TEXAS VIEW: Abbott deploys an authoritarian response to peaceful protest at UT

Humanity is moved by inhumanity. Pain and injustices inflicted on us or others, with cruelty and without cause, will move people to speak out and take actions to stop that harm.

Those who protest may risk their own comfort, standing, freedom and, sometimes, even lives for their cause.

The first challenge of any protest is to be effective, to accomplish its goal of stopping perceived wrongdoing without mirroring the wrongdoers, and to ensure it doesn’t add to the pain it’s trying to subtract. The first challenge for those at whom the protests are directed is how measured, heavy-handed or even authoritarian they will respond.

These have been some of the dynamics at play over the past week as pro-Palestinian protests have roiled college campuses across the country, including at Columbia University, the University of Southern California, and, closer to home, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

We will soon turn to the stunning and uncalled for use of force at UT Austin to quash peaceful protest and free speech — an authoritarian response we condemn. But first, let’s turn to some of the underlying dynamics at this complex and challenging moment.

Protests first emerged in the days after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel in which innocent civilians were terrorized, butchered and raped by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. About 1,200 Israelis were killed in the attack, and many of the more than 240 hostages seized by Hamas have yet to be released.

We wrote at the time that an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas’ barbarity does not equate to approval of the Israeli government’s decades-long brutal treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the horrible conditions under which they have lived.

We recognize Israel’s right to exist, retaliate and defend itself, but we have also been appalled by the relentless and indiscriminate bombing of Gaza under the leadership of unpopular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption. The bombings have killed tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, and failed to secure the release of hostages.

The searing images of the rubble and ruins of Gaza, of the slain and maimed children, and of a growing humanitarian crisis have fueled the protests in the United States and calls for a cease-fire.

Those images, however, don’t excuse rising antisemitism in this country.

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League issued an alarming report on the nearly 3,300 antisemitic instances between Oct. 7 and Jan. 7. These included 56 physical assaults, 554 incidents of vandalism, 1,347 examples of verbal or written harassment and 1,307 rallies on college campuses that involved antisemitic rhetoric — including ones that involved support for terrorism.

FBI data covering crimes in 2022 showed that anti-Jewish bias was behind 55% of religion-based hate crimes. People should be appalled when Jewish students at Columbia are told: “Go back to Poland!”

The proliferation and fervor of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses have drawn comparisons to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and the anti-apartheid in South Africa movement of the 1980s and 1990s. But at no time during those campaigns was anger and vitriol aimed at a single group of people because of their race or religion as has been directed at Jewish students, nor were racist tropes repeated.

Nevertheless, distinctions must be made between student protesters, which have included Jewish students, and outside agitators.

Also, while the rise of antisemitism is real and disturbing, let’s be clear that advocating for Palestinian rights isn’t synonymous with antisemitism. It is not antisemitic to call for peace or to criticize the Israeli government. And to use the general concern of antisemitism as a cudgel to quash peaceful protest and free speech is despicable.

But that’s what Gov. Greg Abbott and the University of Texas at Austin administrators did this past week when hundreds of students walked out of class demanding that the school divest from manufacturers supplying Israel with the weapons it uses in Gaza.

Their protest was peaceful, but the appearance of law enforcement officers, including more than 100 Department of Public Safety troopers in riot gear deployed by Abbott, agitated the mood.

In 2019, Abbott made a big show of signing a law that he said would “protect free speech on college campuses in Texas.”

But last Wednesday, amid dozens of arrests of students exercising their free speech, Abbott boasted on X, “These protestors belong in jail. Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period. Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any college or public university in Texas should be expelled.”

“These protestors belong in jail” is the rallying cry of an authoritarian. News reports described peaceful protest. But even if demonstrators had spewed antisemitic, racist and Islamophobic garbage, they would still have the right to peacefully assemble and speak. That’s how free speech works.

Shameless political posturing, not principles, is what transformed Abbott from fearless protector to fierce prosecutor of free speech.

Jeremi Suri, a UT professor of public affairs and history, watched the demonstrations for about an hour. He told the Austin-American Statesman: “I did not hear a single antisemitic statement (during) the whole time. And I’m Jewish; I’m sensitive to antisemitic comments. I’m against antisemitism. There was no antisemitism among that group of students — nothing being expressed at that moment.”

Last Wednesday, DPS troopers acted against unarmed peaceful protesters with a sense of purpose and urgency they lacked at Robb Elementary against one armed gunman on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde.

Among the images seen on video was of two DPS troopers throwing a local TV cameraman to the ground and arresting him. Another video showed a protester being arrested by UT police as he explains to his fellow demonstrators how to peacefully disperse.

By Friday, all charges had been dropped against the 57 people arrested.

Contrast what happened in Austin with the march in support of Palestine at the University of Texas at San Antonio the same day. Granted, it was a smaller march, but UTSA’s administration didn’t feel compelled to push tensions to the brink by a show of excessive force.

It must also be noted that on Thursday, there was a larger pro-Palestinian demonstration on the Austin campus than the one on Wednesday. There was little law enforcement presence, and the protest and the day were peaceful.

It was a quiet rebuke to a governor who prefers manufacturing chaos than respecting the freedoms of assembly and free speech.

San Antonio Express-News