May 4, 2024

Reflecting on college demonstrations past and present


PERF members,

This week we’ve seen police respond to demonstrations on college and university campuses across the country.

There were also incidents at Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire, Tulane University, Portland State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University at Buffalo, among others. According to reporting from CNN, more than 2,100 demonstrators have been arrested across more than 40 college and university campuses since April 18th.

Image Credit: CNN

These are extremely challenging situations for police. They’ve generally been asked by university administrators to enter campuses and enforce laws during situations that have escalated beyond the administrators’ control. Upon arrival, police often become the target of demonstrators’ ire. Police strive to take limited action against those violating the law, without infringing on the First Amendment rights of others. They may also have to manage operations involving multiple law enforcement agencies.

There’s also a political aspect to these demonstrations, as university administrators, mayors, governors, and others often have competing agendas. Decisions about whether or not to deploy police become a point of contention. Here in Washington, the House Oversight Committee is planning a hearing about the Metropolitan Police Department’s decision to not clear the encampment at George Washington University. Police chiefs need to do what’s right, even if there may be political fallout from any decision they make.

Police have fresh memories of the demonstrations and rioting that occurred four years ago. PERF wrote a report on lessons learned from those demonstrations, many of which apply to these situations. But, for the most part, those demonstrations weren’t occurring on college campuses. Do campus police have the training and experience to handle these types of situations? And do they have current mutual aid agreements in place with local police? Are these agencies training together? (For more information on cooperation between municipal and campus police, see PERF’s 2021 report on the topic.)

There also may be institutional memory of the turbulent demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Police desperately want to avoid anything like the May 1970 shooting at Kent State University, when members of the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed demonstrators and injured nine others. And the events at Columbia University this week reminded many of 1968, when students also occupied campus buildings in protest.

I remember the demonstrations of that era. I was in student government at Boston University at a time when police were called in to break up demonstrations. Much like today, universities had little to do with the global political issue being protested — Vietnam then, and the Middle East now. I remember being impressed by the good cops who spoke to us as they moved us along, explaining the reasoning behind their actions. The university police were frequently outnumbered, and city police officers had to be called in. Those were turbulent times, but they reflected the challenge our democracy faces in allowing people to express themselves while maintaining the rule of law.  

Boston University students gathered on Marsh Plaza to protest the US march into Cambodia and the killing of four Ohio students at Kent State. Source: Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth/Boston Public Library

I remember one day in particular. Students blocked a doorway to prevent a Marine recruiter from entering a building, and a school administrator addressed the students by discussing our country’s history of nonviolent civil disobedience, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. The administrator talked about the important role nonviolent civil disobedience has played in moving our country forward, and that many of those who have chosen to make their point by disobeying the law did so with the understanding that they would agree to be arrested peacefully.

I thought it was a powerful teaching moment. Many students listened and were arrested peacefully, though others chose to push back, leading officers to use force and make arrests. It was a difficult day for everyone. But rather than simply “calling in the cops,” the university administrators fulfilled their role as educators, which is the approach you’d hope to see during these tense encounters.

Good police leaders know that successful management of these incidents requires well-trained officers who can differentiate between free speech and illegal behavior, then use their discretion to de-escalate these volatile situations. Those cops and educators I encountered in Boston during the Vietnam War protests understood how to defuse tensions, and they left a lasting impression on me.