Fascism on Campus and the Siege of Student Space

Noah Ranz-Lind
April 29, 2024
When war is declared against our autonomy, our space, and our campus community, we have to fight back.

The Sit-In

On the night of October 25th, 2023, 57 students at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst were arrested.

At hour 12 of the sit-in, the last of these students had been filed into police cars, amounting to 57 in total. It was 2:00 am, as the last of those present left to find comfort within the safety of their dorms. The final arrested students, all “assigned-male-by-cop,” would have to wait until sunrise to leave their cells. Two important sites marked the confrontation between the protesters and the campus police department. The first, a small meeting room in the Machmer building, home to the Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) and anthropology departments, contained what I referred to as the “war room.” The hallways outside were plastered with images from revolutions passed, protesters battling riot cops, and various images of fists raised triumphantly in the air. One of my favorite posters, contained within a small library a few rooms away, depicted a tired Karl Marx, smoking a cigarette and leaning on the rail of a balcony. Roughly twenty students filled up chairs, laptops open, food and trash scattered across the table. Some of us waited patiently to receive calls from students as they were being processed, scribbling frantically on a whiteboard to organize ourselves. The air was tense, and every minute or so a student was subbed in so one or two could sneak outside and smoke a cigarette in the cover of night. Sequestered to that room for almost eight hours, we juggled delivering bail money, coordinating pickup of released students, intaking jail calls, and writing press releases. We had various phones set up to record the condition of students, some of whom would allegedly spend the entire night zip-tied to the walls of a jail cell. We were tired, but we had work to do.

The real action, however, was occurring just a few hundred feet away, where hundreds of students were gathered to witness arrestees as they were carried out from the building by slow and meandering cops, a tactic meant to demoralize the students scattered both inside and outside of the building. This only bolstered our confidence and resolve. Inside, students sang and chanted, with one student capturing joyously discordant renditions of various pop songs. Scores of people filmed as arrestees called out their names, all while being dragged to the paddy-wagon. Every name was punctuated by a repeated call from the crowd, a tactic called “human microphone,” and would be followed by rapturous applause. As the war room received these videos, collected through the UMass Cop Watch Instagram account, we filled a spreadsheet, matching names to previously collected jail support forms. In the long hours between waves of arrests, students found themselves lounging on the lawn, eating and conversing, occasionally being broken up by an organizer taking the bullhorn and accosting the paddy-wagon parked in front of the side entrance. Students skated around the officers as they passed cigarettes back and forth, with every movement of the police marked by an uproar in the crowd and irreverent chants. At its peak, roughly five-hundred students waited diligently outside Whitmore, watchful for each wave of student arrests. By the end of the night I had lost my voice shouting expletives at police officers, the contents of which usually contained some mention of their resemblance to a thumb, and revving up the crowd with chants, as had many other gravelly-voiced students.

As 2:00 am rolled around, at least fifty students were still posted outside Whitmore, waiting until the last cop car had left before finally returning to their dorms. Most of the students involved had been only passively politically active, but that night changed everything. A multitude of student interests were expressed in this protest. It was a battle against genocide in Gaza, fascism, the administration, and war profiteers. Furthermore, it was an assertion of student autonomy. How do these struggles connect, and what can this action say about the state of campus politics more broadly?

How do these struggles connect, and what can this action say about the state of campus politics more broadly?

What’s happened to Student Space?

The actions of the student body were not simply motivated by frustration and anger at Israel’s genocide in Gaza, and UMass’s complicity in said genocide, but a broader response to years of encroachment onto student space by the university. I spoke to Boone Shear, a senior lecturer of Anthropology at UMass who studies Solidarity Economics and is a co-author of Learning Under Neoliberalism. To professor Shear, there has been a series of restructurings at universities over the past few decades that have led to increasing enclosure and surveillance. Beginning in the 1980s, costs of higher education began to rise dramatically, and so too did the amount of debt students began to take on. Teaching and research positions at universities became less secure, tenure has become increasingly less attainable, and the overall financial security of both students and faculty has decreased. At the same time, universities have undergone a process of “corporatization,” including an increasing emphasis on certain kinds of administrative positions, departments, and techniques, as well as an increasingly dense bureaucracy. With the growth of this new bureaucracy, moreover, new metrics have emerged to justify its existence. Categories such as time to completion, retention rates, and income after graduation largely define student success, and departments compete for limited resources by demonstrating their efficiency in maintaining these and other metrics. Students too are subjected to these conditions and priorities; and through them are encouraged to think of themselves as ability machines to invest in or even brands to develop and market.

