For Whom Is Campus to Be Safe?

By Saree MakdisiMay 10, 2024

For Whom Is Campus to Be Safe?
“THIS IS STUFF that only happens in movies.” That was the only way that a UCLA student, quoted in one newspaper account, could attempt to make sense of what he saw happening on the Westwood campus in the predawn hours of May 1. In the dark of night, dozens of men wearing black or blue sweatshirts with full-face white plastic masks, some with Israeli flags draped on their shoulders, converged on the UCLA encampment that students had assembled in peaceful solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinians of Gaza. Armed with lasers, clubs, and homemade weapons including planks of wood embedded with nails, as well as various irritant gases (mace, tear gas, pepper spray, bear spray), and chanting anti-Arab, anti-Black, and anti-Palestinian slogans, the mob set about attacking the students and faculty in the camp. Massive speakers blared noise at the encampment: first, a baby crying, then sirens, an eagle screeching.

The siege, which went on for hours, truly was like something out of a horror movie. Or, rather, it was like real life footage we’ve seen before: one of those settler pogroms that have been taking place in the West Bank with increasing frequency, terrorizing Palestinian communities. Westwood is not the West Bank, however, and our community isn’t supposed to be structured around the same violent principles that dictate the rhythms of life in a settler-colonial and apartheid state of belligerent occupation. The United States has a long history of racialized law enforcement responding selectively in the face of violence (not to mention selectively directing violence at communities of color), but we don’t generally think of ourselves as vulnerable to this kind of vigilantism, on such a scale, for so long—and certainly not on the campus of one of the nation’s great universities.

Many of the media stories covering the Zionist mob’s attack on the Palestine solidarity encampment used vague terms such as “clashes” or “violence” to remove agency and obscure which was the belligerent party and which the one defending itself, but what happened on the ground was not nearly so ambiguous. The mob hurled missiles, sprayed irritant gases, repeatedly tried to breach the camp’s perimeter, and assaulted members of the camp’s security team—armed only with their training in nonviolent techniques of de-escalation—both inside and outside the perimeter. Students aged 19 or 20 found themselves under attack by men in their thirties and forties, some claiming to have had military or paramilitary training. Several student reporters for the school newspaper, there to observe from the outside, were set upon by the mob. One of them received repeated blows to her chest and abdomen requiring medical attention; over 20 other students and faculty members were injured and also required medical care, including one student who needed staples to close a gash in his head inflicted by the mob. Stations were set up inside the camp to use water to cleanse students’ eyes from the effects of the irritant gases.

As the attack escalated, the university administration remained—and this is the charitable reading—paralyzed with indecision.

For days prior, the administration had done nothing to prevent smaller Zionist groups from terrorizing the encampment, especially at night. The culminating assault last Tuesday evening was the inevitable result of any lack of deterrence on the part of the university, any move to protect its students and faculty members from attack by off-campus vigilantes. On the very eve of the attack, UCLA chancellor Gene Block carelessly depicted the encampment as “unauthorized,” showing that the university was in effect washing its hands not only of its students’ right to protest but also of their physical safety and well-being, even at the very heart of campus.

Days before the culminating attack, campus officials had allowed off-campus protesters—seemingly supported by a collection of outside donors—to erect a massive screen-and-speakers installation to inflict an audiovisual assault on the camp at all hours of the day and night, looping videos of the October 7 attack. When nearby classroom buildings were rendered out of service as a result of the unbearable sights and sounds, the administration did little more than shrug its shoulders and fecklessly assert its commitment to the right to protest. “The administration exhibited an attitude of indifference to the legitimate threats and harassment faced by protesters, with predictable consequences that exploded into public view last night,” the ACLU Southern California wrote the day after the mob attack. “By refusing to do anything to protect students who were protesting in solidarity with Palestinians over the past few days, the University has effectively taken the side of people who have attempted to violently suppress the speech of those in the encampment,” the civil rights organization asserts. “The violence is, in part, a result of the University’s failure to act.”

The ACLU’s rebuke was an understatement. The university had acted, in the worst possible way. In that statement issued on the eve of the attack, Chancellor Block denounced the student encampment but made no mention of the Jumbotron sound system that—unlike the student encampment—had rendered much of the campus unusable for instruction and, in any case, wasn’t engaged in principled protest so much as crude audiovisual vandalism, if not outright terrorism. “Many of the demonstrators, as well as counter-demonstrators who have come to the area, have been peaceful in their activism,” Block declared. “But the tactics of others have frankly been shocking and shameful. We have seen instances of violence completely at odds with our values as an institution dedicated to respect and mutual understanding.”

Block’s statement was misleading, obscuring the fact that the student encampment was entirely peaceful and ecumenical (affirming, for instance, Jewish and Muslim traditions alongside one another) and the counterprotesters were not. For days on end, beginning the very day the camp was established, the violence came from one side only, while the students’ main defensive tactic was to de-escalate, precisely not to engage the opposition. Block’s missive gave cover to a carefully choreographed theater of violence by rendering it as “tactics” undertaken by nameless “others” in “instances” that he was unwilling or unable to specify, much less to associate with one side rather than the other. In effect, Block’s letter had thrown the nonviolent students and faculty members under the bus by lumping them in with the vigilantes that had tormented them for days prior to the mob assault. Tarnishing UCLA students with vague and deceptive generalizations perfectly expressed the abandonment of the duty of care the chancellor owes the campus community he claims to lead.

