We Don’t Need Warrior Cops Policing Campus Protests

Suzanne Corderio / Getty
Suzanne Corderio / Getty

“Rather than muzzle students, we should allow them to hear and be heard,” New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote recently. “It’s worth remembering how children once responded to schoolyard epithets: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.’ Narrow restrictions on putatively harmful speech leave young people distracted from and ill-prepared for the actual violence they’ll encounter in the real world.”

It's good advice. Unfortunately, I've misled you. That’s actually a Pamela Paul column from Feb. 2023.

Trump Is Wrong. Columbia Isn’t Anything Like Charlottesville

Here's what she wrote in response to the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University: “[I]t’s a rare pleasure to get a chance to applaud the president of a university, in this case Minouche Shafik of Columbia, who on Thursday called in the police to remove student protesters who have camped out on campus in violation of university policy… with the authority at her disposal and with the courage that too many academic leaders have lacked, Shafik did what any responsible adult should do in her position: She ordered the police to clear Columbia’s campus of the students seemingly unaware of how lucky they are to attend one of the nation’s top universities.”

The Columbia protesters had barely set up their tents before U.S. senators like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley were demanding intervention from the National Guard. Since then, House Speaker Mike Johnson dismissed the protesters' rights by pointing out they had been “endorsed by Hamas,” a curious “speech endorsed by bad people isn’t free” exception to the First Amendment that Republicans’ own antisemitic supporters might find surprising.

Numerous Republican office holders have since described the protests as “pro-Hamas,” falsely called them “rioters” and “terrorists” and made evidence-free claims about violence inflicted on Jewish students.

All of that has been alarming, but not surprising. Republicans and the MAGA right have been openly baying for and celebrating violence against protesters for years—all while excusing their own violent protesters as patriots and martyrs.

What’s different this time is that MAGA world has been joined by centrist pundits and more than a few prominent Democrats in calling for police dressed for battle to squash student demonstrations against an unpopular war.

A photo including police blocking students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Roosevelt College, and Columbia College

Police try to block students and faculty members from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Roosevelt College, and Columbia College.

Scott Olson / Getty

While Shafik’s police-aided crackdown on protesters did not, predictably, win her any favor from her Republican critics, it did win her praise from some Democratic politicians.

It also won praise from moderate, anti-Trump pundits and public intellectuals like Paul—people who have spent years positioning themselves as champions of free speech.

The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan—a frequent opiner on campus politics—in 2021 contrasted today‘s campus left-wing activism with the ACLU’s defense of Nazi's marching in Skokie, Illinois. “The ACLU and leftist America had enough faith in the American people, that if the American people heard the arguments of Nazis, they would not be persuaded by them… they would be disgusted by them,” she said on a podcast. A week ago, Flanagan publicly pleaded with the NYPD to arrest Columbia faculty members showing solidarity with student protesters.

Last December, Harvard psychology and linguist professor Steven Pinker wrote in The Boston Globe that “Deplorable speech should be refuted, not criminalized. Outlawing hate speech would only result in students calling anything they didn’t want to hear ‘hate speech.’” This week, Pinker co-authored an op-ed in The Globe in defense of the police action at Columbia, arguing that “chanting and tenting” aren‘t legitimate forms of expression.

Rikki Schlott, co-author of a recent book imploring readers to “reclaim a free speech culture” lamented in a New York Post column “how profoundly the university has failed in upholding its ideals”—not in its for calling in NYPD to arrest non-violent protesters, mind you, which she celebrated, but for the mere fact that the university allowed pro-Palestine protesters to demonstrate on the school’s lawn in the first place.

To be sure, in recent years there have been some genuinely disturbing incidents of academic intolerance against right-of-center or just unorthodox views—professors disciplined or terminated, speaking invitations revoked, and viewpoint discrimination against students and the funding of student groups. But most such examples cited by the right involve students protesting, heckling, or shouting down conservative speakers.

Whatever you make of those tactics, they're orders of magnitude less severe than bringing in police decked out in riot gear to beat, pepper spray, and arrest students—actions these same free speech warriors are gleefully celebrating.

A photo including Texas State Troopers during a pro-Palestinian protest on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin

Texas State Troopers and other members of law enforcement monitor the scene on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin.

Suzanne Corderio / Getty

This has been the general blueprint for the recent escalation of the campus debates.

Conservatives leveraged legitimate complaints about ideological conformity in the social sciences and scrutiny of non-conforming views on campus—which are cultural arguments, not legal ones—to bring down the force and authority of the state to punish their ideological enemies. Republican lawmakers have banned entire academic disciplines, dictated what universities can and can’t teach, and even prohibited guest speakers in certain fields from speaking on state campuses.

The most common justification for the crackdowns on Gaza protesters is that the encampments are disruptive and make Jewish students feel unsafe. But there have been vanishingly few documented incidents of actual violence. Instead, the justification here is harassment, with examples ranging from genuinely offensive chants like “Go back to Poland” to the disputed phrase “from the river to the sea,” to benign chants like “Free Palestine.”

