The Crisis of the University and Student Movements

For me, the current wave of student protests on US university campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza remind me of the horrendous U.S. war on Vietnam in the 1960s and the 1970s and the protest movement rolling from one campus to another. This wave of unprecedented student protests helped to form a New Left, an ever stronger Civil Rights movements, a new wave of feminism, and many other progressive movement ranging from ecology to peace and disarmament.[i]

One hopes that the current wave of protests against Israel’s war on the Palestinians with U.S. military support will be equally productive and have inaugurated a new generation into protest movements and progressive political commitment among the current generation. The protesting students, on this analysis, are on the right side of history, as I wish to argue in a Preface that addresses the crisis of the University with attacks on education, student protestors, and University governance from the Right and the Left.

‘Liberated Zone’ encampment at University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. (Joe Mabel)

By coincidence, I was a graduate student in Philosophy at Columbia University in 1968 when the protests against the Vietnam war were taking place and Columbia University was occupied by students. At the time, I was a third year graduate student and was awarded a class to teach the first year Great Books course to in-coming Columbia freshmen-—my first teaching experience.

When the 1968 Occupation happened at Columbia, I joined a Faculty group that ringed the buildings which students had occupied to protect them against right-wing students and outsiders who wanted to invade the occupied camps and beat up and pull out the students. When this group (parallel to the recent May 2024 UCLA counter-protestors who I describe below) saw the Faculty protecting the Columbia students, they did not invade the building, but formed a ring around the Faculty group, leading to cooling off of tensions.

This peaceful situation was disrupted, however, when the University called in the NYPD who beat up Professors and students alike, as they arrested students who had occupied the Columbia buildings. I was not at the protest site when the police arrived as our faculty group had 12 hour shifts and I was just returning to campus for my shift when the police arrived. As I entered the 113thstreet Columbia entrance, I saw one of my Philosophy Professors, Sidney Morgenbesser, who had been part of the barricade of Faculty protecting the students, coming out, his head profusely bleeding, holding a white scarf to his head to stem the blood. I took Sidney for medical treatment and he told me how the police had brutally attacked the Columbia encampments and how the Faculty standing around the occupied buildings were the first to be attacked by the brutal police (and Sidney walking out to try to reason with the police was one of the first to be brutally beaten).

There was a strike for the rest of the year at Columbia and the students in the Graduate School of Philosophy at Columbia all got straight A’s for our courses, as many of our Professors supported the student protest groups and some constituted the Progressive Faculty Group that defended the students. After the police raid, I and fellow graduate students created study groups on campus that were as valuable as classes. Moreover, I was able to forge close relations with other Professors during the Occupation who had supported the student as the Faculty group I joined had numerous meetings of how to resolve the crisis and support the students that led a large number of us to form the supposedly protective barrier around the Columbia occupation.

We did keep the counter-protestors from attacking the occupying and protesting students safe from student attack and thus prevented the horrible student violence that the world watched the on May 1-2, 2024 at UCLA,[ii] but we could not protect the students from the police and my message from all of this is: ADMINISTRATORS: DO NOT CALL IN THE POLICE! NEGOTIATE! DIALOGUE! Remember Paulo Freire educators…

The Vietnam war ended in a fiasco for the United States as the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the Communist troops from the North took over and over 50,000 US lives and over a million of Vietnamese lives were lost. Vietnam Vets returned traumatized from the war experience and many have never recovered. The opponents of the war and anti-war movement that I was part of was certainly historically correct that the war against Vietnam was a bad war that was not in US interests, and so the anti-war demonstrators were on the right side of history, part of the Arc of Progress that Dr. Martin Luther King extolled.

I went from Columbia to the University of Texas at Austin after receiving my Ph.D. in 1973 and taught philosophy there until the mid-1990s when I came to UCLA. During my Texas years, an anti-Apartheid movement emerged against the racial discrimination and oppression in South Africa and UT-Austin had a student group that called for the University to divest all investments in South Africa and I spoke at anti-Apartheid rallies supporting the divestment movement. As I remember, there were few, if any, that supported South Africa and its Apartheid State, and the University of Texas soon divested. Hence, I conclude from this episode, the anti-Apartheid students were on the right side of history and the many Universities that supported the anti-Apartheid movements were likewise part of a movement that created a global movement against South African Apartheid that led to the end of the Apartheid regime and a democratic South Africa state that was universally supported.