Unfortunately, Block’s dereliction of duty got even worse than that. “UCLA supports peaceful protest,” he wrote in that same encyclical to the campus community, “but not activism that harms our ability to carry out our academic mission and makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid. These incidents have put many on our campus, especially our Jewish students, in a state of anxiety and fear.” That the camp itself was, according to Block, the source of this bullying and fear (rather than the off-campus interlopers whose presence the university had tolerated as a gesture of its faith in academic freedom) was made obvious by that gesture reserving special concern for “our Jewish students” who, according to Block, exist in a “state of anxiety and fear.” This, of course, was exactly what was being claimed by the counterprotesters purporting to be acting “in support of Jewish students” (as the Jewish Journal put it). By affirming one of the main claims that the counterprotesters had been making in the days leading up to the mob attack, the university seemed to have taken sides, reinforcing the idea that the camp was supposedly inflicting such “anxiety and fear” that it needed to be dealt with one way or another. Thus, the university itself seemed to open the door to off-campus vigilante action.

Three things are at stake in this rhetorical maneuver.

First and most obviously, Block’s letter was parroting what has emerged (thanks to vigorous and well-coordinated lobbying that more than compensates for a glaring lack of substantive evidence) as a national narrative of “Jewish students” feeling “anxious and fearful” on campuses across the country in what we are constantly told is a “crisis of antisemitism,” or, to use President Joe Biden’s recent words, “a ferocious surge of antisemitism.” I have argued in other places that this “crisis” has been largely fabricated through a mendacious campaign to conflate anti-Zionism with actual antisemitism and hence to knowingly misrepresent—and thus discredit—a rising tide of protest against Israel’s campaign in Gaza simply as racially motivated animus against Jewish people. After all, in national news media, in streams of press releases breathlessly issued by the Anti-Defamation League and similar outfits, in statements issued by right-wing (and probably genuinely antisemitic) politicians, and in congressional hearings, this narrative has relentlessly been deployed despite its total detachment from reality.

The fact of the matter—backed by a mountain of evidence—is that the students (and faculty, and editors, and others) who have not only had job offers rescinded but also have been doxed, placed on blacklists, sprayed with irritants or chemical weapons, fired, suspended, banned from campus, ejected from dorm rooms and rendered homeless, attacked by riot police, arrested, run over by cars, and literally shot and injured are not these generic, essentially caricatured, “Jewish students” to whom our attention is tirelessly being directed, but other students, spanning a range of racial, ethnic, gender, and religious backgrounds—white, Black, Asian, Latinx, Arab, Muslim, Christian, atheist, and Jewish—who have been advocating Palestinian rights and protesting against our collective and institutional complicity in Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. Thus the attention that ought to be focused on those suffering actual material harm is being monopolized by those claiming to feel anxious—or, rather, those whose anxiety is being proclaimed on their behalf by powerful institutions and self-serving politicians. In other words, while national attention is manipulated into focusing on some Jewish students who say that they feel uncomfortable or anxious in view of the protests against the Gaza genocide (which no doubt some do—everyone ought to feel uncomfortable that we are complicit in genocide), hardly anything is being said about the actual material harm, including physical injury to the point of disability and the threat or actuality of lost job prospects and future careers suffered by those advocating for Palestinian rights—including countless numbers of Jewish students.

This brings us to the second point. Pandering politicians like Tom Cotton may claim, referring to the student encampments proliferating on campuses across the country, that “these Little Gazas are cesspools of disgusting antisemitic hate full of pro-Hamas sympathizers, fanatics, and freaks.” Journalists like CNN’s Dana Bash may proclaim that “[d]estruction, violence and hate overtake college campuses across the country with Jewish students feeling unsafe at their own schools.” But the fact of the matter is that many of those inside these “Little Gazas” are Jewish students, often in leadership roles in organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine or the allied campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace. The insistence, then, that “Jewish students” feel “unsafe” is a grotesque misrepresentation of Jewish student and faculty life on campuses across the country. Jewish students, like Jewish faculty—like any other group of people on any campus across the land—do not constitute a monolith irreversibly yoked to one set of political narratives. Many Jewish students and faculty members across the nation have committed themselves to the campaign for Palestinian rights. “[W]e will not let our Jewish identity be co-opted,” a group of Jewish students at Brown University wrote a month into the attack on Gaza, for example. “Our Judaism compels us to oppose the Israeli state,” they continue. “As we grapple with millennia of Jewish struggle and survival, we will not abandon our Palestinian cousins and peers, or let them stand alone. This genocide cannot continue. Not in our names.” And many Jewish students and faculty members have put their bodies on the line, as at UCLA, to defend Palestine solidarity camps from attack by other Jewish people espousing a diametrically opposing politics. It is impossible, then, to reduce “Jewish students” to the depthless monochromatic caricature propagated by venal politicians; the reality is far more complex than that.

