'It's about the camaraderie. The connections. The cameras.' Spencer Platt/Getty Images


April 26, 2024   5 mins

This week, amid widespread US campus protests against the war in Gaza, a video emerged of a confrontation on the Columbia quad. A slender young black man in a keffiyeh and a pair of florid pink Crocs paces through the crowd, shouting an urgent warning: “We have a Zionist at the entrance of our encampment!”

“Repeat after me!” he calls, and the crowd of students — there are at least a hundred of them — begin to chant as instructed.

“We have Zionists!”
“We have Zionists!”

“Who have entered the camp!”
“Who have entered the camp!”

“We are going to create a human chain—”
“We are going to create a human chain—”

“Where I am standing—”
“Where I am standing—”

“So that—”
“So that—”

“They do not pass this point!”
“They do not pass this point!”

“And infringe upon our privacy!”
“And infringe upon our privacy!”

“And try to disrupt our community!”
“And try to disrupt our community!”

The students link arms, moving as one. “One step forward!” the leader calls, and they duly obey as a hundred voices echo: “One step forward!”

I have no normative judgement to hand down on the protests themselves. This is America, the students are engaged in the protected exercise of their first amendment rights, and it is their prerogative to continue doing it within the parameters of the law, whether or not this will have any impact whatsoever on the thing they’re protesting. (It won’t.) I certainly don’t agree with Columbia’s president’s decision to send in the NYPD to arrest participants; this was excessive, and also wildly counterproductive, given how it has obviously fuelled the group’s sense of heroic victimhood and caused their ranks to swell exponentially.

But the video is worth discussing. The robotic chanting, the lockstep conformity, the way the ringleader in the pink Crocs simpers and giggles as his group advances on the two students who he’s identified, for reasons unknown, as Zionists. “Have you got enough video?” he coos. “Cause I look very pretty.”

It is, of course, the position of those sympathetic to the protests that videos like the above are non-representative of the general tenor of things — as well as a foolish distraction from the true issue at hand. Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was suspended from Columbia for her participation in the protests, posted on X, “Throughout history, protests were co-opted and made to look bad so police and public leaders would shut them down. That’s what we are seeing now at Columbia University
 Public officials and media making this about anything else are inflaming the situation and need to bring calmness and sanity back.” Meanwhile, the protestors themselves released a statement complaining that their activism was being unfairly conflated with the acts of a few malicious idiots: “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us
Our members have been misidentified by a politically motivated mob.”

There’s something a bit odd about this no-true-Scotsmanning, given the tendency of these same protestors to treat any Jewish-appearing person who is not sporting a keffiyeh and chanting for intifada as a proxy for the Netanyahu regime. It’s also a bizarre form of special pleading; I certainly don’t remember anyone taking seriously the notion that, for instance, the 100 or so tiki torch-wielding protestors shouting “Jews will not replace us” at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 were not representative of the cause to which they’d attached themselves.

“You can see what animates them in this moment, and it isn’t the cause.”

But either way, I doubt it matters. If you’re being screamed at, spat on, and told to “go back to Poland” on the streets of the Upper West Side, how much do you really care whether the people doing this are certified Ivy League-pedigreed assholes or just the regular kind? The only difference this could possibly make is to Columbia itself, and then only because if these are students, the school might be expected to do something about it.

It’s also an unavoidable and unfortunate feature of this and other campus protests that they do tend to attract a sizeable contingent who are not so much pro-Palestinian as anti-Israel — and, more specifically, anti-whichever-Jewish-person has the misfortune to be within shouting distance. For while Columbia’s activists may believe that this is not the true soul of their protest, the video linked above indicates otherwise. If the point of protesting the war in Gaza is to protest the war in Gaza, why is one of the movement’s leaders squandering even an iota of energy on intimidating two random, completely unconnected people off a public lawn for the crime of supporting Israel’s continued existence? The chanting, the linked arms, the singular focus: this is not a distraction from the regularly scheduled program. It is the program.

And for at least some of these people — certainly for the ones in the video — I strongly suspect that it is the entire point.

This is not to say that the students captured here are antisemites, even if they are engaged in what is arguably antisemitic harassment. In all likelihood, most of them had never thought much about Jews or Palestinians or Israel at all before the war in Gaza became the cause du jour; I’m not sure many of them have thought about it much since, either. Whatever else these demonstrations may be, they are the biggest social event on campus — in a world where campus social events have been basically nonexistent for the past three years.

Between the chanting, the dancing, and the
 well, whatever this is, it’s hard to blame the kids for wanting to join what is, for all intents and purposes, a party. It’s also hard to blame them for being somewhat bewildered when the party ends with their own university calling the cops, who in turn force them to disperse with a fire hose. It’s not just the brutality; it feels like a breach of contract. As writer and academic Tyler Austin Harper has noted, Columbia and others like it explicitly highlight their histories as incubators of political activism with the express purpose of attracting a particular type of young person, the kind for whom protesting and partying seem like one and the same thing.

I suspect that this is why these events have the feeling of performance, or even parody: a photogenic, vibes-based facsimile of radical activism instead of the thing itself. It’s not just that their ostensible goal of “divestment” — in this case, from ETFs that include shares in businesses with ties to Israel — is a categorical impossibility; a number of the campus demonstrators will openly admit that they neither know nor care what specific policies they’re demonstrating against. What matters is, they’re part of something, a tradition of campus activism that dates back a hundred years. For the students who are drawn to Columbia’s “Social Justice university” branding, protesting is less about results than participation, a sort of institutionally-sanctioned Larp, like one of those interactive team-building exercises where you get to solve a murder, or escape from prison — or, in this case, hunt a witch.

Which brings me back to the video from the quad and the chants of “One step forward!”, which some have compared with Children of the Corn — the 1984 slasher film in which a maniacal child preacher orchestrates the massacre of every adult in town. Others have noted that a group of people linking arms to push Jews out of public spaces has, uh, particular connotations. To me, though, this scene was most reminiscent not of horror movies or history books, but of high school. The socially approving smirks that the kids in the video flash at each other are the same ones that would ripple across the faces of my school’s resident mean girls as they chased some less popular kid from a lunch table, a bus seat, a bathroom. It was bullying, yes, but more important, it was a bonding exercise. Nothing brings a group of people together like pushing another one out.

And the kids in the video, with their linked arms, their self-satisfied grins? You can see what animates them in this moment, and it isn’t the cause. It’s the camaraderie. The connections. The cameras. This was the college experience they were promised — and it’s everything they hoped it would be.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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