/ 14 May 2024

Making visible what is diverted: The courage of the student protests

Americans Protest After Police Arrest Students At Nyu And New School In Nyc
Students and faculty members march after New York Police Department (NYPD) officers arrest students at New York University (NYU) and The New School who are demanding universities divest from Israel. One pro-Palestinian detained by the police during the march. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The recent peaceful demonstrations by students on US campuses, and the violent ending of them through armed force, has ignited something important in the psyche of those observing from around the world. 

Senator Bernie Sanders reflected how this moment mirrored the student demonstrations 60 years ago when they challenged the ethics of a government whose actions they did not want to be complicit in. Now, history is repeating itself. 

The generation that brought us important moments, such as the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa, failed when it was their turn to lead. How the mighty have fallen, once it was their turn to heed the call. 

To concretise power does not require an army and an economy built on ammunition manufacturing (although it helps). It requires two components: controlling the narrative and weaponising prejudicial fear. This is achieved by polarising the world into destructive binary thinking: good versus evil. If I can convince you that I am the saviour, the champion of the free world, your conditioned thinking will fill in that any who disagree with us must surely be on the side of evil. 

Controlling the narrative

While watching the media coverage of the protests, I found it frustrating that it was difficult to determine the students’ demands. They were literally silenced by the journalists covering the events. 

This is a frightening position for a society to be in when anger is observed without investigating the logic and rationale behind it. It confuses, it paints an ambiguous picture and it undermines the core principles of humanity. 

For so long, the outside world has heard about the importance of the First Amendment in US society. Yet we have heard more about debates around the First Amendment over the past week than the actual message that the amendment was designed to protect. 

This is a form of silencing, where how a message was delivered becomes the topic of discussion, rather than the message itself. This misdirection allowed US President Joe Biden to focus on the protests, rather than addressing the students’ message of transparency and accountability. As a result, the call was not heeded.

Gaza has been flattened. The latest statistics estimate 34 500 deaths, including 13 000 children and over 77 500 injured and maimed. As I write this article, the Israeli Defence Forces is preparing to launch an attack on southern Rafah, which the World Health Organisation warns will be a bloodbath. 

The UN has reported that a convoy carrying food aid from Jordan to Gaza was attacked by Israeli settlers. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles stated: “It is despicable that people who lack nothing stop food reaching those in need.” 

It seems frivolous to even write about the total lack of respect for life and human value because, in a sense, it is too late. The hospitals have already been reduced to rubble, schools to dust and homes, the dignified spaces of families, love and belonging, have become the coffins of those who have not yet had the dignity of being counted and buried. 

Those who are not angered are asleep to those human principles that are the cornerstones of our very existence. The strong sedatives of power, prejudice and belief that “a people” have a divine right to existence on this planet have proved so strong that we are in a chasm of deep spiritual poverty. We are asleep while the humanity around us has crumbled. 

Weaponising prejudicial fear

The students are angry. Anger is a protective emotive response spontaneously activated when our environment threatens us or the people we care about. 

When faced with anger, you are responsible for finding the root cause of it — to listen. However, this requires you to take responsibility and to be genuinely compassionate towards the person who is angry. 

Within this logic, to not listen is to consciously switch off your ability to be compassionate and take responsibility. No one wants to publicly admit to consciously switching off these abilities, so the easiest way to justify your inhumane interactions is to either villainise the anger or make the anger irrational. 

In the case of the student protests, this became the dominant narrative in the news media. As Sanders stated, there is no logical link between being pro-Palestinian and being pro-Hamas or anti-Semitic. However, these false links are made to dismiss the protests as “dangerous”. If we can dismiss the anger of the students, then we don’t have to take responsibility for the devastating hurt and destruction that we are funding and enabling. 

Biden, in his White House address in response to the student protests, said: “Dissent is essential for democracy. But dissent must never lead to disorder.” 

He failed to accurately describe the process that led to the occupation of campus space. On 10 November 2023, two Columbia University chapters of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Justice in Palestine Chapter and the Jewish Voice for Peace Chapter, were suspended without the proper procedures being followed. 

When protesting peacefully leads to banning, then agency is necessarily chaotic to the structural violence designed to silence it. The reason for the banning was that the chapters had used “threatening rhetoric and intimidation”. 

Besides the glaring irony of charging the Jewish Voice for Peace Chapter with being anti-Semitic, it is the realisation of Franz Fanon’s description that the coloniser inscribes the colonised subject with ideas of backwardness and a lack of empathy and rationality”. 

The students’ response was a coalition of 116 diverse student organisations strategising together for an encampment on campuses, promoting inclusivity, cultural respect and objecting to their tuition fees being used to support a war they wanted to end. 

Biden’s statement: “Violent protests are not protected. Peaceful protest is,” shows a government oblivious to ground-level sentiment. I am wondering why protests intent on violence would start with yoga and meditation; ceramic pinch pot-making classes; origami workshops and community check-in and grounding prayer. I am wondering why anti-Semitic protesters would join Passover Seder with fellow protestors. 

But the greatest irony is the demand for peaceful protests to support a strategy of “peace” built on decimating hospitals, schools and homes, barricading UN food aid trucks from starving citizens, and the rejection of a ceasefire because of the demand for a permanent ceasefire. 

This irrationality that is rationalised and accepted is achieved through the persistence of media-driven narratives based on threatening rhetoric and intimidation. Hollywood’s narrative of the obvious villain has changed from Nazis and Russians to the “praying, devoted Muslim terrorist”. This goes with the West’s insistence that Muslims are necessarily anti-female. 

This insistence on equating Islam with terrorism comes from a country that was responsible for the genocide of Native Americans; the annihilation of the social structures of countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan and the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. 

The control of the Gaza narrative is built on charisma, loyalty and threats, and not on logic and reason. Those who require peaceful protest and cry out for civilised anger are also willing to support the violent destruction of Gaza. 

This can only be achieved when the other is no longer understood as human. To quote Fanon: “The colonial subject is therefore ‘dehumanised’ by colonialism to such an extent that ‘it turns him into an animal’.” (Fanon, 1963: 42). As Josh Pallas interprets: “It then becomes natural for the coloniser to deploy violence in the colonial context because the dehumanised colonial subject [is perceived to] not respond to anything else.”

The controlled narrative no longer makes sense and the human spirit suffers. The most destructive disease is the one that is invisible and ignored. The student protests understood this — that the key to our spiritual healing is through visibility. Visibility raises the vulnerability of violent suppression from the barrels of guns, tear gas and threats to their education and careers. 

This incredible courage shown by a generation of 20-year-olds should inspire us all to raise the visibility of the process of dehumanisation of the Palestinian people. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” 

Daniel den Hollander is a clinical psychologist from Athlone, Cape Town.