Third, Block’s statement conformed to a long tradition maintained by the chancellor in prioritizing the well-being of one campus community while pointedly ignoring another. For years, faculty members have been publicly and privately warning that Block has consistently downplayed, overlooked, or simply ignored the rights and feelings of the university’s Arab-American and Palestinian American students, faculty, and staff while focusing single-mindedly on certain Jewish students on campus. An open letter to Block published by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2021 drawing his attention to this disparity received no response from his office. After the October 7 attack, the chancellor published letters expressing his concern for Israeli victims but relegated any feelings for the Palestinian victims of the ongoing Israeli bombardment to a virtual footnote, and dozens of UCLA faculty published another open letter to Block warning him that his lopsided statements made it clear that the feelings, thoughts, concerns, and worries of Arab-American and especially Palestinian American students, faculty, and staff and allied communities of color on campus count for almost nothing, and that such statements “contribute to making UCLA a hostile work and study environment for all these communities.” That letter, too, received no response from his office, nor did yet another open letter, published in December in UCLA’s Daily Bruin, again calling for the university to affirm Palestinian rights and the value of Palestinian life and to assert students’ right to protest and freedom of assembly in the face of the already rising calls by pro-Israel and Zionist institutions and individuals (including some faculty at UCLA itself) to suppress campus activism against the rapidly escalating situation in Gaza. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) soon afterwards recognized Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as a “plausible” campaign “of genocidal acts,” and the ICJ ordered Israel to stop engaging in forms of violence that violate the articles of the Genocide Convention. Not only has Israel refused to heed the court’s order; it has also escalated its attacks and, according to the United Nations, reduced the population of Gaza to starvation. Ultimately, any attempt to suppress criticism of Israel’s campaign—or even to equivocate about its nature—is, in effect, an ideological extension of the genocide itself and helps to sustain it.


California Highway Patrol SOU officers raid Dickson Court encampment outside Powell Library and Royce Hall, May 2, 2024. Photo by Jeff Share.


In any case, the day after the mob attack on the UCLA encampment, the administration itself—pushed on by the UC Regents—called in riot squads and stood by as police snipers set up on the roof of Royce Hall and as members of the UCLA community were attacked by officers who were filmed throwing military-grade stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at close range into a crowd of unarmed students, injuring several. The police eventually arrested 200 people, subjecting many to abuse and ill treatment. Administrations at other campuses in the UC system (UC San Diego) and beyond (USC, Emory, Columbia, Washington University, and countless others) have done the same, in a vain attempt to suppress a national student uprising that demands an end to the genocide in Gaza and calls for the dismantlement of the system of investments, subsidies, and institutional relationships that helps maintain Israeli apartheid in general.

Shortly afterwards, UCLA announced the creation of a new “Office of Campus Safety” run by the former chief of the Sacramento Police Department, to whom the administration now seems to have relinquished its authority over campus. His first act was to order the arrest, yet again, of UCLA students; the deployment of dozens of police officers, some armed with assault rifles, at UCLA; and the suspension of normal campus life. Today, the UCLA campus is all but a student- and faculty-free zone, under police occupation and patrolled by armed law enforcement officers and private security guards, while classes and meetings have been pushed online. It is as though the police have taken over the university, making conditions of study impossible for students and conditions of work intolerable for faculty and staff, especially those from communities of color. A campus that has insistently trumpeted its commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” for the past several years looks less like a university than like an armed camp or a prison, punitive and unequal rather than inclusive and welcoming; bristling with automatic weapons where students should be.

All of this raises a key set of questions: For whom is campus to be “safe”? For students and faculty exercising their right to academic freedom including the freedom to protest? Or for those who require a militarized system of surveillance and policing in order to feel “comfortable” in maintaining a status quo that has continued for far too long? Do we want to retain our freedom to think, our ability to criticize a foreign power engaged in a policy of genocide in which we are all complicit because our institutions invest in it, our tax dollars finance it, and our elected officials lend it unblinking support? Or do we want to see our campuses turned into desolate zones of state indoctrination patrolled by riot police—with curricula and policies dictated by donors and lobbyists—as more and more students are arrested, swelling the ranks of the more than two thousand already detained across the country?

The barricades going up at desolated campuses across the land—from UCLA to Columbia—are a warning of what the future holds unless we act now to reclaim our universities from the carceral and militarized police systems that seem to be overtaking them before our very eyes. Our administrations have betrayed the principles of academic freedom that should guide our institutions. The police have to go and the role of faculty in university governance must be restored. Above all, our students should be free to express themselves intellectually, academically, culturally, aesthetically—and politically.


Featured image: Police marching toward student protesters on Royce Hall quad is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED.

LARB Contributor

Saree Makdisi teaches English and comparative literature at UCLA. His books include Reading William Blake (2015) and Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial (2022).


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