that liberal. It's always been involved in policies domestically, and foreign policy, that didn't reflect the idea of a liberal university that actually encouraged free speech and equality and all this in many ways and that now even the veneer of that is disappearing. And that's, I think, what is getting everyone up in arms. But the level of the violence! I mean, they had police at UC Irvine who were pointing tear gas guns directly at people's heads from a foot away. Now I've been in the West Bank during protests where they've been using those same guns. They literally take your head off. If you get shot by those at close range, you will not have a head. The amount of power, unfortunately, I've seen this. It will take your head off, you know, and the rubber bullets are not rubber bullets, they're plastic over steel.


These things can cause incredible damage and the kids had no idea about this. Hardly anyone had masks and goggles and all the things you might see with more experienced protesters. But the police were engaged in incredibly dangerous activities that were violations of their own protocols, violations of UC protocols, and other university protocols.


And we need as scholars to figure out why. What's the underlying reason? I doubt there's a cabal of university leaders who are sitting there every week---or maybe there is, who knows?---talking okay, well, how much violence do we need to use. So there's a general perception among university leadership that they need to do whatever is necessary to stop this, then we have a sociological moment that we need to really be focusing on.

DB: Mark, you, you mentioned tear gas, so it's a great opportunity to bring Jack Leff in because not only have you just recently written a dissertation on tear gas against social movements but also---I'll let you tell your own experience---you have some very personal experience with these protests at Virginia Tech. So I guess, first, lead off with what was going on at Virginia Tech and then we’ll open the door, and you can talk about some of these police responses like the use of tear gas.


JL: Yeah, for sure. And, first, and foremost, thank you for the invitation. I sincerely appreciate it. So in Virginia Tech, we have a slightly different, but still interesting context. You know, we're a school in the South. We're predominantly a military school. We are heavily invested in the development of military technologies and feeding people into the military industrial complex. In fact, on our Board of Visitors, this sort of political board that gets appointed by the governor every four years or so, we have Dave Calhoun, the CEO of Boeing, who sent hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of war planes directly to Israel. Drone technology at Tech goes into every single drone that's being used to surveil Gaza, drop tear gas, drop missiles. For us, divestment might take on a little bit of more of a direct tenor just because of some of these direct military connections between what the universities’ research and financial missions are and then what's happening overseas.


And so the students have been organizing around Palestine for a while. I led a Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign in academic year 2021-2022 trying to share governance to do it the “right way,” you know, as they always say, why are you protesting? Why don't you just go through the systems that we have in place? Well, we tried to do that in 2021-2022.


We of course have a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter here and they've been doing amazing work over the years, laying a lot of the groundwork for what became the encampment that began in late April. We started very early in the weekend. We started on a Friday in late April following Columbia's lead. And to be honest, our university left us alone for the first couple of days. It seems that for the encampments that set up sort of later in the cycle of protest, the encampments that started in May, the police response has been much faster, but for the encampments that got started in April, there seemed to be less of that sort of emphasis on shock and awe tactics to break them up before they could build up steam. So we actually had two days of complete peace and being left alone from the University officials. On the third day, however, things changed. Our university president was getting a lot of pressure from the state government. Similar to what I expect the situation was with Jeremi and University of Texas, Austin. You know, the attorney general has been very public, Jason Miyaras, about making this one of his campaign issues, one of his chief political issues, as has the governor, Glenn Youngkin. Coincidentally, both of them also have a bone to pick with DEI initiatives.

