A Generation of Distrust

The student-protest encampment at the University of California, Berkeley, sits on the steps of Sproul Hall. Sixty years ago on the same site, Mario Savio, a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, gave a famous address in which he told his fellow-students that sometimes “the operation of the machine becomes so odious” that “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” At the time, students were forbidden from on-campus demonstrations about noncampus matters—the “machine” was the state-university system, which eventually gave into the Free Speech Movement’s demands. But Savio’s words have since assumed a broader resonance for dissent and civil disobedience of any stripe. Like many other élite institutions of higher learning in America, Berkeley presents itself as a place where historic change took place thanks to the bravery of its former students; in 1997, the university installed a small plaque at the base of the steps and named them after Savio.

Encampments are not an uncommon sight in Berkeley, but on my visits to Sproul Hall I was struck, nonetheless, by the tents, and what they seemed to evoke. In the Bay Area, tents sit on sidewalks, under nearly every highway overpass, and, until recently, in People’s Park, another famous site of Berkeley resistance, which was once a homeless encampment. The university has since blockaded the park with a fortress of shipping containers, stacked like Lincoln Logs. The university’s administration wants to build a dormitory on the site, and its early attempts to start construction were disrupted by a coalition of young students and old Berkeley radicals—a reminder that protest in America is always nostalgic and referential, shot through with the desire for a past radicalism, one with specifics that, like Savio’s speech, have been diluted over time.

But references change and can take on multiple meanings. Zach, a Palestinian American undergraduate who was participating in the Sproul Hall encampment, told me that the tents were meant to allude to conditions in Gaza, where more than a million people have been displaced. Zach grew up in California, and he told me that his mother had always been “really scared about advocacy for Palestine,” which she thought seemed dangerous. As a result, their household felt apolitical out of necessity. But Zach was drawn to Berkeley not only by its faculty but by its reputation as a place where dissent flourished. “I wanted to learn from the people who wrote the textbooks, but I also came because of its political advocacy and its history in the Free Speech Movement,” Zach said. After October 7th, Zach started taking part in actions organized by Students for Justice in Palestine. Across from Sproul Hall is Sather Gate, which leads to the heart of campus. For weeks, students partially blocked the passageway with large banners. The administration took the position that, so long as the protesters did not harass people or prevent them from moving freely around campus, they were not violating school policy.

In February, though, when the leader of a conservative Israeli think tank, who is also a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, was scheduled to speak on campus, a pro-Palestine student group called for the talk to be shut down; when the talk went ahead, protesters showed up and, in the ensuing confrontation, a door was broken and a window was smashed. Afterward, an estimated three hundred faculty members and students held a march demanding that the university do more to insure the safety and well-being of Jewish people on campus. They insisted that the school clear the protest at Sather Gate, where, some said, protesters were making antisemitic remarks and discriminating against Jewish students. Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House, called for a federal investigation into antisemitism at Berkeley. The administration cleared the semi-blockade.

The university has not yet intervened with the encampment, in contrast to Columbia and other schools that have called in police to disperse protesters. (On Wednesday night, Berkeley’s administration met student protesters to begin negotiations, but no agreements were made.) Even so, no one at Berkeley seemed satisfied by the administration’s handling of things. “There’s so much repression by the university,” Zach said. “There’s so many attempts to silence us and the dusting off of rules so that we cannot do the work we were doing at Sather.” Zach told me that the encampment would remain in place until the university meets the protesters’ demands, which include the university’s financial divestment from “corporations that enable and profit from the Israeli apartheid, occupation, and genocide,” an academic boycott that would require the school to “permanently sever ties” with Israeli universities, and the enactment of policies that “protect the safety and academic freedoms of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and pro-Palestinian students and faculty.”

Protests are rarely about just one thing. At the encampment, I also met a nineteen-year-old Jewish student from Sacramento whom I’ll call Sam. (He asked that I not use his actual name.) He wore a watermelon kippah—a signal of solidarity with the Free Palestine movement. (Watermelons, which are grown in Gaza and the West Bank, are red, green, and black, like the Palestinian flag, which, for many years after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, was barred from public display in Israel.) Sam saw his role in the encampment as an “untangler,” someone who could separate what he saw as real instances of antisemitism from criticism of Israel. He said that he and other Jewish students who were at the encampment “believe that our history as Jews, our long-standing history of oppression, informs us even further and compels us to act even more.”

Sam grew up in a Jewish Reform community that he described as “P.E.P.,” which stands for “progressive except Palestine.” “We declared ourselves a sanctuary synagogue and were always taking in refugees on the border, Syrian refugees, et cetera,” Sam explained. “And there was a lot of critique of Netanyahu, but never substantial critique of Israel itself.” In high school, Sam was assigned a project on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I remember pulling up the initial partitions of land between Israel and Palestine, and formed my own opinions around that,” he said. “I have distinct memories of getting in screaming matches with other family members.”