As the university begins to look more and more like a corporation, measuring itself through arbitrary metrics ad-nauseum, it has launched a simultaneous war on student space here at UMass. Professor Shear discussed the marked difference between the UMass of today and the UMass of yesterday. It’s cleaner, nicer, with more cardboard cutouts for photo-ops, more Instagrammable food, and has many new shiny buildings. However, all of those clean, expensive, Instagrammable student spaces are controlled, surveilled, and left inaccessible to the students that paid for them. Multiple buildings, such as the library and Student Union, have shortened their open hours, closing in the early evening, as opposed to being open 24/7. Where the halls of the Student Union used to be filled with tables, hustle and bustle, and various lounges for students and faculty to occupy, UMass students today have been unceremoniously locked out. Now, students have to go through piles and piles of forms, paperwork, and bureaucracy to schedule a time to table, a process fully controlled by the school. Spaces in the library and Student Union that used to be open now have to be scheduled. Past recreation spaces, such as a small bowling alley and campus bar, have been completely removed from campus with no alternatives. And, as we are locked out of the buildings we pay to use, we are now restricted to only two guests in our dorms after 8:00 pm. Every person entering a dorm building scans in and out, and is recorded by a camera, a process which requires a student security guard who is expected to monitor the building activity until up to 3:00 am. While this is an extreme example, this process is playing out gradually all across the country. Students are conditioned to not expect autonomy, to leave the warm embrace of our parents homes into the warm embrace of a nanny-state.

The university, so it would seem, is no longer a space for current students, but perpetually a space designed for prospective students. The university has a business to run, not a community. Therefore, its paramount task is “looking good” to the next year’s applicants, an endeavor which has led it to increasingly rely on its metrics for student success, while actively limiting student autonomy.

The UMass-Fascist Pipeline, and the Military Middle-Man

Student success, thus, when looking at these metrics, is measured by the student’s ability to graduate on time with a high paying job, tempered by austerity towards students and student space. As such, UMass has tightened its partnerships with various hiring entities, and importantly, specific corporations that have been longtime partners. Of these partners, one has a clear, outsized influence: RTX, or Raytheon Technologies, the second largest weapons manufacturing company in the world. RTX has always had a close partnership with the UMass system, but this relationship has only expanded as UMass has emphasized professional development as a cornerstone of its new markers of success. UMass has received multiple, large sums of funding from Raytheon, summing to 1.5 million dollars in just 2020 alone, the public records of which have been highly redacted. Beyond this, Raytheon has a close relationship with the college of engineering and the Isenberg School of Business, with students that accept contracts at Raytheon having their tuitions partially paid for by the war profiteer. In addition, Raytheon has claimed a room in our Student Union, an entire research facility at UMass Lowell, and is a top 6 employer at UMass.

There is a clear pipeline, facilitated and maintained by the UMass system, drip-feeding debt-ridden students into the voracious maw of militarism. Students with a knack for programming or STEM, who, on average, will leave UMass with almost $30,000 in debt, enter the institution, incentivized to dedicate their academic training towards careers in weapons manufacturing. This is encouraged through an overrepresentation of war-profiteers at career days and even alleged influence from Raytheon on STEM curricula, according to some students. In the end, through this pipeline, UMass receives money for research, as well as the ability to report the immediately high-paying jobs of its recent graduates. This is where, to many activists, including those arrested, UMass becomes implicated in a larger system of global conflict which facilitates genocides and bolsters the global far-right.

In the United States, Raytheon has funded a slew of far-right politicians that have waged war against LGBTQ+ people, bodily autonomy, and, relevant to the HRP community, public education. One need only take a cursory glance at Raytheon’s corporate PAC contributions to see a variety of politicians across the country represented, some of which have advocated for bizarre, fascistic, and truly heinous positions. In just the first page of Raytheon’s campaign contributions on Open Secrets, there are donations in the upper thousands to the campaigns of, for example, Representatives Tom Cole (R-Okla) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla). Cole and Diaz-Balart have co-sponsored a variety of anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-public school bills, such as the bizarre Crucial Communism Teaching Act. More nefariously, Diaz-Balart has co-sponsored laws such as the notorious Parents’ Bill of Rights, which has been lambasted as an attempt to integrate far-right politics, upstream from fear-mongered parents, into public school curricula. Looking at contributions to Senatorial campaigns for 2023-2024, there are multiple contributions to Republicans, including Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss). Senator Wicker has been especially focused on the degradation of public education, through the co-sponsorship of multiple bills that push the politics of “school choice,” a policy agenda directly upstream from the private school lobby to redirect students towards private schools through the use of school vouchers.

