What gets lost in the campus protests

The "media's focus on the mechanisms of the protest movement and its repression has taken the focus off of" Gaza

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 10, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

New York Police Department officers detain dozens of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University after they barricaded themselves at the Hamilton Hall building near Gaza Solidarity Encampment earlier in New York, United States on April 30, 2024. (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images)
New York Police Department officers detain dozens of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University after they barricaded themselves at the Hamilton Hall building near Gaza Solidarity Encampment earlier in New York, United States on April 30, 2024. (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza have taken place at colleges and universities in at least 45 states, as well as in Mexico and Canada. There are also protests and acts of solidarity in dozens of countries in Europe, Central and South America, Australia and Asia. Given that Israel appears not willing to stop its war in Gaza — this week escalating their operation, launched in retaliation for the horrific terrorist attacks committed by Hamas on Oct. 7, into Rafah — the student protests will likely continue and evolve.

The student protests currently involve a range of actions such as teach-ins and rallies, encampments, and in a few examples occupying buildings and other spaces. The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Nonetheless, it is estimated that at least 2,400 people have been arrested. Some of these arrests have involved what clearly appears to be a disproportionate use of force by police. Because of so-called security concerns, commencement ceremonies have been canceled or significantly altered at a small number of institutions such as Columbia, Emory, and the University of Southern California (USC).

"There is a continuum to activism, and the protests against Israel's war on the people of Gaza and the surrounding region are part of that."

For a variety of reasons, most notably, the global democracy crisis and the rise of illiberalism and the Age of Trump, the student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza have become a focal point for larger debates and tensions about free speech, antisemitism, identity politics, American foreign policy, the relationship of colleges and universities to the public sphere and society, and other issues of public concern here in the United States.

In an attempt to better understand the student protest movement, how the mainstream news media is misunderstanding and distorting these events, and balancing the right to free speech with reasonable concerns about antisemitism, I recently spoke with Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College where he is also the Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project. His books include “The End of Policing” and “City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing.”

This is the first of a two-part conversation.

How are you making sense of the protests across the United States at colleges and universities in response to Israel's war in Gaza following the terrorist attacks on October 7?

It's very dramatic to see how quickly an international student movement has materialized here. And just as dramatic has been the level and intensity of repression by university administrators and police. It is also dramatic to see how quickly these protests have become part of a larger culture war narrative that in many ways is divorced from any real analysis of the situation in the Middle East. The polling data shows that young people in the United States harbor much more skepticism about America's relationship with Israel and have a greater level of concern about the human rights abuses occurring in Gaza. This explains why we have seen so many of these protests and encampments at so many universities here in the United States and also in other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and in the Netherlands. None of this should be surprising given what we know about young people and politics and the Middle East.

As someone who interacts with college students on a near daily basis in your role as a professor, how are the protests you are seeing firsthand complicating the common stereotypes and narratives about America's young people and politics?

It's very clear to me that over the last 25 or so years that I've been teaching, college students are much more politically tuned in and engaged now. This includes events in the Middle East, but also climate change, reproductive rights, racial justice and the expansion of the civil and human rights of LGBTQ people. For me, this has been something very powerful to witness develop. The protests right now at colleges and universities also make sense in relation to the movements we've seen emerge in the last decade or so such as the Occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, and other progressive attempts at social change through organizing on a large scale.

In terms of youth movements, we did not see this level of activity in the early 2000s.

The mainstream American news media with its superficial coverage and emphasis on the sensational, has really missed the larger and more important story of institution building, resource mobilization and these questions of social movement activity and how people actually become socialized into politics when they are young.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing by an older generation of establishment talking heads and pundit types that these young people don't know what they're talking about and that they are poorly informed. As I see it, these pundits and media personalities have not actually talked to any young people who are involved in these protests. Sure, they have seen the signs and graffiti and watched the news coverage of the protests and encampments. Maybe they have actually walked past an encampment one day and listened to some of the chanting. But these pundit types have not actually engaged in a serious and critical way with the protesters or taken part in the actual conversations that are happening in the tents in the middle of the night. If these pundits were actually involved and paying close attention, they would know about the intensity of the intellectual debates and discussions that are taking place among the young people who are participating in this protest movement about Israel's treatment of the people in Gaza.