That's probably not a coincidence. And so they had been calling him, really putting pressure on the president, to crack down on the encampment. Earlier in the day, around 4:30, they sent the local university police to try to break us up. I think that because we had been having an open line of communication dialogue with the university administration, they thought that just sort of like telling us to leave or they were going to start arresting us for trespassing would be sufficient. But we actually banded together and linked arms, a group of about a hundred people with hundreds more spectating and basically drove our local campus police off. They weren't able to arrest anybody. Eventually the police got a coordinated response together they actually enlisted officers from the neighboring city, Roanoke. The state police, the county police, all chipped in to basically encircle us and then arrest us en masse. There were ultimately 82 arrests, and while we didn't have some of the more extreme forms of militarized violence from the police that we've seen at other campuses, including VCU, right up the road from us, we still had 82 arrests, which was significant and in fact was the largest mass arrest event since 1970 when there was an anti-war demonstration that led to the arrest of over 120 people at Virginia Tech.


And I should also mention that the personal connection that Doug mentioned was the fact that I was one of the 82 people that was arrested and taken into custody for six hours before being released. And what I think is interesting is that in a lot of the public perception of these protests, it's seen as happening predominantly in California, but what I was really excited to participate in at Virginia Tech is that we not only showed up and did an encampment in solidarity with Columbia and other universities but we also did one that was explicitly focused on some of these direct military connections, the ways in which Southern universities in particular are uniquely tied to the military industrial complex in funneling technology and resources towards it. And as a result, 82 people were arrested by the administration. So I don't have a lot to add in terms of how this response was different. We’ve had protests before that were pretty benign, but this was one situation where they really decided to crack down.


DB:  David, you have some responses.


DM: One thing that should be very clear now is that the local political situation and the national political situation surrounding these campus protests really varied. So Mark made the point that the local mayor of Irvine [Farrah Khan] made several statements against bringing in the police. That was absolutely not the case that President Shafik at Columbia faced or President Boudreau at City College. And I'm sure in Texas the governor was very eager to bring the police in as quickly and as visibly as possible. So that's part of the story here, is the political context. And then we have to think about these presidents and chancellors. We just saw at the beginning of this episode two college presidents ousted. as a result of their testimony before Congress being insufficiently outraged about anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism is a serious problem. I don't mean to suggest that it's not, but the pressures that the college presidents and chancellors are under is not about being insufficiently committed to free speech. It's being insufficiently committed to public order. And those presidents, they didn't get their job because of their expertise in foreign policy or military strategy, but they're sure hoping to have a nice donor total when they finish their tenure as president because that's one of the marks of success of being a college administrator.

So I think it's important to recognize that all of those campus leaders were under enormous-cross pressures about trying to navigate a very difficult situation. It's worthwhile to look at those few who are able to negotiate peaceful settlements with the student protesters, that took their demands seriously without necessarily giving in to all of them but took them seriously, took the students seriously as moral and political actors. And also made a show of public order. Because some presidents pulled that off.


DB: Quick reminder, like for instance, Brown University was able to completely defuse this by promising to hold a vote on investment. So, reminder, there's definitely many different ways, some more effective than others in confronting these issues. Jack, you had a response as well.


JL: Yeah, I think this point about the overarching political situation that informs the university response is so vital and Virginia Tech has a really interesting example---and this is, sorry once again another personal example for mine---but anti-Semitism has been sort of a canard of a lot of the political responses. In Virginia, it is the motivation, at least the stated motivation, for why politicians like Jason Miyaras and Glenn Youngkin urge university presidents to crack down. But at Virginia Tech, we actually have a very clear history of anti-Semitism that speaks against this political motivation in a way that I find interesting. During the 2021 and 2022 BDS campaign that I ran I was actually the target of the largest anti-Semitic attack in our university's history as far as I can tell. I faced 10 weeks of harassment, death threats, you know, called a Nazi capo, sent Holocaust images, really horrible stuff, to be clear to the listeners, I'm Jewish. And, you know, the university's response to that was very muted. Our head of DEI was silent despite me reaching out to her office eight times to get support. The president, university released a statement that could not even name the word anti-Semitism to describe what was happening to me.


