"It exposes a contradiction": Can colleges rocked by campus protests recapture a spirit of activism?

Author Alex Vitale on the "deeper truth" about universities as "an important part of America's imperial program"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Police arrest protesters during pro-Palestinian demonstrations at The City College Of New York (CUNY) as the NYPD cracks down on protest camps at both Columbia University and CCNY on April 30, 2024 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Police arrest protesters during pro-Palestinian demonstrations at The City College Of New York (CUNY) as the NYPD cracks down on protest camps at both Columbia University and CCNY on April 30, 2024 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The last few weeks have seen protests against Israel’s war in Gaza occur at many dozens of college and university campuses across the United States. Student protests and other acts of solidarity are also taking place internationally. It is far too premature to describe these protests as a mass movement. However, public opinion polls clearly show that there are great levels of discontent among America’s young people about not just Israel’s war in Gaza but about a range of other public policy concerns such as America’s role in the world, the global climate emergency, the neoliberal regime and the type of financial precarity it has caused for huge swaths of the public.

University and college administrators have responded to the student protests by authorizing the police to use a range of means including rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas, and in at least one instance deploying an armored vehicle as part of an operation to clear a building at Columbia University in New York. Given that the student protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, the use of such force by the police can reasonably be described as excessive and extremely dangerous. At least 2,400 people, including at least 50 professors, have been arrested in protests on at least 50 campuses. Several people have been injured by the police.

"The university administrators are facing a real legitimacy crisis."

I recently spoke with Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing," to contextualize the student protests and the police response. In this interview, Vitale points out the connections between the student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza, America’s culture of militarized policing and abuse, and the corporatization of the country’s universities and colleges. Vitale also shares his insights about how the Biden administration’s response to the student protests may impact the 2024 election.

This is the second of a two-part conversation.

What is the relationship between the police and these universities and colleges in New York?

When right-wing populism became ascendant here in the United States as a reaction to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter right-wing intellectuals decried any kind of effort to shut down extremist right-wing speech in universities and public spaces, etc. So, all of a sudden, the most conservative right-wing forces in America are the champions of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But of course, now, those exact same people are on the frontlines of turning speech acts into crime to be obliterated by police action and grassroots vigilantism whenever possible. The levels of hypocrisy are crystal clear to anyone paying any attention to what is really happening.

The universities are private property, for the most part. This means that the universities have control over whether the police get involved. The police are not making their own decisions to crush these encampments. The only reason the police are there is because university administrators have called them out. Some police have even expressed some reluctance and skepticism about whether it's appropriate to use police violence to manage these situations. The university administrators are facing a real legitimacy crisis. They're preventing dissent. They're shutting down graduations and closing campuses in an attempt to prevent speech about a pressing public issue. The administrators are also hiding behind a few acts of harassment and poor behavior by students that could be addressed on the merits of those individual cases, rather than engaging in a kind of collective punishment of an entire movement. When you call in the police what you get is riot squads, mounted units, snipers on rooftops, and this kind of gross, militarized warrior-style response to some students having a sit-in.

There is that image of the New York police using an armored vehicle and what looks like a tactical team against students at Columbia who had occupied one of the buildings. How is the use of such extreme force and militarized policing justified against college students?

There are two things happening here. One, there is a deeply rooted Islamophobia where these movements have been painted as Islamic extremists. Two, there is a deep disdain for anything that's perceived as politically disorderly, especially if it involves the left. There is also an extreme and grotesque exaggeration of danger and threat, where somehow it is imagined that there are terrorists in these encampments. That creates a logic where "shock and awe" police tactics must be used to control the situation. This is just an incredible overreaction, one that further serves to paint the student protest movement against the human rights violations in Gaza as dangerous, when it really isn't.

What would have happened if one of the Columbia students were maimed or killed by police during that assault?

That certainly is what happened in the 1960s and 1970s when university administrators just threw up their hands and turned the problem over to police, National Guard troops, and state troopers. As a result, students on many campuses across the country were killed or seriously injured. Hopefully that won't happen here. But we had an NYPD officer discharge their firearm accidentally at Columbia during their Fallujah-style assault on the building takeover.

There is always the possibility when deploying all this so-called less lethal weaponry — which in practice is often very lethal — that we will see students suffer serious injuries or even die from police actions. If such a tragedy were to occur, it would just escalate matters and fan the flames of militancy, expand the protest movement, and create more legitimacy problems for both the police and university administrators.

