‘No surprise’: US students slam Biden’s comments on Gaza encampments

Students say Biden risks ‘losing entire generation of voters’ over his Gaza policy and condemnation of college protests.

Video Duration 08 minutes 23 seconds 08:23Published On 2 May 20242 May 2024

President Joe Biden says “order must prevail” on university campuses in the United States, just hours after police raided and dismantled another protest encampment in support of Palestinians.

In a brief news conference on Thursday, Biden said both the right to free speech and the rule of law “must be upheld” but stressed that “violent protest is not protected”.

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“Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduation — none of this is a peaceful protest. Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not a peaceful protest,” he said.

“Dissent is essential to democracy, but dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education,” Biden continued. “There’s a right to protest but not the right to cause chaos.”

Biden’s comments came shortly after police arrested at least 132 student protesters at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), early on Thursday and cleared out an encampment.

UCLA is among the dozens of US universities where students have set up camps over the past few weeks to demand an end to Israel’s war in Gaza. Many are also calling for their schools to divest from any firms complicit in Israeli abuses.

Demonstrators are detained on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on May 2 [Ryan Sun/AP Photo]

The protests have been met with a fierce backlash from university administrators, as well as pro-Israel lawmakers and groups.

On Thursday, students and other observers quickly slammed Biden’s statement as failing to recognise that US colleges and universities have called heavily armed police forces onto their campuses to disperse non-violent demonstrations.

The recent arrests of students and faculty at UCLA and New York’s Columbia University, among other campuses, have drawn widespread condemnation.

But in his brief address, Biden did not comment on university policies or the use of force by police. Nor did he remark on reports that pro-Israel demonstrators had attacked pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the UCLA encampment this week.

Instead, he said there is no place on college campuses for “anti-Semitism or threats of violence against Jewish students”. Student demonstrators, however, have rejected accusations that their encampments are anti-Semitic or pose a threat.

“There’s a [sense of] disappointment, but there’s no surprise,” Kali, a student protester at George Washington University in Washington, DC, said of Biden’s remarks.

“For the Biden administration to demonise us in this way is honestly incredibly disappointing,” Kali told Al Jazeera. “It paints a target on the backs of Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, anti-Zionist youth.”

Political blowback

Biden has faced months of widespread anger and mass protests over his unwavering support for Israel during the Gaza war.

More than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks since early October. The besieged enclave faces a dire humanitarian crisis, and the top United Nations court said the war has spurred a plausible risk of genocide.

The US president, who is seeking re-election in November, also faces growing disapproval among young voters.

Biden’s approval rating stands at 28 percent among voters under age 30, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.

A recent CNN poll also showed that a staggering 81 percent of voters younger than 35 disapprove of Biden’s handling of Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Democratic president’s support for Israel, condemnation of the student protests, and silence on the mass arrests and violence against demonstrators may fuel young people’s apathy — if not antipathy — towards him, experts said.

“The Democrats can’t really afford to give people more reasons to vote against Biden, and this actually becomes one,” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, told Al Jazeera.

‘Losing an entire generation’

Experts say young voters could be key to Biden’s prospects in November, as he faces a likely rematch against his 2020 rival, Republican Donald Trump.

In a close race, as the November election is expected to be, low turnout could spell trouble for the Democratic incumbent.

Hasan Pyarali — the Muslim Caucus chairperson for College Democrats of America, the university arm of the Democratic Party — told Al Jazeera he was disappointed by Biden’s comments on Thursday.

“In our point of view, it’s not just good policy to oppose the genocide; it’s good politics. He has done neither, and we’re really disappointed to see that,” said Pyarali, a senior at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

He added that it was especially disheartening to hear Biden say he would not reconsider his Middle East policy as a result of the student protests.

“We’re here to make it known that if he doesn’t change course, there’s a real risk that we [Democrats] lose 2024,” Pyarali said.

He also said the prospect of Trump winning in November would not be enough to convince young voters to vote for Biden. “It’s not on us to make sure that Trump doesn’t come back; it’s on Biden and his campaign,” he said.

“It’s now on him to go forward. If he wants to continue down the path that is unpopular, unjust and genocidal, he certainly can — he’s the president of the United States. But it’s at the peril of essentially losing an entire generation of voters and also risking the 2024 election.”

Source: Al Jazeera