Editorial: Policing Peaceful Protest

The Editorial Board acknowledges student activism to be an essential part of campus discourse and advocates for clarity in the college’s plans for protest on campus, especially when there is the possibility of police involvement.

In the past three weeks, more than 100 encampments have been set up at colleges and universities across the United States, marking a new degree of escalation in pro-Palestine protests as the death toll in Gaza grows. In response, administrators have authorized police to clear the encampments and disband protests, with over 2,500 protestors facing arrest or detainment in addition to university discipline. These crackdowns have often been violent. At Columbia University, student journalists, barred by the NYPD from entering a building occupied by protesters to observe the arrests, watched from a window as officers brutalized students. At Emory University, a faculty member watching a demonstration was dragged on the ground by an Atlanta Police Department officer after shouting at officers to stop beating a student.

The potential of police repression is also not limited to urban campuses with the ability to call on city police forces — at UMass Amherst, Massachusetts State Police were brought in after students were warned to dismantle their encampments, although protestors ultimately chose to take down their tents before the officers intervened. Just tonight, over a hundred state police cars parked at UMass and over 60 protestors have been arrested. It is worth noting that the vast majority of these protests remain non-violent and have minimally affected the operations of colleges. Even in cases where protestors have been notably disruptive, their tactics have precedence in past student movements — as does police repression of these movements.

At the April 26 faculty meeting, President Michael Elliott remarked that he was “shocked” by efforts “to repress what looks like otherwise peaceful speech,” and that bringing in police officers to respond to protests on the Amherst campus would be a last resort. Elliott’s commitment to protecting student activists is promising. However, as Professor of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies Katrina Karkazis pointed out at the same meeting, a lack of concrete plans for balancing campus safety with students’ right to protest may have contributed to the violence seen on other campuses. Accordingly, the Editorial Board urges President Elliott and the administration to, in conversation with students, increase transparency about when police may be employed during protests.

As the college’s Protests and Free Expression Policy policy stands, although students, faculty, or staff members may be subject to disciplinary violations for violating the policy during events, the college will “endeavor to issue a warning” before taking further action. The policy also allows for some narrow exceptions to the college’s commitment to free expression, principally hate speech and protest that “directly interferes with core instructional and administrative functions” of the college.

Protest acts, including those that the policy explicitly permits — marches, rallies, sit-ins, and picketing — are inherently disruptive; the occupation of Frost Library by students or rallies outside Converse Hall both exemplify Amherst’s dedication to free speech, yet could be taken to be directly interfering with core instructional and administrative functions of the college. Additionally, administrators at Columbia cited interference with instruction as a reason to suspend student protestors, days before the occupation of Hamilton Hall (renamed Hind Hall by protestors) and the subsequent calling of the NYPD to campus.

Campus safety is important to both students and administrators, and it is a collaborative process. Organizers are well aware of the need for protests to remain non-violent, to welcome students from all backgrounds, and to follow basic physical safety guidelines. There are differences between actions that fall under the banner of “non-violent disruptive protest” and they should merit different police responses — what exactly those responses will be is something the administration and the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) must consider.

We urge the college to maintain its commitment to free expression by avoiding routes of overcriminalization that other colleges have pursued. Any college or university will have policies around protest on campus; as part of civil disobedience, protestors agree to accept disciplinary consequences that may be administered due to their violation of these policies. What cannot be accepted, however, is the administration using vagueness in existing policies as a pretext to invite police onto campus and punish protestors more severely than originally communicated.

In a statement from Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth to students who had set up an encampment on campus, Roth noted that protestors had violated university rules and “seem[ed] willing to accept the consequences,” but committed to not clearing the encampment while it remained non-violent and did not disrupt normal operations. Similarly, President Elliott has the opportunity to commit to transparency, accountability, and campus safety: to communicate clearly that the protest policy as previously conceptualized and the consequences elaborated in it will continue to stand, but that it will not be departed from to call for arrests or other police action.

As a residential campus, ACPD is embedded into our daily lives as students. We see them everywhere from Val to dorm buildings, and we will see them at protests. Although most of our concern lies with the possibility of outside police forces being brought to campus to control protests, we should be mindful of the connections ACPD has to students. Transparency in policing allows for this relationship to be sustained, rather than to fracture due to uncertainty. Per student reports, cops were recently present at a speaker event despite no threat apparent to attendees, indicating that there remains a need for transparency on policing for the campus community.

The right to open discourse and peaceful dissent are foundational to the college’s goal and our experience as students. The Editorial Board hopes that the college will recognize the importance of peaceful protest in fulfilling its mission as a place of learning and open dialogue.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 12; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).