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'Just Shut Up and Study': The Backlash Against Campus Protests

Faced with penalties ranging from academic probation to arrest, students continue to push back against the idea they should stop protesting.

Pro-Palestinian protesters at Emory University
Protesters at many campuses, including Emory University, are calling for their schools to cut financial ties to Israel.
Arvin Temkar/TNS
In Brief:
  • Students are protesting at dozens of universities around the country, often coming into conflict with established or new codes of conduct.

  • Despite being met with penalties such as suspensions, the threat of expulsion and arrest, students and outsiders continue to hold protests.

  • These protests are unpopular with the wider public, in keeping with the trend of historical responses toward student movements.

  • This past Monday, the protest encampment in front of Florida State University’s (FSU) Westcott Memorial Building felt more like a picnic than a siege. Less than 30 students, from freshman to graduate students, sat on blankets in the hot Florida sun, barely shaded by the trees overhead.

    Some were chatting about summer plans while others kept tabs on protests at other schools. The majority were preparing for final papers or presentations in their classes. Members of the Tallahassee branch of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had set up two tables of snacks alongside banners emblazoned with slogans, with the Palestinian flag tied to light poles and statues.

    Some of the students were new to protesting, while others had organized before. All were connected by a cause they saw as important, concern over the war in Gaza. Asked why she was protesting, Trenece R., a student visiting from Florida A&M University, pointed to her past work organizing around reproductive rights. She cited disturbing footage she'd viewed on social media and said, “I would be wrong to see all of this and not want to get involved.”

    The student protests sweeping the nation are an attempt to hold universities accountable for the situation in Gaza, urging universities to disclose and divest from companies that they view as financial fuel for the ongoing conflict. These encampments range from small groups of protestors sitting together on blankets like the one at FSU, to tent cities where dozens or even hundreds of protestors essentially barricade themselves or claim an area of the campus.

    Morning Consult released a poll on Wednesday showing that 47 percent of Americans support banning pro-Palestinian protests on campus, compared to 30 percent who are opposed. At least 2,000 people have been arrested at such protests nationwide, according to an Associated Press count. On Thursday, President Biden called on protesters to keep their actions peaceful.

    “To every college president, I say: Remove the encampments immediately, vanquish the radicals and take back our campuses for all of the normal students who want a safe place from which to learn,” former President Donald Trump said on Wednesday.

    Administrators at various institutions have in fact sought to clear the encampments, sometimes calling in the police, but students such as Joelle, the president of Tallahassee’s SDS, are not deterred. “You can’t go in opposition to the state without facing opposition from the state," she said. She sees administrative and legislative pushback as par for the course. “I think it’s natural for them to oppose us,” she said. “They see what we’re doing as a threat even if it is completely peaceful.”
    Slogans taped to a statue at Florida State
    Placards cover a statue at Florida State University. (Zina Hutton/Governing)

    Consistently Unpopular

    Historically, colleges have been a site for major protests, which rarely receive support from administrators or the public. Student movements are always unpopular no matter what cause the movement is based on, says Robert Cohen, a historian at New York University. Cohen points out that Americans generally want students to just “shut up and study,” even when they share sympathies around the issue.

    “Even as the American public came to be opposed to the Vietnam War,” Cohen explains. “They still did not like the anti-war movement because of the way that the public sees young people, students and their roles.”

    Crackdowns have sometimes turned deadly. In 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four people and injured nine during anti-war protests at Kent State University. Just over a week later, at Mississippi’s Jackson State University, cops who'd arrived to disperse a crowd opened fire, killing two students and injuring 12 others.

    For the most part, however, student protests are generally peaceful. And, as Cohen points out, the current movement around Gaza — one that stems from a group in the 1990s that struggled to get traction until recently — is mild. At NYU, practically right outside of his apartment, Cohen says that there are only about 150 students at the encampment there — a microscopic percentage of the tens of thousands of students enrolled at the university. But these students are drawn together and connected by something that previous student protests lacked or didn’t know how to utilize: social media.

