The effects of an alarmingly disproportionate police response to peaceful campus protests

The effects of an alarmingly disproportionate police response to peaceful campus protests

Andrew Lee Butters writes:

I teach a course at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin School of Journalism on covering the Middle East, and this semester I gave my students the option of writing a final project about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is showing up here locally. Until now the answer was: not much. I invited pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli student activists to come talk to my classes and they recounted incidents of harassment on or nearby campus — “Free Palestine” graffiti at Texas Hillel (a center for Jewish students), for example, or the stabbing of a Muslim man after he returned from a peace protest nearby. Jewish students said they felt supported by the university through these incidents while Muslim or pro-Palestinian students did not. But overall, the mood has been civil compared to other college campuses around the country.

In fact, though I appreciate the live-and-let-live atmosphere of Austin, a liberal city in a conservative state, I was beginning to worry that my students wouldn’t have much material for their stories. In February, fellow faculty with Middle East expertise were on edge that a university-wide event we held to discuss the war in Gaza might devolve into some kind of security incident, but it ended up being just another academic panel. (No one even booed.) Last week, I went to a poorly attended event run by Palestinian activists to discuss the walkout planned for the next day in solidarity with Columbia students and Gaza. There were around 40 people in an auditorium that could have held hundreds.

But the university’s disproportionate police response to the demonstration last Wednesday changed everything. UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called on the university, city and state police to shut down the protests before they had even started. In a scene I would have found familiar in Cairo, Tehran or the West Bank, they sent dozens of state troopers in riot gear marching down the pedestrian thoroughfare lined with mossy oak trees that is the heart of student life on campus. Now my students, or those who aren’t in jail or missing class to bail out their friends, could write just as much about the collapse of civil and constitutional norms in the U.S. as they could about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That’s because university and state leaders have mischaracterized the intentions and nature of the protesters in order to justify a crackdown, and rather than making students safer, have unleashed a torrent of hate toward them. In a letter to the university community, the president cited the pro-Palestinian students’ intention to shut down the campus as part of a supposed national campaign targeting “top universities.” (Should we be proud?) The governor characterized the protests as antisemitic and said the activists should be expelled. Haters and bots online ran with the theme, as my wife, a Middle East Studies professor here, saw when photos of the protest she tweeted went viral and elicited thousands of angry responses reveling in the authoritarian imagery of mounted police moving in on students, smearing the protesters as either spoiled rich kids or paid Iranian agents, and promising to deliver Second Amendment remedies to the supposedly terror-supporting students who live on a campus where openly carrying firearms is legal.

But what I saw at the university last Wednesday was a diverse coalition of largely marginalized students of color at a public university — something like half of my students work full-time jobs — speaking truth to power at the risk of their safety, their educational status and career prospects. In doing so, many were embodying the values that we as adults have been too timid in upholding. [Continue reading…]

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