Aesthetic Violence

On the pro-Palestinian protests on US campuses

In recent weeks, a number of US college campuses have been turned into protest encampments in the name of the Palestinian cause. Activists have occupied buildings and pitched legions of identical tents in campus quads. Protestors at UCLA have built palisades out of plywood and umbrellas in expectation of violent clashes with police and/or counter-protestors; at Columbia, participants have held press conferences, performed interpretive dances, and demanded “humanitarian aid” in the form of DoorDash.

With all of this the protestors have made themselves look ridiculous, and their cause unattractive. When met with police action, they’ve been dragged to squad cars screaming like toddlers. Still, for all their absurdity, it would be an error not to take these events seriously. 

No matter how comical and counterproductive their tactics may seem, every Leftist protest or rally is an act of political violence. This brand of political violence presents both an expression of power and an implicit threat to everyone who sees it. Antifa-type demonstrators are visible, angry, and loud, and therefore effective. They tell the average American that they’re in charge – that they are the street-level authority on what political expressions are acceptable, and that one defies them at one’s peril.

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For various reasons, the current Palestine protest movement has been treated by many as distinct from the protests and riots that have marked the past decade, including the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, Antifa violence in 2017, and BLM/Antifa riots in 2020. In reality, the pro-Palestinian movement shares the same organizers and methods, as well as the same sources of funding. 

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the main organizing force behind the protests, is financed by an opaque network of NGOs and private donors, including George Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OS). According to reporting in the New York Post, OS has contributed at least $300,000 to SJP since 2017. But the true number is almost certainly much higher. SJP is not officially registered as a nonprofit and therefore is not obliged to publish its funding sources. It receives donations through a network of “fiscal sponsor” organizations, including the Tides Foundation and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which also directly sponsors protests through payments to local organizers. In effect, the SJP is a front organization without any financial transparency, funded by the same network that funds Antifa cells, DSA chapters, and other national Leftist protest movements. There is no distinction between organizers of the pro-Palestine protests and those who organized BLM marches. All are the tentacles of the same Leftist brain.

The motivations of the participants in this movement are also the same. This sort of protest is essentially a surrogate religious ritual, which offers a chance to act out for a “morally sanctioned” cause. Protests enable an outpouring of emotion, legitimate attention-seeking, and serve as screens for fantasy fulfillment. It is not a coincidence that most of the campus protestors seem to be women, seeking out physical confrontations with unconcealed glee. The whole scene is psychosexually charged – yet it lacks the “free love” that characterized campus protests in prior decades. Something resembling youthful energy is the fantasy; yet the activists are ugly, tired, and awkward. 

The participants seem to be there for the catharsis of protesting itself, rather than because of any deeply-held beliefs – as shown by the confused and uninformed responses of rank-and-file protestors approached for interviews. The political aims of the protestors are nebulous, and broadly divorced from the reality of events in Gaza. Demands for divestment from Israel are combined with calls for supporting other foreign conflicts, appeals for attention to climate change, and support for LGBT causes. As in other Leftist movements – Black Lives Matter, pro-abortion marches, etc. – the strongest animating ethos is hatred (or self-hatred) of white people and Western civilization. Pro-Palestinian imagery feeds into this narrative by framing the issue in terms of the oppression of innocent “brown” people by guilty “white” Western imperialist/colonial forces, in this case represented by Israel, but ultimately by the United States.

For their part, Israelis resist their casting as colonizers, while left-wing American Jewish organizations – who previously endorsed anti-white messaging when it came from BLM – seek to characterize the protests as a mysterious resurgence of mid-century German antisemitism, rather than an evolution of left-wing decolonial theory. What is clear in either case is that the overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism by the pro-Palestinian protestors, many of whom are themselves Jewish communists, has caused a huge rift in the institutional Left – which is likely to damage Democratic electoral prospects in November, and perhaps fracture the Leftist coalition more seriously. 

Recognizing this dynamic, figures on the Right, namely Chris Rufo, have suggested exploiting this rift – so far to little avail. This is in large part due to an equivalent, if less critical three-way rift, on the Right between an ardently pro-Zionist establishment, a nominally nationalist, explicitly anti-semitic, third-worldist fringe, and the majority, who hold no strong opinion. To further their cause, Zionists on the Right appeal to patriotism and America’s longstanding alliance with Israel, partly via a revival of post-9/11 sensibilities about Islamic terrorism. Antisemitic third-worldists counter that the Palestine protestors are opposing an illegitimate occupation, thereby repeating decolonialist Leftist language.

Their central claim of the antisemitic third-worldists is that the goal of removing undue Israeli influence on the US government can be achieved through an alliance with leftist anti-Zionist protestors. In support of their argument, they point to the recent passage of the Antisemitism Awareness Act through the House, probably the most significant attack on the First Amendment in decades – voted for by 320 Representatives. Per OpenSecrets, over 80% of current House members received campaign funding from pro-Israel lobby groups.

Still, the idea of allying with the communists at Columbia and UCLA is completely delusional, at best. The Palestine protests are acts of political violence from the Left which, despite their slogans, are ultimately less concerned with Israel and Palestine, and more fundamentally with the power of the Left against the Right. Everywhere and always the specific cause of a Leftist protest — whether Gaza or George Floyd — is much less important than the organizational logic behind them. The goal is to demonstrate power, to serve as a warning to all political “enemies” in the country that their lives are effectively at the whims of the Left. 

Because the Left has dominated the realm of political violence for so long, its nature is often misunderstood by commentators and thinkers on the Right, in such a way as to effectively frame the Right as a group that lacks any agency, or even potential agency. This misunderstanding is connected to a larger phenomenon, in which the Right disavows or criticizes any sort of grassroots reaction to leftist political violence, on the basis that provoking a reaction is what the Left wants. 