As the anti-Vietnam war movement and the anti-Apartheid movement were on the right side of history, so too is the pro-Palestine student movement calling for an end to the war against Palestine and University divestments from Israel. Already some Universities have negotiated divestment from Israel through dialogues with student, faculty, and administration reaching consensus that divestment from Israel is morally justified, strengthening these Universities and putting them on the right side of the Arc of History.

This was not the case with UCLA, where I have taught for the past twenty-five years after leaving the University of Texas at Austin. For weeks, UCLA students established a pro-Palestine encampment in the UCLA quad between Royce Hall and Powell Library. While the encampment students were peaceful, groups of pro-Israel students were organizing and harassing them and on Tuesday April 30tha group of pro-Israeli counter-demonstrators attacked the encampment around 11:00 pm at night, wielding batons, tear-gas, fire-crackers and other weapons. They assaulted the encampment, trying to tear away barriers and physically confronting the students. In the words of UCLA Professor David N. Myers, who witnessed the attack, wrote:

UCLA, the top-rated public university in the United States, experienced one of the darkest nights in its 105-year history on Tuesday, May 1. Over the course of my 33-year career at UCLA, I have never seen anything so terrifying take place.

Around 11 p.m., a group of masked counter-demonstrators made their way to the Royce Quad in the heart of campus and began to attack the encampment set up last week by demonstrators opposing the war in Gaza. They threw a firecracker into the encampment, tore down its outer walls, threw heavy objects at demonstrators and instigated direct physical confrontations. Those in the encampment were left to fend for themselves against a violent band of thugs intent on inflicting damage.

The incident marked a total systems failure by the university, the city of Los Angeles, and the state of California.[iii]

I watched this event with horror live on cable TV as the invading thugs tried to wreck the peaceful protest camp, brutally hitting the protestors with clubs, attempting to destroy the camp, throwing firecrackers into their midst, spraying tear-gas on the student protestors, and otherwise terrorizing the students. This spectacle of horror was broadcast for hours on live TV, showing a mob of rampaging counter-protestors with no police in sight for hours.

In the newspaper and TV accounts of the attack on the protest camp the next day, evidently there were UCLA guards sent to protect students, but like the cowardly Texas police at Uvalde, Texas tasked to protect students against a rampaging school shooter, who walked around for hours doing nothing to intervene as ordered, the UCLA guards also failed to intervene and protect students from the mob. Later, when interviewed, the guards said that they were ordered by the University to protect property and not to confront the students, so it appears this was an administrative failure.

The next day watching cable TV coverage of the UCLA counter-protestors attack on the peaceful encampment, I saw an interview with UCLA Professor David Meyer who had written of his experience watching the counter-protester attacks the camp which he published in The Forward that I cited above. He noted, as he did in the article, that he heard some of the counter-protesters speaking Hebrew, which makes me think that some of the thugs were IDF-trained and applying their tactics as if the people in the peace encampment were enemies of the state to be destroyed (the speculation is not far fetched as every young Israeli male and female undergoes a year or more of compulsive military training — although there are exemptions for some religious groups and others). There is, in fact, currently hot debate in Israel for the religious exemptions as it is seen as grossly unfair, as young Israeli men and women have been brutalized by the war against Palestine since October 7, which has produced not only 35,000 Palestinian deaths, the destruction of most of Gaza, and the alienation of Israel from every country in the region and most of the world, but has produced the traumatization and death of many Israeli soldiers, as well as citizens who oppose the brutal war against Palestine.

All of my Israeli friends and my Jewish colleagues in the UCLA community passionately oppose Netanyahu’s war and support the Palestinians and the global call by the UN and every Humanitarian group for the end of the war and release of all hostages, so the generation long task of rebuilding Gaza and bringing Israel back into the world of peace and humanity can begin.

