Live Show: Student Organizers Breakdown Media Distortions Over Gaza Encampments

Citations Needed | June 5, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
36 min readJun 12, 2024

Intro: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to our livestream tonight. Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Adam. We’ll be discussing the so-called crisis on America’s campuses as our beloved media continues to depict the very rational, very organized anti-genocide protests around the country whether it’s in New York City, Columbia University or NYU, CUNY, or across the country, UCLA, and elsewhere. This idea that the media is depicting this so-called crisis really is like a social contagion, right, spreading throughout Zoomer hate mobs across these bastions of liberal academia. Woe is me. What are we possibly going to do? Obviously, the last thing we’re going to do is actually listen to the students, to the protesters, and maybe, you know, consider not continuing to support genocide.

Adam: No, not an option. Yes. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited to talk to people who’re actually involved in the organizing itself rather than sort of pontificating. By the way, intermittently throughout this, you’ll hear my seven-week-old baby cry in the background.

Nima: Oh, don’t give that spoiler. It’s so much more exciting.

Adam: Well, it just happened. That’s why I was letting you know that it wasn’t the television or anything like that. It is a real human. So, we’re going to talk to people who have actually done organizing, who are actually out there engaging in these media narratives and media counter-narratives rather than just doing punditry from their couch.

Nima: Yes, indeed.

Adam: Like a certain podcaster I know.

Nima: With that intro, we welcome our two guests tonight. We are joined by Layla Saliba and Jonathan Ben-Menachem. Layla is a Palestinian American graduate student at Columbia University, studying social work with a concentration in policy practice, and Jon is a PhD candidate in sociology, also at Columbia where he researches the politics of criminalization and crime journalism. Jon and Layla, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Thanks for having us.

Layla Saliba: Thank you so much for having us.

Adam: So, I want to start off by asking you a general question for those who aren’t familiar, just to kind of lay the groundwork. So, these protests began in mid-April if I’m not mistaken, these encampments rather, I know protests preceded that. I guess. I want to start off by asking, what was the kind of impetus for that, for the encampment model? I know there had been historical antecedents, but do you all know what inspired that? Obviously, the situation is very desperate. So, I know people were kind of doing whatever they could. There had been protests, quite a few of them, certain days of action. But I’m sort of curious why the focus on campus. I know they’re sort of general ethos is you protest where you are. These colleges, especially these kind of hedge funds that happen to teach, schools like Columbia do have a lot invested in the war machine in general, and specifically in Israeli companies. Obviously, there’s historical examples with South Africa, etc. So, can you kind of talk about the impetus for that other than you guys getting direct orders from your handlers in China as I’m told by Republicans in Congress? Outside of that, outside of the orders from Beijing, Moscow.

Nima: The carrier pigeons from Tehran.

Adam: Right, yeah. What was the impetus behind that, and what was the urgency of that decision?

Layla Saliba: Really, we felt that it was necessary due to the urgency of the situation. Students at Columbia had tried all kinds of methods to really get the attention of not only administration but also draw attention to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. And we tried all kinds of stuff. We tried petitions. People have written op-eds, walkouts, rallies, protests, protesting outside of the president’s house, etc, and none of that seemed to merit any kind of response or even acknowledgment. And as a Palestinian student, especially as somebody who has lost family members in Gaza, the way that Palestinian students have been treated by Colombia has been really, really horrible. It’s as if we’re not even seen as human. Like, how dare we object to what is going on in Gaza? And not to say that camping on a college lawn is the same thing as what is going on in Gaza. But the reason why we did tents is because it was symbolic, right? Because people in Gaza, they’re having to stay in tents. My family members are in tents. And we also realized too that this was a way to physically take up space, especially in a university that is so individualistic, that is so cutthroat and competitive.

Part of what was really cool with the encampment was how we were able to build such a sense of community. I mean, we had a free library. We had a first aid tent. We had regular hot meals being passed out three times a day. And it was like at a university where it’s supposed to be like, everything is optimized, everything is always in anticipation for the next best thing, this was an act of reclamation. This was us slowing down and saying, hey, if we want to take back campus, we don’t think the way that Columbia is treating Palestinian students and Palestinians in general, we don’t think that’s acceptable. We don’t think that’s okay. And we believe in something better. And it’s also been frustrating too, I would say, not only from campus administration but just the media in general, just the consistent dehumanization of Palestinians, that’s a big theme that we’re seeing. And you can kind of see that in how media outlets respond to us. It’s almost like, oh, why are they protesting? Why are they protesting? Etc. They’re not seeing us as humans.

Adam: Yeah. So, at the risk of being somewhat cheesy, I visited the encampments at DePaul with my family, my three-year-old and my six-week-old baby. One thing that sort of did strike me was the sense of community. The garden, there was a medical tent, an area for kids to play.

Layla Saliba: Yeah.

Adam: We showed up and you know, come here, you know, your three-year-old, let’s give him some food, etc. There were obviously people doing learn-ins, all that stuff. That is not the sort of general impression I think the average person has gotten in the media.

Layla Saliba: Mhm.

