Police let violent mobs attack UCLA students. This is what lawlessness looks like

Judith Levine

Mon 6 May 2024 by https://www.theguardian.com/

Things had been tense at the University of California, Los Angeles, with some ugly jibes and the occasional shove exchanged between students who support Israel’s war on Gaza and those who have set up encampments to call for a permanent ceasefire and the university’s divestment from companies that arm and otherwise profit from Israel’s occupation and military incursions in the Palestinian territories.

But what happened in the middle of the night last Tuesday was no scuffle. It was not even one more of the outsized, excessively brutal raids that college administrations have invited the police to inflict on their students.

Since the previous Thursday, groups of ever-more aggressive counter-protesters had beset the Palestine solidarity tent village on UCLA’s Dickson Plaza. Then, just before 11pm on 30 April, at least a 100 masked young men stormed the camp. They announced their presence by blasting the sounds of screaming babies from loudspeakers. They shined strobe lights, sprayed irritant gases and launched firecrackers at the encampment. One landed in the middle of the tents, eliciting screams from the occupants. The besieged protesters called for help – at least five people were already injured – but none came.

The mob breached the metal barricades around the camp, kicked in its plywood walls, and began stomping and beating the campers with fists and poles. At this point, a two-sided melee began. The Daily Bruin, the student paper, reported that some blasts of gas appeared to come from inside the camp. A text from the UC Divest Coalition sent around 1140pm, however, said that the encampment members do not possess teargas and were using “community defense” and wearing goggles to protect themselves.

Unlike at other colleges – such as New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, where cops alerted by the administration mustered in riot gear practically before students pitched their tents – UCLA, in the persons of its security guards and campus police, watched the chaos and did nothing. Unarmed guards hired by the university retreated to a campus building and locked the doors behind them. A handful of UC police officers showed up at 11.13pm and left less than 10 minutes later. John Thomas, the UCPD chief, said that officers came under attack while trying to help an injured person and left. The Los Angeles police department did not arrive until around 1.30am or quell the violence until after 3.00am. A video posted at around 3.30am caught UC security standing a distance away, filming the action on their phones.

Twenty-five members of the encampment were hospitalized overnight. No attackers were arrested. In an editorial addressed to the UCLA chancellor the next day, the Bruin asked: “Will someone have to die tonight for you to intervene?”

On Thursday, UCLA intervened. It called in the LAPD and highway patrol, who arrived early in the morning in body armor, face shields and helmets. They tore down the plywood, shooting flash bangs and at least one rubber bullet. The protesters sprayed fire extinguishers back at them. In contrast to the nights before, this time the cops braved the blows and accomplished their tasks efficiently. By mid-morning, more than 200 students had been arrested, booked and released from custody, the encampment was dismantled and trash was cleared from the site.

The foreign press called the attacks what they were. Al Jazeera described the event as an “assault” that “followed days of harassment”. The BBC, indicating that the evidence spoke for itself, simply posted a video under the headline, “Watch: Counter-protesters attack UCLA pro-Palestinian camp.”

Most of the US press refrained from assigning blame. They called the events “clashes” and described the assaults in the passive voice. “Barriers were breached,” said CBS News. The New York Times reported that “fistfights broke out, chemicals were sprayed into the air and people were kicked or beaten with poles.”

Since the start, Fox News had openly blamed the members of the encampments, many of them Jewish, for victimizing Jews around campus and applauded the police crackdowns. But with the police uncharacteristically absent and the campers unmistakably the victims, it was hard to control the narrative. Even Fox’s Jew-on-the-scene, student Eli Tsives, slipped, calling the attackers a “mob”.

Joe Biden weighed in from the White House. In a statement, he strung together diverse acts –“vandalism, trespassing”, “forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations”, “threatening people”– ending each list with “This is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.” He added: “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people and squash dissent … but neither are we a lawless country.”

Like the press and the police, the president performed several sleights of rhetoric. He mixed violent acts with non-violent acts. He conflated school policy with law and illegality with lawlessness, a word connoting anarchy. Apparently, he has not heard of non-violent civil disobedience – lawbreaking in resistance to unjust laws or policies – which Henry David Thoreau called a “duty” to democracy. In fact, the campus occupations are versions of the sit-ins of the Black civil rights movement, illegal trespass that has since been sacralized in the annals of American freedom.

Biden also declined to specify who committed any of the acts he condemned, letting the impression float that the culprits are the anti-war protesters.

Who were these UCLA counter-protesters? Tsives said they looked to be in their late 20s and claimed that they were locals who had “had enough” of antisemitism. Another witness, Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, a videographer who has covered political actions around Los Angeles, knew them better. “I saw people that I’ve seen at Trump rallies,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’ve seen them at anti-LGBTQ protests.” Unlike the pro-Israel students who gather during the day, these guys were not wearing yarmulkes or carrying blue-and-white flags. They were chanting “USA! USA!” At Columbia, the Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes was spotted trying to enter the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

The media’s focus on the encampments, simultaneously obsessive and blurry, has diverted attention from the war itself and the protesters’ message, which they repeat whenever they speak: the Palestinian death toll is approaching 35,000. After six months of merciless onslaught, Israel will receive $15bn in unconditioned US military aid. Netanyahu has announced plans to invade Rafah, where an estimated 1.5 million people are sheltering, even if a hostage deal is reached. UN workers in Gaza have coined a new term for the psychological state of the people: rather than post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, they are suffering CTSD –constant traumatic stress disorder.

But something else is sliding past popular attention: the meaning of the events at UCLA. Vigilantes staged an assault on unarmed civilians and the state let it happen. This has occurred many times before in US history, particularly when the victims were African American. Still, it is historic.

Is this the mayhem Trump promises at every rally? Is this what we can expect if he loses the election – or if he wins? Have the brownshirts been unleashed? Whatever it augurs, the eve of May Day 2024 must be marked. While across the nation law enforcers are being ordered to commit violence against peaceful, unarmed citizens, in LA they tacitly deputized a mob to police the political speech – and people – that both the police and the mob despise. And by action or inaction, speech or silence, educational leaders, civil authorities and the president condoned this police-enabled civilian violence, this real anarchy.

At UCLA we witnessed legally sanctioned lawlessness. It is more terrible and more politically momentous than anything a civilian can ever do.

  • Judith Levine is a Brooklyn journalist and essayist, a contributing writer to the Intercept, and the author of five books