All hail Lord Voldemort: Republicans get their revenge for campus protests

There's a reason college presidents are unleashing riot police on their own students, and it's not what they claim

Published May 23, 2024 5:31AM (EDT)

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) confers with U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) during a news conference in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol November 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) confers with U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) during a news conference in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol November 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For many outside the ivory tower, it was clear university leaders needed to do something to quell the chaos surrounding pro-Palestinian encampments on their campuses.  So when college presidents from New Hampshire to New York to Georgia to California invited riot police to break up the protest camps, firing "less-lethal" weapons, zip-tying students and throwing professors to the ground, it may have seemed like a tough but necessary call.  

"There must be consequences," declared the president of my university, USC’s Carol Folt, for students who "foment harassment, violence, and threats." This echoed statements of other university leaders, and President Biden himself, who, despite a nod to the First Amendment, pronounced, "order must prevail." In denouncing the protestors, he also cited antisemitism and a "fear of being attacked." 

The college presidents preparing to address Congress this morning would do well to consider the broader historical implications of their testimony.

Not least, and not lost on university presidents, Virginia Foxx, the Republican chair of a key House education committee, warned administrators to take firm action against their "unlawful antisemitic encampments" — lest they be hauled in front of Congress, and, like a few of their Ivy League peers, be forced to resign. By opting to militarize our campus, Folt has dodged the next round of these McCarthyistic congressional hearings, which begin today.

Yet for those of us on the inside, at USC and elsewhere, the image of a lawless, violent, antisemitic pro-Palestinian mob stands completely at odds with the reality.  With few exceptions, the encampments have been overwhelmingly peaceful, well-organized microsocieties, with posted community rules, medical and food tents, yoga and meditation, kite-making workshops, teach-ins, and Shabbat services and Passover seders. These students and supporting faculty form a multi-racial interfaith community. They are united by their outrage at the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli bombs supplied by U.S. taxpayers. They share a vision for freedom and justice for Palestine.  

President Folt could have understood all this herself had she ventured from her office bunker and walked the 75 paces to the encampment.  The many Jewish students there would have told her why they've been proudly saying, "Not in my name." Or, that there's a difference between feeling unsafe by hearing a "free Palestine" chant, and actually being unsafe — a crucial distinction in determining free-speech rights. Even the allegedly antisemitic chant, "from the river to the sea" — which originated as a Zionist concept decades before the creation of Israel, and was written in the original platform of the Likud Party in 1977 —  is understood by Gaza protestors today as a vision of equality, and freedom from occupation and violence, for all the people of the Holy Land, Palestinian and Israeli alike.  While the slogan engenders fear for many Jewish students, a University of Chicago poll showed 76 percent of Muslim students understood it to mean that Palestinians and Israelis should live together (in one or two states) on the same land.

Some university presidents, refusing to "solve" the problem with riot police, have shown what real leadership means. They listened to their encamped students and agreed to some of their demands. "That's what a lot of students are really looking for — to take a moral stance about what is taking place in the world," Cal State-Sacramento president Luke Wood told CBS News. Wood said he did "92 listening sessions" before coming to an agreement. College presidents at Northwestern and Rutgers also reached agreements with their student encampments without calling in the police.  Not coincidentally, those two presidents have now been summoned before Rep. Foxx's committee and will appear today.

Avoiding that summons is likely one of the reasons why USC President Folt never made that walk to our student encampment.  Nor has she responded to the letter signed by some 60 USC Jewish faculty members, denouncing the weaponization of antisemitism "to silence and delegitimize certain perspectives and expressions of protest," while "fueling counter-protests by right-wing nationalists exploiting the struggle against antisemitism for their own gain." Missing in the discussion is the fact that nearly equal percentages of Muslims also feel unsafe on campus. Hardly surprising, Islamophobia is not on the Foxx agenda today. Yet pro-Palestinian students "have not only had job offers rescinded," writes UCLA's Saree Makdisi in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "but also have been doxed, placed on blacklists...fired, suspended, banned from campus," and "sprayed with irritants or chemical weapons..."  

At UCLA late on April 30 and the morning of May 1, multiple accounts show, pro-Israel counterdemonstrators relentlessly attacked a peaceful pro-Palestinian encampment. “A mob of men, some of them later identified as far-right activists, reportedly launched fireworks into the encampment, swung two-by-fours with nails sticking out of them, and uttered death and rape threats," Piper French wrote in the New York Review of Books. "They punched and maced four student journalists, brought one to the ground, and beat him at length.” One student journalist required hospitalization, along with 25 other students for "broken bones, head trauma, and severe lacerations." The counter-protesters also inexplicably released live mice into the camp.  The violent siege went on for several hours, with no police intervention. 

