"Fight real anti-semitism, not criticism of Israel," sign reads at protest Indiana University

Protesters gather in Dunn Meadow at Indiana University to protest against the Israeli ground operation into Gaza. The rally was titled, "Stand With Gaza. Rally and Mourn The Innocent Lives of Palestinians".

(Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

From MLK Jr. and Bull Connor to Gaza and Indiana University

We are in very familiar waters when authorities hide behind claims of "public safety" to punish human rights defenders or criminalize dissent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is always a time to reflect on the man himself—a great man, and a very human one—on his colleagues, and on their accomplishments.

It is also a time to reflect on the violence and injustice that he and his colleagues faced as they sought to bring down a violent and unjust form of racial segregation and White supremacy.

This year my thoughts have turned to a man who once stood tall and proud as a symbol of the social order King challenged. History has not treated him kindly. But his story is nonetheless central to the story of civil rights.

Theophilis Eugene Connor was for over two decades the Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. Better known by his nickname, “Bull,” he enforced law and order throughout his city with an iron fist. During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1963 Birmingham campaign, named “Project C” for “Confrontation,” he distinguished himself by patrolling the city in his tank, turning water hoses and police attack dogs on crowds of peaceful protesters that included children, filling his jail cells far beyond capacity, and doing it all as a proud defender of law and order.

He is justly remembered for his racism, his violence, and his hostility to King.

But it is worth recalling that he was a respected man in his community who was returned to office many times, an upstanding White citizen committed to public service and to the Constitution—which he saw as an instrument of Jim Crow racism and “state’s rights.”

The most extraordinary thing Bull Connor ever did was to arrest Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is tempting to imagine that he arrested King for speaking out or protesting against racial segregation. But that would be mistaken. He arrested King for leading a public march without a proper permit, and for disobeying a court injunction that his organization cease gathering in public without a proper permit.

Connor was protecting public safety as he understood it, in the face of a group determined to assemble on and march down public streets even if those in authority refused to recognize their right to do this and sought to prevent them from doing so.

The official rationale was not “Black people do not have the right to protest.”

The official rationale was “no group has the right to protest without a properly authorized permit, and it just so happens that these Black people have never quite managed to properly obtain the proper permit.”

The attack dogs, the water hoses, the manifest cruelty—these things rightly shocked the conscience of the nation (though not so much the conscience of White Southern society). These are the things we remember today. But we must also remember that, however cruel and bombastic was Connor, he was doing his job as the rules required him to do. This must never be forgotten.

Ever since the French Revolution’s infamous Committee on Public Safety, authorities acting in the name of the common good have all too invoked “public safety” to justify the violent repression and imprisonment, and more commonly the harassment and firing, of dissenters. Under Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it was common for activists critical of the regime to be arrested for illegal public gatherings that supposedly posed a threat to the safety of the community. In 1953, the South African apartheid regime passed its infamous “Public Safety Act” designed to tamp down on public gatherings and peaceful protests by the African National Congress.

While “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, even here, under a supposed “constitutional democracy,” it has been exceptionally difficult for dissenters to actually secure unhindered access to public space. The reason: because it has been exceptionally easy for those in power to exploit common-sense procedures, like obtaining a simple permit, in order to prevent “troublesome” or “radical” public gatherings from taking place. All in the name of public safety.

King, in his rightly celebrated “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” understood this well:

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

Now, even as we celebrate King, those in authority all too often fail to heed his admonitions. Instead they follow the script of his critics, adversaries, and attackers. Like those criticized in his powerful “Letter,” they preach abject submission to the rules as those in power understand them, and stand ready to punish those who refuse.

On campuses across the country, the technical procedures for obtaining proper event permits, combined with appeals to “public safety,” are being used by higher university administrators to crack down on pro-Palestinian advocacy. In recent weeks my university, Indiana University, has twice done this. First it suspended a tenured professor, Abdulkader Sinno, because the Palestine Solidarity Committee he advises, when denied space authorization on flimsy and obstructive grounds, went forward with a public talk that proceeded without incident—except for the suspension. Then it canceled a long-planned arts exhibit featuring the work of world-famous artist Samia Halaby, a Palestinian woman who speaks out on behalf of Palestinian rights. For both the suspension and the cancellation, the rationale was the same: the university’s commitment to “public safety” left it no choice.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “prevarication” as “avoidance of straightforward statement of the truth; equivocation, evasiveness, misrepresentation; deceit; an instance of this.”

There is no better word to describe what is going on right now at Indiana University, Columbia University, and other universities and colleges across the country, where administrators in love with their own power invoke procedural technicalities and logistical concerns to restrict public criticism of Zionism and pro-Palestinian advocacy. They claim to be protecting campus safety and public tranquility. But, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed centuries ago in his classic, On the Social Contract: “Tranquility is found also in dungeons; but is that enough to make them desirable places to live in?”

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