Adam: I know there’s been some sympathetic coverage here and there, but the general vibe is that this is an anti-semitic hate mob that is full of people in sort of terrorist garb, and they’re blah, blah, blah, the sort of things you guys know about now. Now, obviously, I only visited for an hour, and this is my finger in the water, token activism. But obviously, I didn’t see that. I know most people in good faith don’t see that. So, I kind of want to talk about, if you could, the way it was portrayed in the media, from y’all’s perspective, was this idea that it was inherently sort of sinister and kind of vaguely menacing. You know, they would nutpick here and there. Obviously, pick people who are not even in the protest or outside the protest. Obviously, any kind of large protest, whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, you’re going to have the occasional crank. That kind of goes without saying.

I want you to talk about what y’all saw in the media coverage. I know this is a generalization. If you want, you can focus on The New York Times. I mean, we can forget the New York Post, that’s not even worth talking about. But maybe some of the more liberal strains. Generally, what was your sort of general impression between what you saw, what you experienced versus how it was perceived, especially by the President, who, of course, went on TV and basically said it was a violent hate mob?

Layla Saliba: Well, the New York Times, before they even came on campus, they named their Slack channel about the encampments “Anti-Semitism on Campus” right before they had even visited us. So, it really goes to show these people pretty much had a perspective or a view that they wanted to stick to, and they were insistent on sticking to that view no matter what. It also felt like the way that they are portraying students, it’s like we were either these spoiled rich kids who had no clue what we were doing, or we are like, these trained militants who are personally part of Hamas or something. It was like the one or the other was the big thing. And it’s like, the media wasn’t really taking the time to listen to students.

I would also say a lot of media outlets felt really entitled to students, and they were really pushy and really aggressive, let’s say, outlets such as CNN, for example. CNN was particularly bad. They got videos of people being arrested, and they were talking about doxing them, and they were sitting there and laughing. And it was like, these are students. It felt as if people were so focused on, let’s sell this story. Let’s get this narrative out there instead of treating us as the actual students. It was honestly challenging to be on campus because you would go on campus, and you would be surrounded by ABC, NBC, Bloomberg, CNN, The New York Times, Washington Post, New York Post, etc. And the New York Post wrote individual hit articles about us. The Wall Street Journal op-ed section, which…[sighs] That’s its whole own conversation, the Wall Street Journal op-ed section.

But you can always tell that people in power, whenever they’re upset, one of the best things to look at is the Wall Street Journal op-ed section. They are writing op-ed after op-ed about us, and we really think that this media attention was brought on us to villainize us, but also because people in power are scared of what we’re doing. They know that Columbia students are influential. I mean, you look at Antony Blinken right now. He’s a Columbia alum. The White House press secretary, she’s a Columbia alumni. So when people in power are scared of you, they’ll do anything they can do. They’ll use all of their resources in order to make you look like the bad guy.

Nima: Yeah, there’s the discrediting part, and also, you know, anything they can do to not engage with what you’re actually saying. Jon, I’d love to bring you in as someone who not only goes to Columbia, was present there at the encampment, but also studies this journalistic approach. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Yeah, I mean, I think the great victory for the pro-Israel media apparatus is that we have a large, month-long news cycle about, you know, Ivy League, campus politics. Like, the whole point of the protests in the first place was to draw attention to Gaza. Now it’s just like, hit after hit on TV about how it doesn’t feel safe to be Jewish or whatever. I don’t know. It’s been this very successful rhetorical trap. I also wanted to add in on the New York Times Slack thing. They had a front page vertical called “Anti-Semitism on Campus.” The Slack name corresponded to how their front page was organized, and the story that they wrote about the first wave of arrests on April 17th or 18th, that was under their anti-semitism on campus vertical as if to imply that this police action that Columbia requested was about protecting Jews when many Jews were arrested. But that’s not even the important point, right? It’s like, why do Jews have to be brought in so that Palestinians can say whatever they’d like to say?

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about that a little bit because I think the proverbial well-meaning liberal can sort of look at this, and I think if one genuinely believes, if one kind of ingests the ideology that criticism of Zionism is, per se, a form of racism, they genuinely believe that, that you can’t oppose the project of ethnic supremacy in the Levant without being a sort of mindless anti-Semite. This is why these kind of solipsistic criteria of do you feel safe or not are not quite that convincing. Because like we mentioned in the previous episode, a lot of right-wingers are not safe around pro-abortion rallies. You know, a lot of white people that don’t feel safe around Black people. Like feeling safe is, in and of itself, not a very meaningful statement because there has to be tether to some substance. You can’t just sort of say I feel unsafe. Again, me personally, I’m in a constant state of feeling unsafe because I’m neurotic and weak.

