Stop Repressing Campus Protests

The Moral Superiority of Students

In 2003, student protesters against the US-led invasion of Iraq felt under attack from all sides.

No Antisemitism here. Student march, Philadelphia.

Media of all stripes pushed for the “liberation” of Iraq. Nearly every channel painted us as dimwitted idealists at best, and at worst, we supported Islamic terrorism, Ba’athist despotism and anti-Americanism.

As a student at the University of Michigan, I knew a lot less about war, politics and the Middle East than I do now.

But what my friends and I knew was that the government was lying to us, the blowback would be immense, countless Iraqis would needlessly die, and the only goal was to enrich the ruling class, subsidised by the blood of hapless American troops.

History has proven we were right – just as those before us had been right about Vietnam being unwinnable and a war against civilians, and those who demanded an end to apartheid in South Africa.

This is not because American student rabble-rousers, the relatively privileged high achievers, are blessed with clairvoyance. But their hearts and brains are unsullied with the cynicism that blinds careerist policymakers, journalists and politicians who need to accept certain evils to secure their middle-class comfort.

Today, as students across the world continue to protest the slaughter of Palestinians in the face of violent police repression, it is clear that these young adults might not have all the answers about how to create peace in the Middle East. Still, they have a fairly good track record of knowing what the problem is.

The older people who occupy places of power and decision-making should listen.

It is nearly impossible for anyone in a liberal democratic society to find an example in history where we celebrate the triumph of unrestrained militarised police over a gang of sign-toting peaceniks and reformers.

Indeed, some people secretly think the massacre of students at Kent State in 1970, Athens Polytechnic in 1973 and Tiananmen Square in 1989 were necessary reactions to a revolt. But there’s a good reason it’s socially unacceptable to say so out loud.

And in the United States, Republicans and Democrats come together to praise the dedication of student activists who protest in the face of enemy regimes.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton castigated Hong Kong police who attacked students protesting Beijing-backed security measures. Congress supported recent anti-government protests in Iran, which drew significant numbers from the student population.

When students at American universities oppose the wanton killing of civilians in Gaza, they’re denounced as Antisemites, whose slogans and rude tactics cause widespread pearl-clutching from New York’s Upper West Side to Silicon Valley.

Of course, the protesters are disregarded for their heart-driven politics, filled with righteous outrage unclouded by nuance, without deference to the delicate and minute details of realpolitik.

Yet, these protesters, like those before them in the Vietnam and Iraq war eras, find their power in something that they lack: institutional power.

With some notable exceptions, university administrators, afraid to offend wealthy donors, can’t engage in real dialogue with the very students they are charged with protecting and educating.

Democratic politicians feel compelled to use militarised force to end the human rights demands, or else their re-election campaigns become imperilled.

Students who still enjoy the folly of youth have the advantage of not being compromised by such constraints, which ultimately sway American apparatchiks to the whims of the 1 Percent.

In that sense, while we shouldn’t hand over the responsibility of day-to-day power to student protesters, they are a reliable moral compass in times of war and unrest.

With cops violently arresting Jewish faculty and students holding liberation Passover seders at the American protest encampments, the smear of “Antisemitism” is becoming a tired, empty insult.

Continuous reports about civilian casualties in Gaza make it clear the students’ hearts are in the right place, siding with humanity over military might, just as our hearts were when jingoistic fervour swept the halls of power in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

Western governments would be better off if they listened to student protesters rather than take excessive measures to silence them.

Photograph courtesy of Joe Piette. Published under a Creative Commons license.