Chris Hayes: Why campus protests are 'the easier debate'

In the spring of 1969, a group of students at Morehouse College, the historically Black college in Atlanta, were frustrated by what they said was the school’s slow progress on civil rights. They’d protested. They’d been rebuffed. So they locked the college trustees in their office for over 24 hours and essentially held them hostage.

One of the trustees was Martin Luther King Sr., father of the recently slain civil rights leader. He began having chest pains, and one of the students later said, “We let him out of there so we wouldn’t be accused of murder.” That student and his classmates eventually gave up under a promise of amnesty from the college. The college reneged, and he was expelled. It would be years before he was rehabilitated, and decades before he became known the world over as actor Samuel L. Jackson.

I tell this story for two reasons. One, to remind us that college activism has long been a part of college education. The other reason, though, is to get a sense of proportion, which seems lacking today as we watch the disturbing imagery emerging from campuses like Columbia, UCLA, University of Texas, University of South Florida, and so many others, where police officers or in some cases mobs take down pro-Palestinian students, and professors, and journalists, and bystanders.

The cumulative effect of all this coverage, along with unverified assertions from police and politicians, has been to drive home the idea that student protests are a terrorist-level threat to be neutralized by battalions of officers armed like soldiers with MRAPs and sonic cannons. The reaction seems to be out of all proportion to the protests themselves.

That seems especially true when you look at other campuses, like Brown University, where administrators negotiated with the student protesters who then took down their encampment. And Wesleyan University, whose president said the protesting there was non-violent and nondisruptive, adding, “As long as it continues in this way, the University will not attempt to clear the encampment.”

These universities, crucially, have reiterated their important rules against antisemitic invective and harassment while protecting assembly. That’s so sensible. And so out of step with what we’re seeing elsewhere.

Ever since Hamas’ Oct. 7 atrocities in Israel, there has been this obsessive media focus on college campuses. This is partly because there are genuine issues worth debating, including the degree to which universities are creating spaces that are hostile to pro-Israel Jewish students or suppressing pro-Palestinian speech. Those issues matter.

But the way so many prominent voices have focused on colleges feels honestly a bit decadent to me. It’s like we’re doing a paper doll version of the conflict. The actual reality of what’s happening in Gaza is so horrific, unceasing, and high stakes, that it’s more enjoyable to argue about what college kids are doing than to confront the human misery and destruction happening in the actual conflict that is, of course, the source of these protests.

What seems most worth debating isn’t campus speech, but whether the U.S. government should continue to fund and support an Israeli war in Gaza that has pushed more than a million people to the brink of famine. A war that has damaged half of the buildings in Gaza. A war that has failed to bring home most of the hostages held by Hamas. A war that has, in fact, led to the deaths of some hostages, as well as the deaths of an estimated 34,000 Palestinians, including roughly 10,000 women and 13,000 children.

Is that ongoing effort morally defensible? Is it strategically wise? Are we as a nation doing the wrong thing? Whenever that becomes the question, it almost becomes reflexive to challenge the questioner.

I can’t help but think of the protests that marked the leadup to the Iraq War, which were both widely attended and widely attacked. Prominent war supporters, including onetime student protester Christopher Hitchens, blasted those demonstrations. He pointed to the fact that some of the people organizing the protests held genuinely odious, fringe views. For instance, the view that North Korea is a worker’s paradise. That’s a bad view. And there were protest organizers with bad views. There were people at the protests who thought 9/11 was an inside job. I would argue with them myself at protests. Did that have anything to do with whether the war in Iraq was moral and prudent? No. It demonstrably wasn’t. On that, the protesters were right.

This brings us back to Columbia University, where 56 years ago — almost to the day — student protesters took over the same building, Hamilton Hall, that was occupied earlier this week. They, too, were forcibly removed and arrested, and many were bloodied and beaten for protesting, among other things, the university’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They believed the war was a moral catastrophe and the U.S. should stop waging it. They were right. And the fact that there were extremists among the protesters had no bearing on that.

What I find particularly maddening about our focus on the protesters of the conflict is that it’s an evasion. It avoids the difficult task of being universally empathetic to our fellow human beings and truly reckoning with the scale of devastation that is wrought by our country, in our names.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we waged a “global war on terror” for two decades that killed somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people.

In Vietnam, we are estimated to have killed more than a million people. Huge swaths of them were civilians, women, children, male non-combatants, old people.

Can you even make sense of those numbers? I can’t. It’s hard to think of them, to contend with them, as real human beings who lived lives before we took them. It’s just so much easier to get angry at “spoiled brats” on college campuses here.

Some ask, Why are they being so disruptive? What are they so upset about? If you feel that way, I can understand. I’ve felt irritation and anger at protesters many times in my life, even ones I was ostensibly on the same side as broadly speaking. But if you feel that way, try recasting the question: Why are all these people so upset that we are helping another government wage a brutal war that has killed 13,000 children? The question kind of answers itself.

To take seriously the scale of human suffering that’s happening in Gaza doesn’t mean that you must come down on the side of the protesters. Many people think the war is a brutal but necessary campaign for Israel’s defense. But what it does necessitate is that you weigh all that human suffering against the actual end game of the conflict that is currently being waged — and that the U.S. continues to support. Our humanity demands that we focus on those questions, first and last.

This is an adapted excerpt from the May 1 episode of “All In."

This article was originally published on MSNBC.com