Colleges, police blame ‘outside agitators’ for campus protests. Experts say it’s not so simple

As the dust settles and the number of pro-Palestinian student encampments dwindle, claims of “outside agitators” among the protesters are being put under the microscope as colleges say those unaffiliated with them caused most of the trouble, an accusation dismissed by critics as a fig leaf to ignore the demands of students.

Some universities have reported that most of those arrested during the protests on their properties were in no way affiliated with the institutions, but the trope of “outside agitators” is meet with skepticism as it has been used as far back as the Civil Rights movement to discredit activists.

“From the Civil Rights movement to the George Floyd protests, this country has a long history of using ‘foreign influence’ or ‘outside agitators’ as pretense to discredit protest movements and discourage people from speaking out. Rather than villainizing student protesters, our leaders should focus on ensuring freedom of speech and academic freedom are protected on campus,” said Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

The University of Texas in Austin (UT) had said at one point that 45 out of 79 individuals arrested at a pro-Palestinian protest on campus were not affiliated with the school.

And the New York Police Department said during a round of arrests at Columbia before the Hamilton Hall takeover that 29 percent were unaffiliated with the school. At City College of New York, meanwhile, around allegedly 60 percent did not have a connection to the school.

“These numbers validate our concern that much of the disruption on campus over the past week has been orchestrated by people from outside the University, including groups with ties to escalating protests at other universities around the country,” UT said in a statement when announcing the arrest numbers. “To date, from protesters, weapons have been confiscated in the form of guns, buckets of large rocks, bricks, steel-enforced wood planks, mallets, and chains.”

Zainab Chaudry, who serves as director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in Maryland and worked with students at the John Hopkins University pro-Palestinian encampment, told The Hill that students have reached out to advocacy groups for support including providing food, spreading the word about events and getting assistance for negotiations with schools or dealing with the police.

“What I’ve observed overwhelmingly has really been advocacy groups who really have just been wanting to support the students and make sure that they are not alone as they move forward on these actions,” Chaudry said.

CAIR’s goal, she added, is to help students establish themselves as the leaders of these events and providing them media training so they can understand the importance of messaging.

“For Hopkins, for example, the students set up a press center” and dedicated individuals to talking with the media, which showed “they were the ones who were coordinating that,” Chaudry said, adding “that can help dispel some of the rumors that it was outside influences” running the show.

Experts say, as with other aspects of the anti-war protests, public and private universities have different options on the table.

For private schools, “it’s up to those colleges, but presumably, any non-students who are involved in these protesters are technically trespassers,” said Neil McCluskey, director for the Center for Educational Freedom at CATO Institute. 

For places like UT, “if it’s a state-owned university, the outside person, especially if they’re a state resident, or taxpayer, has a claim to say, ‘I should be able to be here to express my opinion,’” McCluskey said, adding “there’s a broader protection of the First Amendment rights in a state institution, even for people who aren’t students there.”

Student groups have vehemently denied anyone not affiliated with the respective school is leading the charge.

The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at George Washington University blasted the school after it declared the encampment was dangerous and co-opted by outside influence, saying GW President Ellen Granberg would “would rather brutalize our community to please her zionist donors than confront the university’s complicity in genocide.”

Columbia’s vice president for communications, Ben Chang, said after the arrests of those who took over Hamilton Hall the school’s suspicions were confirmed that many of the individuals weren’t affiliated with the university.

Chang said 13 of the almost four dozen people arrested were non-affiliated. But The New York Times said after a review of police records they found only nine people had no ties to the school.

“It’s very telling that they’re counting the numbers to try to defend themselves,” said Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard Law School, adding the schools are trying to “limit the political damage of what they’re doing.”

On Tuesday, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) sent a letter to the Treasury Department, asking it to investigate 20 groups they suspect are financing “pro-Hamas, antisemitic, and anti-American protests occurring on college campuses across the U.S.”

CAIR condemned the lawmakers on Thursday over the call for an investigation, saying the “request lacks any legitimate congressional purpose and echoes the witch hunts of the McCarthy era.”

The term “outside agitator” traces its American roots back to the Civil Rights movement, including at times being used against even leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The term today is “used as a tool,” Hansford said, “because people know that there’s less political blowback if you decide to be violent or harsh to outside agitators as opposed to sympathetic teenage college students.”

And some point out the natural goal of protests is to get others involved in your cause.

“I think that it would be foolish” of schools in large metropolitan areas to not expect “people come to [protests] who aren’t affiliated with” the school, said Bob Harrison, adjunct researcher at Rand Corporation and has had a career in policing for decades. “As I said, sheer curiosity brings some people to it. Someone who is unaffiliated, but sympathetic, will come to it to show their support.”

Chuck Rapp, a criminal justice professional trainer with the Justice and Safety Institute at Penn State University, emphasized that if a protest doesn’t overly burden the ability to get through a given area, police have the job to protect the free speech rights of all protesters.

And while the hope of schools might be to show their students are not among those arrested, the connotation that comes with claiming outside influence may not be worth it.

“As long as there’s some pretty large share of the people who are students, I don’t know that it would make a big difference. I don’t think it would make a big difference for the school’s reputation,” McCluskey said.

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