"When people are denied access to deliberative channels of decision-making, they will then turn to street protests."

One of the most interesting things about the protests that took place as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police murder of George Floyd was how racially diverse they were, how many young people were involved, and how those protesters and organizers had built on the experience of previous movements. There is a continuum to activism, and the protests against Israel's war on the people of Gaza and the surrounding region are part of that.

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For example, if we look at Columbia University, initially there were attempts to have forums and to bring in speakers. The Columbia administration banned the organizations trying to do that work. They ruled that these organizations were out of bounds because of the content of their speech and banned them from campus. They couldn't get rooms; they couldn't hold events; they couldn't raise money. The administration then acts surprised when those organizations decided that direct action was necessary, which involved taking over buildings and occupying the quads. When people are denied access to deliberative channels of decision-making, they will then turn to street protests.

What is actually happening at the protests and encampments versus how the mainstream news media is depicting these events? What narrative frame is the mainstream news media imposing on the student protests?

One of the main problems is that the news media tends to look to officials and designated institutional authority figures as the only relevant sources of information. In this case that means college administrators, police officials, and mayors to tell them what is happening. The media in turn, for the most part, ignores the voices of the young people who are actually engaging in the protest activity. As a result, so much of the narrative has focused on so-called violent confrontations — which in reality are the police attacking these encampments and protesters. The news media is also focusing on a relatively small group of students who are expressing feelings of discomfort and a lack of safety because of the protests and encampments. To me, what is most disturbing is how the news media's focus on the mechanisms of the protest movement and its repression has taken the focus off of what is actually occurring in Gaza.

How do we locate these protests relative to illiberalism and the larger debates about free speech and antisemitism?

I think it's really interesting to see the way in which the extreme right of the United States, which has been historically associated with deeply antisemitic ideas, is somehow rallying to the side of Israel. These groups don't actually care at all about the well-being of Jewish people. What these right-wing groups are really concerned about is advancing a culture war that's rooted in Islamophobia, the expansion of U.S. power in the Middle East, and a kind of broad disdain for student protests about any issue. The right-wing groups are especially aroused by and hostile to any student movement that includes language about anticolonialism, liberation and racial justice. The level of disingenuousness on the part of politicians like House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., rushing up to Columbia to condemn antisemitism, while enabling exactly the kinds of social forces that blame all the country's troubles on George Soros and "Jewish media elites" is just the height of opportunistic hypocrisy.

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We also need to listen more carefully to voices of dissent within the Jewish community, and to talk with them about what is really in the interests of Jewish people around the world. You will find a growing number of Jewish people who feel that the behavior of the Netanyahu government in Israel may turn out to unleash deep resentments toward Jewish people more broadly. That includes against those Jewish people who have spoken out for peace and oppose what the Israeli government is doing in Gaza. Ultimately, we need to make more central those voices who are deeply rooted in care and concern for the Jewish community internationally and have spoken out about Netanyahu’s policies.

The Age of Trump has seen a great increase in antisemitism and white supremacy. This also includes hate crimes and violence, some of which has been lethal. In that context, how should Jewish students, faculty, and other members of the college and university community be protected from antisemitism while also allowing free speech and protest activity — some of which may be experienced as being very threatening and uncomfortable considering October 7 and the history of existential threat and danger Jewish people have survived and triumphed over?

Any acts of violence should be treated as a very serious matter, and we should try to get to the root of who is committing that violence. Are they actually part of the university community? Are they students? I am of the belief that in some cases this violence was not something done by actual students. Disciplinary actions should most certainly be taken against students involved in that kind of behavior. We have to be careful, though, not to confuse feelings of discomfort from being on the opposite side of strongly held views with being physically threatened. Yes, we should understand that the sensitivity of some Jewish students may be heightened because of the history of attacks against Jewish peoples throughout history. We must be mindful of that, but we must insist that there be a distinction made between the expressing of what may be perceived as distasteful, unpleasant, and even, in some cases, threatening ideas, and the actual mobilization of violence and intense harassment or preventing people from having access to classes and other such behavior. Obviously, action must be taken to prevent that from happening.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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