Activism / June 3, 2024

Palestinian Liberation and Police Abolition Go Hand In Hand

The severe repression of the recent encampment protests proves that these struggles are inexorably linked.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem and Trip Eggert
Pro-Palestinian protesters face-off with the police in a demonstration at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on May 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

Pro-Palestinian protesters face off with the police in a demonstration at the University of California–Los Angeles on May 23, 2024.

(Qian Weizhong / VCG via Getty Images)

Since the student movement for Palestinian liberation gained momentum this spring, universities and politicians have unleashed brutal police forces on campuses across the country. At the City College of New York, cops tasered and pepper-sprayed demonstrators, smashing teeth and breaking an ankle. At the University of Arizona, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters; at Emory, they fired pepper balls and tased a young man who was already handcuffed and pinned to the ground; at Tulane, state troopers armed with sniper rifles took aim at students. Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested.

In keeping with American tradition, the cops are also openly embracing nationalist vigilantes. UCLA’s encampment was attacked by a mob of Zionists wielding fireworks, pepper spray, wooden boards, and poles while police watched quietly from the sidelines. Their own raid would wait until the next evening. At the University of Chicago, cops in riot gear stood by as Proud Boys charged the student encampment. Vigilante violence aligns with the interests of the state, the university, and the police in their deep investment in the ongoing genocide in Palestine—in a nation-state’s capacity to quell civilian resistance to the slaughter they sponsor.

The broken bones and bloodshed on campuses across America are not isolated instances of police overreach—it’s business as usual for cops. Their escalating violence, enticed by university administrations and elected officials, is an attempt to shatter the increasingly powerful interfaith, interracial coalition that stands against the “unholy alliance” of ethno-nationalist movements and their exchange of tactics, weapons, intelligence, and ideology. Under the guise of “safety,” the police exist to stifle domestic dissent against a racial capitalist system that seeks to consume us all.

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On April 17, Columbia students set up a Gaza Solidarity Encampment on the school’s east lawn, inspiring students across the world to follow suit. Columbia invited the NYPD on campus to clear the encampment the next day. Despite the arrests of 108 students, organizers quickly reorganized the encampment on the west lawn. Opportunistic politicians called for National Guard deployments, a threat echoed by university officials during negotiations. House Speaker Mike Johnson parachuted onto the locked-down campus for a press conference alongside Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. He was the first horseman of the chud-pocalypse: a horde of Zionists and Christian nationalists massed outside campus the following day, screaming, “Go back to Gaza!”

On April 29, university officials left notices instructing students to leave or risk suspension, severing negotiations and prompting another defensive mobilization. That night, organizers liberated Hamilton Hall (a tradition at Columbia) and renamed it after 6-year-old Palestinian martyr Hind Rajab.

The next day, the campus was locked down and New York City Mayor Eric Adams exploited racist smears like “terrorist” and “outside agitator” to create a pretext for police violence. Then the NYPD descended en masse, throwing flash-bang grenades and firing an errant gunshot, which the NYPD’s 86-person communications team neglected to disclose. Though Mayor Adams claimed that there were “no injuries,” several protesters were hospitalized—police stomped on one organizer’s face so hard their eye socket was fractured. The Washington Post later learned that a group of “business titans” had privately urged Adams to crack down, with some of them telling him that they had donated to his reelection campaign.

Activists from CCNY faced even more severe police brutality that night. They were incarcerated near Columbia demonstrators at 1 Police Plaza, where cops forced some protesters to remove their hijabs. Though the students who took over Hind’s Hall face misdemeanor charges, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged CUNY protesters with felonies. The NYPD released a list of addresses for all arraigned protesters to reporters (quickly reposted to pro-Zionist websites as part of their decade-long doxing campaign). A Craigslist posting offered $20 for clear face photos of “Columbia University Hamas Supporters” the next day.

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While the NYPD indulged its thirst for violence, Los Angeles saw a motley crew of ethno-nationalist groups and local police assault the UCLA encampment, injuring at least 30 people. That night, a neo-Nazi standing alongside Zionists shouted, “We’re here to finish what Hitler started!” These alliances between police and right-wing agitators in the United States mirror reports that Israeli security officials worked with vigilantes to sabotage Gaza aid convoys—and the police deputization of white supremacist mobs during the Tulsa massacre.

When organizers protested Columbia trustees, one man seemingly took inspiration from Charlottesville neo-Nazis, ramming his car into the group and hospitalizing one. Police promptly arrested the victim and a nearby bystander, charging both with misdemeanors (later dismissed by prosecutors). The driver, Reuven Kahane, is the cousin of Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League—infamous for Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron. Kahane appeared for arraignment the next morning for a felony assault charge and was released on his own recognizance.

The neoliberal state is one whose rules tend to work in capitalists’ favor. This is why the law does not constrain policing but rather conforms to and enables police power. That same police power excludes criminalized populations from political participation through disenfranchisement and more subtle forms of discouragement. Criminalization “marks” its subjects to create a stigmatized underclass who can only access precarious, abusive forms of employment; those who cycle through jails and prisons are the state’s contribution to capital’s reserve army of labor.