So, I want to sort of talk about that now. Again, obviously this isn’t to say there aren’t instances of anti-semitism. I think everyone can agree that, you know, people say stupid shit. It happens. You know, especially politically unsophisticated people say stupid shit, clearly. And obviously, there’s a whole apparatus around there in the weeds, to kind of nutpick and say, well, look at that. We’ve seen this in every activist movement since, you know, Vietnam or the civil rights movement. So, I want to sort of talk about how you’ve perceived what we call “crybullyism,” this sort of false narrative of inversing the victim status. And again, if one sort of skims the coverage of Dana Bash and the New York Times, you would be under the impression that this was a pogrom or kind of proto pogrom of Jews in New York, and this strikes me as, I think, not at all remotely related to reality. So, I want you to sort of talk about this idea of — I’m trying to be understated — using this kind of liberal safetyism rhetoric and obviously also the sort of conflation of Zionism with Judaism, right? So, we sort of say any kind of liberatory slogan is inherently going to be a form of metaphysical as opposed to the actual one. But that’s a separate conversation.

Nima: While also doing everything they could to avoid actually honestly reporting on anything, but also when there were Passover Seders literally held in encampments that were so contrary to the narrative that it was not allowed to be kind of a sticky media point.

Layla Saliba: So, there’s all this focus on campus safety, but it seems as if that concept of safety is only for a select group of students. And if you are Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, if you support Palestine, safety is something that is not given to you. At Columbia, for example, they’ve been so focused on protest chants, for example, especially the term “intifada.” That really made people upset. One of the reasons that they say it makes them upset is that Israelis were killed during the intifadas, but also many Palestinians were killed, and yet it’s not a threat to our safety. So, it’s like, what they’re doing is they’re weaponizing this use of language, this safety threat, to shut down or silence any and all speech related to Palestine. I mean, I’ve been told before that me wearing my keffiyeh is scary. And I was like, I’m not a scary person, y’all. Like, I’m 5'1,” and I rescue pigeons. I’m not a scary person. And so that’s been frustrating.

And what’s also going on too is there’s all this concern about protest chants, but then when it comes to students being put in actual physical danger, like, for example, when we were attacked with chemicals, I was one of the students that was attacked. It was by two ex-Israeli soldiers, and fifteen students had to go to the hospital yet Columbia could not bother to send out a campus-wide email even though both of these students posed a direct danger to other students. What they did do is when students at a Columbia Law School event were reading out the names of people who had lost their lives in Gaza, that was seen as a threat to safety, simply reading the names of dead Palestinians.

But then, people getting attacked with chemicals, that’s not a threat to safety. And you can also see it too with the language that Minouche Shafik, the Columbia president, her whole justification for shutting down the encampment was student safety, but NYPD did not keep students safe both times, and NYPD also injured students during the second round of arrests. We have students who got concussions. We have one student who was kicked in the face so hard the bone behind their eye, the orbital bone fractured from being kicked in the face so hard. We have students who have nerve damage from handcuffs and zip ties being around their wrists so tight, yet that’s not seen as a threat to student safety. So, it’s like they’re trying to weaponize this concept of safety to silence any and all dissent. And also what they’re doing is that with this concept of safety, it’s ever-evolving and ever-changing. Sometimes, some things are scary, but then they’re not. It changes to however they view us as a threat.

Adam: Yeah, I’m going to touch real quick, and then Jon, I’ll let you jump in. You see this a lot, this kind of deliberate demagoguery around misinterpreting Arabic words, particularly around the word “martyr.” It’s obviously a totally different meaning because people are brainwashed by watching 24 and watching, you know, all this shit, And you say, oh martyr, terror, terror, without really understanding the context of what these words mean. And then you see people deliberately pander to that without explanation. Everything that’s Arabic, again, due to, I think, going back to sort of Delta Force, like 50 years of just constant sort of association of Arabic as being inherently sinister or terroristic or anti-semitic, and they know that they’re playing to this ignorance. And you see this a lot with “intifada,” with “martyr.” So, then you have to spend 20 minutes doing a little lesson about language, and you’re already on your back foot, right? And that’s kind of the point.

Layla Saliba: The whole point is distraction. If you’re sitting there and you’re talking about campus safety, and you’re talking about what this word means, you can’t talk about the genocide that’s going on in Gaza.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Yeah, I mean, I really want to just keep harping on the safety point. We had a vehicular assault on one of our demonstrations on May 7th. Reuven Kahane, this middle-aged real estate developer drove his car into a demo, right? There’s an Associated Press article about this, right? And we thought the last name was a coincidence, but it turns out he’s the cousin of Meir Kahane, actual JDL family members doing Charlottesville tactics, and the NYPD arrested the assault victim and another bystander who was on the security team.

Reuven Kahane is arrested in New York. (Columbia University Apartheid Divest)

Adam: Yeah. And, of course, the Washington Post reported that Eric Adams was in direct talks with pro-Israel donors basically saying you need to send in the police. I want to go back to the chemical attack. You sort of casually mentioned that. For those who aren’t familiar, I feel like we sort of casually dropped the idea of being attacked by an unknown chemical agent and kind of moved on. Because it isn’t registered. This was barely covered in media. I eventually will do an analysis of that coverage. But we don’t have the empirical evidence. But I think it’s fair to say based on cursory knowledge that this was not made a big deal of. It certainly wasn’t brought up in these Republican congressional witch hunt dress-downs they’re doing. So, talk about that. Tell us what happened and what happened to the sort of alleged perpetrator.

Layla Saliba: Yeah, so the alleged perpetrators, they were found guilty, and they’ve been suspended by the school. But notably, the school did not expel them even though the school is looking to expel students who have protested for Palestine.

