Teaching Middle East Journalism in the Midst of a Crackdown

A University of Texas professor considers the effects of an alarmingly disproportionate police response to peaceful campus protests

Teaching Middle East Journalism in the Midst of a Crackdown
Police attempt to disperse protesters at the University of Texas at Austin. (Andrew Lee Butters)

I teach a course at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin School of Journalism on covering the Middle East, and this semester I gave my students the option of writing a final project about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is showing up here locally. Until now the answer was: not much. I invited pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli student activists to come talk to my classes and they recounted incidents of harassment on or nearby campus — “Free Palestine” graffiti at Texas Hillel (a center for Jewish students), for example, or the stabbing of a Muslim man after he returned from a peace protest nearby. Jewish students said they felt supported by the university through these incidents while Muslim or pro-Palestinian students did not. But overall, the mood has been civil compared to other college campuses around the country.

In fact, though I appreciate the live-and-let-live atmosphere of Austin, a liberal city in a conservative state, I was beginning to worry that my students wouldn’t have much material for their stories. In February, fellow faculty with Middle East expertise were on edge that a university-wide event we held to discuss the war in Gaza might devolve into some kind of security incident, but it ended up being just another academic panel. (No one even booed.) Last week, I went to a poorly attended event run by Palestinian activists to discuss the walkout planned for the next day in solidarity with Columbia students and Gaza. There were around 40 people in an auditorium that could have held hundreds.

But the university’s disproportionate police response to the demonstration last Wednesday changed everything. UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called on the university, city and state police to shut down the protests before they had even started. In a scene I would have found familiar in Cairo, Tehran or the West Bank, they sent dozens of state troopers in riot gear marching down the pedestrian thoroughfare lined with mossy oak trees that is the heart of student life on campus. Now my students, or those who aren’t in jail or missing class to bail out their friends, could write just as much about the collapse of civil and constitutional norms in the U.S. as they could about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That’s because university and state leaders have mischaracterized the intentions and nature of the protesters in order to justify a crackdown, and rather than making students safer, have unleashed a torrent of hate toward them. In a letter to the university community, the president cited the pro-Palestinian students’ intention to shut down the campus as part of a supposed national campaign targeting “top universities.” (Should we be proud?) The governor characterized the protests as antisemitic and said the activists should be expelled. Haters and bots online ran with the theme, as my wife, a Middle East Studies professor here, saw when photos of the protest she tweeted went viral and elicited thousands of angry responses reveling in the authoritarian imagery of mounted police moving in on students, smearing the protesters as either spoiled rich kids or paid Iranian agents, and promising to deliver Second Amendment remedies to the supposedly terror-supporting students who live on a campus where openly carrying firearms is legal.

But what I saw at the university last Wednesday was a diverse coalition of largely marginalized students of color at a public university — something like half of my students work full-time jobs — speaking truth to power at the risk of their safety, their educational status and career prospects. In doing so, many were embodying the values that we as adults have been too timid in upholding.

First of all, the idea that these protesters were trying to take over campus — or could have — is ridiculous. The scheduled program they circulated before the protest didn’t include calls for a tent encampment, but did include regular study breaks, with the last event — making art — slated for 7 p.m. And even if a few students had brought tents, a campout would have been a nonevent on UT’s sprawling grounds, with a 40-acre main campus and a student population of about 52,000 — if police had left them alone. Throughout the day, even when tensions were at their highest, business as usual prevailed almost everywhere except for the public safety intercom announcements that made many feel less safe.

The disruption and violence that did occur were the result of police actions. Cellphone video has emerged of the moment the day turned dark. Realizing that the police were about to arrest everyone, Palestinian Solidarity Committee leader (and Middle East studies graduate student) Ammer Qaddumi — the lead organizer of Tuesday’s protest — was attempting to disperse the crowd and negotiate a safe exit with a UT police officer when another squad of UT officers with zip ties showed up and dragged him away. At that point, students say that police cornered the protesters, beating and arresting several for not leaving, while offering them no safe way to do so.

All that did was strengthen the students’ resolve. They reconvened on the South Mall, an esplanade that forms a visual connection between Austin’s two iconic monuments, the pink granite neoclassical dome of the Texas Capitol and the art deco UT Tower, which projects the panoptic authority of the university administration, which has its offices there — but also a lingering sense of menace from its history as the site of the country’s first mass shooting in 1968. For hours on Wednesday, the police slowly but violently pushed the student protesters from the South Mall lawn. But as they did so, larger crowds from elsewhere arrived to support the original protesters, and the police were reduced to a symbolic circle formation around a tiny patch of grass.

The students were about as well behaved as you could expect under the circumstances. For the two hours or so that I watched the protest, I didn’t see or hear a single pro-Hamas, pro-militant or pro-terror slogan or sign. I didn’t even hear them chant “From the river to the sea,” though they apparently had done so elsewhere. I spoke with many of the pro-Israel protesters, some of whom carried signs that said things like “Rape is not resistance,” and none of them told me that they felt personally threatened at the event, though one Jewish counterprotester said that someone had told him to “Go back to Germany!” That said, I also saw some of those pro-Israel supporters — none of whom were restrained by police during the day as far as I could tell — celebrating and smirking when police would drag off pro-Palestinian supporters. At some point, the demonstration became as much about getting the police to leave campus — which they did by nightfall — as it was about getting Israel out of Gaza.

The pointlessness of the crackdown became apparent by the next day, when faculty and students gathered at an even larger demonstration under the UT Tower in support of those who had been arrested, and when the county district attorney announced that the evidence against arrested demonstrators didn’t even meet the lowest standards for prosecution. But the work of repairing a brutalized campus has been left to a faculty — especially those whose work is directly related to either the First Amendment or the Middle East (or, in my case, both) — who are increasingly wondering how to create civil discourse when voicing one side of a dispute that is dividing the world is grounds to have authorities unleash their powers of coercion. Conversely, I found myself in the position of attending Thursday’s free speech protest in my academic robes as an angry activist, not in my usual role as an observer, and saw one of the pro-Israel student activists, who had previously spoken to my class on covering the Middle East, leading counterchants. Will he feel welcome in my classroom next year now that he clearly knows that we are on opposite sides of protest lines?

At times like this, teachers often think we need to act as role models for the behavior we would like to inculcate in our students. So, I spoke to my journalism students about how recent events reaffirmed the core power of the reported storytelling method — of seeking out people on all the different sides of a story and practicing nonreactive listening, and then using both your own judgment and what you have seen and heard to tell the truth as best you can. And if that pro-Israel student activist who saw me protesting were to challenge me on my own bias, I’d call it moral clarity. I’d say that the objective reporting process isn’t neutral on human rights.

If we sit with the suffering of ordinary people or bear witness to atrocity — like Israeli hippie kids gunned down at a rave, or Palestinian hospital patients getting zip-tied and dumped into a mass grave — we have to accept that all lives on all sides of every conflict are equal, and that mass murder is not a solution to mass murder. As a teacher and a reporter, I have no opinion on what is the best way to make peace in the Holy Land — whether there should be a one-state or two-state solution or none — but I know that we all have to share space in our classroom, on our campus and on our planet.

But we are only able to do that work if we live in a free society, and at UT this week, we almost lost that. I had a full morning of teaching and meetings the day of the protest and at first could only follow events online. When I saw footage of the police crackdown, I couldn’t imagine how I could keep teaching, how I could keep my job, how I could stay in Texas, if gathering on a university campus to call out complicity in mass atrocity became a crime. But our students who refused to back down became our role models. They created space for us to be brave, to have hope and to keep telling the truth as best we can.

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