Last Night’s Palestine Crackdown Was Authoritarian

Both the police crackdowns at Columbia University and elsewhere, and the propaganda that enabled it resembled scenes from an authoritarian foreign country. So we wrote about them as if they were.

NYPD police officers arrest protesters during pro-Palestine demonstrations at the City College of New York on April 30, 2024 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

If we watched the scenes that played out in New York and throughout the country last night happening in a country unfriendly to the United States, we would know exactly how to describe them: a regime, its legitimacy dented and its grip on power slipping, unleashed a wave of propaganda and state violence in a desperate attempt to contain a growing wave of anti-government protests. In fact, if these events had happened in a foreign country, the mainstream US reporting would likely have looked something like the following:

Conspiracy Theories, Fake News Fuel Night of US State Repression

Last night, as Israel carried out another round of violence against Gazans, killing six women and five children in Rafah along with at least eleven other Palestinians while planning a disastrous ground invasion of the city, its chief military patron saw an outpouring of violence of its own.

Over the course of hours, the New York City police, under orders from Mayor Eric Adams — an authoritarian member of the ruling Biden government’s party, who is currently under investigation for corruption and had vowed to bring Israeli tactics to the city’s police force — sent a small army of militarized security forces to disperse a Columbia University protest against the war. Three hundred protesters were arrested after a night that saw brutal violence against antiwar demonstrators at several other universities.

The crackdown — which shocked analysts and observers with its size and ferocity — saw peaceful protesters hit with tear gas, pushed down stairs, and dragged out of buildings to be thrown into the back of police vans and carried off, with police entering the university’s occupied Hamilton Hall with their guns drawn.

The raid was officially sanctioned by the university, despite there being no faculty vote of approval as required under campus bylaws and the university’s rebuke by an oversight panel for facilitating the clampdown. Shortly after, New York police carried out another, similar raid at the City College of New York that saw a further one hundred arrested.

Officials cited the safety of students, particularly those with Jewish backgrounds, as the reason for the crackdown, a claim met with skepticism in light of the brutality visited on students (many of whom were Jewish) by security forces. Events on the West Coast — where pro-war forces entered the site of an antiwar encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, unencumbered by police or security, and where they soon began physically assaulting students and shooting heavy-duty fireworks at them — only deepened these suspicions.

The raid came in the wake of days and weeks of escalating rhetoric from government officials and official party media, which have been laying the groundwork for a wave of repression by broadcasting conspiracy theories and false accusations against anti-government protesters.

Pro-government voices have made unsubstantiated claims that the protesters — who are demanding a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, divestment from Israel, and many of whom are themselves Jewish — are made up of antisemitic hate groups  carrying out violence and are aligned with, taking orders from, and even comprised of terrorists. To date, the only example of anything approaching violence from the antiwar side that pro-Israel forces have been able to muster was of a Zionist demonstrator being poked in the eye by a flag, while the most prominent case of antisemitic agitation (“Kill All Jews”) came from a Zionist agitator. The propaganda campaign has been used to justify a flagrant disregard of the government to circumvent the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which nominally guarantees the freedoms of speech and assembly, but has been steadily whittled away by a succession of authoritarian leaders.

“You have the absolute right to free speech in America, you can protest, but the First Amendment does not give you the right to break windows, to vandalize buildings, to take over private buildings, and to make students who happen to be of Jewish descent feel unsafe,” said Congressman Ted Lieu, a prominent member of President Joe Biden’s party, the day of the raids. “When they cross that line, then universities have every right to take action against those students.” This rhetoric was echoed by other members of the president’s party.

That includes Biden himself, who lent legitimacy to the eventual put-down earlier that day, when he responded to the news that students had occupied a university building and hung banners saying “Free Palestine” and “Intifada” by painting them as dangerous hate groups.

“President Biden has stood against repugnant, antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric his entire life,” read a statement from the White House that morning. “He condemns the use of the term ‘intifada,’ as he has the other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days. President Biden respects the right to free expression, but protests must be peaceful and lawful. Forcibly taking over buildings is not peaceful — it is wrong. And hate speech and hate symbols have no place in America.”

The White House has pointedly not condemned the violence and hateful rhetoric coming from counterprotesters supporting the war, widely interpreted as a signal of support for the heavy-handed treatment of the protesters.