Adam: I’m sorry, wait, back up. They unleashed a chemical weapon on other students, and they were not expelled?

Layla Saliba: Yes.

Adam: Wow. People got expelled for much worse in Animal House.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, think about if it had been the other way around.

Layla Saliba: Yeah, exactly. And also, notice there was no congressional hearing. It was never brought up. And when it happened, I really thought that this happening to us because Columbia hadn’t taken us seriously for so long, I thought that once this happened, this would change how Columbia would respond. Surely, fifteen students being hospitalized, surely, Columbia would have to do something different. But they didn’t. They tried to shove this under the rug as much as possible. I’ve talked to different members of Congress, and they’re all like, yeah, we know about it, but we’re not allowed to talk about it, which means there must be some kind of gag order being placed on politicians, or politicians being instructed to not talk about this. Something else too is the NYPD, they have not arrested the people who attacked us. They’ve just told us this is an ongoing investigation and will not give us any kind of updates.

Adam: But the university knows who they are in theory, right?

Layla Saliba: Yeah.

Adam: And they haven’t arrested anyone?

Layla Saliba: Nope.

Adam: Holy shit.

Layla Saliba: And we filed five police reports. And also, when it happened, the university thought we were joking at first. I remember the day that it happened. It was January 19th, and so, there was this smell in the air. I was at this rally, and it just smelled like somebody had just died. I was like, what is going on? What is that smell? And then it ended up being the chemicals that they used on us. And so, we have Palestinians from the West Bank at Columbia. And they were like, oh, this is probably skunk because it sticks to your hair and your skin and your clothing. And so, people were really sick after the rally. They were throwing up. They had headaches. And our clothes smelled like sewage. And I was just like, this is not normal. Like, something is going on here. And so, I reported it that night to the police, but Columbia didn’t even address it until four days later, and they still did not let the entire school know. We were literally posting photos of people at the hospital and at the ER and tagging Columbia and being like, you need to do something about this. And nothing.

Nima: I mean, I think, you know, look, we’ve seen media coverage of any kind of protest against genocide ranging from, you know, as you’ve kind of covered in all the different levels here, patronizing and head patting to completely hysterical and racist. You know, assuming things right off the bat even as we’ve said, where you place this coverage in your newspaper vertical or online, gives a framework to how this is being covered. But something that we really want to get your take on is a clip from CNN NewsNight, which really is much more in the patronizing camp, the more liberal concern troll-y elements really come alive in this kind of punditry. So, we’re going to watch a clip. It is a little over two minutes long, but I think it is worth it to watch this, and then we can comment on it. It is with Frank Bruni on CNN NewsNight.

Adam: The most unremarkable and forgettable New York Times columnist, you know, that includes Gail Collins. So, he wrote this book. He’s doing a promo for this book about how there’s grievance politics on the right and the left, and both play to extremes. I don’t know if you guys have heard this before, but what if there’s like, extremes and there’s a center and the extremes are bad and the center’s good? You guys heard this thesis before? It’s a new, provocative thesis he’s working on. He poured over mountains and mountains and decades of social science and came to this conclusion that the extreme things are bad and things in the middle are inherently good. So, he’s trying to shoehorn in this incredibly banal eighth-grade thesis into the current protest movement. And here, he gives a softball interview with CNN where they do nuance trolling, complexity trolling, and, of course, completely misrepresent everything the protests were saying and doing, but play the clip.

Nima: Totally. So, this is from three weeks ago. CNN. Frank Bruni talking to Abby Phillip on NewsNight. Let’s take a listen and a watch.

[Begin clip]

Abby Phillip: I want to start kind of with the big picture here because we’ve been seeing these images from the schools, but what’s beneath them is what I see as a strain of absolutism. What do you see and where do you think that that comes from?

Frank Bruni: No, I think you’re absolutely right. Some of what we’re seeing is specific to the war in Gaza, right? Some of it is particular to the environment of a college campus, but I think a lot of this is about a larger culture and context and a way in which every disagreement in American life right now gets raised to or near the boiling point. And that happens because the opposite sides dig in. Nobody really wants to understand where the other side’s coming from. We confuse conviction and confrontation. And then, as you saw in what Donald Trump was saying just then, you have various political actors come in to score political points, right? And they have no interest in calming the situation. They just want to exploit and inflame it. Right now, you have the right saying this shows an entire generation brainwashed by wokeness, and you have the left saying that this shows the dawn of an oppressive police state. It shows neither of those things, but when you shout those complaints in the public square, you guarantee this is going to go on and get worse.

Abby Phillip: I’m so fascinated by the pro-Palestinian movement in this country. I mean, of course, what’s happening in Gaza is important, and it’s important to point out when you have 34,000 dead, many of them children, that’s notable. But one of the things about the protesters is that they don’t want to talk about the complexity of the long-running issues in this conflict, and you talk about how you tell your students it’s complicated.

Frank Bruni: Yeah.

Abby Phillip: Right now, there’s an allergy to complexity.

