Robert Reich: What’s Really Motivating The Protests? – OpEd


I’ve been spending the last several weeks trying to find out what’s really going on with the campus protests. I’ve met with students at Berkeley, visited with faculty at Columbia University, and talked with young people and faculty at many other universities. 

My conclusion: While protest movements are often ignited by many different things and attract an assortment of people with a range of motives, this one is centered on one thing: moral outrage at the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people — most of them women and children — in Gaza. 

To interpret these protests as anything else — as antisemitic or anti-Zionist or anti-American or pro-Palestinian — is to miss the essence of what’s going on and why. 

Most of the students and faculty I’ve spoken with found Hamas’s attack on October 7 odious. They also find Israel’s current government morally bankrupt, in that its response to Hamas’s attack has been disproportionate. They do not support Palestine as such; most do not know enough about the history of Israel and Palestine to pass moral judgment. 

But they have a deep and abiding sense that what is happening in Gaza is morally wrong, and that the United States is complicit in that immorality. Unfortunately, many tell me they are planning not to vote this coming November — a clear danger to Biden’s reelection campaign. 

I have sharp memories of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, in which I participated some 55 years ago. I remember being appalled at the unnecessary carnage in Vietnam. I was incensed that the First World — white and rich — was randomly killing Third World people — non-white and poor. And at the stupidity of college administrations that summoned police to clear protesters — using tear gas, stun guns, and mass arrests. The response added fuel to the flames. 

The anti-Vietnam War movement became fodder for right-wing politicians like Ronald Reagan, demanding “law and order.” The spectacle also appalled many non-college, working-class people who viewed the students as pampered, selfish, anti-American, unpatriotic. 

History, as it is said, doesn’t repeat itself. It only rhymes. The mistakes made at one point in time have an eerie way of reemerging two generations later, as memories fade.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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