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Bloody Pacifiers — Student Demonstrations Remind Us that Palestine is an Abolitionist Issue

By Bhavika Malik

At midnight, the police surrounding the University of Utah encampment closed in. For the first eight hours of the encampment, officers passed out zip ties among themselves and at midnight donned riot gear. The abandoned pickets and tarp on the Presidents’ Circle and the 19 detained protesters are a reminder that anti-imperialism is a global abolitionist movement.

The events that unfolded at the University of Utah on April 29th are intricately connected to the surveillance state that many marginalized bodies experience across America. The encampment included majority-BIPOC students advocating for divestment from an apartheid regime. The students were protesting the university’s involvement with 47 G — a defense and research coalition whose members are notorious for supplying arms to Israel. Brutalizing and arrests of student protesters are emblematic of a unified effort from the West to incarcerate Palestine and Palestinian solidarity.

The struggle against mass incarceration has always been international. With defense alliances like 47G establishing a global market for the military-industrial complex, it is hardly surprising that the anti-imperialist struggle — which threatens the beneficiaries of this system — is criminalized. Although 47G mainly involves the defense industry, its connections to the prison-industrial complex are indelible. Both prison and defense networks work to fortify an economy rooted in war and punishment. Northrop Grumman, which is a member of 47G, not only supplies weapons to Israel but also provides aerial surveillance for border patrol at the US-Mexico border.

“The police’s violent response to the Utah encampment alongside countless others across the country constantly make students worried about another Kent State situation,” explained Alastair Dunn, a member of MEChA and student protestor from the encampment. Police violence and crackdowns during the Vietnam War are a haunting parallel to the current protests. Domestically, violent responses from campus and state police are efforts to naturalize incarceration and repression as adequate responses to conflicts.

Police tactics throughout history reveal that state-sanctioned violence sustains imperialism. According to sociologist Julian Go, although the police began as a non-militarized force, through imperialism there was a cultural shift. Police forces began viewing citizens — mostly racial minorities — as colonial subjects within the empire. The brute force used on students today is an example of this. It is hardly surprising that Gaza is often described as an “open-air prison;” incarceration has always been a part of Palestinian history. The same rhetoric used to criminalize Palestinians in Palestine by the US and Israel is extended to the student protestors.

“The state of Israel, for example, is meant to act as ‘police’ of imperial interests in the Middle East… What is Gaza if not a prison? A people that aren’t allowed to control their own water supply, gas, food, travel freely…that is nothing short of a prison,” said Dunn.

Israeli political theorist, Yaron Ezrahi, wrote about the significance of rubber bullets used during the Intifada. He explained that their use by Israeli forces was an effort to sustain power while maintaining conscience, metaphorically reflecting the Israeli spirit. Rubber bullets used at Emory University, UCLA, and possibly other campuses, reflect a similar attempt at balancing power and conscience.

Rubber bullets are used as a non-lethal alternative to subdue crowds. Although their non-lethal nature is debatable, the product reflects a form of moral neutrality. They are meant to “dissuade rather than kill.” Likewise, the police response is framed as a necessary, non-lethal, and just effort to restore law and order, but the reality is hardly that.

Dunn recounted the night of April 29th, “At first, they began to forcibly rip tents from the space. Each time tents were torn down, the police would move forward again, usually rushing anyone who was in their way with riot shield,” he continued, “While the prisons at home maintain the position of the working class, so do US forces in the occupation of foreign countries.” Here, the relationship between American and Israeli exceptionalism and incarceration becomes apparent.

Mass incarceration stifles Palestinians much like BIPOC and working-class communities in America. Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” yet one in five Palestinians were arrested at least once in their lifetime, and currently face devastating human rights violations. America is the “land of the free,” yet it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite making up 5% of the world population.

"We know that anti-camping laws are selectively enforced and only exist as a way to criminalize the homeless population. When football fans set up tents on campus, riot police are not deployed…no one is arrested for trespassing,” said Dunn.

Militant policing at protests is an amalgamation of these inconsistencies in the Israeli-American vision of democracy and human rights. Both nations have emerged from the incarceration and criminalization of colonized people.

If what Angela Davis said is true, and we deposit our dreams in Palestine, then we must also deposit our hopes in the students. Liberation comes from a collective struggle with history. The napalmed forests of Vietnam and the razed olive trees from Palestine held humanity in their roots. Arresting Palestinian solidarity also means holding our humanity hostage to imperialism

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Great job sticking the landing, those concluding paragraphs show how Palestinian emancipation has been talked about since before the civil rights movement, it will be our generation that sees the end of the movement, either through hard work to progress the cause, or because there will be no more Palestinians to fight for.

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