At Berkeley, Sam joined Hillel International, a Jewish student organization, but, as someone who considered himself an “Israel skeptic,” he didn’t feel very welcome. After October 7th, he began what he described as a “process, in terms of changing of beliefs.” The claim, repeated by President Joe Biden, that Hamas had beheaded forty Israeli babies was a “major turning point” in his thinking, he said. “There’s a long history of institutions and government lying to the masses,” Sam told me. “But it’s another thing to experience it firsthand.”

“There’s this idea that we should put our faith in institutions and establishments that have deemed themselves credible, whether media or universities or politicians,” Sam went on. “And I think a large awakening in this generation has been seeing the complete opposite of that.” Sam pointed out that, just a short walk from where we were sitting, Berkeley ran a campus eatery called the Free Speech Movement Café. Like Zach, he suggested that the university had not actually learned anything from the prior movements that it now championed in its marketing pitch to prospective students.

Sam believed that the war in Gaza had exposed the contradictions, elisions, and hypocrisy of American institutions—not only the government and academia but the press. He contrasted what he and other students saw “every single day on our phones from civilians quite literally holding different mobile devices and videotaping the horrors” in Gaza with what he considered “the utter lack of reporting from the mainstream media.” Thanks to those civilians, he said, “this is the most documented genocide in history,” but people who watch only the news don’t know what’s really happening. “That’s been a large part in the stark difference between the youth’s opinion versus the older generation,” he told me.

During the past two weeks, many members of that older generation have asked what the protesters really want. Pundits have speculated, sometimes in embarrassing ways, about everything from wokeness and the narcissism of youth to downward trends in the sexual activity of young people. More focussed explanations have attributed the protests to, on one end, antisemitism or, on the other, the desire to stop the massacre of women and children.

After spending a significant part of the past decade covering protests, I try to resist linear declarations—not to maintain some veneer of journalistic objectivity but because my experience has suggested that protests tend to have many origins at once, and are neither fully righteous nor totally depraved. Beyond the horror and outrage about what is happening in Gaza, what struck me in conversations with young people were the repeated references to the kind of disillusionment that both Sam and Zach described. This has been noticeable even among those who fiercely disagree with them about Israel—more conservative Jewish students, for example, who feel abandoned by their universities and who do not understand why progressives who have stood up for other persecuted groups don’t stand up for them. It is also noticeable among Palestinian students and their allies, who believe those same institutions have warped their usual standards to silence dissent and provide cover for what they regard as a genocide. Both, in their way, have reached a strange but robust consensus about the hypocrisy of a university that cloaks itself in the history of free speech and the media that covers the protests at their school.

This nonpartisan disillusionment began before October 7th, but it has been deepened by the ways that the government, the media, and other institutions have responded to it. People see one thing on social media and something else on their TVs and in the news; like Sam, many of them conclude that the former is much closer to the truth and that the latter is largely propaganda. A recent CNN poll showed that eighty-one per cent of people below the age of thirty-five disapproved of Biden’s handling of the war. But what percentage of that eighty-one per cent would ever believe a story they saw on CNN?

When the war in Gaza ends, many of the students at Sproul Hall—but not all—will move on with their lives. Some might make their way up the hills, to the north of campus, where they will find charming brown-shingle houses filled with old, wealthy Berkeleyites, including former radicals who can tell them all about the Free Speech Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and the things they did before they went to law school.

This is just what happens: young people get old. But the country does change. Most of the undergrads now at Berkeley and elsewhere watched the murder of George Floyd on their phones when they were in high school. They saw that the narratives put out by the police and by the media did not match what they were seeing with their own eyes. They had their high-school graduations cancelled by COVID, and started college on Zoom, and contended with the seeming possibility that the pandemic would end society as they knew it. Sitting in their bedrooms, they sunk deeper online, as the rest of us did. A shunt of disbelief opened up.

Some of these young people rediscovered the physical world during the protests that ran throughout the summer of 2020, and many of them witnessed police brutality, tear gas, and other forms of coercion. They also saw universities, politicians, and other leaders send out meek statements of support. This week, many of those eighty-one per cent who, like Sam, have spent six months scrolling through images of dead children, then watching footage of encampments on their phones, witnessed police shutdowns at Columbia, City College, U.C.L.A., and other campuses. They may not watch cable news, but they have likely encountered on social media the rhetoric from many in the press, including CNN’s Dana Bash, who compared the nationwide campus protests to the “nineteen-thirties in Europe.” Why wouldn’t they conclude that justice—and perhaps reality—can be found only on the picket lines, or in an encampment? The war in Gaza has taken that shunt of disbelief and ripped it wide open. They don’t trust us anymore. ♦

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