Guest Editorial: As campus protests against war in Gaza increase, care must be taken to avoid Kent State massacre

Student activists from around the DMV surround one of the tents at a George Washington University encampment on April 25, calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, where over 34,000 Palestinians have died in Israel’s retaliatory response to Hamas terror attacks on Oct. 7. (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)

College campuses across America have become highly polarized hotbeds as students protest the war in Gaza. But historically this is nothing new in our nation’s history.

Fortunately, recent events have yet to escalate to the scale of major student protests that were recorded during the late 1960s and early 1970s against the Vietnam War or the 1980s against South African apartheid. But allowing these protests to become fodder for politicians hoping to secure a foothold in the upcoming elections, or moving to bring police onto college campuses too soon or with unreasonable force could turn today’s protests into mirror images of past tragedies.

The Kent State Massacre, when National Guard soldiers took aim at students on May 4, 1970, immediately comes to mind. The shootings took place during a rally as students voiced their opposition to America expanding its involvement in Vietnam. In just 13 seconds, 28 soldiers fired off nearly 70 rounds, killing four and wounding nine other students.

In the end, over 4 million students engaged in peaceful, organized walkouts at hundreds of colleges, universities and high schools. In a subsequent trial against several of the Kent State shooters who were accused and later acquitted of depriving students of their civil rights, the judge– in accessing the actions taken by the National Guard– said: “such use of force is, and was, deplorable.”

College campuses have long served as breeding grounds for student activism during which young adults exercised their rights of free speech with peaceful protests. Most recent examples have included mass protests against the Iraq War and following the murder of George Floyd, as well as the student participants that were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement – mostly limited to off-campus actions.

So far, given the reported skirmishes that have erupted between students on both sides of the aisle, and even with local police being called in to break up on campus tent encampments and to arrest students who refuse to comply with orders from various college administrations, the protests have remained mostly peaceful.

But this could change if the number of participants multiplies too quickly or if the participation of insurgents – those who are professional protesters unaffiliated with the universities where demonstrations are occurring – are allowed to overshadow the peaceful actions of students and possibly influence their decisions.

Just days ago, at Columbia University, protesters were removed and arrested by police after youth took over a building with some of the students now facing expulsion, forcing the institution to cancel its large commencement ceremony to be replaced with smaller ones.

Meanwhile, and on a more positive note, the University of Michigan successfully held its massive graduation ceremonies at Michigan Stadium, despite disturbances led by pro-Palestinian supporters.

College administrators, for now, can at least celebrate the fact that classes will soon end for the summer, allowing tempers to cool and hopefully, for politicians to sit down in negotiations and find a way to end the conflict in Gaza.

If not, when fall classes resume, and with the general election then just a few months away, college campuses could erupt in ways we have not seen since Kent State – and that would be tragic on all accounts.

Reprinted from The Washington Informer

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