Protests, Then and Now

Student protesters were right about Vietnam. They’re right about Palestine today.

Talk about déjà vu all over again. Here is a small sampling of recent newspaper headlines: “12 arrested at University of New Hampshire, school says”; “Yale police arrest pro-Palestinian protesters”: “Trump: ‘Radical left lunatics’ must be stopped on campuses”; “Police use stun grenades at UCLA.”

If you’re my age—75—or anywhere near it, what you’ve been seeing in the media, accompanied by images of heavily armed and armored police on college campuses, has got to resurrect memories of the Vietnam anti-war movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Back then, the protestors were characterized by Vice President Hubert Humphrey as “feeble, futile, and unnecessary.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said they were “neither morally, mentally, nor emotionally mature.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk asserted that the main source of dissent was communist sympathy while General William Westmoreland called the antiwar movement “an arm of Hanoi within the United States.” Vice President Spiro Agnew described them as “deserters, malcontents, radicals, [and] incendiaries,” while his boss Richard Nixon called campus protesters “bums.”

But we were not bums. I had spent three years on active duty as a U.S. Marine, fighting in Vietnam and receiving the Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in combat as well as an Honorable Discharge before I became an active participant in the anti-war movement. And the people around me, though perhaps naïve and overly idealistic, were not bums either.

Most were simply horrified that the country they loved was actively and cruelly pummeling, burning, flattening, and destroying a largely rural nation of rice farmers and fisherpeople, using high-tech weaponry against folks who plowed their fields with water buffalo. And all in an effort to prop up a South Vietnamese government that was no more democratic or less cruel than the people we were fighting, most of whom could not have told you the difference between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx.

Today, critics of the Palestine protests often focus on inflammatory phrases or symbols they see displayed, and act like they represent the movement as a whole. But the same was true in the 1960s. There were people in the anti-war movement who waved Viet Cong flags. There were signs that read: “Amerikkka.” There were even a few people who advocated violence and revolution. But no movement is a monolith. To focus on a few outliers is to distract from the unity of people who were against an unjust war then, and are against another one now.

With few exceptions, most of the violence on college campuses in the Vietnam years only began when cops and soldiers showed up, and waded into peaceful demonstrations with tear gas, riot clubs, and guns.1

The media, of course, focused heavily on this violence, simply showing and writing about cops and demonstrators locked in combat without making any serious attempt to determine who started what. As William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer discovered over a century ago, violence sells. Sensationalism is good for business.

But most of us were decidedly not violent. Most of us simply wanted the United States of America to be what we had been told all our lives that it was: a land of liberty and freedom, and a nation that meant well and did the right thing, a country where “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was not a contradiction in terms. What we were witnessing year after year in Vietnam was the negation of everything we had believed this nation stood for. And it hurt.

Now here we are, fifty years later, with college campuses in turmoil, college administrators calling in the cops—now so heavily militarized that they could well be front-line combat soldiers—and politicians calling for the protestors to be jailed or deported. Or worse.

And if you take at face value what you are reading and hearing and seeing in the media these days, you would hardly imagine that the vast majority of these encampments—that’s what they are: tents and all, a bunch of kids camping out on the lawn—are peaceful. Yes, peaceful. Non-violent. Not even any significant property damage, in most cases.

Yes, there have been protestors who yelled things like “We are Hamas.” There have been people who have verbally insulted individual Jews, fellow college students, calling them “Nazis” and “murderers.” There are those who see Hamas as a liberation organization of “freedom fighters,” and who desire the destruction of Israel. Such behavior is painful and intimidating and inexcusable.

But like the extremists of the Sixties, the extremists among today’s campus protesters are a minority. Indeed, many of the protestors are themselves Jewish. I listened recently to four Jewish college students from UCLA, Columbia, Michigan, and Tufts who are members of J Street, a group promoting dialogue, the dignity of both Palestinians and Israelis, and a two-state solution. (Check them out here.) It’s not the kind of perspective you’ll find on most media outlets, especially the ones most people listen to, if they’re listening at all.2

Yet the perception remains among far too many Americans that the demonstrators uniformly support Hamas and seek the destruction of Israel. Only this evening, while out for a walk, I happened to encounter the parents of several students I’d taught who asked me how I’ve been, having retired from the classroom five years ago. When I told them about the essay I’d been working on all day, they proceeded to tell me—unsolicited, mind you—that the protestors are both antisemitic and anti-Israel, are fueled primarily by “outside agitators,” and readily engage in massive property damage and the bullying of the Jewish students in their midst.