“Intifada” is Arabic for “shaking off,” or “uprising,” which is what it refers to in Arabic-language sources, including the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. The White House’s framing of the term has been adopted by much of the US media, with an anchor on cable news network CNN at one point last night defining the term for its viewers as “violent struggles that Palestinians have had over the years against Israel.” In the United States, much of the media hold nominal independence, but maintain close ties to state institutions and the country’s competing ruling factions.

One case is the Morning Joe show, an influential news program on the Democratic Party–aligned MSNBC network that the president reportedly regularly watches and corresponds with. The program was the source of some of the most radical incitement to state violence against the protesters the morning of the raid, as guests and cohosts took turns painting an image of violent, hateful student protesters brainwashed by TikTok, who had to be stopped before things spun out of control.

One cohost charged that protesters had said Jewish students “shouldn’t exist.” “They should all be arrested, and they shouldn’t be suspended — they should be expelled from school,” said cohost and former congressman Joe Scarborough.

Another guest, Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt — who has faced a staff mutiny and even been criticized by establishment-friendly US analysts for his rhetoric against pro-Palestinian protesters — compared them to “ISIS fighters.” Both he and cohost Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of a high-ranking former Democratic national security official, compared the Columbia protests to the January 6 riot — a particularly charged comparison for viewers of the cable network, who have been relentlessly told that the incident three years ago was an act of terrorism necessitating the harshest of responses.

As the state violence unfolded later that evening, rumors and conspiracy theories abounded from US official media justifying the repression. One reporter at network CBS tweeted that she had been informed by sources in city government that “the wife of a known terrorist” was at the protest, while on CNN, a talking head likewise informed viewers  that “the wife of an indicted terrorist was on the campus last week.” The “terrorist” in question was Sami al-Arian, a professor of engineering who had been accused of supporting terrorism during a previous wave of xenophobic hysteria that saw security forces round up, spy on, and torture Muslims who were labeled terrorists.

Meanwhile, on TV news network NBC News, a sister network to MSNBC that is owned by the same conglomerate, one segment rebroadcast by the White House claims that the unrest was the result of misinformation being spread by the Russian government.

Another widespread claim emanating from television news was the claim that shadowy “outside agitators,” not students, were responsible for the occupation of the university building, creating an elaborate intellectual permission structure for the state violence that was to follow. The claim had appeared that night on MSNBC, as well as the day before on the CNN show of Anderson Cooper, a celebrity media figure with past intelligence ties who has been known to angrily silence critics of Israel’s war effort on his show.

As the raid was taking place, viewers of Anderson’s show were treated to many of these tropes by both the host and guests, which included a former police official who had cut his teeth in a different episode of US state repression, the infamous Chicago protests against the Vietnam War in 1968. Those tropes included: that use of the word “intifada” is hate speech, that the demonstration was “being taken over by outside protesters,” that the protest was like January 6, and that the occupation of university buildings meant the protest had ceased being peaceful, and that police were therefore justified in responding with a heavy hand — but that whatever they did would be “proportional.” At one point, the host baselessly speculated whether the protesters holed up in university buildings were being given projectiles to use on police.

Back on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell — another former government official, in this case a former political aid and advisor for a Democratic congressmember — assured viewers that the scenes of protesters being brutalized and police pointing firearms at unarmed students was “actually the most organized and calmest and most professional police intervention we’ve ever seen on a college campus.” This morning on Morning Joe, a security official brandished a chain and bike lock allegedly used to barricade the Hamilton Hall doors as proof that the protesters couldn’t be students, before assuring viewers that arrests had been made “without incident.”

The influence of cable news is core to the US two ruling factions’ ability to manage perception and control dissent among the US public. A recent survey found that Americans who receive their news primarily from cable news were more likely to support the US-backed war in Gaza or believe Israel wasn’t committing war crimes, while those who get their news from social media and other internet-based platforms held the opposite views.

As the Biden administration has been rocked by steadily more militant protests against the unpopular war over the past seven months, it has turned to increasingly authoritarian measures, expanding its power of warrantless spying on the domestic US population and banning one social media platform in particular, TikTok, that officials have blamed for disseminating criticism of Israel’s war.

It is unclear what the response will be from the international community, if any. The crackdown was met with no condemnation from most of the world’s leaders, who consider the United States a key ally — though the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly had earlier urged Columbia to “respect academic freedoms and student’s fundamental rights,” warnings he regularly issues to authoritarian regimes.