Frank Bruni: There’s an allergy to complexity. There’s an allergy to nuance. It is really complicated. This is a difficult situation. We cannot condone or be silent about anti-semitism, right? That’s non-negotiable. We also do protect the right to free speech and when protests are peaceful, that’s really important. There’s a grand tradition of that, and that’s an important American value. Figuring out how to protect Jewish students and faculty, how to fight anti-semitism, but at the same time, how to protect free speech, that is not easy. So, we never say it’s complicated. We never acknowledge it’s difficult. What we’re trying to do right here, right now is difficult. I also think it’s important to say, although this is spreading, and we just saw Dartmouth, and where I live at UNC, there’s a big problem right now. We haven’t seen this at Duke. We aren’t seeing this on every campus. This is not an entire generation. This is not every college campus. This is not America, you know, going crazy or whatever. This is a particular situation.

[End clip]

Adam: Okay, so, I’m sorry.

Nima: I should have given a trigger warning. [Laughs]

Adam: So guys, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but keep in mind, by the way, the obvious implication of this is that killing 40, 50, 60,000 people, who knows what the real number is, and maiming tens of thousands of children, that is not extreme. That is not an extreme position. That is not an unnuanced position, right? That is nuanced. Opposing that is strident moral binaries. So, I wrote an article for In These Times about this. We had weeks and weeks because nobody really wants to address the substance of the protesters’ claims. What we got was what I call anti-Zoomer psychobabble, Chinese psyop on Tiktok neurosis. They want to feel like they’re part of something. Their strident moral binaries. They’re all a bunch of, you know, sexless mask-wearing skulls. Talk a little bit about the sort of psychobabble that you’ve seen. And we can start with Frank Bruni doing the whole like, oh, they see everything in moral binaries. The implication is that we should all just kind of nuance ourselves until we don’t do anything at all. And I’ll just pull the lever every two years.

Layla Saliba: I’ll say you forgot one of the tropes, which is that we’re being funded by Qatar. They’re all like, oh, you guys are getting massive checks. I was like, unfortunately, not. I’ve still got student loans.

Adam: Yeah, I’ve heard China. I’ve heard Iran. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as it sounds vaguely Oriental. But talk about this idea that y’all don’t have nuance, that you’re sort of strident, militant.

Nima: Yeah, please, Jon. I love this idea when, especially there are, like you said, Layla earlier, libraries on these encampments, but also plenty of people who know a lot about the issues that they’re talking about or entire posters that really give full rundowns or written demands and statements that are very clear. I’d love, Jon, for you to talk about that idea that, you know, no one there is really engaged in nuance.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Yeah. I mean, divestment organizing at Columbia is like, 20 years old, right? It’s not a brand new thing. There’s a material analysis behind it, which is that Columbia’s endowment is not fully transparent so we don’t know the full extent of their investment in companies that profit from, you know, Israeli apartheid and genocide, You know, for this respectability politics discourse with nuance, I want to just mention that there were already several successful divestment referendums in the various bodies across Columbia that the university has just repeatedly ignored across multiple president administrations. So people, for decades now, have been organizing through the “appropriate channels.” In the beginning of this show, Layla explained the motivations for the encampment. The encampment is like a non-violent escalation, right? Literally, we’re setting up tents on one tiny lawn to create a space of mutual care and solidarity, right? It’s not a scary thing. I don’t know, the whole bringing the discourse back to the problem with college students, which is what op-ed writers produce every year for as long as I’ve been alive anyway. Bringing it back to that again just distracts from Gaza. Did you know that in Palestine, Israel is using armed drones that play recorded audio of children to lure people to their death? Did you know that? Well, you didn’t because we were talking about Columbia, you know, Israel-supporting undergraduates,

Nima: Yes. And also the idea that, you know, there’s not nearly enough complexity because complexity lives, as you were saying, Adam, in the middle, right? Complexity is in the middle whereas these kind of opposite sides are just digging in. They’re not actually, you know, thoughtful at all, but the complexity lives in the middle, to nuance this to death because clearly, being anti-genocide, where’s the complexity in there? I think we need a little more nuance there.

Adam: I mean, it’s just an utterly fatuous thing to say, it’s just noise. You just blah blah. It’s the Muppets, blah blah, blah. That’s all I heard when I listened to that. Nothing was said of substance or meaning. This is why they do it because then nobody wants to talk about the substance of the demands. My favorite was when a couple of people, Peggy Noonan did this, their demands are inscrutable. Like, what do they want? They literally have a website. They have little pamphlets.

Nima: Yeah, there’s footnotes, guys.

Layla Saliba: Yeah, we literally had the demands at the side of the encampment. Before walking into the encampment, you could see what our demands are. The demands have been on flyers. They’ve been all over social media. They’ve been clearly communicated to administration and to the general public. And so, for people to not know or just pretend that they don’t know, it shows they’re not negotiating with us or taking us in good faith, which is very obvious. And then also, too, it just speaks to the dehumanization of Palestinians and how being Palestinian is inherently seen as political. And people are also kind of frustrated with the hypocrisy. Because when it comes to Ukraine, for example, people were seeing their universities do stuff to support students from Ukraine or events. At events, they would do things to support Ukraine. They would fly the flag, etc. But you don’t see that with Palestine because it’s too political. And is it just because we aren’t white? Like, that’s really how it’s felt.

