Guest columnist Laura Briggs: Why send police to halt a peaceful protest at UMass?

UMass Amherst campus

UMass Amherst campus GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Police arrested more than 130 people attending a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Massachusetts campus the night of May 7 after protesters who set up an encampment on the South Lawn refused to dismantle the camp and disperse.

Police arrested more than 130 people attending a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Massachusetts campus the night of May 7 after protesters who set up an encampment on the South Lawn refused to dismantle the camp and disperse. CONTRIBUTED

By LAURA BRIGGS

Published: 05-14-2024 4:58 PM

 

Let’s just say the obvious: The University of Massachusetts Amherst — indeed the overwhelming majority of universities — have never before sent phalanxes of police in riot gear to respond to peaceful protests by students within minutes or hours of tents being set up.

In 2011, “Occupy UMass” tents went unmolested for weeks. Last year, a housing protest was uninterrupted overnight until demonstrators decided to end it. The administration claims its “land use” policy prohibits encampments, but it does not actually say anything about tents.

As the Massachusetts ACLU said in its letter to college and university administrators, differential enforcement of an obscure policy is “viewpoint based enforcement” and is a First Amendment violation. In short, whatever one thinks about Gaza and Israel, we have a free speech problem.

Faculty, staff, and students at UMass today are deeply shaken by the violence by police at the behest of the UMass administration. We got up the next day to nightmare videos on Instagram of police with their knees on the backs of students (the position that killed George Floyd) and emails from students who were tased, pepper-sprayed, and beaten up.

Some, as a Gazette’s article makes clear, were arrested for nothing more than trying to observe police actions. We are seeing our students brutalized, dissent shackled, and protest criminalized on the eve of what many fear will be a presidential election that will be decided in the streets, through protest and counterprotest. This crushing of dissent is happening at the behest of MAGA extremists like Christopher Rufo and Elise Stefanik at the national level, while in the state, the president of the UMass system, Marty Meehan, is among the founders of a “coalition” of universities backing Israel.

Apparently, despite the fact that now two International Criminal Court cases have raised the question of whether Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza, students are not allowed even to voice an opinion about whether continued military action in a war largely financed by the United States is warranted — not even recently, when Israel’s actions in Rafah appear to have disrupted a cease-fire agreement.

We have made the claim for decades that universities are laboratories of democracy where many viewpoints can be heard and students are treated with respect. Today, it’s hard to believe that.

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Laura Briggs lives in Northampton.