Racial capitalism theories teach us that each historical development of capitalism differentiated its underclass through racialization, a process that exposes groups to premature death. Seen through this lens, the police are a state-market entity that functions “to produce race.” Cops have always been deployed to splinter interracial working-class coalitions. It is incoherent to conceive of police being “infiltrated” by supremacists. White supremacy is the cop’s job description—even for the Black cop and the Muslim cop.

Many observers seem alarmed by billionaires’ lobbying New York’s mayor to unleash police upon student protesters. We do not share their surprise. Liberal whitewashing made Americans forget that the state responds only to power and the disruption of profits. It is only through this amnesiac haze that recent police repression can be construed as exceptional.

While American students fight this repression, Israel continues to massacre Palestinians with American bombs, as well as starvation and disease. Those who survive endure sexual violence, torture, malnutrition, and worse. Americans face nothing on the same scale—but our struggles are deeply entwined.

Palestine is a laboratory and showroom for military and surveillance technologists across the globe. As of 2018, at least 11,000 American law enforcement officials from dozens of states had received training from Israeli security agencies, through tactics exchanges starting in the 1990s and ramped up by an Anti-Defamation League program which began in 2004.

The NYPD has command posts in 16 cities across the world, including Tel Aviv. The NYPD’s Tel Aviv liaison has sent “hourly” updates since October 7. This partnership has a long and ugly history. In the wake of 9/11, the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” mapped Muslim communities in and around New York City, logging where individuals ate, shopped, and prayed. Those spying practices were revamped during the War on Terror to follow Israeli surveillance tactics in the West Bank.

Bay Ridge, a Brooklyn neighborhood home to one of the largest Arab American communities, was hit particularly hard by NYPD surveillance—just as it has faced particular police brutality these past seven months. The Palestinian-led community organization Within Our Lifetime has commemorated the Nakba since at least 2019, often in Bay Ridge; last month, the NYPD brutally disrupted its demonstration. One of the first billionaire WhatsApp group messages to Eric Adams, as reported by The Washington Post, was sent on October 12, around the same time the NYPD began targeting pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

It is not just the NYPD. Stop Cop City organizers in Atlanta are bearing and protesting intense police violence. Forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán was filled with 57 bullets while their hands were raised; prosecutors weaponized racketeering charges against community organizers who operated bail funds, and cops targeted activists with a threatening surveillance campaign. Atlanta organizers have repeatedly highlighted that the brutal tactics and pervasive surveillance of the Atlanta Police Department are linked to the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, their instantiation of the Israeli-American security partnership. The struggle to stop Cop City and to free Palestine is the same struggle. In October, Atlanta and Fulton County law enforcement conducted a training exercise to remove “Hamas terrorists” from an abandoned hotel. Efforts by students and Stop Cop City organizers to draw attention to this collaboration were met with violent repression.

The global police-military continuum is today driven by ethno-religious nationalist ideologies that transform grief and victimhood into state violence. Just as Zionism, “a machine for the conversion of grief into power,” exploits Jewish victimhood to justify the brutality of the state, white Christian nationalism postures godly whites as victims to the ravages of “collectivism” and racial replacement. Israel receives near-unconditional support from America not because of its military-strategic value but for its ideological resonance. This could be why Palantir cofounder Alex Karp felt compelled to speak out against Palestinian solidarity protests: “If we lose the intellectual debate, you will not be able to deploy any armies in the west ever.”

This phenomenon is not limited to the far-right fringes. To the cop or the politician, the crime victim is less of a constituent than a convenient symbol to mobilize calls for violence and repression. This is part of why cops so vehemently contest the notion that pro-Palestine activists can be “victims” of police brutality.

The politics of victimhood redirect our attention away from the actual causes of structural marginalization and toward dramatized individual narratives of personal responsibility. This is precisely how America transitioned from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime—instead of full employment and housing for all, America built prisons to warehouse Black youth and flooded the streets with cops. In the 21st century, the American victim complex morphed into the War on Terror, centering anti-Arab racism and islamophobia in the carceral state’s long campaign to subjugate and exploit Blackness—a bloody trail from Attica to Abu Ghraib.

We cannot build movements for solidarity and abundance if we do not fight against the carceral state—it will always stand against us. In tandem with the Israel Defense Forces, police crush dissent and uphold the racial capitalist system. If we do not escalate against them, we will not survive. To flourish and to build a world beyond the nationalist death drive requires us to reject the illusion that cops and prisons provide safety or serve the public, to stop their ever-growing plunder of public resources—and to abolish the police entirely.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Jonathan Ben-Menachem

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a PhD candidate in sociology at Columbia University, where he researches the politics of criminalization and crime journalism.

Trip Eggert

Trip Eggert is a Barnard College alum organizing with Columbia University Apartheid Divest and a communications specialist focused on the criminal legal system.

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