Universities close encampments in the name of ‘safety.’ Whose safety?

'What some may actually be feeling is discomfort with the truth, and the truth hurts.'

New York City Police Department officers arrest pro-Palestinian protesters outside a student-led encampment at New York University on Monday night, April 22, 2024, in New York. The protest and encampment were set up to demand the university divest from weapons manufacturers and the Israeli government. (AP Photo/Noreen Nasir)

(RNS) — The message first shared on Instagram last week quickly made its way through my local WhatsApp groups: Students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, (where I live and where several kids among our extended family and friends attend) were setting up a “liberated zone” for Gaza in front of the school’s Cabell Library.

Their demands mirrored demands of other protest encampments at colleges and universities across the United States, and three others in Virginia: Disclose all institutional expenditures; divest from all companies and partnerships that profit from the genocide of Palestinian people; defend and protect pro-Palestinian speech and activism and the right to protest without retribution; and declare support for a permanent and immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

By that evening, state, campus and Richmond city police in riot gear had descended on the students, tear gassing and arresting many. Hours later, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin told reporters, “My administration will continue to fully support campus, local and state law enforcement and university leadership to keep our campuses safe.” 

It’s the same rationale given at other colleges, where even more aggressive police action broke down encampments and arrested protesters. Meanwhile, a Jewish student at Columbia has launched a lawsuit alleging that the school failed to provide a “safe educational environment” for its students amid ongoing protests. The anonymous student felt an increasing risk of harassment, a sentiment echoed by scores of Jewish students around the country.

In Virginia, a Muslim student who wishes to stay anonymous shared screenshots of messages being shared on a local college messaging app calling protesters “jihadist terrorists” and calling for a poll that asked: “Who do you support? Israel (or) Radical jihadist terrorists.” And at Arizona State University, four hijab-wearing student protesters had their hijab removed by law enforcement following arrest. 

At VCU, a flier distributed at the demonstration said, “Safety is a priority. Stay together.” 

With a child of my own in college and family members at campuses across the country, all this concern about safety has me wrestling with what safety means. Who feels safe? Who doesn’t? Whose safety matters? Are feelings of discomfort being conflated with feeling unsafe? Can different people’s perceptions of safety even be reconciled with each other? As the above Muslim student told me, “Do you think Palestinian students feel safe at institutions that invest in an openly genocidal regime?”  

Political and campus leaders, pundits and government officials have all waded in with inflammatory words that often ignore the push-pull, the exchange of beliefs, the respectful disagreements and natural tensions that occur in a protest movement. They ignore the idea that the universities themselves are making things more unsafe (while pledging to prioritize student safety) by seeking suspensions and expulsions for student protesters and calling in police to break up camps.

President Biden said last week in a televised statement, “There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos. People have the right to get an education, the right to get a degree, the right to walk across campus safely without fear of being attacked,” adding that antisemitism has no place in America.

And that is true. Antisemitism has no place anywhere, along with Islamophobia, discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans, racism, the brutalization of Black and Brown bodies and more. But assertions that the protests are in themselves violent, antisemitic and unlawful and therefore need to be shut down are belied by the fact that most have been largely peaceful. 

The protests and encampments are also an outlet that channels ire and feelings of injustice in peaceful action. They serve to give space to a community standing up for a cause. Naturally, there will be those who find them offensive, but does police violence against protesters or outside agitators making trouble or counter protesters initiating violence make the protests themselves safe or unsafe? With more than 2,100 students and others arrested in campus protests (including professors) as well as many suspended or expelled as university administrators nationwide called on police to quell protests, I question the decisions taken by universities, which purport to prioritize student safety.

A second-year Jewish student at Barnard College, who also wished to remain anonymous, said that when students say they feel unsafe, do they mean physical safety? Until last week, “it was a lot more about hostility than physical violence,” she said. “The escalation, especially at Columbia, was when outside agitators were being violent with students,” she said. “But for a while, when people said they felt unsafe, it was much more of a ‘I don’t feel emotionally or spiritually at home or welcome here.’” 

Dr. Uzma Jafri, co-host of the Mommying While Muslim podcast and a physician in Phoenix, has been supporting protesters at Arizona State University, noting that there is nothing contradictory about peaceful protests. “I don’t think it’s impossible,” she said. “It is happening. But because there is a political agenda behind this (supposed) lack of safety, I think what some are actually feeling is discomfort with the truth, and the truth hurts.”

A sign is displayed at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. U.S. colleges and universities are preparing for end-of-year commencement ceremonies with a unique challenge: providing safety for graduates while honoring the free-speech rights of students involved in protests over the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

A sign is displayed at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. U.S. colleges and universities are preparing for end-of-year commencement ceremonies with a unique challenge: providing safety for graduates while honoring the free-speech rights of students involved in protests over the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

“It hurts when your therapist says, ‘I think you’re the problem,’ and that’s what these encampments are doing. They’re forcing this country to confront the reality of what’s happening in Gaza, and what many are feeling inside is a crisis of conscience. And, that makes them feel unsafe,” Jafri said.

So, when is it about feeling uncomfortable, even extremely so, versus a true safety issue? 

Sakina Poonawalla, a graduating senior at the University of California-Riverside, acknowledged that people’s perceptions of what feels safe can differ. “I think everybody’s safety matters for sure,” she said, but added, “I don’t think anyone’s safety matters more than anyone else’s. I think people are uncomfortable, which is the point of protests. It’s supposed to disrupt.”

At Barnard, where many students partnered with Columbia students in their protest movement, the Jewish student I spoke with said that until last week, when outside agitators holding antisemitic signs and shouting slurs outside Columbia’s gate turned things more hostile, the encampments made her feel uncomfortable, but not unsafe. “I do think there are … tons of people (with whom I may disagree) who I do feel comfortable or safe with.”

She added, “This is where compassion really comes into play. The thing that has made me more frustrated, the kids who I’ve heard say the worst, vile things, are angry, rich American kids. Your perspectives are rooted in the privilege you have,” she said. “The Columbia campus community is deeply destroyed and fractured. The actions taken here have deeply hurt the campus community.” 

The question is, at what price? This student doubts that divestment, at Columbia or other universities, would have made a difference. “Nothing Columbia could’ve done would’ve had a major impact on the war on Gaza.”

But the past several weeks of protests have brought the war and genocide in Gaza to the forefront of American attention and have shown Palestinians that they haven’t been forgotten. It has shown that in arguing about the safety of college students, those very students who are protesting want the world to know that Palestinians are “arguably in the most unsafe conditions around the world right now,” as the Virginia-based college student said. Might the recognition of that, and the possibility for justice in the Middle East it could create, make the whole world safer? The students, who hold the future in their hands and who have demanded their colleges to address their connections to Israel, seem to think so.

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