USC: This is a teachable moment

The April 24 pro-Palestinian protest did not disrupt student life; it is at its very heart.

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks to fellow protestors during the Gaza Solidarity Occupation. (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

A wave of campus protests against Israel’s war in Gaza has swept across the United States, beginning at Vanderbilt and accelerating nationally with Columbia University. That wave hit USC on April 24, when students pitched tents at Alumni Park in the early morning hours, following the Columbia model, to “join the nation-wide call by students for their universities to disclose their finances and endowment, [and] to divest from israeli violence,” in the organizers’ words. 

The University administration decided to follow Columbia’s repressive example and called in the Los Angeles Police Department to break up the encampment and arrest over 90 people. This was one of several egregious mistakes that the administration has made in its handling of student responses to the mass slaughter of Palestinians, beginning with the cancellation of Valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech. 

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In a memo to the campus, Provost Andrew Guzman claimed that the student demonstration resulted in “the disruption of classes and other essential functions of the university.” As faculty members who were present at Alumni Park for much of the Gaza Solidarity Occupation, we refute that claim and the notion that the protesters were comprised of “many of whom do not appear to be affiliated with USC.” While some community members were present, we saw dozens of our faculty colleagues, graduate students and undergraduates. Most of the demonstrators, the Los Angeles Times reported, “appeared to be undergraduate age.” 

Campus life appeared to be normal during midday at USC Village and Tutor Campus Center, where the chants from Alumni Park could barely be heard, if at all. The student protesters assembled to demand an end to a war in Gaza that has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, more than two-thirds of them women and children, which the U.S. has supported through billions of dollars of aid and weapons to Israel. 

Many of our students have also been organizing tirelessly for months, staging die-ins and other peaceful protests in support of Palestinians and honoring those among our community whose families and loved ones have been killed in the siege on Gaza.

Students who did not wish to engage with the protest April 24, meanwhile, did not have to, while the student protesters were exercising their free speech rights on a public commons of the campus. Given the considerable tuition students have paid, they have a right to be there.

While the students were loud, they were also peaceful. The schedule for events at the encampment, shared on Instagram by the protest’s organizers, began with yoga and meditation at 8 a.m. and featured a Kaddish reading at sunset, led by Jewish Voice for Peace. The gathering was multicultural, multifaith and well-organized. 

The students, passionate and articulate, did not harass passersby as they staged one of the largest protests we have seen in our multiple decades at USC as professors. This protest did not disrupt student life. It is at the very heart of student life, for it demonstrates a core value that we as professors, and USC as an institution, are supposed to cherish: the necessity of debating the principles, actions, and culture of our society and our country. 

Los Angeles Police Department officers line up outside Wilson Student Union with riot gear. (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

Such a debate, raising passions and heckles, might make some uncomfortable, but that is not a reason to suppress speech. And there is a very clear line between being uncomfortable, which can be beneficial in making us rethink our assumptions, and being threatened. 

The deployment of the Department of Public Safety and then the LAPD to end the protest was threatening. The loudest disturbance during the day was made not by students but by the LAPD helicopters circling overhead. DPS aggravated the situation by taking tents from students between the kite-making session and a healing justice session. DPS also ripped down signs hanging across trees. 

The enforcement of these rules, however, is selective and pointed. In our time at USC, we recall seeing many signs hanging across those same trees for “Take Back the Night” events, club recruitments, bake sales, pep rallies and more, despite the student conduct book’s prohibition of signs on trees or poles. People have also camped out on campus with tents, most likely without permission, most recently while waiting for access to a Travis Scott appearance. 

The proper campus response to a peaceful student demonstration should not be to call on DPS and then the LAPD, which sent in dozens of police officers in riot gear to arrest 93 people, including students and some of our faculty colleagues, for “trespassing” on the grounds where many of them work, and some of them live. The threat that the students posed was not to public safety but to silence and consensus on a war with which they disagree. 

To subject them to the threat of police violence was ironic, but so is the fact that the University administration called the police instead of relying on the very skills that the University is supposed to teach: debate and dialogue, critical thinking and analysis, and fostering an atmosphere in which dissent and disagreement are not seen as threatening or divisive but as the mechanisms by which we can achieve clearer intellectual, moral and political positions.  

USC is no more or less righteous than any other institution that has overreacted and created this security theater for political positioning and self-protection, from Columbia to New York University, where barricades have been erected by police, to The University of Texas at Austin, where Texas state troopers were called in. 

But given the many ways our University has failed our students around the very question of security — from George Tyndall’s abuse to the many students who have been sexually assaulted on campus with no consequence to their perpetrators — we find it especially insulting that our administration activated the police force against its own community in the name of “safety.” 

Department of Public Safety officers apprehend a protestor on Trousdale Parkway. (Henry Kofman / Daily Trojan)

We have seen protests, actions and recruitments for things on campus that we personally disagree with and even feel insulted by. But never would we have wished for the administration to call in the riot police on our behalf. 

Rather than engaging with student dissent, the University administration has issued a series of opaque decisions that silenced our valedictorian and then silenced — for a moment — hundreds of student protestors. That silencing of opinions that the University administration does not agree with, or fears, has ironically led to the cancellation of all commencement speakers. 

In the wake of this and the brutal response sanctioned by USC’s administration, we demand the University drop all charges against our colleagues and our students. This belated gesture might in the smallest way ameliorate the violence of police arrest inflicted upon our students and colleagues. 

More importantly and to the point, the administration should also — as the University of Rochester’s leadership agreed to do April 25, within 48 hours of their own student encampment — meet in good faith with our students about their demands for financial disclosure and divestment. 

In calling for a boycott, our students are following in the footsteps of the generations before them who protested and called for a boycott to hasten the end to South Africa’s apartheid regime in the early 1990s. 

The conflict over Israel’s obliteration of Gaza and the Palestinian people, and the American funding and munitions behind it, should have been what we professors call a “teachable moment” that could have taught lessons about war and conflict, justice and genocide. 

Instead, our University’s silencing of some of its students has now led to the cancellation of the general commencement, impacting all students. This, too, is a teachable moment, although one taught by self-inflicted injury rather than intentional pedagogy. The lesson is that silencing those we disagree with can end up silencing everyone.

Viet Thanh Nguyen 

Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature

& Karen Tongson

Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, English, and American Studies and Ethnicity

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