US Gaza protests: Calling the cops on free speech

On April 17, students at Columbia University in New York City set up a Gaza solidarity encampment on campus to call for divestment from Israel and a complete ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, where the US-backed Israeli military has now slaughtered some 35,000 Palestinians in less than seven months.

Columbia called the cops – since it apparently constitutes more of a disturbance of the peace these days to protest against genocide than to support it. More than 100 students were arrested, which has only spawned further protest as similar encampments have sprung up on college campuses nationwide.

Columbia’s president Nemat Minouche Shafik came under fire from numerous faculty members following the crackdown, although some professors have preferred to proudly advertise their disdain for anything approaching basic morality. Columbia linguist John McWhorter, for example, recently took to the opinion pages of The New York Times to complain about his music humanities class being interrupted by the sounds of a pro-Palestinian crowd with a penchant for “lusty chanting” and “drumbeats” – altogether a “relentless assault” by protesters that “is beyond what any people should be expected to bear up under”.

But if drumbeats propel your panties into such a massive bunch, imagine how annoying it would be if your house was blown up and your family along with it.

Indeed, even before the onset of all-out genocide, the Palestinians of Gaza had long ago surpassed “what any people should be expected to bear up under”. Meanwhile, McWhorter’s ode to injustice is no doubt music to the ears of those seeking to criminalise Palestine solidarity and free speech in one fell swoop.

One pioneer on this front is maniacal right-wing Texas governor Greg Abbott, who on April 24 unleashed Texas state troopers on pro-Palestinian protesters at The University of Texas in Austin. The Dallas Morning News reported that students at the demonstration “said the events were peaceful until law enforcement officers entered the campus with riot gear, some on horseback and others carrying zip ties and pepper spray”. Dozens were arrested.

That same day, Abbott reposted a video of his handiwork on X with the caption “Pro Hamas idiots at UT Austin discover what happens why [sic] you try to pull a Columbia in Texas”. Adding his own commentary to the post, the governor reiterated that “these protesters belong in jail” and that “students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled”.

Of course, the good old anti-Semitism charge is a handy way to summarily discredit anti-Zionist activists without having to talk about why it is that Israel is systematically wiping out Palestinians. A month prior to the UT Austin episode, in an executive order dated March 27, Abbott denounced “antisemitic phrases such as ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’”, directing all Texas higher education institutions to “review and update free speech policies” and to “ensure… that groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine are disciplined for violating these policies”.

By coincidence, this is the very same Abbott who in 2019 made a big show of having “just signed a law protecting free speech on college campuses”. The bill in question, which allegedly protected First Amendment rights and designated common outdoor areas on college campuses as “public forums”, was in reality meant to safeguard the right to right-wing free speech alone – forever feared to be under attack by student bodies that tend to be less conservative than the Abbotts of the US would like them to be.

And yet when it comes to the right to exercise freedom of speech in opposition to an Israeli-inflicted genocide, it’s not just the Abbotts who are cracking down. Across the country, hundreds of students have been arrested, suspended and expelled, while Palestine solidarity activists have been subjected to all manner of harassment and intimidation. The Nation magazine offers a compilation of reports from college students nationwide on the repression of protests at their respective institutions, from Yale to Cornell to the University of California, Berkeley.

Unfortunately for their administrations, these students have already connected the dots. In his report, Richard Solomon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) describes how MIT laboratories have received “millions of dollars in funding from the Israeli Ministry of Defense to conduct research in ballistics targeting, surveillance, cyberwarfare, and drone technology”. The university furthermore “hosts events to connect students and faculty to weapon manufacturers… who supply the Israeli military with its drones, D9 bulldozers, fighter jets, and artillery”.

In other words, US universities like MIT happen to be directly complicit in the slaughter of Palestinians. All the more reason, then, to silence discussion of the matter – particularly at a time when the Joe Biden administration faces ever-increasing international backlash over its insistence on sending gobs of money and weaponry to Israel.

In the meantime, there are plenty of commentators standing by to distract from the literal genocide going down in Gaza by claiming that pro-Palestine protesters are in fact advocating for the genocide of Jews. But at the end of the day, the deliberate propagation of genocidal lies doesn’t really qualify as “free speech”, at all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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