Adam: That’s part of it, yes.

Layla Saliba: Yeah. Another big myth that they tried to do too was oh, this is religious indoctrination. The students are trying to indoctrinate their classmates, and it’s like, no, it’s not that at all. It’s just people teaching and learning and being in community with each other. And it’s because people in power, they do not view Palestinians as human beings. They just simply don’t because if they viewed us as human beings while what’s going on in Gaza right now, it wouldn’t be happening. They view the death and destruction in Gaza, they view that as normal, as acceptable, as profitable. And all of our work, whether that’s the encampment, whether that’s the rallies, whether that’s the protests, etc., it’s not to please people in power. It’s not to make everybody happy. It’s to make a difference for people in Gaza. And really, it meant so much to me that people in Gaza were having hope because of our protests. I mean, we were seeing tents that said Columbia University and New York University and UCLA tents with our names and stuff and children of Gaza thanking us and saying that we had given them hope. And it’s like, that’s who this is for.

Adam: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that gets lost here, which is that there’s a whole media apparatus that’s built around concern trolling, head patting, protest this way, not this way. It’s like a sort of space shuttle reentering the Earth. It has to be at the right angle, at the exact speed otherwise it’s too intense. It’s like, you gotta do this. You gotta do that. And of course, it’s all bullshit. Nobody just wants to discuss the substance. This sort of brings me to my next question, which has to do with this concept of the outside agitator was a popular one because they were kind of just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck.

Nima: Like, how many different ways can we try and discredit this? It’s just like goofy students bad. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Oh, wait, they do know what they’re talking about. So, now it’s got to be someone else.

Adam: It’s gotta be an outside agitator. So, I want to talk a little bit about this outside agitator trope that was central to a lot of NYPD’s justifications for cracking down on students. Of course, it ended up that the vast majority were not “outside agitators.” But even if they were, who cares? As a point a lot of activists have made, it’s sort of a trivial distinction. Again, technically speaking, my six week old baby was an outside agitator when she showed up to the encampment. But the idea of creating community, the idea of having a strict steel wall with the university and the plebes, right, as being central to that. I thought it was worth debunking just because it was obviously bullshit. But it’s also you’re on the defensive there as well because yeah, some guy lives in Morningside Heights and thinks that genocide is bad, and he wants to bring us some bagels and some tacos, that’s good. That’s called human solidarity. Because everyone has to be fucking atomized, right? They don’t mind you being angry and posting alone in your house, but the second you get in the same physical space, and you start sharing ideas and start living in community, and then it starts to get a little dicey, right?

Nima: Yeah, because power building is very scary.

Adam: I’ll never forget, in 2011, I was bartending some party, some private event at some house. I was bartending, overheard these guys talking, and one said, Can you believe they’re feeding homeless people? So, they’re attracting all these homeless people. And I remember thinking, when I first heard that, I was like —

Nima: To Occupy Wall Street.

Adam: To Occupy Wall Street. This is 2011, way before y’all’s time. And I remember thinking like it’s attracting homeless people like they’re sort of vermin. And I’m like, wait, this is the great crime? They’re feeding homeless people. This is the great tragedy, this is the thing we urgently need to reconcile?

Layla Saliba: They did villainize us for giving food to other people and just sharing with the community.

Adam: Yeah, the worst sin possible.

Layla Saliba: Yeah. They were like, Saliba admits to sharing food and resources with the outside community, and I was also labeled as a Jew hater too.

Adam: Wow.

Layla Saliba: And it’s like these people, they don’t know me, but they’re just like, whatever we can say to insult them, like, why not?

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: I can chime in on the outside agitator history thing. So, it’s actually interesting because the outside agitator smear has been historically deployed against particularly Black activists and student activists since the year 1960. A group of Black students in Atlanta took out an ad called An Appeal for Human Rights. Some segregationist politicians said it was created by foreigners. And that’s where the outside agitator thing comes from. Martin Luther King Jr writes about this in his letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963. It was this constant refrain during the civil rights movement.

It hasn’t just returned now, we saw this in Ferguson in 2014, you know, the George Floyd protests in 2020. I lived in New York during 2020 and they basically accused all of the looting as if it was coming from outside of the city. You know, as if the burned down cop cars can’t just come from New Yorkers who are mad at things that cops have done here. But coming back to Columbia and how the outside agitator smear was used here, I actually think it was very strategic that Eric Adams started using it when he was trying to ramp up the intensity of police action because of the sort of war on crime to war on terror link. We have an NYPD counterterrorism unit and its deputy commissioner adjuncts at Columbia and did a press conference with him, right?

So, there’s this existing carceral capacity that the media narrative creates a pretext for using. And, you know, he had a press conference the day before the raid, doing the terrorist wife smear, you know what I mean? Saying there are these outside agitators. We think they might have weapons so the 600 cops are now justified because there are these spooky outside agitators, right? I want to note that Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb repeated the outside agitators smear on MSNBC before the police raid. Very interesting.

