A Historian's Take on Student Protests Leaves Out a Few Things

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

I spent the morning tweeting about this. Historian Rick Perlstein has written an instant history of the campus protests which puts the whole thing down to moral panic. It's a well written piece in the sense that he manages to present the facts in such a way that his conclusions feel almost inescapable. At least that's true if you haven't really been paying attention, or maybe only getting all your information from MSNBC and The Nation. Here's a sample:


You might have already stomached some of the videos of last week’s most harrowing abuses. At the University of Wisconsin, a balding, bespectacled professor face down, two cops pinning his left arm sharply behind his back, and a disabled professor getting her dress torn and suffering internal damage from police strangulation. The 65-year-old former head of Dartmouth’s Jewish studies program who dared scream “What are you doing?” at cops being taken down with a wrestling move that also left her with an arm wrenched behind her back. Then a second cop arriving to keep her pinned as a third looks on blithely, rifle at the ready. (She was suspended by her university for her trouble.) At Washington University in St. Louis, a 65-year-old professor, a Quaker, was told by his doctor he was “lucky to be alive” after absorbing a flying tackle from a very large officer for the sin of filming cops with his cellphone, then being dragged to a nearby patch of grass, writhing, then to a police van, where he fell limp...

THE PROVOCATIONS FOR THESE ASSAULTS are so much milder now than they were in the 1960s that an administrator then who could peer 55 years into the future would probably smirk. Students peacefully chanting slogans on a single, specific issue, backed by easily realizable demands? Pshaw...

Concerns for the “safety” of Jewish students has become a rhetorical commonplace in elite discussions of campus politics these days: “Jewish students of all political beliefs,” Theo Baker, son of New York Times superstar Peter Baker, tells us in The Atlantic in “The War at Stanford,” “have been given good reason to fear for their safety. They’ve been followed, harassed, and called derogatory racial epithets.”

It makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. You know who has good reason to fear for their safety? People, many of them Jews, getting pummeled by cops and fascists. People getting high-powered rifles aimed at them from rooftops by agents of the state who surely have been told by the people giving them orders to be ready to shoot because of all the “dangerous” things that are going on amid those protesters’ tents...

THE ACTUAL EXAMPLES OF ALLEGED JEW-HATRED that have been adduced are so threadbare. A protest leader arrays the bodies of protesters as a human shield against those who’ve shown up to oppose their protest. One cries—at a protest leader who, for all we know, just as well might be Jewish—“We didn’t say a word! My friend had a Jewish star necklace! All the sudden we’re surrounded, they’ve been circling us, they’re threatening us.”

I mean, think about it: Do we complain when strikers who put up a picket don’t let anti-union activists join the line of march?


Why shouldn't students feel free to act like union thugs toward fellow students? Wow, what an insightful take.

There's a lot more but you get the gist. There's no excuse for calling the police on the sweet, innocent protesters. And sure, maybe they have prevented a few Jewish students from walking across campus or threatened them more explicitly but so what. Those students can just leave campus for a while. This is totally normal and should be tolerated for as long as the protesters feel like continuing. That seems to be his argument.

Perlstein's presentation of the facts is very one-sided to say the least. You can tell this is a partisan screed and not a responsible first draft of history because of all the things he leaves out of his little hand-guided tour of campus radicalism. So, for instance we get a bunch of mentions of guns and rifles and snipers to whip up the sense that state brutality is the story here. We get zero mentions of the lengthy negotiations many universities held with protesters trying to reach some accommodation with them.

Perlstein doesn't say that Minouche Shafik is part of a vast-right-wing conspiracy but that's sort of the tone of his piece, i.e. reactionary forces are driving this moral panic toward state violence. So he doesn't want to quote anything like this explanation Shafik gave for why the encampment (but not the protests) needed to end.


Since Wednesday, a small group of academic leaders has been in constructive dialogue with student organizers to find a path that would result in the dismantling of the encampment and adherence to University policies going forward. Regretfully, we were not able to come to an agreement.

Both sides in these discussions put forward robust and thoughtful offers and worked in good faith to reach common ground. We thank them all for their diligent work, long hours, and careful effort and wish they had reached a different outcome.

The University’s goal for the talks was a collaborative resolution with the protestors that would result in the orderly removal of the encampment from the lawn. The students also were asked to commit going forward to following the University’s rules, including those on the time, place, and manner for demonstrations and events...

But we must take into account the rights of all members of our community. The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty. External actors have contributed to creating a hostile environment in violation of Title VI, especially around our gates, that is unsafe for everyone—including our neighbors. With classes now concluding, it represents a noisy distraction for our students studying for exams and for everyone trying to complete the academic year.

That all sounds pretty reasonable which is certainly why Perlstein doesn't mention it. Other university presidents have written similar statements explaining how they are trying to balance the rights of protesters and the rest of the campus. 


Which leads us to an obvious question. What exactly were administrators supposed to do when a group of 200 protesters insisted on camping out where the school holds its graduation ceremony? Should the rights of the 200 trump those of the 5,000 graduates and their parents? It seems to me the answer is no, especially given that Columbia had long-standing rules about the time, place and manner of protests, all of which the protesters were flouting.

And once a group of students and non-students decided to take over a building and told workers inside they couldn't leave, was it time to call the police then? 

On the other side of the country, students took over the library on the campus of Portland State University. They vandalized the building and piled (and even cut up) some of the furniture to create a blockade against the police. Should the school just have let this ride?

Police did clear the library but in a matter of a day the vandals had torn out most of the fire alarm system making it uninhabitable, possibly until next fall. Students who wanted a book to prepare for finals are just out of luck I guess. But Perlstein doesn't mention this either. Because if he did he'd have to explain how calling the police in response was the wrong move and that would be quite difficult to do under the circumstances. It's hard to envision any place where masked vandals trashing a library would not generate a call to police.


Perlstein also presents one side of the "outside agitators" story. So he mentions Nahla Al-Arian's (who he describes only as a teacher) visit to Columbia but not Lisa Fithians work on the front lines of the building takeover. He also doesn't mention the visits by Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn to the encampment at the University of Chicago. Ayers is also a teacher but his history of support for violent activism also seems relevant.

Anyway, as a partisan screed it's well done and I'm sure will win plenty of plaudits. As a serious examination of competing rights and the choices made by university administrators to meet the needs of everyone on campus and not just the protesters, it's a misleading mess.

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