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How the student Gaza protests went global

Pro-Palestine protests are proliferating across Western universities – but only the US has responded with military-grade police violence.

By Jill Filipovic

The pro-Palestinian protests inflaming university campuses in the US have crossed the Atlantic. Students at Cambridge and Oxford have set up “liberation zone” camps of their own, and more are appearing at universities across the UK. So far, the protests have been largely peaceful and, compared with their American counterparts, small.

One of the primary demands of the American protesters – that their university not invest in companies that manufacture weapons – has already been met by many British institutions, but protesters in the UK are still urging greater transparency. The Oxford activists are also calling for disinvestment from any company “complicit in Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation of Palestine”, the severing of all academic ties with Israeli universities, and that the university pays to help rebuild higher education in Palestine.

Students in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and elsewhere are establishing encampments and occupying university buildings. Police have been called to some, but none have tipped into the utter chaos and violence seen in the US.

The US is a particular kind of place – more violent and gun-riddled than its peers, its police often armed more like soldiers than law enforcement officers. Its claim to be the land of the free, and a nation that embraces dissent and free speech, makes the suppression of protests even more egregious.

University administrators across the West are put in a difficult position by some of these protests. At Sciences Po in Paris, for example, protesters occupied the main building, and, after dialogue with the administration fell apart, refused to disperse – despite, according to the administration, interfering with the university’s ability to conduct exams. Students should be given significant latitude to air their grievances, but they should not have the right to impede the education of their peers. When the police did come to break up the protests, however, it wasn’t a chaotic raid with military-grade weaponry.

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Protesting students should also not be permitted to block their peers’ ability to use common spaces, or to create ideological litmus tests for entry into shared spaces, as has happened in the US. At Columbia, some protesters have taken over common spaces and declared them “Zionist-free”. At Yale, organisers required anyone walking through an encampment on a university lawn to swear allegiance to political tenets including “Palestinian liberation”. Students using such tactics should face disciplinary measures, as should those who violate non-discrimination rules.

But calling the police, as colleges such as Columbia, Emory and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have done, is an absurd and dangerous escalation. Police in the US kill much more often than the police in France, a country that has its own police-brutality problem. In 2022 US police officers shot and killed more than 1,100 people; that same year, police officers in England and Wales shot and killed three.

The degree to which American police look more like military personnel than law enforcement agents would shock many Europeans – even those accustomed to seeing armed police on their streets. Over the past three decades, more than $7bn of military equipment has been sent from the US military to law enforcement. Police in the US don’t just have guns, badges and shields; they have mine-resistant vehicles, tanks, military aircraft and explosives. US law enforcement agencies own an estimated one million firearms.

US police also enjoy an unparalleled level of legal immunity. “Qualified immunity” means that even officers who kill or injure the citizens they are paid to serve and protect enjoy wide-ranging legal protections, and generally avoid trial. This creates a more permissive culture, and some officers behave with impunity.

The radical over-arming of domestic law enforcement is in part because of the US’s self-imposed gun problem. Since American citizens can arm themselves easily, being a police officer there is a more dangerous job than in Britain: 47 US police officers died by gunfire in the line of duty in 2023; in the UK, a single officer being killed is a striking rarity. This creates a vicious cycle, as a well-armed population inevitably creates demand for better-armed law enforcement. When police are trained to believe that every person they encounter may be carrying a deadly weapon (as, in the US, they could be), they can be more likely to react with excessive force. This training holds even when those police officers are walking into a tent encampment set up by left-wing college kids taking care to avoid banana and nut allergies, who are exceedingly unlikely to be armed and dangerous. The protesters’ own requests to their administrations made clear they were far more interested in acquiring gluten-free snacks than weaponry, and I would guess that protesters who owned bongo drums well outnumbered those who had so much as ever handled a gun.

The combination of militarised law enforcement and little legal accountability makes calling the police on student protesters a very serious matter in the US. Universities have a legal obligation to provide their students with an education and to ensure that it is not impeded by various forms of discrimination. But colleges also have a basic obligation to keep their students physically safe.

There is scant evidence that pro-Palestinian protesters have put anyone’s physical well-being at risk. The biggest melee seems to have been instigated, in contrast, by a mostly male, right-wing mob at UCLA, while police officers failed to intervene. Across the country, complaints by protesters of being treated unnecessarily violently by police have proliferated. Law enforcement agents have behaved “professionally” by most accounts – but professional policing in the US apparently involves tear-gassing students and firing at them with rubber bullets, tackling academics to the ground, and generally creating scenes that look more like war zones than bucolic campus greens.

This, in a country that identifies as the most freedom-loving place on the planet, and at institutions that have not only venerated protest and free speech, but encouraged activism and an “I can change the world” attitude among students, faculty and those who want to someday be invited in.

Universities cannot become protest free-for-alls. Some campus protest groups seem less interested in negotiation than in ransom: when they don’t get their way, they escalate, making university life increasingly untenable. But calling in the police on protests is not bringing a gun to a knife fight – it’s bringing military-grade weapons to a campsite.

Law enforcement intervention hasn’t quelled the protests. I wonder if, had Columbia not called the police to dismantle its encampment, the protests would have spread so far and so quickly. British, French, Australian and other student protesters are now raising their voices, pitching their tents and occupying their university buildings in solidarity with both the Palestinians being brutalised in Gaza and the students being arrested in America. Leaders of these non-US institutions have an opportunity to demonstrate that there is a less violent, more open path. Let’s hope they do – and that American college leaders are watching.

[See also: Universities are in crisis]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll