Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Crackdowns on US college protests serve only to disenfranchise youth and miss the point

Pro-Palestinian students protest at the University Arch on University of Georgia, Athens. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Pro-Palestinian students protest at the University Arch on University of Georgia, Athens. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Short Url:
04 May 2024 09:05:16 GMT9
04 May 2024 09:05:16 GMT9

American universities have historically been bastions of free speech and conduits for great social change, addressing pivotal moments in history with a blend of academic integrity, civic engagement and youthful ingenuity.

Today, campuses still enshrine the echoes and scars of the protests against the Vietnam War that sprang up across the nation several decades ago. These centers of higher learning, the stewards of the change-makers of tomorrow, quickly became hotbeds of anti-war sentiment, deeply influencing public opinion, national discourse and, ultimately, ending ruinous policy. Students used their campuses as platforms for peaceful protest and assembly, highlighting the power of the collective student voice in effecting societal shifts.

Equally notable was the role of colleges and universities during the civil rights movement, when campuses served as incubators of nonviolent protest. They became spaces where activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found audiences eager for change in a country far removed from the ideals on which it was founded.

From the anti-Apartheid movement for divestment from South Africa, to Black Lives Matter or climate change, student-driven protests have consistently proved the instrumental nature of universities in championing the causes of liberty and justice. They have set precedents for the active participation of America’s youth in national and global discourse, providing venues where even the most disenchanted can speak and be heard.

This storied legacy seems to be faltering, however, in the face of recent campus responses to the Palestinian solidarity movement, which has sparked widespread discourse and shows of dissent. Events that have unfolded at institutions such as Columbia University in New York serve as a stark illustration of how some of America’s most esteemed centers of higher learning are failing to meet the moment.

On the morning of April 30, more than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators occupied Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, in an echo of the 1968 anti-war protests. Yet rather than engage in constructive dialogue or use these protests as a teachable moment, the immediate response by university authorities was to call in the police, leading to a series of escalations and arrests.

This decision not only exacerbated existing tensions but raised alarming questions about the current state of free speech on American college campuses.

By clinging to the baton in lieu of dialogue, the unconscionable crackdowns on protests have left yet another ugly scar on the American psyche

Hafed Al-Ghwell

The arrests were part of a broader trend we are seeing across the country, with nearly 1,000 detentions reported nationwide in a matter of days in relation to the growing number of pro-Palestinian protests. This wave of confrontations and the resultant crackdowns by authorities stand in stark contrast to the expected role of universities as safe spaces for open dialogue and debate.

Columbia is far from an isolated bruising; it is merely one conflagration in a globe-spanning wildfire of campus activism related to Israel’s undeterred escalations in Gaza. Similar protests have surged, affecting more than 50 campuses in the US and spreading to universities in other countries, such as the Sorbonne in France and the University of Sydney in Australia, turning them into arenas for unprecedented levels of pro-Palestinian advocacy.

This widespread mobilization has become an enduring solidarity movement that transcends borders and illustrates a universally resonant call for academia, at least, to take a decisive stance against the catalog of atrocities unleashed on helpless Gazans.

However, the rush to wield batons and deploy armored cars against students reveals a troubling schism in the compact between universities, their communities and the country at large. The fault lines signal a deeper crisis in university governance — namely, the handling of free speech, enforcement of campus rules, and the balance between collective security and individual rights.

In an era of heightened polarization and intense culture wars, universities are still struggling to safeguard the very civil liberties that enabled America to engage in collective soul-searching on its campuses some 60 years ago, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Worse, there is almost a collusive abdication of responsibility among America’s tertiary institutions, the press and influential public voices, demonstrated by the deliberately erroneous framing and questioning of the legitimacy of a growing Palestinian solidarity movement.

Carefully curated and well-practiced statements from university officials, for instance, have become a reflection of what they believe the American public wants to hear, thereby disguising uncomfortable truths and sidestepping the responsibilities that they demand.

As spontaneous and overwhelming as they are, the encampments, occupations, sit-ins and rallies are simply the most common forms of student activism and have been for decades. They are not devious ploys by well-practiced anarchists, as some would have us believe, in their attempts to discredit the movement and deny the agency of the students to step up where America has capitulated.

Moreover, the responses to protests at Columbia and on other campuses have not only failed to stifle dissent, they have sown seeds of distrust among students and their surrounding communities. These suppressions highlight a distressing trend: the willingness of universities to prioritize public image and external pressure over the foundational values of academic freedoms and student engagement.

By clinging to the baton in lieu of dialogue, the unconscionable crackdowns on protests have left yet another ugly scar on the American psyche: an irrevocable maxim that only the causes held dear by a pliant majority ought to be championed.

Aggressive responses to impassioned activism that is driven by the ideals upon which this country was founded undermine the core mission of all American centers of inquiry, which is to foster a diverse and inclusive arena for the exchange of ideas. By choosing order over education, universities risk alienating their student populations, driving down student engagement and discouraging future activism.

Students, perceiving their concerns are being sidelined or outright silenced, might either withdraw from campus political life or escalate their actions, prompting further polarization. Such outcomes are detrimental to the kind of engagement, debate and exchange of differing viewpoints that universities take pride in and have enshrined in their curricula.

The crackdowns on protests and the manner in which universities such as Columbia have handled them illustrate a broader crisis of confidence in the role of higher education in society. By clinging to control measures rather than embracing dialogue, universities betray one of their core missions: to champion libertarian causes in their roles as custodians of free thought and inquiry.

Only by embracing their historic role as crucibles of social change can American universities, and other centers of higher learning around the globe, hope to regain the trust of their students and reaffirm their place at the forefront of societal evolution.

Columbia should be the first and only lesson we need on how not to engage with a rightfully enraged student body, serving as an example that ensures the causes of the future — of which there will be plenty — are not lost to the missteps of the present.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. X: @HafedAlGhwell
Most Popular

return to top