Since the 1970s, but particularly since the 2014 rise of BLM, conservative pundits have taken this line so regularly that it has become a routine. Today we are seeing the same idea applied to grassroots actions by southern fraternities against the pro-Palestine protestors, to the extent that fraternities are being accused by more paranoid critics to be paid Federal assets or Zionist stooges. There is apparently no other possible reason why patriotic young white men, who have been systematically targeted by the Left for at least a decade, might want to show up to humiliate leftist protestors. 

Against this line of reasoning, we should take a more optimistic vision: at Ole Miss, LSU, UNC, and other schools, thousands of handsome and normal-looking fraternity members dressed in American flag outfits and waving MAGA banners have confronted the Palestine protestors, shouting football slogans, telling them to lose weight, and otherwise mocking them for their beliefs and their appearance.

This has been the first successful instance of political counter-demonstration from the Right in decades. The counter-protestors are in shape, funny, and represent the core base of the Right: young white men. They have held up the American flag over the Palestinian, embarrassed protest organizers into a disorganized retreat, and generally had a great time in front of the cameras. Most of them (UCLA exempted) haven’t clashed with the protestors or done them any harm besides humiliation – but they have shown up in force, looked powerful, and had fun – and in this way shut down the protests’ play for authority.

UNC students (April 30, 2024)

Political power is a game of PR and aesthetics, and with very little actual force involved. The decisive element governing whether it is possible to impose one’s will upon the political opposition in the public square isn’t the direct use of violence, but belief and morale. Right now, the pro-Palestine protestors encamped in university common areas are enacting Leftist political power through their (well-financed) capacity for mass coordination. Under these circumstances, the Right should not make the same mistake it made in 2015, when it danced around the reality of Leftist violence with fearful language, and refused to think more strategically about how to confront it.

One of the first deployments of what would subsequently become endemic Antifa violence took root at UC Berkeley after Trump’s first campaign. Antifa attacked non-leftist speakers, beat people in the streets, and clashed with police. In response an organic reaction occurred in many American cities – some may recall the “stickman” who beat Antifa militants while clad in American flag regalia. Eventually, the Proud Boys appeared as an organized front, and fought with leftists on many occasions, slamming flagpoles into the trash-can shields of black bloc rioters. All of this was explicitly political violence – really a series of slap fights sensationalized in the media as a brewing Second Civil War. It was low-level and generally small, but dominated the news cycle, particularly in both political fringes. 

From a certain perspective, this was entertaining and thrilling, but the lack of real leadership and organizational discipline meant that these groups were infiltrated very quickly by agent provocateurs and then turned into a bogeymen by the Leftist media. In principle, the kind of Fraternity-led organizational actions seen at Ole Miss, and UNC counter-protests can offer a more productive approach, so long as the people involved understand what they are dealing with, and adopt appropriate tactics against it. Obviously the Left is extremely committed to ruining the lives of anyone who opposes it – and will take whatever scrap of information it can use to do it. To prevent that from happening, good message discipline and teamwork need to be cultivated. 

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When they are not being framed as a psyop, the counter-protestors’ PR successes against communist pro-Palestine agitators are being bemoaned as “bad optics,” and even dangerous or destabilizing. What this viewpoint ignores is that political violence is a game of visibility, which creates an overall feeling of who is “really in charge” to the broader public – who are persuaded by the demonstration of force rather than the demonstration of logic. The Left seeks to demonstrate that it can hurt you; this is what encourages lockstep compliance. If this claim is not contested, then the extant Leftist narrative prevails. 

This was the situation in 2020 when COVID locked much of the country in their homes and riots broke out in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Encouraged and supported by the media, millions of dollars of goods were looted, dozens of people were killed, and entire districts of major cities burned. This was a peak of political violence in recent American history, and it shocked most people into a sort of stupor. There is little doubt that this violence was centrally funded and organized: pallets of bricks showed up at protest sites, demonstrators were shipped in via buses, and uniforms and tactics were kept consistent across cities.

The 2020 riots were essentially a coordinated PR rollout; a conflagration of aestheticized violence. In many places locals fought back against budding riots or staged counter-protests with fairly strong attendance, yet these actions were broadly condemned by the institutional Right and criticized as suspicious, low-status, or otherwise foolhardy. Because the Left currently has a monopoly on political violence, it can build momentum toward imposing its will; the exciting and often quasi-religious nature of protest builds passion and pride for their movement among young activists, enabling the Left to commit even more violence.

Now, we have seen a truly grassroots reaction of defiance from young elements of the Right. This reaction was not funded by billionaire masterminds with a thousands-strong NGO complex; rather, it was organized in fraternity group chats usually devoted to scheduling keggers. These young men, many of whom had their high school graduation on Zoom and then watched BLM protestors tear up their cities, have had enough. Despite the Fox News attempt to present them all as Zionist Jews, and therefore to neutralize them, they are normal, conservative, white men, who recognize that the leftist cause is truly “One Thing™”: pro-Palestine political violence today is BLM political violence tomorrow is Antifa political violence next week. 

The political violence these men are opposing on their own college campuses is the same violence that thrived while they were locked out of normal social and academic life in 2020, and it is the same political violence that seeks to restrict their economic and political power through DEI. Despite this organic momentum, many elements of the Right impotently joke about the fraternity counter-protests and encourage inaction. Many go further, and advocate a retreat into secrecy until at some point in an unknown future, when The Reaction finally happens. But The Reaction is now. At a moment when the Left is in crisis and pro-Trump sentiment is at an all-time high, encouraging a retreat into near-silence in the public square makes no sense whatsoever. The truth is the complete reverse. We should advance.

Alaric is a writer and the founder of The Dissident Review. He can be followed @0xAlaric.


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