Pro-Palestine movement carries on amid Ohio State repression

Most of the young people holding the line during a campus protest last week were half the size of the officers, who continued to advance on a movement they were beating into prominence.
The pro-Palestine protest on Ohio State's South Oval on Thursday, April 25.
The pro-Palestine protest on Ohio State's South Oval on Thursday, April 25.Taylor Dorrell

For nearly four hours, it seemed like something was going to happen. 

On a warm early evening last Thursday, students, faculty, alumni, and community members formed a living chain around a speaker as they delivered a prolonged prayer. The peaceful scene was far removed from the picture of the growing university encampment movement generally offered by media outlets and politicians, who have condemned the protesters as “lawless,” “antisemitic,” and “pro-Hamas.” But the young protesters I witnessed that day were no different than the hundreds of thousands of young Americans compelled by the isolationism of the pandemic, the desperation of climate change, and the immobility of the political institutions in charge of the cynical algorithmic world in which they live. 

In the tense spring of 2024, I went to see the new student-led anti-war movement on OSU’s South Oval. I suppose I was drawn by the issue of repression – an issue that has evolved in recent months on OSU’s campus, transforming from an initial disregard of student dissent and escalating to discipline and the suspension of student groups. Nobody knew what would happen exactly, but everyone could feel that it would be an event – a piece of the wider student-led movement that has taken on added resonance in the aftermath of Israel bombing every university in Gaza.

On that particular day, I arrived with a friend and local labor organizer. (The AFL-CIO, America's largest labor federation, released an historic statement calling for a ceasefire, and so too did my union, the National Writers Union.) We were walking up to the Ohio Union at OSU, the location for the 5 p.m. rally, when someone with a red keffiyeh asked me, “Are you going to the protest? They’re not letting people through.” As I later found out, Ohio Union staff were selectively denying the entrance and exit of those who looked like they were going to and from the protests, a judgment seemingly reliant entirely on appearance.

As I made my way around the student union, a woman behind me said to the person next to her, “Look, that’s Heba, the leader of SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine).” Her voice was stern, and I wondered without looking back if she was a counter-protester. Out of nowhere, the anonymous voice yelled, “Kill the Jews!” I turned around in time to see her friend nudge her. “What?” the woman fired back. “That’s what they believe.” Both women had Israeli flags wrapped around their necks like capes. They were pro-Israel counter-protesters.

That same night at Northeastern University, Zionists infiltrated campus protests and also yelled “Kill the Jews!” One hundred arrests were made in response to the chant and media coverage painted the protest as antisemitic. Northeastern officials later appeared to admit the chant was made by Israeli advocates, but held firm to the decision to arrest pro-Palestine protesters. And last night at UCLA, a group of pro-Israel counter-protesters attacked a pro-Palestine encampment, according to reporters for The Los Angeles Times, screaming for a “second Nakba,” a reference to the mass displacement of Palestinians that occurred during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

House Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia University in New York City on Wednesday, April 24, calling on President Biden to intervene in squashing the peaceful protests, building on the call to bring in the National Guard made by some of his Republican colleagues. Johnson characterized the Columbia encampment as being overrun by “lawless agitators” who “attack our innocent Jewish students.” The NYPD conducted a mass arrest of 100 Columbia students but found that the students were “peaceful” and “offered no resistance whatsoever.” 

Back at OSU, the crowd spilled into the South Oval slowly and quietly. “Free, free Palestine,” a lone voice yelled in hopes of starting a chant. Organizers quickly waved the chorus off and explained that chants and megaphones were forbidden by police. Arms interlocked in a circle and a young man led a lengthy prayer. As he spoke, a crew of students swiftly raised a handful of green tents inside the circle. By the time OSU police announced that tents were banned on the oval, the encampment had officially begun.

Gradually, the tone of the protest shifted. Chants started. Songs were sung, led by Jewish organizers. As I listened, the images released of the mass graves found behind hospitals raided by Israel in Gaza were fresh on my mind; pictures of hundreds of bodies tied up, some still wearing nursing scrubs. 

Students made speeches calling for divestment from Israel. The crowd chanted, “Divestment is our demand! No peace on stolen land!” But OSU won’t disclose its investments in Israeli companies. And thanks to an Ohio law, the university claims it would be illegal to divest. 

Not long after that, a 15-minute warning was given for the crowd to disperse. I imagined tear gas and riot police appearing when the time expired, not dissimilar from the scenes that unfolded on the OSU campus in 1970. Instead, another 15-minute warning was given. Two Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers soon appeared on the roof of the Ohio Union with binoculars. And an undercover officer walked over to start documenting the encampment – until protesters booed him away. But after the second warning, again nothing.

As the hours passed and the cold settled in, it became apparent police were mobilizing for the type of mass arrest that had been rumored throughout the day. Organizers warned the crowd internally that arrests would follow, urging anyone to leave who wasn’t prepared to be detained. People began to frantically write the jail support phone number on their arms. But nobody left. 

“You’re under arrest for criminal trespassing,” a policeman announced over his car’s loudspeaker. Two lines of riot troopers then marched onto the lawn with their dark helmets and vests, stomping in unison toward the circle of unarmed students. A helicopter was now flying overhead with a light pointed at the peaceful encampment on the South Oval. The binoculars on the roof of the Ohio Union were replaced with sniper rifles, which police trained on the crowd of young people. The crows chanted, “Let them pray!” as sheriff’s buses pulled up ready to be filled with anti-war protesters. 

A rhythmic movement unfolded between the mass of tangled students and police. A few helmets would venture towards the line and walk away dragging a handcuffed student toward the bus. I watched as one protester was carried by three limbs as one foot lagged along. Another was dragged by the arms as both feet dragged through the grass. A young female student standing next to me was grabbed and dragged behind the line of police. Three troopers got on top of her to put on handcuffs. Her friend screamed helplessly, “No, they took her! She wasn’t doing anything!”

When vocal bystanders shamed the police for arresting unarmed students, the officers lashed out and arrested them, too. Most of the young people holding the line were half the size of the police, who continued to advance on a movement they were beating into prominence. 

Protesters maintained the line, protecting the encampment and those praying inside it for an hour. The crowd was chanting “CPD, KKK, IDF, they’re all the same!” as a group of helmets regrouped. “You’re under arrest for criminal trespassing,” the police said again. This time, troopers shoved their way through. Organizers knew they couldn’t hold the line all night. A few individuals started waving their arms and yelling, “Move back slowly!” They were leaving the encampment. In the end, 36 people were arrested.

In a statement, OSU president Ted Carter said that “what occurred on our campus on April 25 was not about limiting free speech.” The issue, he continued, was the breaking of rules and straining of resources. “Ohio State’s campus will not be overtaken in this manner.”

“Students – especially students at a public university – have the right to gather and protest without being charged with criminal trespassing,” Ohio State’s American Association of University Professors said in a statement released after arrests on both Tuesday and Thursday. “This is an attempt to set new boundaries that will curtail the open, peaceful exchange of ideas and knowledge.”

The statement echoed a number of student groups that issued similar calls to protect free speech on campus.

And yet, SJP member Heba remains hopeful. “This won’t stop us,” she said in an interview the weekend after the protest. “The treatment we received on Thursday and the genocide in Gaza is only giving us more reasons to grow this movement.”

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