🔒 Comparing pro-Palestine protests to the ’60s is wrong – and dangerous: Stephen Mihm

Pro-Palestinian protests on college and university campuses in the US have been compared to the late 1960s, when mass protests by radical activist groups convulsed colleges and universities for nearly 10 years. The 1960s student protests began off campus with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement, which led to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Free Speech Movement borrowed tactics and rhetoric from the Civil Rights Movement, engaging in civil disobedience. In 1965, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized antiwar protests, borrowing many of the methods used in the 1960s.

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By Stephen Mihm

As the pro-Palestinian protests on colleges and universities across the United States have spread, some commentators have taken to comparing current events to the late 1960s. It’s a tempting analogy: protests in an earlier era, often defined by violent clashes with police; and the same thing today. History is simply repeating itself. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

No. The recent demonstrations are nothing compared to what happened in the 1960s, when sustained, mass protests — powered by a formidable alliance of increasingly radical activist groups — convulsed colleges and universities across the United States for nearly 10 years. Confusing a few weeks’ worth of protests with the events of an entire decade is not only bad history, but could well lead to needless tragedy.

The student protests of the 1960s arguably began off campus a decade earlier, when Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders launched the Civil Rights Movement. Their efforts, which ranged from boycotts to marches to voter registration drives, attracted intense, violent resistance in the South.

In 1960, four Black students at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro. Their dignified, non-violent resistance to segregation spurred many more protests by both Black and White students throughout the South. That same year, leaders of these protests founded a new organization: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

SNCC played a signal role in battling segregation and racism in the early part of the decade, culminating in the famous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, when it recruited hundreds of White college students from elite northern schools to come south and participate in voter registration drives. These activists returned to campus radicalized by the experience.

At the time, colleges and universities embraced the doctrine of in loco parentis, which held that students were minors lacking the kind of constitutional rights that adults enjoyed. This logic informed everything from campus dress codes to curfews to restrictions on free speech.

UC Berkeley was no different, banning students from political activity. When veterans of Mississippi Freedom Summer returned to campus in the fall of 1964 hoping to recruit more students to their cause, they immediately clashed with university administrators. A bungled attempt to arrest a student for handing out political pamphlets quickly metastasized into a campus-wide crusade against in loco parentis.

What became known as the Free Speech Movement borrowed the tactics and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, engaging in civil disobedience. In a typical speech, Mario Savio, one of its leaders, declared: “Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley.”

The movement quickly spread beyond Berkeley to an estimated quarter of the nation’s campuses. At all these schools, universities ultimately acceded to student demands, retreating from prohibitions on political activity, and abandoning attempts to regulate students’ private lives. As restrictions eased, many students embraced sexual experimentation, drugs and other taboo-breaking behaviors that would come to define the so-called counterculture

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and eventually committed American troops. By this time, a small but increasingly important organization — Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS — began to take the lead in organizing antiwar protests. At the University of Michigan, Berkeley, and dozens of other universities, SDS chapters and sympathetic faculty began organizing “teach-ins” consisting of lectures and class discussions about the Vietnam War that drew tens of thousands of students.

As the historian Robert Cohen has argued, these dress rehearsals for the larger antiwar movement again borrowed many of the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. And as the government began drafting men to fight in Vietnam, students on campuses across the country became increasingly radicalized, viewing themselves as part of a much larger movement that transcended any single issue.

This was the New Left: a sprawling coalition of activists dedicated to transformative social change at home and abroad. The targets of their ire reflected their sweeping ambition: Dow Chemical, President Johnson, campus administrators, university labs funded by defense dollars, the CIA, the AFL-CIO, sexist hiring, and any other institution or practice deemed complicit in injustice — whether in Vietnam, the American South or the corporate workplace.

By 1967, the clashes between students and law enforcement had become increasingly violent. In October of that year 10,000 students from Berkeley and other campuses battled 2,000 police officers in a melee that spanned over 20 city blocks. Afterward, one SDS member exulted: “We finally had ourselves a White riot … We had the streets.”

By 1968, the Tet Offensive, as well as the assassination of King and the ensuing riots, set the stage for some of the most dramatic campus clashes in the spring of that year. At Columbia University, SDS students occupied numerous buildings, battling the police. Hundreds of other universities followed suit. By year’s end, the protests had become increasingly violent. At the University of Wisconsin, students firebombed a campus building as well as a Selective Service Office.

These protests continued unabated into the next year. In the first half of 1969, at least 9,000 protests erupted on over 230 campuses throughout the country, with a fifth of these culminating in arson, the destruction of property, and occasionally, bombings. By this point, too, SDS splinter group known as the Weathermen had dedicated themselves to armed struggle, as had leaders of the Black Power movement.

University administrators increasingly went overboard in their attempts to curb this militancy, allowing the police to indiscriminately beat up students and professors in almost-daily clashes. These came to a symbolic end in 1970, when protests against President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policy culminated in an infamous clash at Kent State University in Ohio. There, on May 3, members of the National Guard confronting an angry mob of students fired into the crowd, killing four. In response, students protested across the United States, forcing nearly 1,000 universities and colleges to shut down until the following fall.

Which brings us to today’s protests. In our own time, protest movements have generally lacked the staying power of the broad-based, revolutionary struggle of the 1960s. Yet many universities are reacting to these protests — barely a month old as of today — as if it’s 1970 all over again, with years of protests behind them and millions of students threatening to storm the nation’s campuses.

This is an overreaction that will almost certainly lead to unintended consequences. Indeed, there are signs that it already has, as videos circulate of innocent bystanders manhandled by police and indications that Indiana University allowed police snipers to set up positions on the roofs of campus buildings. UCLA allowed members of the LAPD to use rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.

This kind of escalation will end very badly. Before university boards and administrators go much farther, they may want to consider that however annoying or disruptive today’s protesters may seem, the challenge they pose pales in comparison to what colleges and universities have confronted in the past. It’s a reality they might do well to contemplate this summer before students return in the fall — and before their institutions end up, like Kent State, a byword for campus tragedy.

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