Editorial: Dartmouth lets protesters know where they stand

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas War and demanding Dartmouth College divest from companies connected to Israel, set up an encampment on the Dartmouth College Green in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024, defying the University’s policies on use of the Green. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas War and demanding Dartmouth College divest from companies connected to Israel, set up an encampment on the Dartmouth College Green in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024, defying the University’s policies on use of the Green. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 05-17-2024 8:31 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 9:55 AM


In some curious way, the 90 or so peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters caught up in Dartmouth’s dragnet on the Green May 1, and the hundreds of others who supported them on the scene, can be grateful that President Sian Leah Beilock called in the cops to break up their fledgling tent encampment. Beilock’s hair-trigger overreaction imparted some important information about the college’s position and the protesters’ relationship to it.

First: The college welcomes dissent as long as it is ineffectual. Its insistence on regulating the time, place and manner of protests (no bullhorns, please) is intended to make sure that demonstrations do not disrupt anybody’s complacent pursuit of their private ends. Of course, the point of protest is to disrupt: to force people indifferent to whatever your cause may be to engage with it. Shunting a protest off onto a lawn where nobody has to encounter it is exactly the college’s point.

Second: When police in riot gear show up at a protest, expect a riot — probably a police riot. These special operations officers are trained and equipped to use force to gain compliance, so those who decide to get arrested to make their point shouldn’t expect peaceful and respectful treatment. In this case, the police also roughed up a 65-year-old professor and left a 45-year-old bystander with a broken arm when he didn’t comply quickly enough with their instructions.

Third: If you are a journalist covering a protest, don’t expect cops to respect your role in the process. They make no distinctions of this nature, and in fact, many hate to have their actions recorded. To the two credentialed student journalists from The Dartmouth who were arrested while doing their jobs, we have only this word of caution: If you pursue reporting as a career, you are signing up for your fair share of abuse. (The fact that the college got the charges dropped is a small concession to the First Amendment, which otherwise seems to be in disrepute on the Dartmouth campus, among many others.)

Fourth: Tents are powerful symbols, as the critic Robin Givhan pointed out recently in the Washington Post. They represent to college administrators moral disorder in their carefully ordered academic world, just as tents in homeless encampments throughout the nation represent a societal failure to come to grips with a moral problem of great moment.

Fifth: Student protesters have the moral high ground in the wake of the college’s over-the-top response. They should make sure not to blow it by permitting any note of antisemitism to creep into their activism, or their hearts. Their moral authority depends on keeping in mind two things at once: the horror of Hamas’ attacks in Israel and the horror of the response to it.

Sixth: The college may have inadvertently made a solid contribution to alleviating the much discussed student mental health crisis on campus. There’s nothing like taking personal risks in service to a cause bigger than oneself to give meaning to life. And a little righteous anger can also improve a mental outlook.

Seventh: To universities, especially elite ones such as Dartmouth, individual students are primarily pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle that when assembled represents something called diversity; they can be readily replaced in the student body by others just as smart and accomplished who won’t cause any trouble.

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Eighth: Despite its reputation for liberalism, the elite university is at heart a conservative enterprise. Although home to important scholarship and inspired teaching, its lucrative primary business is to repopulate yearly the financial, cultural and political elites whose object in life is to maintain the status quo and their position in it. To that end, the institution seeks to hold harmless those students who are already harmless and to render harmless those who show a tendency to rebel.

Ninth: Don’t look to the Board of Trustees to vindicate the right to protest. The New York Times reports that they back Beilock to the hilt. That’s all a matter of course. The trustees are there to keep the big bucks flowing, not to risk offending the donor class. In fact, try to find among the financial powerhouses who adorn the Dartmouth board a public school teacher, a nurse, a union organizer, a legal aid lawyer or anyone else who might be mistaken for an ordinary working person and thus have some sympathy for the victims of oppression.