Arrests Fuel the Flames of Protests

Politics Protests

             New Orleans   “Oh, when will they ever learn?”  The tag line from the old Pete Seeger rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” locked in my brain, as I read about the campus arrests at Columbia and Yale Universities of pro-Palestinian protestors.  I have to wonder who advises these fancy, elite college presidents, when they have so little sense of history when it comes to tactics and strategy.  Bringing police onto campuses is the equivalent of throwing gas on a fire.  How could they not know that?

Remember for example the now hallowed Occupy Wall Street affair some years ago. The encampment was locked down in a small park in the city.  It had fallen far from the front pages and evening news as the spotlight drifted away, as it always does with the media.  As an organizer, it seemed they were caught in an unstoppable cycle of attrition, unless they caught a break.  Then the police and city officials did them the favor of bungling arrests at a peaceful protest on the Brooklyn Bridge. It rekindled the protest.  Supporters and others around the country then rallied to the cause.  The protests spread from there, until the tactic swallowed the strategy, and smart cities just let the encampments trickle out in the winter to the cold and snow.

The Columbia campaign was small, 100 students or so.  It had been going for weeks.  Other campuses are seeing actions now as well.  The Yale situation was more recent, but clearly when 60 students and supporters were arrested, after having left voluntarily previously, they took the arrests in solidarity with Columbia.  Worth remembering that the demand at Yale was for disclosure and divestiture from their portfolio of any weapon manufacturers supplying to Israel.  Hardly, a call for revolution in our time.  I have to also add that these are not the building takeovers and sit-ins organized by me and my generation in opposition to Vietnam, black student rights, and other issues.  These protests look identical to the homeless encampments many of us see in vacant areas and under expressways in our cities.

No question that these are determined protests, but if we think about the administrators’ actions, we have to ask, “why now?”  School is almost out at these universities.  In some cases, there are only weeks to go before they shut down for the summer, and, in other cases, campuses are virtually empty for exam periods.  School out for these protests would have been the equivalent of winter coming for Occupy.

All of this seems to be a matter of universities and their bosses caviling and caving into the political right-wingers in Congress who have ridiculed them in kangaroo court hearings.  In a sweet irony, it hasn’t worked for them.  Their opponents in Congress and on the right were not mollified by the Columbia president’s promises to crackdown, and her own faculty senate is moving to censure her for her actions.

As for the students, of course it hasn’t worked for them either.  In fact, as is often the case and almost a requirement for protest pushback, as any veteran organizer knows our advice would be “get back on the horse,” and that’s exactly – to their credit – what they have done by returning to the protest and even to the encampments, regardless of their tactical merit, since they do send a message.

If the rightwing and college chieftains want to help build a student movement and maybe trigger a larger anti-war movement, then calling in the police on campuses to arrest peaceful protestors is a favor to the organizers and forces a deepening of resolve. Perhaps inadvertently, their protests have highlighted the weakness of their opponents.  I’m sure they are secretly whispering thanks for them lighting matches to spread the fire.