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Authoritarians love state violence


Here’s the reporting in the NYT (reprinted from local news sources) on the demonstration at the University of Michigan’s graduation yesterday:

On a balmy Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich., thousands of graduates in caps and gowns filed into the biggest stadium in the country for the University of Michigan’s graduation ceremony.

As tens of thousands of spectators found their seats in the packed Michigan Stadium, planes with dueling messages circled overhead: one with a banner that read, “We stand with Israel. Jewish lives matter,” and another with the message, “Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!”

Then, dozens of pro-Palestinian graduates draped in flags, kaffiyeh and graduation caps marched down the center aisle toward the stage. They chanted, “Regents, regents, you can’t hide! You are funding genocide!” calling for the university to divest from investments that have benefited Israel.

At least a dozen officers from the Michigan State Police quickly followed to block the parade from making it to the stage, urging protesters to retreat to the back of the graduates section.

As the chants reverberated throughout the stadium and demonstrators talked to the police, some students got up from their seats and joined in, disobeying police officers who told them to sit down.

But other students — some with the Star of David on their caps — were enraged by the disruption and demanded that the protesters be kicked out. “You’re ruining our graduation!” one yelled. Some patrons in private boxes hung Israeli flags from their seats.

Once the demonstrators moved to the back of the ceremony, tensions simmered, and the protest remained peaceful. University officials said that peaceful protests are not uncommon at graduation or university events.

The chants never stopped — though how audible and distracting it was might have depended on where people sat in the stadium — but the audience returned their attention to the stage as the ceremony carried on.

Here’s the way the incident was described by a friend of mine attending the graduation:

When the Secretary of the Navy started speaking, the protestors got up from their seats and went to the back of the field (behind most of the grads). They gathered there for a bit, started some chants, unfurled some banners and flags. They soon started marching straight up the middle aisle, towards the stage. The cops intercepted them halfway to the stage. They stopped. This wasn’t a lot of cops – maybe 8 or 10 in front of them.

They stayed in the middle like that for quite a while. Lots of chants. There just weren’t that many protestors: maybe 50 or so? Big stadium, so they weren’t loud, but it was a distraction.

Then then went to the back of the field again and stood there for a while, with the chants and signs. At some point, the signs went away. I’m guessing that the cops told them that signs weren’t allowed.

That was pretty much it. On a scale of 1-10, it was about a 2, I would say. A distraction. For the kids sitting in the way back, it probably was much worse: maybe a 6.

I thought UM handled it well. Kicking them out would really have escalated things and made it worse. They let them stay, everything was peaceful, they weren’t loud for the most part.

This kind of thing is incredibly disappointing to the Tom Cottons of the world, who want to see student protest, or more precisely left-wing student protest, quashed by police violence.

Here’s the kind of response they would very much prefer:

A Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor was among those arrested at Washington University Saturday during a protest calling for the university to divest from Boeing amid Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza — and his wife says he was brutally beaten.

Steve Tamari, a history professor, was recording video of the students and activists circling the makeshift encampment as police began their arrests on Saturday. 

In a video posted by his wife, Sandra, Tamari is grabbed and wrestled to the ground by at least four officers. Three other officers stood in front of them as they worked to zip tie his hands to block press and protestors from recording the scene.

Sandra Tamari writes that she was also arrested.

“I was arrested at the Gaza encampment at Washington University in St. Louis on Sat. My husband, a 65-year old full professor at S Illinois Univ Edwardsville, was brutally beaten by police,” she writes in a post to X (formerly Twitter) accompanying the video.

In a reply to the video, Sandra Tamari adds, “When the police moved into the encampment, there were young children present. In some of the videos of the arrests, I can hear the voice of the 10-yr old daughter of a friend yelling, ‘Don’t hurt him! Leave him alone!’”

At a press conference in Forest Park called by the activist group Resist Wash U on Tuesday, Nawal Abuhamdeh, one of the activists who was at the encampment on Saturday, read a statement by Steve Tamari, who she said was unable to attend in person because he remains hospitalized.

“Over the last seven months. I’ve been in agony watching my people in Palestine be slaughtered with U.S. bombs and funding. I joined the student led protests on Saturday to stop the genocide and support and protect the students,” Tamari’s statement said. 

Tamari said he was “body slammed and crushed by the weight of several St. Louis County Police officers and then dragged across campus by the police. As a result of police brutality, I am now in the hospital with multiple broken ribs and a broken hand.”

One doctor told Tamari he is lucky to be alive, he said: “My lungs could have been punctured and I could have died on the ground as they abused me.”

Tamari added that Wash U rejected invitations from students to engage in dialogue about divestment from Israel and Boeing.

I’m glad to see that a number of Wash U law professors have joined others in writing a letter of protest to the university’s administration, regarding the administration’s decision to respond violently via the police to what appears to have been a wholly peaceful demonstration.

One thing that apologists for authoritarianism love to do is to divide violence into two categories: on the one hand, violence, and on the other, “maintaining law and order,” which, by some magic ideological alchemy, is not violence, even when it looks exactly like the former category of events, except it’s being carried out by agents of the state.

Thus police violence isn’t violence by definition.

I’m not an anarchist or a pacifist, so I realize that state violence is sometimes necessary. But unlike Tom Cotton et. al., I try not to get a cheap sadistic thrill out of its use, even when its being deployed appropriately, such as against the January 6 seditionists, who in fact should have been dealt with far more violently by the state than they were.

Recognizing state violence as violence isn’t just some academic point: The question, “should the administration use police violence to break up a demonstration?” sounds quite different than the question of whether “should the police be called in to enforce law and order?” For one thing, it makes it far less likely that people who aren’t conscious authoritarians will think that the answer should be yes.

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