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Biden’s Very Trumpian Response to the Peaceful Student Protests

He’s explicitly demonizing nonviolent demonstrators and implicitly supporting the disproportionate and violent police response.

Joe Biden speaks behind a lectern in the White House's Roosevelt Room.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
President Biden speaking about student protests on Thursday May 2.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of NYPD officers stormed Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, which pro-Palestinian demonstrators had occupied earlier that day. Some officers entered the building with their guns drawn; one officer accidentally fired his weapon, thinking he was turning on a flashlight. That same evening, pro-Israel counterprotesters attacked an encampment at UCLA, shooting fireworks and mace at the students while police did nothing; a day later the police entered the encampment, arresting over 100 people. On Wednesday, at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth University, police pushed over a 65-year-old Jewish studies professor and then charged her with resisting arrest.

These scenes have been repeated across the country. Over the last three weeks, encampments protesting Israel’s bombing and starvation campaign against civilians in Gaza have sprouted up at over 100 colleges and universities. These protests have been controversial but peaceful—there are teach-ins and movie screenings. And college administrators, panicked about angry donors and opportunistic politicians from both parties, have responded to the tents popping up on their quads by calling in armed police—often under the bogus pretense that violent “outside agitators” have infiltrated the camps—who arrest students and, in some instances, the faculty members trying to protect them. More than 2,000 protesters, many of them students, have been arrested since the demonstrations began less than three weeks ago.

On Thursday, in his first unscripted remarks about these events, President Biden delivered a forceful message in which he defended students’ “right to protest” and added, “People have the right to get an education, the right to get a degree, the right to walk across the campus safely without fear of being attacked.” He’s absolutely right: Students have the right to peaceably assemble on their own campus without worry of being assaulted by police.

The only problem is that Biden, the self-appointed defender of American democracy, was actually condemning the students themselves. He said they don’t have “the right to cause chaos,” when in fact the chaos on campuses across America is being overwhelmingly caused by the police—as well as the people who are directing and backing the police, a group that includes purportedly liberal school administrators, Democratic mayors and governors, and even Biden himself. It has been a shameful week for the establishment left, and one we may all look back on when the election results come in on November 5.

The Democratic Party’s best electoral argument in 2024 is no different from four years ago. The Republican Party is in the grip of a two-bit authoritarian and aspiring strongman intent on using the state to crush opposition wherever he sees it. Openly disdainful of democracy and pluralism, Donald Trump has already tried to steal one election, expresses a desire to arrest or deport his political opponents, and do I need to keep going? Biden and the Democratic Party are the country’s most powerful bulwark against this growing extremism, which is hardly limited to Trump himself; practically the entire GOP is in his grip.

In June 2020, as demonstrations spread across the country in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, Biden gave the best speech of his campaign. “We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protest and opportunistic violent destruction,” he said. “And we must be vigilant about the violence that’s being done by the incumbent president to our democracy and to the pursuit of justice.” He then attacked Trump for using riot police to clear a protest outside the White House so he could do his infamous photo op holding the Bible that he’s never read.

It was a similar message to the one Biden delivered on Thursday—except that you’d be hard pressed to find many instances of uninstigated violence by student protesters over these past few weeks. Meanwhile, there is ample, indisputable evidence of police violence against student protesters. At UCLA, police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators, causing one student to require 11 staples to close a head wound. At Arizona State University, four Muslim students had their hijabs ripped off by officers. At New York’s City College, police shattered one protester’s ankle and broke the teeth of two others. Student journalists have been pepper-sprayed, beaten, and arrested at some protests. At many, reporters are locked out altogether—a grotesque assault on the press’s ability to inform the public and uphold democracy.

In his speech this week, Biden attempted to define what he meant by violence and chaos—and it wasn’t what I just described. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations—none of this is a peaceful protest,” he said. Misdemeanors like vandalism or trespassing—a reference to the occupation of Hamilton Hall—surely don’t warrant hundreds of NYPD officers in riot gear. Moreover, classes were canceled at Columbia in large part because of the police presence on campus. If anyone caused a disruption to education at Columbia, it was its embattled president, Minouche Shafik, whose panicked response escalated the situation dramatically. And the only commencement that has been called off was at the University of Southern California, which did so after the controversy generated by its decision to block its pro-Palestinian valedictorian from speaking.

It is not difficult to understand why students are protesting. Tens of thousands of Gazans have been killed, at least as many are starving and lack access to health care, and most of the Strip has been destroyed—including all of its universities. This has happened with the full diplomatic and financial support of the U.S. government, which provided many of the weapons responsible for this carnage. And yet, when thousands of students across the country peacefully organize protests against these atrocities, leading Democrats—including Biden himself—have responded by demonizing them, tarring them with unsubstantiated or exaggerated accusations of antisemitism and cheering on their arrests.

The protests are politically inconvenient for Biden, who is trailing in most polls and has struggled to hold together a Democratic Party that is deeply divided over Israel. But his callous response—remember, this is a politician who prides himself on empathy—is only widening that rift. The police response has been wildly and unquestionably disproportionate. It is inherently undemocratic, not to mention disappointing coming from the head of party that a few short years ago was condemning the excessive use of police force against nonviolent, unarmed civilians. It cuts against everything Biden and his party theoretically stand for in the fight against Trump and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism. It is, in fact, Trumpian.