The Fringe on Top

The ghost of Yogi Berra spoke to me this morning.  “It’s déjà vu all over again,”  he said.  He was referring to the student protests on college campuses in support of a ceasefire in the Israel/Hamas war.  He continued, “I’m surprised, you of all people, have not made this connection.  You were there.”

Berra was, of course, reminding me of the student protests against the war in Vietnam at my alma mater, the University of Virginia.  Not only was I there, I was an active participant.  My fraternity brother Jeffrey Kirsch summed it up best in a 50th anniversary retrospective in Virginia Magazine. “It was like a cultural train running through the University.  There was this awaking and outpouring of emotions and progressive instincts.”

The early days of the anti-movement at UVA were peaceful.  They consisted of teach-ins and student gathering, including a concert in the Old Cabell Hall lecture room, the same 850 seat auditorium where I attended Economics 101.  I helped organized the concert and even performed, choosing two songs I hoped would generate dialogue about a misguided policy in Southeast Asia.  “The Age of Aquarius” from the musical Hair and Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Poem on the Underground Wall.”

Protest movements are never  monolithic.  For every Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council there is a Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers.  In 1969, UVA students who favored a more militant approach to opposing the war formed the Radical Student Union.  In hopes of stemming a shift he feared might become more extreme and even violent, another one of my fraternity brothers Robert Rosen led what became known as the Student Coalition, bringing together liberals, antiwar radicals and fraternity leaders.  A third fraternity brother Joel Gardner, who today is among the most conservative advocates of the free speech movement at UVA, writes in his memoir about the effort to keep the more extreme elements of the antiwar movement from hi-jacking growing sentiment against the war and other progressive causes including the lack of racial diversity on campus.

The key was to forcefully demonstrate that the forthcoming actions of the coalition did not represent the ideas of wide-eyed radicals and agitators, and that support for stronger actions to address the issues at the University was widespread.

Two events demonstrated how quickly the complexion of a peaceful protest movement can change.  First, President Richard Nixon’s announcement U.S. troops had been deployed in Cambodia followed by the killing of four students and wounding of nine others by Ohio National Guard troops at Kent State University.  Kirsch, who now served as a president of the Virginia Progressive Party, organized a fundraiser featuring Chicago Seven defendant Jerry Rubin and his attorney William Kunstler.  What Kirsch originally envisioned as a “classroom sized presentation,” was moved to University Hall, the indoor athletic arena, to accommodate the 9,000 students from UVA and surrounding universities who came to hear them speak.

Even Kirsch, who introduced Rubin and Kunstler, remembers his own trepidation as both speakers urged the audience to “liberate the president’s house.”  Immediately following their remarks, Kirsch rushed to Carr’s Hill, the president’s residence, to warn Edgar Shannon of what was about to happen.  In the 50th anniversary retrospective, Ernie Gates writes:

Out front, Kirsch faced the mob he had unintentionally helped to create. “People were inflamed,” he says. “I felt like it was my fault. It was my event.” A megaphone amplifying his words, Kirsch addressed the crowd. “I said, ‘This is not the right tactic. We should be going after a target that is more associated with the war effort—we should take the Navy ROTC building.’ I didn’t want to burn down Maury Hall—I was trying to protect Shannon and his family.”

And to the ROTC building they went, occupying it again and declaring it “Freedom Hall.” A photo from that night shows a scorched mattress that had been dragged from the building’s basement, possibly a remnant of an attempt to follow through on the cries of “Burn it down.” The smoke, however, eventually forced the protesters to abandon the building.

The next morning, all the news reports and images focused on the incident at the Navy ROTC building.  In a New York minute, the extremist fringe of the anti-war movement fractured a coalition, three years in the making.

I share this story in such detail because the same forces seem to be at play on college campuses today.  When I see peaceful student protests calling for a ceasefire in the Israel/Hama conflict and humanitarian aid to civilians, I do not believe the overwhelming majority are calling for the destruction of Israel nor do I believe they hold American Jews responsible for what strike so many as counterproductive policies of the Netanyahu government.  At UVA, a majority of students voted in favor of a resolution demanding the university divest its endowment funds in companies doing business with Israel.  The text is similar to a 1987 resolution in response to apartheid in South Africa.  The resolution did not include antisemitic language or call for the dissolution of Israel.  It only addressed government policies believed to be contrary to the rights and aspirations of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, there is an extreme fringe of the pro-Palestinian movement on campus that has threatened Jewish students and vandalized property.  Concerned parents of Jewish students believe President James Ryan has not done enough to protect their children.  Some are demanding he resign.  And once again, when the fringe elements of a social movement, regardless of the cause, make the headlines (i.e. get top billing), it only detracts from the greater purpose.

Which begs the question, where are leaders of the pro-Palestinian student movement, who like Jeffrey Kirsch acknowledge their role, even if unintentional, in creating a hostile atmosphere and say, “This is not the right tactic.”

For what it’s worth.

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