My attempts to engage this couple were futile. They kept up with the news, they told me, and they were not hearing any defense of the protestors or any justification for the encampments. Nor would they entertain the notion that much of the violence that has occurred in these encampments has been perpetrated by pro-Israeli counter-protestors, who are just as extreme as any pro-Palestinian. For instance, some Jewish protestors at the UCLA encampment report of violent attacks against them, including by people flying the flag of “Kach,” the fascist Jewish Defense League formed by Meir Kahane, outlawed in Israel, and then effectively un-outlawed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the truth is that, with very few exceptions, most of the violence only begins when the cops show up. Time after time, peaceful if disruptive encampments are being told to close down by college administrators, who threaten students with expulsion and arrest. And when that doesn’t work, here come the cops.

I’m not entirely sure how duly enrolled students at a college or university are trespassing in public spaces like, say, the campus, but in any case trespassing is not a violent crime. Even occupying a building, as students did at Columbia (reprising the events of 1968), is not violence. Guess when the violence starts.

Recently, President Biden asserted that “shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations” is not peaceful protest. So then he must believe such actions constitute violent protest? My dictionary defines violence as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” and the adjective form as “using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”

I suppose one might argue that closing campuses and canceling classes and graduations amounts to “killing” them, but the reality I inhabit does not consider inconveniences and disruptions to routine activities as constituting violence. In my world, violence means rural hamlets in the midst of rice fields obliterated by napalm, 2000-pound bombs dropped on urban apartment complexes. It means heavily armored cops wading into unarmed crowds wielding nightsticks and tasers, firing rubber bullets and tear gas, breaking bones and spilling blood.

Be that as it may, the protests of my youth and those of 2024 are certainly not mirror images of each other. History really doesn’t repeat itself (though as Mark Twain said, it often rhymes). For one thing, this situation involves one of the most volatile subjects in the world today: Israel. It raises all sorts of questions about anti-semitism, Zionism, the Holocaust, and the long sad history of persecution against the Jewish people. The emotional baggage attached to any discussion of the Holy Land—Israel, Palestine, the Middle East, call it what you will—is such that one is guaranteed to upset or offend or insult or enrage someone every time, and maybe even everyone.

Another major difference is that the Vietnam antiwar movement was directed at and against the protestors’ own government. It was our tax dollars that were paying for this war, and in our names it was being fought, and our brothers and cousins and friends were being asked and even required to die in it.

While the US government does indeed bear a very real responsibility for Israel’s actions in Gaza (and the West Bank, which has been largely overlooked by the magnitude of the disaster in Gaza), given the massive amount of financial aid the US pours into Israel, the overwhelming preponderance of which funds the Israeli Defense Forces, this is Israel’s war, not America’s.

The blood price here is not being paid by Americans, and young Americans, college-age Americans, are not at risk. While some of the protestors may be foreign nationals, even Palestinians with relatives in Gaza, adding immediacy and urgency to their participation in the protests, none of them is personally in danger of dying as a result of Israeli actions in Gaza.

But I know—because I was young once myself, and because I’ve spent a lot of my adult life teaching young people—that the young are idealistic, that they see right and wrong more clearly and feel the difference more keenly than we who have become old and jaded, that they are ever quick to observe: “That’s not fair!”

And when, in retaliation for the killing of 1,139 people and the taking of 240 hostages by Hamas on October 7, 2023, the Israeli government wages an endless war that has so far killed more than 34,000 people, wounded tens of thousands more, left millions homeless and in danger of starvation and the ravages of disease, and destroyed the infrastructure of civilized living—hospitals, schools, electrical grids, sanitation, water supplies, transportation—that’s just not fair.

And rather than zooming in on who is doing what to whom in all these encampments, rather than accusing this faction or that coalition of being guilty of this behavior or that insensitivity, rather than shaking our heads in dismay over the violence on U.S. campuses or the lack of objective reporting about that violence, I wish people could pay attention to what these young protestors are protesting—what they actually have to say—and do something to address the reasons they set up these encampments in the first place.

  1. For an enlightening experience that confirms my assertion here, track down and watch a documentary film called The War at Home (1979). 

  2. Other notable organizations that are working to end the war in Gaza include Combatants for Peace, Peace Now, and Jewish Voice for Peace. 

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