Adam: Well, naturally, that’s how you get that position. In the context of the civil rights movement and unionism, especially in the south, outside agitator has huge history of being an anti-semitic slur as well. The idea that all these leftist Jews come down here otherwise the blacks were content and happy to be poor.

Nima: Yeah, James Baldwin wrote about that very, very specifically, you know, saying that if there are, you know, civil rights protests, anti-white supremacy protests in the South, then obviously it’s the outside agitators from the North. And if there are those protests in the North, then they’re being directed by the Kremlin. So, he was onto this. Everyone’s been onto this smear, and it just keeps being recycled again and again and again. And somehow, those who are using it clearly know what they’re doing and/or are so just incurious about the history of this.

Adam: Yeah, it’s a playbook. It’s so self-serving. It’s so transparently self-serving. Because if I’m in charge and people are upset and they’re protesting or they’re burning things, obviously it has to be people outside of my jurisdiction because I’m perfect. I’m the perfect leader. My subjects cannot possibly be upset. Therefore it has to be Fifth Estate Jesuits or something coming from the east. So yeah, and I want to touch a little bit on this idea of the contagion aspect. So, obviously the protests “spread” to other universities, are still ongoing in many places. What do you all perceive as the kind of current state of play?

There was a very concern-troll piece in The Washington Post today saying the Palestinian protesters failed to win hearts and minds, that two-to-one people oppose them. And then, of course, you look at polling from 1963, 1964, support for sit-ins, support for freedom riders, exact same numbers, 65, 66% oppose. I mean, almost identical, like literally identical because that’s not how protest movements work. They’re more long-term plays. They’re more about agitation. They’re not necessarily about winning over Joe Blow especially because what they’re reflecting is the media narrative. So, if the president of the United States and CNN tell you twenty-four hours a day, these protests are a violent hate mob full of either spoiled rich kids or outside agitators, we’re not sure which one that naturally, people are going to begin to internalize that.

But if you could, I want you to talk about the current state of it. Obviously, you said a lot of it brought hope to people in Gaza just to see that people aren’t totally indifferent to their plight, struggle within the sort of borders of the United States. So, talk a bit about the current state of it, what the current status is at other universities, and how you think the tactic can escalate because clearly, it’s not working. I mean, Biden doesn’t appear to be wanting to change anything ever.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Well, we saw, I think, a new encampment set up at UCLA, right? There was one set up in a public park in Philadelphia, I’m pretty sure. And CUNY took a building successfully and negotiated with an administrator recently. I would say CUNY and Within Our Lifetime are some of the more active organizing groups in New York right now on this issue. Obviously, we’re going to keep looking for whatever levers we can pull in the long run. I’m not going to share, you know, tactics, plans and media hits, right? Yeah, but you know, people are thinking about what the next move is. And I definitely think that the movement that we are a part of is still ongoing. It never was Columbia’s movement, so to speak. It’s open to everyone, and we’ll participate alongside everyone else.

Layla Saliba: Yeah, I was gonna say there’s encampments all over the world now, which is something that we were never expecting to see. There’s encampments in New Zealand. Japan, Belgium, Brazil, all over the place, which is so incredible to see. My dad, he’s in his 50s, and he’s never seen this type of support for Palestine in his life. So, I really do feel like with the encampments, that we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift with how we view Palestine and how we view Palestinians and what is going on in Gaza. They can condemn me all they want, and they have, I’m on Canary mission. I’ve been doxxed, and I get tons of death threats, but I know that at the end of the day, history will absolve me and that I’m doing the right thing.

And we also realize that even though this is scary for us, many students, they’ve lost job opportunities because of what’s going on. They’ve faced suspensions, they’ve faced different academic consequences, they’ve lost internships. But we realize that this is trivial compared to what everyone in Gaza is dealing with. It also just feels so silly. You know, you see all these media narratives talking about oh, campus safety, campus safety. And it’s like every single university in Gaza has been destroyed. Like, that’s really what’s important, and we’re going to continue fighting even though we’re tired and even though there’s been a lot of repression thrown at us, we’re not giving up anytime soon, and I’m excited to continue doing the work.

Adam: I want to ask a follow-up if you’ll indulge me a little bit, Layla. Somebody had made an observation, I regret that I can’t recall who but basically, they said that there’s a dynamic of not only are Palestinians being obviously dispossessed, bombed, starved, subject to disease. Obviously, prior to October 7th, they were living in an open-air prison, all this sort of horrific stuff. You keep talking about the dehumanization, and I want to talk about these efforts to kind of humanize themselves, and the added layer of humiliation, of constantly having to market one’s suffering. That is an added layer, I think, of dehumanization. And I want you to sort of comment on what it’s like to constantly have to have one’s most precious, most traumatic moments videotaped and played for the world because nothing else works. And I think that’s an added layer of humiliation that isn’t really being discussed. And I want to get your thoughts on that.

Nima: And to still have that be condemned or questioned?

