Wednesday, May 01, 2024

The Media and the Heckler’s Veto at UCLA

Joseph Fishkin

This morning Americans woke up to headlines about “violent clashes on campus” at UCLA, a framing that was echoed in the early hours by our university administration, the mayor, and local and national media. Much passive voice was used. Violence “took place.” “Physical violence ensued.” This framing represented a complete success for the side that actually perpetrated the violence. It makes me think differently about how the heckler’s veto operates in an instant-news age.

Pro-Palestinian UCLA students set up their encampment in front of Royce Hall a couple of weeks ago. Many of these students are law students. Many are my students. Some are Jewish. Whatever one thinks of their messages, the protest they set up was entirely nonviolent.

Some pro-Israel Jews found these demonstrations unsettling because of their anti-Israel messages. Right-wingers all the way up to Bibi Netanyahu himself insisted that American campuses were being overrun by “anti-Semitic mobs” that “attack Jewish students [and] faculty.” But this framing did not achieve traction in most U.S. media. Here in LA, it apparently became important to some to assert that my UCLA students were not really nonviolent, that this tent encampment—which was, in reality, busily holding Shabbat prayers and dinners and a seder, all led by Jewish students—was a physical, violent threat to Jewish students. When I first heard it, this assertion struck me as yet another instance of the move, disappointingly common these days on all sides of many issues, of inaccurately characterizing offensive speech as “violence.” I didn’t know what was coming.

Last night a group of pro-Israel activists from near and far—at least predominantly, if not exclusively, people with no affiliation with the university—took a more direct approach. They descended on the campus around 11pm, wearing masks and carrying fireworks and other weapons. They physically charged the peaceful encampment and attempted to dismantle the metal barricades that UCLA had set up to prevent such altercations. They exploded fireworks among my students’ tents. According to the Daily Bruin, police did not restrain the attack until after 1am, and by then, several students were injured. According to my own ears—my apartment is close enough to campus for the loud news helicopter and the police sirens to wake my kids—this timeline seems plausible.

The Daily Bruin, our student newspaper, has done a solid job of covering the story in real time. By this afternoon, the LA Times had caught up with them, with an accurate headline: “UCLA cancels classes after counterprotesters violently attack pro-Palestinian camp.”*  However, most of the media gave these “counterprotesters” exactly the headlines they wanted—and so did my university’s administration. Perhaps afraid of blowback if they were more specific, many issued statements this morning with a lot of passive voice, and avoided reporting the key fact: that this was a one-sided conflict between a group composed predominantly of students on one side, and on the other side, a large organized group consisting predominantly if not exclusively of people unaffiliated with the university who had no business being on campus at midnight, and were simply there in an effort to create the story they wished the media would write: there’s violence at the encampment. Some of the people not affiliated with the university have come from far away. In the past few days I’ve watched cars driving around campus waving Israeli and American flags (and one weird hybrid half-U.S./half-Israeli flag); one had a license plate that said “IDF 1 FAN.” I support the free speech rights even of people unaffiliated with the university, within appropriate limits, to speak on my campus.  If the pro-Israel groups want to hold a big rally on campus (as some did on Sunday, with loudspeakers and lots of Israeli pop music), that’s great. But violently attacking my students in the middle of the night is another thing entirely.

This isn’t speech. It’s a kind of heckler’s veto of a very modern kind. What the outsiders to my campus are trying to veto through their heckling is specifically the accurate media portrayal of my students’ activism as non-violent. This morning, they succeeded almost completely.  By the afternoon, a bit less so. Whether this tactic will succeed in the future depends partly on the police—who need to arrest violent attackers on the scene, rather than allowing them to walk away—but it depends mostly on reporters and editors, and their ability to report accurately and specifically about who is doing violence to whom.

*Late and sad update: at 3:47pm, the LA Times revised its headline in the story linked above to read: “After violent night at UCLA, UC president launches investigation into response.” I have no inside knowledge of whether or to what extent anybody pressed that newsroom to change its headline, but "counterprotesters violently attack pro-Palestinian camp" was more accurate.  The new headline, like so many others, gives the hecklers what they sought.  And now, on the evening of Wednesday May 1, it appears that the university has called in a massive number of police to arrest the original protestors.  I guess the general sense of violence and chaos the hecklers did so much to create was finally too much.

Final update, May 2: I'm not going to continue updating this post but I wanted to note that last night, UCLA indeed called in overwhelming police force and cleared the pro-Palestine encampment, arresting hundreds of students.  In explaining why the university decided to do this now, after allowing the protest to proceed previously, Chancellor Gene Block wrote:

[W]hile many of the protesters at the encampment remained peaceful, ultimately, the site became a focal point for serious violence as well as a huge disruption to our campus.
Several days of violent clashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators put too many Bruins in harm’s way and created an environment that was completely unsafe for learning.

This is a straightforward acknowledgment that the heckler's veto—the violent attacks on our students by outsiders—were successful, in the sense that they caused the university to crack down on the original student protest the hecklers opposed.

Older Posts
Newer Posts