To this day there hasn't really been any public recognition of what I went through as a result of supporting Palestine. And what I find particularly striking about this is that the university has continued to---and not just my university but many universities---to push this narrative that part of the crackdown on encampments is justified by anti-Semitism within them. But as the target of the largest anti-Semitic attack in my campus’s history, being arrested by that university seems to only further the anti-Semitic climate at Virginia Tech rather than do anything to ameliorate it. And I would really challenge politicians who are weaponizing anti-Semitism to take a serious look at the situation and the ways in which anti-Zionist Jews like myself have been doubly penalized in situations like this for standing up for what's happening in Gaza right now.


ML: Yeah, I just I'm glad Jack mentioned that. I mean the weaponization of so-called concerns for Jewish safety and Jewish well-being in order to crack down on these encampments is really an odious phenomenon. Certainly there are instances of behavior or slogans, and I don't mean “From the river to the sea.” There might have been some instances where people have come in with banners or what have you, or posters, but it's been so really little, far less than any right-wing evangelical rally I can assure you.


And in fact, what we've seen is the involvement of Jews, Jewish students, Jewish professors at the heart of this movement, not that we're the only people involved, but certainly it's one of the striking parts of the movement is how involved progressive Jews have been in this. And they don't care, you know. They just want to use this as an excuse to silence people because no one can say anything once they invoke the anti-Semitism claim. But it's factually incorrect in most cases---and this is something I think that's really striking at least from my own campus---is how university administrators will outright prevaricate and create false narratives, demonstrably false narratives over and over. They're literally Trumpifying the discourse of the university. They are out-doing Trump. And of course that goes up to the top when President Biden says Israel's not committing war crimes. When the very leadership, the top leadership of the United States of a supposedly liberal party is also lying directly and clearly lying and everyone knows they're lying, including them. Then it just starts making the truth much less valuable, and in the university that's our main currency. Right, so the damaging effect, the weakening effect of the very premises of honest scholarly investigation can't be overstated and when the universities themselves are engaged in this activity at the highest levels.


My university’s run by someone who writes books about free speech. And heads a Free Speech Center. I mean, you can't make this up, right? So this is something I think needs to concern all scholars, all academics and all students, even if you have no opinion about Gaza or Israel-Palestine or even if you're a Zionist. It might not be about Zionism. Might be good for Zionism today, but what's the next thing that's going to happen? And when is it going to be your turn? And so we need to both be considering the moral impact of the thing that's being protested against, which is what Israel is doing. And that doesn't take away anything from what Hamas did in the horror and the illegality of October 7, but we need to be keeping that in mind while also keeping in mind the larger issues and if they can get away with it.


There's been a lot of work on this. They start with this idea of Jewish safety and then it just shuts down free speech and the right to protest more broadly about anything. Fossil fuels and all the other things that they want to stop.


DB: So, Jeremi Suri, your response to how much this is being driven by political interests, by national political interests, and how much of these responses are more of a local response?


JS: So I think it's a very complicated story. And it's important that we disentangle certain elements of it. First of all, there is a rise in anti-Semitism in our society. There has been a marked rise in anti-Semitism in the last decade. And the Trump movement was certainly part of that. Just to give you a very specific example of this, here in Austin, Texas, we've been dealing with---you would think we have enough people who could cause problems in other parts of Texas---we have Florida groups that are coming to Austin because they see Austin as a home for Jews and putting up signs and putting up stickers in a playground saying that Jews cause COVID.


And then in October of 2022, a white supremacist from about 50 miles away drove into Austin and tried to burn down the synagogue where my family worships and in fact since October 2022 we have not been able to use our sanctuary because of the damage that this white supremacist caused. So these are examples of a phenomenon that is a reality of rising anti-Semitism. But the problem is that the response to rising anti-Semitism has often meant the targeting of people who are not anti-Semitic, that is actually being used as a justification for other things. And the historian in me wants to make the point that this is exactly what the scholarship teaches us about McCarthyism: There were spies in the United States from the Soviet Union and elsewhere. But the people who were targeted were usually not spies. They were people who were targeted for other reasons, who Joseph McCarthy went after, Richard Nixon went after --- powerful people, people who had different ideological points of view, people who were from ethnic and religious groups, especially Jews who were targeted in that time.