Layla Saliba: No, it absolutely is. And Palestinians, they’re showing the worst moments of their life to an audience that isn’t always receptive or outright hostile, speaking in a language that is not their own in order to appeal to Americans, begging for the bombing to stop. And I know the dehumanization that I’m facing isn’t the same as what Palestinians in Gaza are dealing with, but it’s still been really awful. I lost 15 family members, 15 members of my extended family, and the way that I am treated, I’ve told that to people, and the first question they ask me is like, oh, was your family part of Hamas? Or do you condemn Hamas? And first of all, my family members are Palestinian Christians. They’re not part of Hamas. But I shouldn’t even have to mention that in the first place. You can’t say, oh, I’m sorry for your loss like a normal person? There’s no empathy given to Palestinians in general. Or it’s the way that they’re like, oh, you know, just bombing the Middle East, oh, no big deal. People will make casual little jokes about that. And it’s like, if that happened to the US, people would be freaking out. You know, if we destroyed every single university in New York, if NYU and Columbia and CUNY and stuff, if they were all bombed, people would be outraged. People would be furious. But it’s like Palestinians are not allowed to express any kind of outrage or any kind of upset because we automatically get labeled as a terrorist. Like, how dare you be upset about this.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem: Just to chime in a little bit, it’s also interesting that any sort of Palestinian organization that supports vocally any form of resistance at all gets singled out, right? Like the terrorist smear is deployed against Within Our Lifetime since right after October 7th, right? Like it’s doing a kind of work, this dehumanization.

Adam: Yeah, of course, the whole thing is a double standard. I mean, the standard is just not applied to, you know, again, you could say the most psycho-genocidal thing in the world towards Palestinians and pretty much no professional repercussions whatsoever. And like you said, I think that the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened the year before, and again, one wants to be careful not to compare tragedies, but it really does put in stark contrast how all of these liberal institutions that act like they’re above politics, and they don’t want to weigh in like PEN America, they did that literally 18 months prior, I mean, to the T. So, we know they can if they want to. So, all the sort of phony, above the fray, kind of fart-sniffing liberalism just was completely exposed as total horseshit because it was so so recent and so obviously a double standard.

Via PEN America

Nima: Yeah, and, I mean, I think there’s so much incredible power in the lack of deterrence that the media approach and political approach, it has not deterred you all and others at whether it’s campuses across the country or across the world or elsewhere. I mean the fact that now, we’re in college graduation season, and you’re seeing it again and again and again. There’s a commitment to justice that will not be silenced despite all of the efforts, all of the threats from universities, all of the loss of you know, whether it’s you know, career opportunities or personal smears, physical threats of violence, if not actual violence. And yet, there is a commitment that I think is really daunting to those who sit in positions of extreme power that this is not going away, that it wasn’t, you know, one police raid and then back to the so-called status quo where genocide is allowed to go on with no one saying shit about it.

Layla Saliba: Oh, they’re terrified of us. They’re absolutely terrified of us. Because I’ve done organizing in other contexts. I’m in school for social work, and so, I’ve done disability justice organizing or organizing for free menstrual products, for example. And I did this in North Carolina in a pretty, pretty conservative political environment, and we didn’t get near the amount of backlash and heat that we are facing right now, and that is because what we are doing is a threat to people in power, and it is a threat to their wallets, it is a threat to their resources.

So, they are going to use every tool that they have at their disposal to shut us down, but really having solidarity and a strong community is really important to what we’re doing. We are nothing without our community members and the people who’ve shown up to support us. There’s been incredible faculty at Columbia who’ve honestly gotten heat too, just for supporting us like Professor Mohamed Abdou. We saw in Congress, Minouche Shafik was debating his employment status in Congress, which is completely inappropriate, just going after him because he supports us. But at the end of the day, we’re doing the right thing. And it’s also a little ironic too because Columbia really is a school that markets protests to people. The 1968 protests, they’re all over campus advertising. They talk about it so much.

Nima: Front page of the website.

Layla Saliba: Yeah, yeah. They talk about it all the time. And they’re confused that students are organizing and advocating for stuff. I’m like, y’all literally selected me to be here based on these skills, and now you’re surprised that I’m using them, that I’m taking what I learned into the classroom.

Adam: Well, they wanted you to do the sort of fatuous Women’s March thing. I mean, they didn’t want you to actually annoy rich people. They wanted you to work for a nonprofit within the funnel of acceptable activism, not agitate and annoy people. It’s an aesthetic. It’s not an ideology.

Nima: Well, look —

Adam: It’s my cue to go. The boss is yelling at me.

Nima: Thank you both. That will then do it for this livestream of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed. To become a supporter of the show if you are so inclined, and we hope that you are, because we are 100% listener-funded, you can do that through

We have been joined by two amazing guests, Layla Saliba and Jon Ben-Menachem. Layla, again, is a Palestinian American graduate student at Columbia University, studying social work with a concentration in policy practice. As you can hear, very passionate about disability justice and justice in general, wants everyone to have free healthcare, accessible, affordable, for free. And you can follow her @itslaylas on the Twitter machine. Jon Ben-Menachem, PhD candidate in sociology, also at Columbia University where he researches the politics of criminalization and crime journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @JBenMenachem.

But that will do it. Thanks everyone for joining us on the Citations Needed livestream.

I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed livestream was recorded with a virtual audience on Thursday, May 23, 2024, and released on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.