One of the men on hand that night was later identified as a member of the Proud Boys; another, as an anti-gay activist known for his antisemitic statements and Nazi salutes.  Yet another participant, it turned out, was apparently embedded with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Aaron Cohen, a self-proclaimed former Israeli special-ops veteran, boasted on X that he "[r]an a quiet infiltration operation into the UCLA encampment and now down here with LASD who’s staging now and preparing to make begin taking down the pro-terror antisemitic encampment. " 

Meanwhile, after a night in which the police were shockingly absent, in the wee hours of May 2, dozens of officers from LAPD, LASD and the California Highway Patrol dismantled the camp, arresting more than 200 protesters. Despite the one-sided violence, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block defended his decision to ask the police to take down the camp.  "Several days of violent clashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators put too many Bruins in harm’s way and created an environment that was completely unsafe for learning." Of course, riot police are also, arguably, not safe for learning.  

We need your help to stay independent

And yet despite the smearing and false accusations against pro-Palestinian demonstrators, in the vast majority of cases, at UCLA, USC, and elsewhere, students who endured the violent crackdowns now face trespassing charges on their own college campuses, and potentially disastrous academic sanctions. They are guilty not of antisemitism, but of expressing the "wrong" kind of speech about Israel's war on Gaza.  As the USC Jewish faculty letter states, "the university’s actions have distorted principled, peaceful protest and demonized encamped students and their supporters."

In smearing our students, my USC president and her peers have taken extreme measures against those they are charged to protect – not, I believe, to ensure peace on campus, but out of mortal fear of their own universities’ donors, and of being called to testify in Congress.  Rep. Foxx assailed the Rutgers and Northwestern agreements as "surrender to antisemitic radicals." Foxx's Education and the Workforce Committee has been transformed into a modern-day Star Chamber, where Trump sycophant, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, lies in wait like a 21st Century inquisitor. Stefanik, who inspires dread akin to the likes of Lord Voldemort, already has a few notches on her belt, including the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and Penn. 

It's a sign of the times that university presidents like Folt, who called in the helicopters and body-armored police, sealed the gates of the university, barred non-USC journalists, and implemented double-ID scans and bag checks for everyone on campus, have for now escaped the committee's scrutiny. And so the Northwestern and Rutgers presidents who refused to militarize their campus are now preparing to defend themselves in Congress. UCLA's chancellor will also face questioning by Foxx, Stefanik and other committee members.

Stefanik has a much broader agenda, including as a potential running mate to Donald Trump in 2024.  On Sunday she was in Israel, addressing the  Knesset, where she proclaimed that "with God's help," Donald Trump will win reelection. Part of her Trump bona fides is her broader reactionary attack on free speech. She voted for the bipartisan Antisemitism Awareness Act, which incorporates a sweeping definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  Many Jewish groups oppose this effort, believing it stifles legitimate criticism of Israel under the guise of antisemitism. A coalition of 104 human rights and civil society groups, including many in Israel, wrote that the IHRA definition "has  often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel." More than 1300 Jewish professors in the U.S. also objected. "If imported into federal law," the scholars wrote, "the IHRA definition will delegitimize and silence Jewish Americans–among others–who advocate for Palestinian human rights or otherwise criticize Israeli policies."  

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

These efforts to restrict criticism of Israel are themselves part of a broader right-wing effort to undermine academic freedom, attack diversity efforts and suppress dissent nationwide. Some 57 bills in state legislatures are part of a "coordinated attack against public colleges and universities with legislation that would undermine academic freedom, chill classroom speech and impose partisan agendas," according to the American Association of University Professors. And in recent years, since the protests against oil pipelines in the Dakotas and the Black Lives Matter mobilizations after the murder of George Floyd, dozens of red states have advanced anti-protest laws. In some cases, these laws define a "riot" as a gathering of three or more people that allegedly pose a threat to public safety.  

This anti-democratic agenda is already gaining momentum under Biden. We can only imagine how far it could go in a second Trump term.  

And so the college presidents preparing to address Congress this morning would do well to consider the broader historical implications of their testimony. It is time for them to speak out: not in support of repression, but in defense of their students, and of the principles of free expression and academic freedom. 

Seventy years ago, Army lawyer Joseph Welch faced down Sen. Joe McCarthy, who accused Welch of harboring a Communist sympathizer on his staff. Welch responded with the words that Americans had been longing for.

"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch told McCarthy. "Have you no sense of decency?"  

The time has come for an American college president to stop cowering and speak truth to power. We need another Joseph Welch moment. College administrators who bow to the anti-democratic forces of the hard right in Congress, and the Trumpian neofascists poised to take power, are perched at the edge of an icy, perilous slope. Principles far greater than job security are at stake. How college presidents act from here forward matters more than ever.

By Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is author of the international bestseller "The Lemon Tree" and "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land." He has reported from more than 35 countries, and extensively from Native American country. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Visit his website. Follow him on Twitter @Sandy_Tolan.

MORE FROM Sandy Tolan