And we're seeing a similar phenomenon now, where the reality of anti-Semitism is justifying people using excessive authoritarian force against those who are not anti-Semitic but can be alleged to be anti-Semitic. And the easiest target are students who are protesting for a free Palestine. It's very easy to make the claim that they're anti-Semitic. Now, some of them might be, but in my experience, most of them are not. And in fact, there's no more evidence of that among them than any other group and in fact I would venture that the groups cracking down have at least as much anti-Semitism as the groups that are being cracked down upon. And so what we are seeing is a use of this. I don't think it's conspiratorial. I think this is what happens when we enter a period of fear and frenzy, over-zealous responses, and political manipulation. And that's the world of our politics today. It is useful for Republicans in many places to allege anti-Semitism on college campuses because it justifies their discrediting and cracking down on those who have different political points of view. It's a tempting thing for them to do. And in Texas, the very same people who were defending free speech are now the people defending cracking down on speakers who allegedly say things that are allegedly anti-Semitic. And there's a real irony in this, and I'll close on this: In 2019, the governor in the legislature in Texas passed a law requiring us on campus at the University of Texas---a law I actually support---which says that we cannot kick people off campus even if they're non-UT affiliates for coming and protesting. This was because there were lots of pro-life groups and pro-gun groups that wanted to protest on campus and the governor wanted to make sure that we didn't kick them off campus.


Now the governor is saying that these protesters are allegedly illegal because they came from off campus, some of them---I'm not even sure that's true---and then he's even upset that I think one of them was carrying a gun under concealed carry laws that he enforced at the university that we're actually opposed to. So we can see how the ideological position runs against the politics of today and that should tell us how these arguments are being used to serve interests, not to serve the veracity of the argument itself.


DB: David Meyer, listening to this and the political response to the protests, I can't help but think, first of all, Republicans know that a great deal of Reagan's popularity in the Seventies came because of his, basically, campaigns against protesters and became the voice, you know, of all those who were upset about what was going on with the protests. And so although I always like to say I don't think history repeats itself, but to quote Mark Twain, that it often rhymes. Is there some rhyming going on here where the political responses are at least partially driven by the popularity--- especially I mean, we have this narrative right now that the protesters are anti-Semitic and they're violent and they're scaring Jewish students and that's why we have to move exams off of campus. And so standing up, you know, against that, and then by the way, they may also be funded by external actors---that all of that is, it's hard to not see this in the middle of an election year and how this is playing into electoral politics. So I guess the question is, I mean, is this history at least rhyming if not repeating itself?


DM: A lot of themes are recurrent. One of the first things that we need to acknowledge is while all of us would probably make some gesture toward academic freedom, as would all the college presidents and all the university chancellors, academic freedom is absolutely not broadly popular. Talking about free speech is something you do when you want to validate the people you like. And talking about public order is something you do---or justice is something you do---when you want to shut somebody else down.


And all across this political divide people talk about free speech, but they're not so eager to protect the speech of people they don't agree with. And that's certainly true in Congress. Now, I think that if Jewish students say they're scared about being on campus, that's something we should talk about and we should pay attention to what they're scared about. Because I think it's the college president's job to provide an environment that's physically safe and intellectually threatening, intellectually challenging. And that's a hard thing to pull off when at every turn you are criticized by people who are ready to take you down for a position that some faculty member has taken on guns or abortion or free speech or Israel-Palestine. And it is absolutely true if uncomfortable to acknowledge that people on the Left---some people on the Left---want to shut down academic tolerance of positions that they don't like. That's a real thing also. So I want to acknowledge that there's a difficulty that administrators are facing. I also want to take it back to the larger issue of protest and saying the closest analog that I know of to these protests was the campaign for divestment in South Africa that swept American college campuses in the 1980’s, and that was successful ultimately, in helping influence the transition in South Africa, But it took a very, very long time. It played out over decades, one. And, two, it included broad social sanctions that went far beyond the college and so athletes and artists boycotted South Africa as part of the campaign. If students want to make progress on the issue, they're also going to have to engage a broader set of politics that goes beyond the kind of fishbowl of the campus.


