The real rioters? Cops and college presidents.

The kids are alright. The adults are not.

Welcome to my new free and premium subscribers. The Handbasket is fully supported by paid subscriptions, and I couldn’t keep doing this work without you. Not a premium subscriber yet? Upgrade here. Thanks for reading.

Denver police officer armed with a rubber bullet gun at a peaceful protest on Friday

On Friday I witnessed a riot. 

I wasn’t there in person, but thanks to social media, I was able to see the entire thing. The rioters, however, weren’t students protesting genocide in Gaza. The rioters were the police.

I watched via Instagram Live as several dozen students on the Auraria Campus—an educational facility that houses University of Colorado-Denver, Community College of Denver, and Metropolitan State University of Denver—linked arms and chanted in support of a free Palestine. There were a few tents sent up in the center of a large grassy plaza behind them. A cop on a megaphone announced they had 15 minutes to disperse otherwise they’d be arrested and prosecuted. What for was unclear. The campus sent out a safety alert claiming “civil unrest” and telling the community to avoid the plaza. But as someone who watched the whole thing end to end, I can say one thing with certainty: the only civil unrest came from the cops. 

“I don’t see a riot here. Why are you in riot gear?” the protesters chanted in the face of the cops who nearly outnumbered them. It was a good question with a pretty simple answer: Fear. The very next day, the encampment was back up, this time in the middle of a spring snow. The students were not afraid.  

At Ohio State University on Thursday (where the student newspaper confirmed that there were snipers on the roof of the student union building) cops reportedly used violence, intimidation and discrimination to get the peaceful protesters to bend to their will. Per a post from Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine at OSU published after Thursday’s protests and arrests:

At approximately 10:08 pm, over 70 police officers charged a crowd of over 250 students and community members, and made arrests against students who were beginning their Isha (evening) prayers. Ohio University admin called upon employees to set up lights and barriers to aid in the arrest of students. Around 41 students and community members, including a 14 year old and mostly women of color, were arrested and charged with criminal trespass, all of whom were not released until the next morning. 

Moreover, we have heard firsthand reports that unnecessary levels of violence continued to occur after arrests were made. Arrested individuals were humiliated, zip-tied, and denied religious rights. Muslim and Jewish students were subjected to religious discrimination, including hijabs being forcefully removed and taken away, being strip searched in front of male officers, and not given a space to pray.

The past week or so has been, in many ways, unfathomable: Palestine solidarity protests sprung up at college campuses across the country; Local and state police resorted to violence to break many of them up; Some universities changed their rules last minute just so they could criminalize previously benign student and faculty activity; Prosecutors in most jurisdictions with arrests won’t say if they’ll charge the protesters. Meanwhile in Gaza, multiple mass graves filled with hospital patients were uncovered. 

On top of it all, Christian Zionists—in and out of Congress—tried to take over as the true defenders of Israel, while failing to mention why they so zealously defend it. (Hint: If the Jews return to Israel, it will hasten the return of Jesus and an armageddon. Just don’t ask them what happens to the Jews once armageddon happens. Another hint: We go to hell.) Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson suggested in a speech on Columbia’s campus that it might be time to send in the National Guard. Evangelical preachers led a crowd that yelled things like “Go home, terrorists!”, “Go back to Gaza!” and “You want to camp? Go camp in Gaza!” at student protesters.  If this all sounds crazy, that’s because it is crazy. 

I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the protests and ensuing responses, making lists of all the encampments that popped up in the wake of Columbia’s, watching videos and reading testimony from as many as possible, communicating with students and professors at various campuses. But it’s been an impossible task: There is simply too much going on right now for any one person to metabolize. That’s why I endeavored to write this: I felt I needed to at least try to account for what’s happening in this very specific moment in time.

I’d planned to fly to Los Angeles Thursday morning to attend a press conference with 11 members of USC’s Muslim Advisory Committee who were resigning in protest of the cancellation of valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech. But around 11pm ET Wednesday night as I finished packing, I got a text from a friend: “LAPD heading to USC huh.”

I grabbed my laptop and tried to get reliable information, which has become increasingly difficult with ever-worsening Twitter and Google search functions and a platform like Threads that actively suppresses politics. Eventually I found images and videos of cops tearing down the encampment set up on campus earlier that day, and violently arresting student and faculty protesters. As much as I wanted to be there on the ground to follow-up on Asna’s story, my fear and anxiety about what exactly I was heading into felt otherwise. So I canceled my trip, determined to continue reporting the story from New York.

Thursday USC announced the campus was closed to outsiders, and the organizers of the Muslim Advisory Committee—which was formed last year to foster a more inclusive environment for Muslim students—let reporters know the press conference would be available via Zoom. I was relieved I was still able to attend.

