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Op-ed: GW should learn from historic protests to meet ongoing demonstrations

Shawn McHale is an Elliott School of International Affairs professor of history and international affairs serving in the Department of History in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. A specialist on Southeast Asia, he teaches on the Vietnam War. 

May 4 is the 54th anniversary of the fateful day that the Ohio National Guard came onto the Kent State campus and shot and killed four students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. These killings inflamed further protests, including on this campus. The protests marked the high point of student struggles to protest the war.

Student protests have always been central during times of war and have often turned violent. But looking back at history, we have plenty of examples of what we should and should not do to avoid more catastrophes.

The level of repression seen on college campuses in 1970, often involving police forces and the National Guard, clue us into the fact that these Vietnam-era protests were far more violent than what we are seeing today. Indeed, the May 1970 demonstrations at George Washington University, which followed earlier protests, including the 1969 sit-in of the Institute for Sino-Soviet Studies, involved extensive police-student altercations and police beatings with truncheons and the use of tear gas. They were far more violent than anything seen during the GW encampments today.

This brings us to University President Ellen Granberg and the lessons she should learn from the past, from avoiding the unintended consequences of heavy police intervention, including violence, to seeing the value of speaking and working directly with protesters. Some university presidents managed to rise to the occasion in 1970. Some failed to meet the moment. Some failures, like the later National Guard killings at Kent State and the later killings that month at Jackson State, are obvious. But there were success stories and GW should be looking and learning from them.

One of them was the way that Michigan State University President Clifton Wharton Jr., the first 20th-century Black president of a majority-white institution, handled the tumult at his university as it unfolded. President Wharton clearly had a better intuitive sense of how to deal with crises than many of our flailing university presidents today. He repeatedly met in person with protesters. He respected viewpoints far different from his own and fully supported the right to non-violent protest. He talked directly to student leaders again and again and again. True leaders do not shy away from monumental challenges. They confront them. Wharton was such a leader. GW has not stepped up to the occasion.

The protests and counter-protests we are seeing across America are dueling responses to two sets of war crimes. Hamas committed war crimes on Oct. 7, 2023, with its massacre of about 1,200 Israelis (and some non-Israelis) and the capture of numerous hostages. Just as this war crime should be utterly condemned, so should we condemn what followed.

In the last seven months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is responsible for the deaths of a reported 34,000 Gazans, many of them civilians; it has destroyed hospitals and houses of worship; attacked every single university in Gaza, killing nearly 100 professors and three university presidents; destroyed extensive housing stock; forced Gazans, many of them descendants of 1948 refugees, to be refugees themselves; and then deprived these refugees of adequate food.

Of all places, universities should respect and embrace the rights of people with radically different views to articulate them in the public sphere. Preemptively calling in police forces to suppress nonviolent speech for spurious reasons should be anathema to university presidents. Once universities call in the police or any form of law enforcement, things can more easily escalate and become violent, just as it’s happened numerous times in the past with Kent State and Jackson State.

Instead, university presidents should directly talk to the student and faculty protesters and counter-protesters. And not just talk at them: engage with them repeatedly. Act as Wharton did in 1970, or as Brown University President Christina Paxson has done in 2024: talk directly to protesters and counter-protesters, in public. Hear their concerns. Create compromises. And move forward.

University presidents should not try to stop students from protesting war crimes by invoking the violation of minor regulations. This is petty. For the most part, the protesters are protesting peacefully and aren’t endangering students. Besides, most protests tend to in one way or another violate smaller rules — after all they are protests. The point is to grab people’s attention.

So GW should do the right thing. Calling in the Metropolitan Police Department at this juncture is not the right thing. It just escalates the situation and could lead to unintended consequences, ranging from violence, arrest of participants, and participants and bystanders ending up in the hospital.

The protests on university campuses today address fundamentally serious issues. Passing the Gaza protest on Thursday afternoon, I heard Gaza encampment students chanting “Down With Hate!” Who could disagree with that sentiment?

I’m not sure the GW administration realizes this, but that statement is an opening for dialogue — in person and face-to-face. President Granberg, now is the time to speak directly and publicly with protesters and counter-protesters, listen to their concerns and create a path forward.

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