It’s true that some colleges have anti-harassment policies intended to protect students from feeling unsafe on campus. It’s also true that these are the very policies mocked and ridiculed by the same people now demanding they be enforced with state violence. It doesn’t seem to matter that some of these incidents occurred off campus, or involved people who were neither students nor faculty.

It should.

Collectively punishing hundreds of protesters for the actions of a few outliers isn’t consistent with any reasonable conception of free speech.

Decades of research on protests and policing also shows us that it doesn’t work, and only increases the risk of violence.

Most protesters want to be taken seriously, so they tend to self-police to keep bad actors in line. But once police begin using force, particularly force that’s perceived as unjustified, both good and bad actors unite behind a common enemy. The protests grow, become bolder, and are less deferential to authority figures, as we've seen at Columbia. In response, the police presence grows.

‘Riotsville, USA’ Shows the Birth of Police Militarization

After the Ferguson protests in 2014, then-Major Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department, a security studies scholar who studied police response to protests in numerous big cities, told me that the most important thing police can do to maximize safety at a protest is to avoid a show of force for its own sake. “When you start by rolling out the SWAT team, and you then position a sniper on top of an APC with his gun pointed at the protesters, what kind of message are you sending?” he asked. “Did they really expect the sniper would need to start shooting people? It was just a show of force.”

Geron said it’s important to let officers know of their responsibilities as well. “They’re going to be critical of us. They may yell at us. But that’s okay. That’s their right. And our job is to protect their rights.”

It’s a lot more difficult to convey that message to police officers when the entire reason they were called out was to suppress the protesters’ rights.

The other main argument from supporters of these crackdowns is that many of the pro-Palestinian campus encampments popping up across the country didn’t obtain the required permits, and are therefore trespassing.

A photo including NYPD officers making arrests of pro-Palestinian protestors on lawn of Columbia University

NYPD officers make arrests of pro-Palestinian protestors on lawn of Columbia University.

Barry Williams / Getty

That argument may carry some legal weight on some campuses, but the demand that students ask permission before protesting from the very institutions they’re protesting is an odd argument to hear from people who claim to advocate for not just the letter, but also the spirit of the First Amendment. The “trespassing” argument carries more weight at a private school like Columbia, but Columbia itself has long celebrated the school’s long history of activism in its recruiting materials.

Some of these schools—including Columbia and my own alma mater, Indiana University—also changed their policies in ways that appear to have singled out pro-Palestinian activists.

Indiana altered its protest policy for Dunn Meadow—long a site of student activism—the day before the encampments began. Violation of a new policy hastily altered with no notice apparently justified mass arrests, suspensions, police helicopters, armored vehicles, and snipers on the roof of the Student Union.

In Austin, Texas’ Department of Public safety had no reservations about confronting unarmed demonstrators while in full riot gear as they pepper sprayed protesters and arrested students, faculty, and at least one journalist. (This is the same Department of Public Safety whose officers in 2022 refused to confront the gunman massacring children and teachers at a school in Uvalde.)

As of a few days ago, Axios estimated that over 600 students had been arrested on at least 15 campuses. Nearly all of them were arrested for trespassing or resisting arrest—not for assault, harassment, intimidation, or other crimes against fellow students.

A photo including police arresting students at New York University

Police arrest more than 100 students at New York University amid pro-Palestine protests.

Fatih Aktas / Anadolu / Getty

Meanwhile, the same week Columbia was sending NYPD officers to arrest its own students, lawyers for Donald Trump were arguing before the Supreme Court that the president should have absolute immunity from decisions he makes in office. It seems unlikely the court will go that far, but it seems likely that the majority will rule in favor of some sort of immunity for “official acts”—a ruling that would likely include overly aggressive responses to protest.

Trump, you may remember, was the president who, according to aides, repeatedly asked why police couldn’t simply shoot racial justice protesters in the summer of 2020. He wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act to bring in the military to put down the protests. Only resignation threats from top Pentagon officials stopped him from doing so.

Trump has also long expressed his admiration for how authoritarian strongmen have crushed dissent, from the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin. Aides have said he also expressed admiration for how Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro suppressed dissent and how China’s Xi Jinping violently put down the democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Take Trump’s ‘Warning’ of Violence for What It Is—a Threat

The Washington Post and other outlets have reported that Trump’s closest and most trusted advisors have put together a post-inauguration blueprint that includes invoking the Insurrection Act to call in the military to disperse and arrest any protests. This time, the plan includes dismissing and replacing anyone in the chain of command who may refuse to carry out such an order.

Federal courts have given the executive branch wide discretion for policy decisions justified by public safety, particularly with respect to the president. As we saw after the violent clearing of Lafayette Square for Trump’s Bible-clutching photo-op in 2020, there are already significant bureaucratic and institutional barriers to even effectively investigating abuses of power in this area, much less imposing any sort of accountability for them.

In this regard, the response to the Gaza protests doesn't bode well. Justifying violent suppression of dissidents and protesters by dismissing them as extremists, associating them with violent or terrorist groups, or invoking public safety are the oldest authoritarian tricks in the book.

As we've seen over the last couple weeks, they’re also among the easiest—and most successful.

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