DB: Jack Leff, I want to give you an opportunity since you you've written a dissertation on the use of tear gas if you could tell us what your dissertation was about and some of your findings about the way in which tear gas is used against protesters.


JL: Sure. So tear gas is a really interesting beast. We've been using it against protesters pretty much since World War I ended. It is the only chemical weapon really in the arsenal of policing worldwide. And it is a particularly interesting weapon because of the history of how it got cleaved away from other chemical weapons and became seen by the broader public as acceptable for use against political protests. For this particular moment, it is always concerning whenever tear gas starts to get used widely like we're seeing at universities across the country, whether that's VCU, whether that's the University of Arizona at Tucson, whether that's UCLA, whether that's University of Southern Florida, whether that's Emery, or many more universities where tear gas and pepper spray are being used. It's always a concerning reality because what it represents is sort of twofold. The first is the increased police militarized response. Tear gas is an escalation of force; it is an infliction of mass indiscriminate violence, especially in major cities where tear gas tends to go beyond the boundaries of any encampment into the city streets.


It is a highly indiscriminate weapon that attacks something that's deeply personal and vital to each of us, our ability to breathe. So on the one hand, it represents that increased militarized response from the police, which is in and of itself is deeply concerning. However, it also represents a form of punishment against protesters. Tear gas is as much a psychological weapon as it is a physiological one. One of the really interesting quirks about repeated tear gas exposure that you learn from talking to activists is that while the physiological effects of tear gas tend to get worse each time you get exposed to it---kind of like an allergic reaction gets worse the more you're exposed to the allergen---the actual ability to tolerate tear gas is easier and easier with each exposure because it is such a psychological weapon. It's meant to undermine your sense of self and safety and your ability to breathe and hold a space. So as a response to these encampments that are sitting down, occupying space to make political demands, the use of tear gas is basically punishing them for being willing to use that sort of holding of space against the university. I'm reminded actually of some of the very first instances of the use of tear gas against political movements which actually happened behind bars and jails, in prisons. Incarcerated people have been rioting for better living conditions, you know, as early as, 1921, when tear gas was used against them, basically to take advantage of the fact that because they were barricading themselves---the only tactic available to incarcerated people---tear gas would then linger and continually evoke that horrible lack of breath and violent reactions. And I see that again with these encampments with tear gas being used to break them up and try to disperse them, but also to punish them for daring to hold this political space on college campuses. It's one of those things that's really concerning every time you see it because it also represents an increased response from the state and a willingness to escalate violence to get what is seen as like a restoration of the norm. And I think, importantly, this speaks to a larger political context that Jeremi was sort of bringing up: one of the tendencies from university presidents and other sort of leading political figures is an attempt to sort of homogenize these protest movements, which is something we've seen in a lot of other protest movements, right? It's the conflation of the students with outside anarchists that are raising all these potential threats, right?


It's homogenizing them as saying they're all the same or that all the encampments represent the same threat when the reality is that this is a decentralized movement. All the encampments are wildly different, have different mixes of political commitments, have different mixes of people who participate in them. And tear gas sort of comes in and does a lot of that work of homogenizing through violence, basically saying if you are in an encampment that is tear- gassed, you are seen as gas-able, which means you are seen as basically posing enough of a violent threat to become gas-able, whether that's true or not. And that's informed by the political context all across the country. And so I think it's just deeply concerning.


