Political Establishment to College Kids: Protest is Fine, Unless It Challenges the Establishment

In the decades-long battle between Palestinians and Israelis, America's political elites long ago picked a side. That choice isn't sitting well with young people, and police using violence against the protesters only discredits the Establishment further in their eyes.

Political Establishment to College Kids: Protest is Fine, Unless It Challenges the Establishment
Columbia University Gaza Solidarity Encampment, April 2024 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the decades-long battle between Palestinians and Israelis, America's political elites long ago picked a side. That choice isn't sitting well with young people, and police using violence against the protesters only discredits the Establishment further in their eyes.

The savagery of Hamas's actions on October 7, 2023, have been well documented and need no retelling by me. If the leadership of the terrorist organization that tries to pass itself off as a government thought the attack would win them sympathy, they quickly discovered they'd miscalculated badly.

Congress on a bipartisan basis rhetorically rallied to Israel's defense, as did the Biden administration. And after months of inside-the-Beltway political warfare between the Administration and the MAGA-controlled House of Representatives, a foreign aid bill with billions in aid for Israel became law earlier this spring.

But over the last six months, as the scale of Israel's counterattack, air attacks, and ground operations have expanded, the number of civilian casualties in has Gaza skyrocketed....and with the rising body count so too did young Americans rise to protest the killing--first online, then in person on college campuses across the country.  

In December 2023, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn were hauled before the House Education and Workforce Committee and treated to a "Red Scare" style hearing, something Columbia's Minouche Shafik experienced just last month. Apparently, House GOP types believe that instead of teaching their students the history and value of protest movements, they felt that it was the job of university presidents to call in the police or even the National Guard to violently put down such student activism.

The pro-Palestinian rhetoric by some student protesters has clearly turned anti-Semitic. Former Columbia University student Khymani James was banned from the university for posting a video claiming that, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He later tried to qualify his remarks by drawing a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but for many American Jews and their supporters the terms are, at this point, interchangeable.

And while the protests seem to be waning with the end of the semester combined with a heavily securitized response to what is--at least at state-funded universities--First Amendment protected activity, pro-Palestinian activists at the University of Chicago ended the spring semester with an attempted occupation of the offices of the Institute of Politics.

Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), the IOP's director, was the only staffer in the office at the time several students marched in and tried to get her to leave. She refused, and as campus police entered the building the would-be occupiers fled. Later that day, Heitkamp and IOP founder and former Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod issued a statement that can only be described as ironic.

“We recognize protest as a time-honored part of the democratic process. But the occupation of buildings, destruction of property and impingement on the rights of others are not," the two Establishment fixtures said.

Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty did all of those things and far worse in the years prior to the American Revolution, yet I'm sure Heitkamp and Axelrod would laud Adams and other Founders in a heartbeat.

Heitkamp told the New York Times that with respect to IOP, "We’re neutral. Our role at the university is to really create a space for cross dialogue.”

The students understand that the American political establishment has been anything but neutral vis a vis the Israelis and the Palestinians since at least the Bush 43 administration, which is why Heitkamp's claims ring both hollow and hypocritical to them.

Many pro-Palestinian students and their supporters view Biden's failure to get the Israeli government to declare victory and halt further large-scale military operations as making him politically irredeemable, frequently referring to the President as "Genocide Joe."

It's an infantile, ludicrous term and demonstrably false claim that lets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces off the hook for committing what are, under international law, de facto war crimes at scale.

But those war crimes have in many cases been made inevitable by Hamas's cynical, lethal use of Gaza's population as human shields, a fact I've rarely seen student protesters quoted as acknowledging. But however cynical, Hamas's strategy of forcing Israel to come into Gaza and go block-by-block looking for Hamas fighters has had an effect.

The graphic images of suffering Gazans, with tens of thousands dead and the World Food Program assessing northern Gaza as being in a state of famine, has split Democrats politically. Some polls have suggested the plight of the Palestinians is very much on the minds of young, left-leaning voters, but other data suggest the conflict is not necessarily a top-tier issue with that demographic in terms of their lack of enthusiasm for Biden.

Yet given how closely divided Americans are politically and electorally, finding a way to convince young voters that he does care about beleaguered Gazans is important with at least a sub-group of the 18–24-year-old demographic. And Biden's statement on the protests earlier this month almost certainly did not help him with that group.

"We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent," Biden said.  "The American people are heard.  In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues."

The use of police on college campuses from New York to Texas to California in response to the protests have sent exactly the opposite message, something Biden didn't even address in his May 2 remarks.

Biden was in law school at Syracuse at the height of the Vietnam War protest movement, and when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972 came out against the war and Nixon's prosecution of it. He lived through the era that gave us the Kent State massacre and related violent overreaching by police responding to the protests. But like other Establishment types such as Heitkamp and Axelrod, Biden has all too often adopted Nixon's language and policy of "law and order" for dealing with protestors, even when they've been largely peaceful compared to the Vietnam era demonstrations that Biden witnessed over half-a-century ago.

It's an approach that could prove politically costly come November, a fact Biden seems to have realized, albeit belatedly.

The featured commencement speaker at the historically all Black male Morehouse College this past Sunday, May 19, Biden's reception was decidedly mixed, as POLITICO noted:

The day featured its moments of political expression. DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, the class valedictorian, used part of his speech to call for a permanent ceasefire, earning a standing applause from parts of the crowd. Biden himself clapped. A select number of students turned their back on the president. Some walked out when Biden was presented with an honorary degree. Many kept their heads down as he spoke and declined to stand or applaud.
But there were no fireworks or even memorable disruptions, allaying fears from Democrats that the ceremony would have produced a politically embarrassing scene.

"I support peaceful nonviolent protests," Biden told the students and faculty. "Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I will hear them.”

The President could best make good on that promise by directing the Attorney General to investigate whether state and local police violated the constitutional rights of peaceful student protesters beaten or arrested since the Gaza-related protests began last year.

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