However, as Wicker has promoted school choice as a legislative imperative, he has simultaneously fueled the culture war fire. He has co-sponsored bills such as the Protecting Life on College Campus Act of 2023, which seeks to prohibit “the award of federal funds to an institution of higher education (IHE) that hosts or is affiliated with a school-based service site that provides abortion drugs or abortions to its students or to employees of the IHE or the site.” While Raytheon has its hands in the pockets of both Republican and Democrat politicians, its affinity towards Republicans as the party becomes increasingly mired in fascist politics demonstrates a recognition that fascism is, at the very least, good for business. The far-right that is limiting access to abortion, fear mongering parents to pull their children from public schools, and fueling the right wing culture war is the same far-right that will endlessly bolster the sale of American-made bombs to fuel genocides overseas.

One such genocide is being committed, as we speak, by the fascist Israeli government in the Gaza strip. It is well known that Raytheon weapons have found their way onto the homes of Palestinians in the Gaza strip, and that Raytheon is one of the primary manufacturers for Israel’s Iron Dome Weapons System. Since October 7th, and the subsequent annihilation of Gazan land, people, and life, Raytheon’s stocks have skyrocketed to $73.35 a piece. It is clear that genocide is good for business, a business that UMass diligently provides the workers to facilitate.

However, rather than implicate UMass in genocide purely by association, we can see a rhetoric of dehumanization and asymmetric punishment of students associated with the pro-Palestine movement manifested by UMass representatives. On November 19th, 2023, Vice Provost of UMass Amherst, Kalpen Trivedi, in a Facebook post where he felt the need to update his status to “feeling disgusted” next to a vomiting emoji, shared some choice words about the siege on the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. In the wake of a brutal attack leading to the deaths of at least 13 patients, Kalpen claims that “the doctors, the UN, the WHO, the media…They are all Hamas. All grotesquely evil.” As Trivedi, who is still Vice Provost to this day, shares far-right conspiracy theories, the UMass administration is engaging in a relentless legal battle against its students, and is imposing unwarranted sanctions. Despite the charges against arrested students being dropped to a civil infraction, the school has refused to drop the charges. Regardless of the growing student and faculty movement in support of the UMass 57, administration has prevented arrested students from attending their study-abroad programs without providing a refund.

UMass’s connection to Israeli government fascism is not just incidental to its partnership with war profiteers – UMass has been permissive of death threats against student activists, and has been silent as students and faculty have been doxxed by organizations such as Canary Mission, Fox News, and even the UMass Police Department (who released the names and addresses of all the students arrested). They have also facilitated the use of direct police violence against their students, some of whom were left tied up for the full duration of their time in jail. The suppression of dissent against Israeli government fascism, bolstered on the ground by UMass Amherst through its opposition to civil disobedience and permittance of threats against its students. UMass has used the full scope of the law to indict and enact violence against its students, enable “business as usual” for its partnerships, assert its own ideological agenda, and maintain its image. This process, in part, has been facilitated by an ever-increasing denial of access to student space. The administration has gestured at disbanding Students for Justice in Palestine, and has wielded threats of houselessness against students through its sanctions. With complete ownership and control over space, the school has full reign over its dominion, able to employ its goons whenever and wherever it sees fit.

via Unsplash

Hunting Season

UMass, however, is not unique in this regard. One common thread among university interactions with their pro-Palestinian students has been their unabashed willingness to inflict state violence against them. In a November protest at Brandeis University, 7 students were arrested, despite their sit-in only making its way to public student spaces. In video footage captured by the students, police officers can be seen violently wrestling students to the ground, in one case seemingly by picking a student up and slamming them onto the grass. This came after the university disbanded its local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a move aligned with the Senate's condemnation of student activists as apparently all being “pro-Hamas.” This story is repeated over and over, whether it’s Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Emerson, or any number of esteemed bastions of intellectual freedom and free speech across this “great” nation. The freedom of students to fight for their beliefs, to engage in civil disobedience, to assert their presence and autonomy at the schools they go into increasing debt to attend, is in great jeopardy. At least at UMass, this is all in service of its corporate partnerships and ideological alignment with fascism.

This repression of students, however, and the free-for-all of violence against dissent that has facilitated it, has not only led to violence by police, but monstrous acts of stochastic terror. In January, multiple students at a Columbia University rally were assaulted by a chemical called Skunk, an Israeli-developed chemical weapon. This, however, is tame compared to other incidents of violence against students. At Princeton, a peaceful rally in October of 2023 ended with a university staff member assaulting a student holding a sign after verbally accosting them. In November, an Arab student at Stanford was attacked in a hit-and-run, where the perpetrator allegedly shouted “fuck you and your people,” before accelerating into the victim. In Burlington, Vermont, three students of Palestinian descent were openly fired on at close-range, one of whom was left paralyzed. These assaults did not occur in isolation. They were acts of hatred and political violence perpetrated by people who have been emboldened by the declared disposability of Arab students, as well as the permissiveness of violence against activists. Student activists are subjected to doxxing all across social media, vilified by Congress, and suppressed legally, administratively, and violently by universities. This sends a clear message: it is hunting season for Arab and pro-Palestinian students.