    “Vietnam was a televised war, but there wasn't social media where you can immediately have stuff on your iPhone,” Cohen says. “So I think that that helps to explain why everything's happening so quickly here that it's spreading like wildfire.”

    Facing Consequences

    The current spate of protests is not popular, particularly with some students chanting not just anti-Zionist but antisemitic slogans. On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed a bill, 320-91, that would broaden the definition of antisemitism under civil rights law.

    The overwhelming response to pro-Palestinian protests has been condemnation from administrators, changes to universities’ codes of conduct, suspensions and, in some cases, police action. There have been over a thousand arrests at college campuses nationwide, with multiple videos of the confrontations going viral across social media.

    Emory University professor Noelle McAfee was recorded identifying herself as the chair of the philosophy department as police officers detained her. In New Orleans, police officers on horseback attempted to manage crowds of protestors on the Tulane University campus.

    Even as administrators attempt to shut down these protests and maintain campus safety, students continue protesting and building encampments. At a press conference, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that student protestors would be expelled, saying, “The minute people start to face consequences, you are not gonna see this nonsense going on.”

    However, the threat of being arrested or expelled isn’t enough to prevent all students from protesting. Cohen argues they contribute to the problem. “This idea that you're going to get rid of student protest through repression, it generally doesn't work,” he says. “It backfires because even people who don't agree with the original demands are going to be upset about the police coming and arresting their fellow students for sitting on the lawn.”

    The difference has played out in real time, with less-confrontational universities such as Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins enforcing existing codes of conduct and keeping dialog open, avoiding clashes that have turned violent elsewhere. At Brown University, administrators and protestors reached an agreement to dismantle encampments after the college agreed to discuss student demands.

    By contrast, the effort to have New York City police clear the encampment at Columbia University on April 18 led to more than 100 arrests, but protesters quickly came back in force, with the crackdown helping fuel the spread of protests nationwide. On Tuesday night, shortly after UCLA administrators declared an encampment to be in violation of campus policy, counter-demonstrators attacked protesters, some of whom fought back, in what Chancellor Gene Block called “a dark chapter in our campus’ history.” (The encampment was removed on Thursday, with more than 200 people arrested.)

    In Tallahassee, the day after members of the SDS chapter spoke with Governing, five of them were arrested for trespassing after they made plans to camp overnight on campus grounds.

    “FSU has had a longstanding prohibition of camping on campus, for health and safety reasons, and any encampments installed on the campus will be removed,” says Carolyn Egan, Florida State's general counsel and vice president for legal affairs, in a statement to Governing. “With important rights come substantial responsibilities, and it is imperative that members of our campus community understand free speech as well as its limits and the consequences for conduct that exceeds these boundaries.”
    Florida State students spread out blankets as part of their protest
    Florida State students occupied a portion of campus on Monday. (Zina Hutton/Governing)

    A Long Hot Summer?

    May marks the end of the academic year for universities around the country. The beginning of summer raises questions about what shape these protests and encampments will take as college campuses empty out. Many professors and administrators will also leave the campus behind until August.

    Even as most students leave campus, officials at multiple universities are concerned that protests will interfere with commencement ceremonies in May. At the University of Southern California (USC), safety concerns first led to the university to cancel a planned speech by the pro-Palestinian valedictorian, then the cancellation of USC's mainstage commencement ceremony. That event will be replaced with other, smaller gatherings and will include additional safety precautions such as clear bags and ID checks.

    For the students currently protesting, the summer may mean a change in location and a decrease in the number of on-campus encampments, but not an end to their activism. For Florida State protesters, the summer represents a chance to plan ahead, while continuing to raise their concerns.

    “We know that during the summer, we’re not going to have as many people,” says Tavian, one of the organizers. “But we’ll still hold protests anyway, and try to invite more community members to come out.”
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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