Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) leaves Columbia University after visiting the pro-Palestine encampment on April 26, 2024 in New York City.

(Photo: Adam Gray/Getty Images)

House Progressives Blast Attempts to Discredit Pro-Gaza Campus Protests

Rep. Ayanna Pressley condemned "misinformation that aims to undermine this movement, outside agitators that detract from peaceful solidarity actions, and the aggressive response by law enforcement."

Progressives in Congress this week have joined professors and Holocaust survivors in supporting peaceful student protests against the U.S.-backed Israeli assault of the Gaza Strip as the demonstrators have been demonized by the White House, Democratic and Republican political leaders, police, administrators, and the corporate media.

"Peaceful protest is a central tenet of our democracy and students standing for justice have often been a catalyst for much-needed change," Rep. Ayanna Pressleysaid Friday. "From the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, the struggle for gender equality, and the movement for Black lives, to the global movement for peace in Israel and Palestine, many of the rights we tout today were earned thanks to the sweat equity of students demonstrating on college campuses across the nation."

Already, hundreds of students and faculty have been arrested for protesting at dozens of U.S. college and university campuses.

Pressley, who supports a cease-fire in Gaza, stressed that "every student, regardless of background or faith, has a right to feel safe and show up in the world without fear or discrimination—and we must ensure that those exercising their right to free speech are met with dignity and respect, not criminalization."

"We cannot lose sight of the horrific injustices that Palestinians in Gaza are facing."

"That is why I am deeply concerned about misinformation that aims to undermine this movement, outside agitators that detract from peaceful solidarity actions, and the aggressive response by law enforcement to students peacefully protesting across the country," Pressley said. "The National Guard or riot police should not be called in response to students' peaceful freedom of expression."

"I am grateful to students nationwide and across the Massachusetts 7th—at Emerson, Northeastern, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, Harvard, and more—who are raising their voices and putting their bodies on the line to press for action to save lives in Gaza," she added. "That is what this movement is about. We cannot lose sight of the horrific injustices that Palestinians in Gaza are facing and I am proud to stand in solidarity with peaceful protestors."

Since October, Israeli forces have killed at least 34,356 Palestinians, wounded another 77,368, and displaced around 90% of the besieged enclave's 2.3 million people. Thousands more remain missing in the rubble of devastated civilian infrastructure. The International Court of Justice has deemed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war—fueled by U.S. weapons and diplomatic support—plausibly genocidal.

Rep. Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn.) daughter Isra Hirsi was suspended from Columbia University's Barnard College earlier this month for "standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing a genocide." Omar—a war refugee and longtime critic of the Israeli government—has not only grilled the Ivy League school's president at a congressional hearing but also attended the ongoing demonstration.

"I had the honor of seeing the Columbia University anti-war encampment firsthand," Omar said Thursday. "Contrary to right-wing attacks, these students are joyfully protesting for peace and an end to the genocide taking place in Gaza. I'm in awe of their bravery and courage."

Omar is a frequent target of right-wing attacks, which she has faced in the past for being outspoken on foreign policy issues and this month for supporting student anti-war protesters.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) claimed that "Omar's pro-Hamas rhetoric solidifies the Democrat Party as the pro-terrorist party."

Responding to Emmer, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said that "this rampant Islamophobia is unacceptable. My sister Ilhan Omar is standing up with the students peacefully demanding a cease-fire to end the bombing, starving, and killing of Palestinian people. No amount of hatred is going to stop this movement for peace."

Bowman—who faces a primary challenger backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—has also slammed House Speaker Mike Johnson's (R-La.) trip to Columbia and law enforcement's crackdown against students.

"As an educator who personally experienced the overpolicing of our schools, this is personal to me," Bowman said. "We must resist right-wing demagoguery and stop suppressing peaceful protest if we are to keep students safe."

Both Bowman and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) visited the Columbia encampment on Friday. The congresswoman has also publicly challenged comments from New York Police Department of Patrol John Chell and taken aim at "vulnerable N.Y. Republicans in tight seats" who have gone to campus to condemn the nationwide demonstrations.

"They have played a key role drumming up pressure to crack down on students and asymmetrically police Palestinian human rights speech," Ocasio-Cortez said of her Republican colleagues. "Those campus hearings? GOP-led. They need to lose."

Police violence against students and professors has been on display across the country. A day after state troopers descended on a demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin, Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) addressed protesters, noting the decades of protests at the campus.

"We need a cease-fire now in Gaza. And it is up to us to live that out here today," Casar said, with the crowd echoing his speech line by line. "My message to the university is clear: Students and faculty are not the enemy. Students and faculty are the university. We are the university. This is our democracy. And we are going to save it, here and for the world."

"I am so proud of each and every one of you. Because you have raised your voices, Austin is the largest city in this country where your entire Democratic delegation voted 'no' on sending more weapons to Netanyahu," he noted, eliciting cheers. "There are millions more lives at stake and your continued organizing is the only way we can stop being complicit in this killing and instead get to saving our shared humanity. Solidarity forever."

After defeating a primary challenger backed by a billionaire Republican megadonor and Netanyahu ally earlier this week, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) on Thursday addressed the University of Pittsburgh's encampment.

"While Netanyahu compares students on campuses like Pitt—including Jewish students—protesting peacefully against genocide to Nazis and attempts to define the limits of our free speech and assembly, it's worth noting that there are no universities left in Gaza from Israeli and U.S. bombs," Lee said in a social media post about her speech.

"We must always confront and root out antisemitism anywhere it appears, and not let the white nationalist GOP be the arbiters or weaponizers of it," she continued. "Students engaging in the time-honored tradition of activism and civil disobedience is a crucial right we must all protect."

As Common Dreamsreported Thursday, Jewish Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—who lost family members to the Holocaust—also pushed back against Netanyahu's mischaracterization of U.S. campus protests, asserting, "It is not antisemitic to hold you accountable for your actions."

Others who have spoken out this week include Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who denounced Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to deploy the Georgia State Patrol at Emory University, saying the officers have "no place on the college campus. And neither do outside agitators who seek to usurp the peaceful protests against the Netanyahu government's killing of tens of thousands of innocent Gazans by giving life to a false narrative that the protest movement is violent and antisemitic."

Drawing on her own experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said that "as a Ferguson activist, I know what it's like to have agitators infiltrate our movement, manipulate the press, and fuel the suppression of dissent by public officials and law enforcement. We must reject these tactics to silence anti-war activists demanding divestment from genocide."

Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.) declared that "the rights to peaceful assembly and to express dissent are constitutional freedoms. Criminalizing young people who are using their voices to call for peace is not only harmful; it endangers the well-being of the students and the health of our multiracial, multicultural democracy. Resisting war and standing up for peace are not a crime."

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