Radical authoritarianism has only one solution: radical democracy.

Whose School? Our School!

United States universities are, thus, deeply implicated in the global fascist movement, as manifested today in their role as wardens against dissent towards Israeli government fascism. Their students are threatened, doxxed, shot, wrestled to the ground, hit by cars, attacked by their own faculty, and the best they can muster is either silence or permissiveness of more genocidal rhetoric. This is no surprise, however, as universities shift their goals towards corporatized measurements of student success, bureaucratize, tighten control over student space, and increasingly treat their students as abstractions of metrics rather than human beings. In the case of UMass, their students are then sold are at a high cost into an industry that perpetuates genocide, fills its pockets, allows some crumbs to fall into the UMass’s gaping maw, and begins the cycle anew. As this happens, Raytheon continues to embolden fascism at home as it does abroad, drip-feeding politicians that will attack the public schooling infrastructure that allows UMass to operate in the first place. The destiny of UMass, as it grips lustfully onto the teat of war-profiteers, is self-cannibalization, like a snake eating its own tail.

One question that arises for me, in reflecting on my time at UMass, is simply, what future am I even investing in? What future are my fellow students investing in? In the immediate tomorrow, many of us will take on immense debt. The lucky ones will get to build bombs and rocket launchers while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves in a gig economy with little to no job security. Simultaneously, the looming threat of climate change threatens to cut everyone's’ futures short. By participating in this system, UMass is destroying the futures of its students, literally in the case of climate change, and figuratively by narrowing the scope of what we think we can do with our lives. Taking a step back from the immediate needs of preventing a genocide and protesting UMass’s involvement with war-profiteers, there is a primal need bubbling up to the surface that UMass is trying stifle. We, the students, want our futures back. We want a system that conditions us for autonomy and independence rather than obedience, community rather than surveillance, and decision-making rather than subjugation. As Professor Shear eloquently put, students have “more and more latent desires expressed for other things,” beyond the metrics constructed by the horsemen of our collective apocalypse.

On the night of October 25th, 2023, 57 students were arrested. They were arrested in solidarity with the people of Palestine, but they were also engaged in a reclamation of space, of autonomy, of community, and an assertion that many of us will not accept this invasion without a fight. It is the same desire expressed by students across the country as they occupy buildings, raise massive crowds to fill their quads, and dominate soundscapes with their blaring songs and chants. We are all screaming for our autonomy, and for futures free of genocide, fascism, and militarism.

However, screaming will only get us so far. When war is declared against our autonomy, our space, and our campus community, we have to fight back. To me and many other students, one thing has been made clear: administrators cannot be trusted to run our universities. If it is true that the university is meant to be a bulwark against authoritarianism, a beacon of free speech, then the hyper-authoritarianism, bureaucratization, and professionalization of university administrations cannot be allowed to continue. A centralized, autocratic, violent, and professionalized class of administrative executives have never produced intellectual freedom, nor will they ever. So long as the administrative echelon of the university system continues to exist, so too will the violence, micromanagement, hostility towards employees and students, and the facilitation of genocide. For these changes to occur, a broader shift must take place at our schools.

We, the students, the TAs, the professors, the faculty, the dining hall workers, the groundskeepers, the nurses, the RAs, the advisors, the lifeblood of the university, are entitled not just to a seat at the table, but to the entire thing. If there is any hope in disentangling our universities from the grip of war-profiteers and fascist politics, we must be the ones to enact that political will. If you are a professor, talk to your students, find common ground, find common struggle, find solidarity, and struggle together. If you are in a union, find ways to interconnect your struggle with the other workers at your school. We must connect, network, intersect, and fight to take back our schools. Radical authoritarianism has only one solution: radical democracy. The journey towards a restored humanity will be the journey towards democracy in our schools, our workplaces, our day-to-day lives, and the liberation of the human spirit that will emerge in the process.

Noah Ranz-Lind
Noah is a Junior at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst studying Mathematics as well as Social Thought & Political Economy (STPEC). Noah grew up as a third-culture kid, living most of his life abroad in Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Ireland, and India. He is passionate about math education, as well as learning for its own sake rather than as a means to an end. He is excited to intern with HRP and explore the world of radical pedagogy!
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