April 26, 2024

GUEST ROOM | Regardless of Position, Now is the Time to Uphold Rights on Campus

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I am writing from a White Hall conference room, where I have a clear view of the recently erected Liberation Zone on the Arts Quad, and can hear the ringing of pro-divestment chants. To get to this room, I walked past the encampment, where there were already two armed officers monitoring the scene. Will this number grow over the next 24 hours?

To President Pollack and the powers at be: Let this number not increase without legitimate necessity. Not out of an alliance with Cornell Mutual Liberation, or in opposition to Cornellians for Israel, but for the sake of upholding students’ constitutional rights.

What we are watching unfold on university campuses across the United States from New York to Austin to California is a dramatic shift from the narrative that has existed since October 7th. The conversation is no longer just about the Israel-Hamas war; This is now a matter of the constitutional right to peaceful protest, and the unjust weaponization of policing against students and higher education.

To understand this critical dynamic shift, we must first understand House Speaker Mike Johnson’s visit to Columbia University on Wednesday, April 24th. Johnson justified his appearance, which is being met with significant criticism, with the sentiment that “New York leaders aren’t doing enough to address the issues at Columbia.” In reality, what he accomplished was to bring a screeching halt to the “constructive dialogue” progressing between Columbia administrators and student representatives: “Student protesters had committed to removing ‘a significant number of tents,’ clearing non-Columbia protesters from the area, complying with fire department requirements and prohibiting harassing and discriminatory language,” reported Columbia officials. Students had been given until Wednesday evening to clear the area. They were forcibly removed before that deadline in a display of force. At the threshold of positive progress at Columbia, Johnson swept in with a hard-placed thumb on President Shafik, and “unduly [used] this moment to further political division instead of addressing concerns of the American people,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat. Espaillat went on to condemn the use of antisemitic rhetoric on campuses. This is not to say that the student protests at Columbia would not have been shut down in their own time for violating “a long list of rules and policies,” but Mike Johnson’s insertion was an unnecessary escalation, and escalations come at a high price.

Almost immediately following Johnson’s reckless swoop through Columbia, more than 50 students were arrested at an “unsanctioned but nonviolent” divestment demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin, resulting in a wrath of criticism toward Texas Governor Greg Abbott. The timing of this demonstration is significant, with the eve of the Jewish holiday Passover on Monday, the 22nd. This timing gives weight to Texas Hillel’s assertion that these demonstrations were hateful. But there is an argument to this claim: “[UT Austin protestors] are not shouting anything antisemitic, they’re not harassing anyone, they’re standing on the green lawn, expressing themselves,” Jeremi Suri, a Jewish UT-Austin history professor, told The Texas Tribune. The unfortunate and irreconcilable reality is that both of these claims are correct. The alignment of these protests with Passover grants them a layer of insensitivity. (Although many Jews regard Passover as a call to social justice for all people and with that logic in mind participated in divestment protests this year). In the same breadth, the First Amendment protects the right of the students protesting to speak their minds – the same way it supposedly protected Ann Coulter’s hate speech at Cornell less than one month ago. Instead of allowing any attempts to reconcile the sensitivities of the UT Austin protests with students’ rights to do so, state troopers in full riot gear were called in to violently detain students:

“Today, Greg Abbott’s [Department of Public Safety] has more courage to arrest peaceful student protesters than when an active shooter entered an elementary school in Uvalde,” … They called the crackdown an Abbott “campaign ad.”

This brings us back to New York and ultimately, Cornell. Because of the actions taken over the past 72 hours by Speaker Mike Johnson and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, the pressure faced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul is incredibly unique and entirely separate from the Israel-Hamas war. In April of an election year, Hochul is now facing a dilemma: Fold under the pressure of a red state – This is how we handled Pro-Palestinan protest, how will you? – and further condone the weaponization of police against students, or uphold constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly at the risk of facing attack by communities in opposition to those whose rights she protects. Government figures are not shutting down or allowing protests out of alignment or misalignment with their missions, or because they are or are not peaceful. Shutting them down – and the nature of those shutdowns – has become a political maneuver. The issue is no longer concentrated overseas, it has become a red State versus blue State battle in the United States. This should be insulting to both sides of this conflict. We are better than this, we have to be.

As impossible as it feels, regardless of individual opinions on unfolding world events, now is the time to unify for the sake of protecting free speech and peaceful protest on campuses; to uphold the United States Constitution. Operating in any other way is to sacrifice constitutional rights at one of the most critical places in our society: institutions of higher education. So, President Pollack, as long as the students in the Arts Quad encampment maintain their focus on divestment and remain within their constitutional rights to peaceful protest and assembly, please uphold those rights. And to the community at Cornell in opposition to the Arts Quad protests, cling to that opposition with fire: Set up a neighboring encampment; participate in counter-protests. Keep these things peaceful. Most critical is that we unanimously acknowledge and respect the necessity of constitutional rights being upheld on campus. If we sacrifice that guarantee, we have nothing.

Grace Elmore is a third year English major in the College of Arts & Sciences. She is involved in many avenues of the Cornell community and holds a great deal of care and respect for her fellow students. She can be reached at [email protected].

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