A senior New York City police officer held up a book about "terrorism" that was found in the Columbia library as "proof" that "outside agitators" were involved in the protests. The book was written by a leading historian and was not a "how to" manual or some such thing. That a police officer would make such a claim is the height of comedy and foolishness. But it does point to much larger dynamics at work with how these protests are being perceived by the public. What do we know about this "outside agitator" narrative?   

We have high-ranking city officials and police officials mobilizing this tired old rhetoric about "outside agitators", and this is both patronizing to students and an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the protest movement. There is a video on X (formerly known as Twitter) from an NYPD assistant commissioner saying, "Look at these stacks of water bottles! Here's your proof that there must be outside forces aiding these students." This is ridiculous because it supposes that students do not know how to buy food and water for an encampment, which they've been doing through Occupy and Black Lives Matter and all kinds of other protest movements. These types of claims by the police are politically motivated and a way of taking sides. The police are not a neutral force who are there to enforce the law. The police are politically motivated actors. That fact shapes how the police do what they do, and how they talk to the public about what they do. 

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There are comparisons being made between this moment of student protest activity and the 1960s and early 1970s and the police killings at Kent State, for example. As I see it, there is a great lack of specific historicity and context with such claims.

We're certainly not there, despite what sensational public voices have been saying. Kent State took place after a decade of intense protest activity, both around civil rights and the antiwar movement. Those protest movements were much larger, they were massive. They also represented a much greater threat to the status quo of American imperialism in Southeast Asia.

I hope that we fight back against the criminalization of dissent sufficiently so that we do not get to that point again in this country with a horrible event like Kent State. 

How are individual police responding to being deployed to break up the student protests and encampments? 

I have not spoken to any individual police at these protests.

In general, we can say that police harbor a kind of natural abhorrence of protest because it's disorderly and policing is about the production of social order. I'm also sure that there are police who relish cracking down on these students and there are other police who don't like being involved in such violence. In the end, the attitudes of the individual police officers are largely irrelevant. When the chief of police, the mayor, and the head of a university say they want that encampment cleared, whatever it takes, the police are going to do what they are told. 

What are these student protests further revealing about American higher education, and elite universities and colleges specifically, in this era of the neoliberal regime and corporatization? 

It exposes a contradiction where universities, especially elite ones, compete for students by promoting themselves as being student-centered, student-friendly, and open to student activism. They celebrate past sit-ins and occupations in their promotional materials, and this includes Columbia University. But then when actually confronted by protests, the universities fall back on repression. The reason for that is a kind of deeper truth about the neoliberal university, which is that it is an important part of America's imperial program.

These universities are directly implicated in the production of weapons systems, and the ideologies that justify U.S. military adventurism around the world. And when that program is directly threatened, by demands to stop military research and cooperation or to divest from weapons manufacturers, that represents a profound challenge to the university. If we look closely at these boards of trustees, and the major donors and sources of research and grant money for these universities, we see how intimately tied they are to weapons manufacturers and the producers of the ideologies that favor U.S. military interventionism.

How are faculty responding to the student protests?

We've seen faculty who lack the protection of tenure being penalized for speaking out on the merits of the issues in Gaza. Faculty have been fired, not re-appointed, and otherwise dismissed from their jobs because of social media posts and their views on Israel's actions in Gaza. It is certainly not unreasonable for faculty who lack job security to be concerned about their ability to speak out publicly. Tenured faculty have been more willing to speak out, but they are divided in their opinions about what is happening in Gaza. Where we have seen more unity is in opposition to the criminalization of dissent on college campuses, on the use of police against students, and the failure to substantively negotiate with students about their demands. There have been significant walkouts, grading actions, and letters of protest. For example, there was a CUNY-wide faculty demonstration outside CUNY headquarters calling for CUNY to demand that charges be dropped against CUNY students arrested at City College at the encampment there.

There are supporters of President Biden in the news media and political class who are arguing that these student protests are undermining his chances of reelection and that the smarter move is to stand down and to support the bigger cause of defeating Donald Trump and the American neofascists and other enemies of democracy. Your thoughts?

That can be flipped on its head just as easily where President Biden is going to lose the 2024 election precisely because of the policies he's pursuing relative to Israel and Gaza and the Middle East. Biden and his advisors could then decide that they need to switch gears on Israel policy because it is damaging their chances of getting reelected because it turns out that big chunks of the electorate, specifically the Democratic Party's base, are not happy.

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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