The protesting UCLA students, on this analysis, are on the right side of history, as were the students protesting the Vietnam war and the apartheid in South Africa where students successfully protested the regime and gotten many Universities and corporations to divest from South Africa, which contributed to the Apartheid regime in South Africa. So, once again, it is likely that the students protesting against Israel’s horrific war on Gaza will be vindicated by being on the side of justice in the Arc of History.

It is all the more horrific, that after suffering brutality and trauma at the hands of violent protestors—-while UCLA police stood by and witnessed the assault without doing anything and the LAPD did not arrive to quell the counter-protester attack for hours—the next day, — and the students were trying to get over the trauma on the assault of the camp, the UCLA Administration called in the police to tear down the camp that night leading into May 1. While the LAPD failed for hours to arrive to protect the encampment, this time it was the LAPD that were the assault force, tearing down the camp and arresting over 200 students. Jem Bartholomew reports:

Hundreds of law enforcement officers breached a Gaza solidarity encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles campus on Thursday morning, removing barricades and threatening students with arrest.

LAPD officers in tactical gear filed on to the UCLA campus around sunset on Wednesday and began to force their way into the encampment at about 3.1am PDT. They were met with about 300 to 500 protesters in the encampment – and another 2,00 people gathered outside the barricades in support – who shouted “shame on you”.

It is the latest crackdown on pro-Palestinian protesters demanding universities divest from companies linked to Israel’s war effort in Gaza, and comes amid ongoing fallout from events on Tuesday, when counter-demonstrators attacked the UCLA encampment.[iv]

This was especially horrendous since the UCLA protesters had been terrorized by the pro-Israeli group just hours before, subjecting them to more extreme trauma as they were arrested, watched their encampment torn down, and were hauled away to the Los Angeles police station to be booked. Yet some news footage the next day showed a UCLA support group meeting the arrested protesters with cheers and offers to take them home, provide counseling, and solidarity, demonstrating the goodness of the pro-Palestine encampment compared to the thug counter-protesters who had just assaulted them hours before and the UCLA Administration who ordered their camp torn down and hundreds arrested.

It’s never too late to change directions and I hope that the UCLA community, including students, faculty, and administrators, will help the UCLA administration recognize its grave mistake in bringing in the police and enabling mob attack groups to besmirch the reputation of UCLA globally. This issue will not soon disappear and it is of grave importance that every student, faculty member, and administrator engage themselves in the issues and debates raised by the pro-Palestinian students and that UCLA can become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, as we used to say in the 1960s, a bon mot still relevant today.

Notes

[i] Edward Helmore, Echoes of Vietnam era as pro-Palestinian student protests roil US campuses. Calls for divestment continue despite hundreds of arrests, with more demonstrations planned for Democratic national convention, The Guardian, April 28, 2024 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/apr/28/us-student-protests-gaza-israel (accessed April 28, 2024).

[ii] Interestingly, Faculty Groups at Columbia, UCLA, and other campuses also joined students to attempt to provide protection from assault. See By Anemona Hartocollis, “Taking Cues From Students, U.C.L.A. Faculty Members Join the Protests Taking Cues From Students, U.C.L.A. Faculty Members Join the Protests. At U.C.L.A., a few professors helped negotiate with the university. At Columbia, they guarded the encampment. But not all faculty members are on board. The New York Times, May 3, 2024 at https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/02/us/columbia-protests-professors-support.html (accessed May 2, 2024).

[iii] David N. Myers, “I’m a UCLA professor. Why didn’t the administration stop last night’s egregious violence? The university should have anticipated Tuesday night’s chaos — but security personnel were nowhere to be found,” The Forward, May 1, 2024 at https://forward.com/opinion/608479/ucla-violence-campus-protests/(accessed May 3, 2024).

[iv] Jem Bartholomew, “Police move in on pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA. LAPD action at University of California, Los Angeles marks latest flashpoint in mounting tensions on US college campuses.” The Guardian, May 3, 2024 at  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/article/2024/may/02/first-thing-police-move-in-on-pro-palestinian-encampment-at-ucla (accessed on May 3, 2024).

 

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