But I would say---just to get to tie it back to the theme of the episode, and then somebody can respond---that the use of tear gas against encampments today reminds me a lot of the People's Park protests actually in 1969 in Berkeley. And one of the things that I find interesting about the militarized response broadly to the encampments is that it is undoubtedly true that this is an increased militarized response proportionally to what we've seen in past protests in the last year or two but it is not as militarized response as what we saw the anti-war movements in the Sixties and Seventies. We see less direct violence, fewer casualties. But what we are seeing an increase of is the sophistication in the public relations machinery from university presidents, from political leaders trying to stamp these encampments out early, and trying to basically spin narratives regardless of the truth about who is participating in these encampments. And I think that more sophisticated PR machinery being tied to militarization is one of the important through-lines that we're seeing in this particular political moment.


DM: I just wanna push in one other thing that we should point out here, that the university administrators mean---or say they mean, and I believe them---to protect all the students who are involved and oddly clearing out the protesters with vigorous policing is one way to do that.


Remember, on several campuses there have been counter-protesters who have been attracted to the protest who have been much less disciplined even than the police. And it's quite a dilemma to figure out how to keep the encampments safe at the same time as you're trying to keep the campus stable. I mean, this is a real part of the political context we're living in.


DB: Jeremi, you had a response as well.


JS:  I've appreciated all the comments. I appreciated Jeff's in particular. I just wanted to bring in a slightly different perspective as a historian who's written about the Sixties, among other things. I think the Sixties’ responses, there was more militarization total, and they became more militarized, but there was also---especially in what we might call the early years of the protests, beginning with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964, moving through Madison and Ann Arbor in the late Sixties, the University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere, really before Kent State---most campuses had a very strong commitment among their university leaders to deliberate and negotiate with protesters and there was a great deal of hesitation to bring police forces onto campus. For example, when this is done at the University of Wisconsin for the first time in October of 1967, it's a very difficult decision. It's only after there is already violence occurring on campus. It's not to break up peaceful demonstrations. What is different today from the Sixties is---and this has come up in our conversation--- university administrators seem less willing to negotiate and talk to students. What I've written about in many places is, I think the logic of administration today to run a university---and these are generally good people running universities, I believe that---they're good people whose main job on a day-to-day basis is to manage donors, manage politicians, and manage athletics. And they spend very little time with students. Most of them have not been in the classroom in a long time. And so they're not comfortable in that space. We are commenting, many of us as faculty--all of us--- as faculty who are around students and see the world from their point of view. That doesn't mean we agree with everything. We see the naivete of our students. But we see the world from their point of view. And for me, it's horrible to watch the logic of administration turned so quickly to violence against the logic of student expression. And that's, I think, the space that we're in now.


DB: Mark Levine, I'm going to give you the last word.


ML: Okay. Well, just three things. First of all, just something David had said also reminded me of a sign that was put up by, I think, Jews for a Free Palestine at the University of Sydney which said, “Jews are safe. Zionists are uncomfortable. Spot the difference.”  And I think you could substitute any group for that. And that's the point, as David said, that the university is a place to really challenge you and make you very uncomfortable and threaten your beliefs but you should always be physical physically safe and when you have things like happened in my university with a chancellor who put out ZOT alerts that make people think there might be an active shooter situation going on, or saying hundreds of students have taken over a building and then eight hours later say, oh, sorry we only meant several students… when this becomes the trust breakdown between faculty and students on the one hand and senior administration, it becomes very difficult to sustain any kind of relationship or build any kind of movement for free speech and respect despite political agreements on campus.


So that needs to be rectified. Our students have been made homeless. Students are being suspended who were arrested, who had nothing to do with anything, who happened to be walking, were just looking at what’s going on and, the next thing you know, were arrested, jailed, suspended, and have nowhere to sleep. How can this be going on in the university and nobody is up in arms?


This is the pivot-point we’re at. And so it really demands a lot more serious consideration, soul-searching by faculty, by administration, by the community so we can stop this and come together to meet the challenges, not just of how to deal with how foreign policy gets implicated in university policies and investments---which are a very important discussion---but how we’re going to deal with all the massive challenges that are facing American society in the coming years.

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