Pro-Palestinian protestors disperse at GWU after police threatens arrests in Washington

George Washington University students disperse after DC police threatened to arrest them when they attempted to set up a new encampment in front of the school administration building in Washington D.C., United States on May 10, 2024.

(Photo by Celal Gunes /Anadolu via Getty Images)

These University Presidents Aren’t Leaders—They’re Lackeys

“Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” We know the answer now.

“The dog-star rages,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope. “All Bedlam (meaning insanity), or Parnassus (meaning poetic inspiration), is let out.”

Madness, inspiration ... we know which is which on American campuses. Protesting students, inspired by clear-eyed visions of justice, are being assaulted by the lunatic engines of violence. It is as clear a contrast of life against death as we’ve seen in living memory.

The dog star—Sirius, the harbinger of hot weather—had come earlier than expected when I visited the Gaza encampment at George Washington University (GWU) last week. The warm and humid air hovered over the tents and bodies when I arrived at dusk. That warm air lingered as a Jewish Voice for Peace organizer announced that it was time for the Muslims’ sunset prayer. It was still there when full darkness fell and the student muezzin called the night prayer.

However small our actions may seem, sometimes they change the future—even when we think we’ve failed.

The heat lingered late into the night.

What was the camp like? I’ve experienced such gentleness and love before, but I can count the number of times on my fingertips. I felt it at age 15 at the 1969 March on Washington. I’ve felt it at civil rights and peace marches, at protests against South African apartheid and the invasion of Iraq, at Occupy Wall Street encampments, the Women’s March, and vicariously at Black Lives Matter rallies while unable to venture into crowds.

Butterfly on a Wheel

In the same poem, Alexander Pope asked, “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” That question has come to mean, who uses cold cruel machinery to crush the fragile and beautiful? We know the answer now: Politicians. Corporations and billionaires. Media institutions. And college administrators. They speak, and the wheel turns again.

After days of congressional pressure, GWU’s president—no doubt in consultation with DC officials—called in the police, who used pepper spray on the encampment and arrested 33 people in an early-morning raid. While extreme, the violence against GWU was mild compared to that faced by students elsewhere. Students across the country have been beaten with fists and batons, slammed to the ground, crushed by barricades, shot by rubber bullets, and attacked with stun grenades.

Annelise Orleck, a 65-year-old professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, was arrested while defending her students. “It is a level of repression of campuses in the United States that I have not seen in my lifetime,” Professor Orleck said.

College Presidents Genuflect

It’s hard to imagine now, but university presidents were once considered leaders of society. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of Columbia before he presided over the U.S. government. The list of presidents who served as university presidents is long, in fact, albeit checkered with slavery and racism. George Washington and James Madison both led the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson ran the College of William and Mary. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton.

There are more recent, and more decent, examples of university presidents as leaders. Harris Wofford, president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, was actually arrested while protesting policy brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention. That didn’t prevent him from becoming president of Bryn Mawr College two years later—or from eventually becoming a United States Senator.

The politicians snapped their fingers, and campus and city officials—both of whom had been entrusted with the care and protection of their student/citizens—jumped.

That’s unlikely to happen today, for one simple reason: university presidents aren’t leaders anymore. They’re lackeys. They serve the corporations, billionaires, and government leaders on whom they depend. It’s no surprise that, when it comes to the encampments, most administrators have been dutiful subalterns. They don’t lead, they obey.

GWU administrators and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser agreed to the raid just hours before Bowser and other city officials were due to testify on why they hadn’t arrested the students already. House Republicans immediately took credit for cracking down on what the committee’s chairman falsely and maliciously called “radical, antisemitic, and unlawful protestors.” The politicians snapped their fingers, and campus and city officials—both of whom had been entrusted with the care and protection of their student/citizens—jumped.

Bipartisanship is Back

But it would be a mistake to think that either the lies or the attacks are instigated solely by Republicans. When it comes to maligning these students, President Biden has become the Slanderer-in-Chief. Only hours before the assault on GWU’s peaceful protesters, Biden gave an appalling speech filled with false claims of antisemitism. He also denied the existence of violence in Israel/Palestine before October 7.

The president declared that “there is no place on any campus in America — any place in America — for antisemitism or hate speech or threats of violence of any kind.” But he didn’t mention that student demonstrators have exclusively been the victims of violence, not its perpetrators.

The president also repeated his false claims of last week that the demonstrations were lawless, violent, threatening, and intimidating.His speech even suggested, in a thinly disguised game of association, that the demonstrators were merely the latest manifestation of Hitler’s atrocities.

There was a time when protesting students could expect Democratic politicians to support their idealism and their rights, even when they didn’t agree with their demands. With a few notable (and admirable) exceptions, however, there seems to be little sign of that now. Instead, inflammatory language from both sides of the aisle created the climate which made these police attacks possible.

There’s good news, however, for the political and media insiders who keep lamenting the loss of comity and collaboration between the two political parties. Bipartisanship is back, with a vengeance.

The Message

Professor Orleck, the Jewish Studies scholar manhandled by police, said this about the violent crackdowns: “They’re sending a message to American students.”

She’s right, of course. But they’re sending a message to the rest of us, too. Historian Adam Tooze described the police violence at Columbia in a vivid essay. “It is an intensely physical, sweaty, muscular business,” Tooze wrote.

The powers that be are showing their true face.

The physical intimidation and violence is close, palpable, almost intimate. It’s the state’s equivalent of domestic abuse. And the false accusations are like those of the abuser who says, “You made me do this.”

The powers that be are showing their true face. It’s the red and perspiring face of the bully with the gun and nightstick. It’s the snarling face of a cornered animal. Power is feral, forever fighting for its survival at the cost of everything it claims to value.

And so, the dog star rages as the summer heat closes in.

Unintended Consequences

The powerful hold the weaponry of bedlam, while the powerless have nothing but their inspiration. And yet, there’s hope in the horror. The powerful have turned violent because they’re afraid. They’re lying because they’re afraid. They’re passing bills to criminalize political speech because they’re afraid.

They’re breaking butterflies on a wheel because they’re afraid.

The powerful have turned violent because they’re afraid. They’re lying because they’re afraid. They’re passing bills to criminalize political speech because they’re afraid.

They’re right to be afraid. They know, or sense, that great social transformations often begin with a whisper. The rest of us should remember that, too. However small our actions may seem, sometimes they change the future—even when we think we’ve failed.

A popular concept holds that one small event, one slight shift in the trajectory of time, can alter all of existence. It comes from a Ray Bradbury story which tells of an arrogant and reckless man who, through a tiny act of unthinking violence, changes the world as he knew it.

The name of that concept is “the butterfly effect.”

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