The protests on college campuses across the country and the authoritarian crackdown on their calls for divestment reveal who the colleges and our government are truly accountable to.   

Columbia University student protesters
Columbia University student protesters stand together on April 18, 2024. Photo by Dean Moses

Student Protests and the Rise of U.S. Authoritarianism

 By Thad Baltimore/ Black Agenda Report / May 8, 2024

Can you think of a better example of the fruits of higher learning than the current student demonstrations against Israel’s ongoing military assault against Palestinian people?

The growing movement for Palestine’s liberation is led by college students who speak out against corporate media’s misinformation campaignin its coverage of Israel’s crimes committed against Palestine.

These students are astute enough to see through false narratives that provide cover for Israel’s unprecedented barbarity while disparaging any criticism of Israel’s horrific crimes.

These are young people concerned enough to not be lulled to apathy by corporate media’s avoidance of words that elucidate the gut wrenching truth about Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

They’re also fully aware of the complicity of the U.S. and the colonial West in the Gaza genocide.

American Students Calling For Peace Are Now Enemies of State

These are the best and brightest of America’s youth willing to risk arrest and disciplinary action to stand for a just cause. Their demands are clear: students are calling for universities to divest from Israel and the companies supporting Israel’s genocidal war on Palestine. The Columbia University encampment in New York City was destroyed by the NYPD acting with the approval of the school’s administration. Their demands were quite clear.

Columbia University Students Demands

  1. DIVEST ALL FINANCES, Including the endowment, from corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine.

  2. COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY for all of Columbia’s financial investments.

  3. AMNESTY for all students and faculty disciplined or fired in the movement for Palestinian liberation.

In spite of the protesters’ reasonable and peace-based demands, university administrators, state officials and corporate media are countering with flimsy narratives:

First, they claim that, “pro-Palestinian protestors are using antisemitic rhetoric.” The goal here is to distract attention from the substance of student demands and away from the root of the issue — Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its decades long oppression of defenseless Palestinian people.

Additionally, weaponization of the term ‘antisemitic’ to suppress free speech, has now gone to extremes. The accusation now refers to any criticism of Israel’s policies. Any pro-Palestine, anti-genocide, anti-war sentiment, is also now treated as antisemitic. This is a completely exaggerated and disingenuous use of the word.

Another narrative is the claim that protestors are making Jewish students feel unsafe, despite the fact that many of the pro-Palestinian student protestors are themselves Jewish.

The claim of ‘feeling unsafe’ can be ambiguous, difficult to measure, and conflated with being physically unsafe. It may also mean feeling ‘uncomfortable’, which is inevitable given that the official narrative is being challenged.  Again, the overall goal is to distract attention away from what is really motivating student protesters, which is the call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

So on one side are students, often supported by their faculty, protesting the ongoing killing of over 34,000 people in Palestine. And on the other side, school administrators, the president, congress and the media making the claim that Jewish students’ “feelings” are being hurt by those calling for an end to the first live-streamed genocide.

The Suppression of Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Even prior to October 7, 2023 the goal of the Israeli lobby and their political allies has been to suppress academic freedom and free speech by criminalizing solidarity with Palestine. Preventing the emergence of a movement within academia against Israel’s illegal occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid in Palestine, has been a priority for corrupt Israeli and United States leadership.

Since the Al Aqsa flood on October 7, students and faculty have been disciplined and fired simply for expressing support for Palistinians.

Numerous instances of harassment, intimidation, doxxing, and threats directed at students, faculty and staff  led to the current explosion of pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations across the country.

Perception Management to Suppress Free Speech

Authoritarian rule requires suppression of free speech. However, the optics of violent suppression of college students by police inevitably damages the reputations of university presidents, state officials and even Biden’s re-election aspirations.

The U.S. imperial machine and its status quo of injustice, is maintained through perception management particularly through corporate news media outlets. The strategy is to turn public opinion against pro-Palestine student demonstrations with accusations that protesters are disruptive and violent.

So as a pretext to violently end the encampments, police are employing old standards such as; the protesters have been taken over by “outside agitators” or its updated variant; they’ve been “infiltrated by professional organizers.”

These accusations are part of an underhanded policing playbook which include actual infiltration of grass-roots movements by law enforcement.

In New York, the NYPD acts as the state’s stormtroopers as they execute mass arrests and the removal of student encampments. Their actions are not new. Last year the city agreed to pay over $13 millionto thousands of people who were arrested or beaten by the NYPD during the George Floyd protests in 2020.

U.S. Politicians Not Beholden To Voters

The U.S. is now blatantly repressive as it goes along with harassment, disciplinary action and firings of citizens over the criticism of Israel, another country.

On Thursday, Biden delivered remarks disparaging the student protests.When asked, “Have the protests forced you to reconsider any of the policies with regard to the region [Israel-Palestine]?”, Biden’s response was a flat out, “No.”

Moreover, U.S. citizens indoctrinated by America’s duopoly should understand that efforts to suppress free speech are a bipartisan project. Congressmen Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Mike Lawler (R-NY) proposed a bill that would create ’antisemitism monitors’at college campuses.

Biden, along with other politicians, have made the decision to ‘stand with Israel’, rather than act on the ceasefire preferred by the constituentswho put them in office.

Compromised University Presidents in Corporatized Universities

At the heart of student protest demands is the divestiture of university finances from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation in Palestine. This points to one reason university presidents are resistant to student demands — the corporatization of universities.

Like any corporation, the university has to turn a profit. This is achieved through multiple investments, and of course, ever increasing college tuition. As such, university presidents and city officials are caught in a bind that exposes their cynicism and hypocrisy about what quality education is supposed to produce — smart, critical thinking students, who are prepared to change the world for the better.

The dilemma faced by university presidents under pressure to please wealthy donors and produce profits is: should their allegiance be to career, capitalism, zionism, or the Israeli lobby? Or, should their allegiance be to their own students taking a stance against militarism, war and the daily suffering of Palestinians? This would be an easy choice for people who are not politically compromised.

So how to stop the largely peaceful expressions of free speech without angering the population at large? How can university administrators address the legitimate demands of students? They can eliminate the threats of force and disciplinary action and sit at the negotiating table as happened at Brown University and other institutions. But most administrators choose loyalty to the neo-liberal university instead of serving their educational community in a principled way.

The students standing resolutely in solidarity with Palestine should be supported and applauded. They are an inspiration to the rest of the world and their efforts should be honored. They are the best hope for the future and for a sane country.

Thad Baltimore is a Black empowerment writer focused on how systems of injustice are maintained through the collaborative efforts of government, the ruling class and corporate media. He can be reached at:

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