“The substance of this decision totally undermined the purpose of the committee,” one of the resigning members, professor Dr. Sherman Jackson, said at the press conference of USC opting to cancel the Muslim valedictorian’s speech out of supposed safety concerns. “The manner in which this decision was taken suggested that the committee itself had no real standing with the university.”

And in their resignation letter, which was read aloud at the press conference, the members wrote to university president Carol Folt: “In barring Asna's valedictorian speech Muslims on campus have received a clear message: their University will not stand by them if they merely seem likely to speak out against genocide, let alone standing by Palestinians who are undergoing a genocide.” They demanded Asna be reinstated as a commencement speaker.

In the middle of the press conference, however, a reporter broke the news to the committee: The main commencement ceremony had been canceled altogether. What little hope remained for Asna to regain her rightful spot on stage was gone. The administrators were rioting yet again. 

On Tuesday I spoke to NYU adjunct professor and human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar who witnessed the cops rioting on his campus. He watched as students and faculty were dragged down the steps and into buses with their hands zip tied for the crime of protesting the university’s financial entanglements with Israel. In the midst of him processing this traumatic scene, I had to ask what he thought about reports of antisemitism at the various encampments and protests.

“If Israel is criticized as a state that's committing atrocities, that shouldn't be considered antisemitism,” Dakwar told me. “Unfortunately, accusations of antisemitism are again being used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel—and what Israel is doing in Gaza, in particular.”

And nowhere was that more clearly illustrated than this example outlined by New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen in her really well-done Friday column “The Student-Led Protests Aren’t Perfect. That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Right.” Polgreen writes:

On Wednesday morning, on a corner across the street from Columbia University, a man dressed in black, a huge gold cross around his neck, brandished a sign that featured a bloodstained Israeli flag and the word “genocide” in capital letters. He was also shouting at the top of his lungs.

“The Jews control the world! Jews are murderers!”

I watched as a pro-Palestine protester approached the man. “That is horribly antisemitic,” she said. “You are hurting the movement and you are not a part of us. Go away.”

The man shouted vile, unprintable epithets back at her, but the woman, who told me she had come to New York from her home in Baltimore to support the protesting students, walked away.

Hours later, a well-known congressional reporter covering House Speaker Mike Johnson’s visit to Columbia’s campus posted a photograph of the same man. “One sign here at the Columbia protest,” the reporter, Jake Sherman, wrote. “This man is ranting about Jews controlling the universe.”

The man wasn’t “at the Columbia protest.” The university’s campus has been closed to outsiders for over a week — even as a journalist and an alumnus, I had trouble getting in. He was, several people on social media told Sherman, a well-known antisemitic crank completely unconnected from what was unfolding on campus. Indeed, last week I had seen a man wearing an identical cross carrying a similarly lettered sign that read, “Google it! Jews vs. TikTok” protesting outside Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Lower Manhattan. He was, for the record, standing on the pro-Trump side of the protest area.

Polgreen is not denying the existence of this man: she is rightly diminishing his importance. That’s an essential distinction.

There’s a reason certain stories are the loudest. There’s a reason you’ve probably seen the same couple of viral videos a million times: because the anomalies are remarkable. But they are not representative.

For years conservatives derided college kids as liberal snowflakes who need safe spaces, who couldn’t handle the real world, and would literally melt when met with conflict. Seeing the anti-genocide students put their lives on the line makes it clear that characterizing them as weak and fragile was just a way to rob them of their power. Now that their power is clear, universities are trying to shut them down, and cops are beating the shit out of them. You don’t beat the shit out of snowflakes.

On Saturday afternoon members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front marched down the street in Charleston, West Virginia. They reportedly jumped out of the back of two U-Haul trucks wearing matching outfits with their faces completely covered and attempted to spread their hate through the community. According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, “The Charleston City Police stayed close by to avoid any trouble and the march appeared to be peaceful. It is unclear if the group had a permit for the march.” They’re just lucky they weren’t Pro-Palestinian college students. 

It’s worth acknowledging that some of the would-be rioters see another way: Washington, DC police refused to crack down on the peaceful encampment set up at George Washington University, my alma mater which is just a few blocks from the White House. [Update 4/29/24 10am ET: Police violently raided the GWU encampment late Sunday night.] UCLA’s administration has taken a decidedly hands-off approach to its student protesters, allowing them to continue their peaceful assembly. Seeing it’s possible to proceed without violence makes it even clearer that the cops and administrators harming students are making an active choice. 

“If you are trying to understand the function of policing in American society, then even a cursory glance at the history of the institution would point you in the direction of social control,” Jamelle Bouie wrote in 2020. He was talking about the police rioting against protesters who demanded they be held accountable for their brutality. Four years on, protesters are asking for accountability from their universities, and are largely being met with the same response.

I started The Handbasket two weeks before Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, having the distinct feeling we were headed towards hell. I just didn’t have any idea at the time how deep down we were about to go.

Join the conversation

or to participate.