Op-Ed: Encampments and canceled protests: why both students and journalists should be calling for a permanent ceasefire

Sana Hafeez and another marcher hold a banner that says “Ceasefire – free hostages and prisoners!” Photo Courtesy of Mia Macaluso/BU News Service.

By Mia Macaluso

Boston University News Service

I visited the Palestinian liberation encampment at Emerson College on April 25 at around 8 P.M.; about 30 hours later, the police arrested over 100 protestors there.

I didn’t go there as a journalist. I went to drop off some food and extension cords – I had seen a post on Instagram asking for certain essentials, and for some reason I had about six extension cords at my apartment that I was never going to use, so I brought them.

What I saw there was beautiful. There was a ton of donated food; I didn’t really need to bring anything, but I put what I brought in the pile all the same. There was music playing and someone had cooked a homemade Palestinian food that smelled delicious. When I told one organizer that I had brought extension cords, he said “f— yeah, dawg!”

No one was shouting slurs or chanting for death and destruction like some media might tell you. It was actually fairly calm; the sky was already dark, and most of the people in the alleyway were wrapped in blankets in their tents, hunched over laptops and doing their homework. More people were sitting around in circles, painting posters. People were even sharing paint.

A sign that reads “Land back, Free Palestine.” Photo courtesy of Mia Macaluso/BU News Service.

Many were dancing to the low music or eating, or just sitting and talking to their friends. No one was being violent or causing destruction and property damage.

I asked if I could take some pictures; I bring my camera everywhere, even though I didn’t go there with the intent to do any reporting. I asked every single person for permission before I took a picture of their poster, and I made sure not to get anyone’s faces in the shots. Someone actually came up to me to make sure I wasn’t taking a picture of anyone’s face.

I was wearing a mask the entire time, for the same reason he doesn’t want me taking a picture of anyone’s face. I’m scared to death of getting arrested, even if it’s for a good cause.

It’s a sad truth that I couldn’t show the faces of students who were brave enough to risk their degrees for something they believe in. It’s a sad truth that it’s a known fact that police departments stalk the Internet, searching for the faces of protestors to run through facial recognition software. 

Now, nearly two weeks later, we see videos of police officers brutally ripping keffiyehs, facemasks and hijabs off protestors at other encampments across the country. Yet, some journalists still wonder why people don’t want them to take photographs of their faces or why people wear masks to protests.

I met Sana Hafeez when I was rushing out of ISBCC, the mosque/cultural center in Roxbury, after an interview I was doing there had gone over time and I had a class to teach a long train ride away. Even though I was rushing, I still somehow got to talking with her. After mentioning I was a journalism student, she invited me to come to the ceasefire march she was organizing. I agreed to come – at that point, encampments hadn’t started yet, and I didn’t know of any big marches that had happened in the city yet.

The ceasefire march, set for May 4, was supposed to be a completely neutral event, calling for both the release of hostages from Hamas and the end of the bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces. It would be attended by residents from across the city, mostly from Brookline, and include faith leaders from multiple religions.

Instead of a march, Saturday came with threats of violence. Hafeez and her fellow organizers were forced to cancel the march for the safety of others, and on the morning of May 4, she stood at Brookline High School’s soccer field – where the march was supposed to start – in order to make sure that anyone who showed up was immediately sent home for their safety.

I didn’t get the memo; I hadn’t joined the march’s mailing list or Facebook community – I’m not exactly sure what they have. I’d been communicating with them mostly through text and email, and in the chaos of warning other people to stay away, Hafeez hadn’t sent me a message telling me not to come.

That turned out to be a good thing after all. I went and got to talk to a few marchers who also hadn’t gotten the notice of cancellation and had shown up. Besides me, Hafeez and another organizer, there was a Moroccan couple and their teenage son and two men from Nigeria; all were Brookline residents.

Hafeez told them about the threats and about the group of counter-protestors who had shown up a little before the original start time. When they didn’t see the march start, they made their way to the end of the route, Brookline City Hall, while waving Israeli flags. We didn’t see them after that.

They did not have a permit to protest.

Even though the march was canceled, they all milled about for a bit, chatting about an event that might be held in place of a march – if they organized another march, it might just get canceled due to threats again. I stood to the side – Hafeez introduced me as a reporter, but I stayed silent and let them talk without interrupting.

“Killing people isn’t right, it doesn’t matter who it is,” said one of the Nigerian men who came. He was tall, wearing a black peacoat and a keffiyeh – a traditional headdress worn by men in the Middle East that has become symbolic of the pro-Palestinian movement. “We shouldn’t send billions of dollars every year to support something that is not right.”

Hafeez agreed. She’s running for select board, a group of elected officials that run Brookline as a collective, and she sees this sentiment echoed across all faith communities in Brookline.

The march was supposed to include faith leaders from multiple religions, including Judaism, she said. The organizers had all the correct permits for the march and had been in regular contact with Brookline police about safety and security protocol until the morning of the march, when they had stopped responding to messages. Hafeez had sent the threats to them and the organizers had cancelled on their own terms out of an abundance of caution, without any word from the police on the matter.

“Hamas in Brookline? This will not stand. My problem is that I might have to resort to violence…” read one of the threats on Facebook.

After that threat and others like it, Hafeez and other organizers thought it best to call off the march in the interest of everyone’s safety. “More death or injuries is not a good thing,” she said. “We don’t want that.”

The group dispersed and Hafeez departed the scene a little after 11:30 A.M., when the march would have been halfway to Brookline City Hall.

Brookline will vote on a town-wide ceasefire resolution at the end of May; its annual Town Meeting will start on May 28.

I’m a journalist, but I’m also a student. In the past few weeks, I’ve also seen students being arrested for something that is enshrined in the constitution – their right to protest. If we can’t protest, if we can’t speak our minds, why are we at university?

Protests are never a “necessity” until the next generation. What critics are saying now about students in encampments at Columbia University, they were saying about students at the same university who protested the Vietnam War. In 2024, we can recognize that the Kent State Massacre was a horrible tragedy that didn’t need to happen, because those students were protesting for something they valued – the end of a war that was killing and displacing millions of innocent civilians.

Do more students need to die before this country realizes those in charge are doing something wrong, again?

I don’t think you need to be a journalist to comprehend the awful significance of a mass grave with tied-up children in it, or that pregnant women are forced to undergo labor in non-sterile conditions with no anesthesia. I don’t think you have to be a student, either. But you – whether you are a student or not – should recognize that when the government feels safe arresting non-violent protestors, they’re gearing up to do something much more totalitarian.

People might say that I should be impartial because I’m a journalist. I agree that journalists should be impartial – about most things. But most journalists aren’t being impartial right now – they’re feeding into lies about Hamas rallies on campuses and refusing to say that Israeli missiles are the things murdering Palestinian children. Instead, they say “Palestinians dead in bombing.” Sure, that’s true. Who killed them?

That isn’t being impartial, that’s deliberate ignorance. Being in journalism school fortunately (or unfortunately) hasn’t dampened my sense of morality, and I feel as strongly as ever a need to call out something for being wrong.

Besides the impartiality argument, the role of journalists is to be a watchdog of the government. Journalists in the United States exist to attempt, however fruitlessly, to stop the government from descending into authoritarianism. If journalists can’t bring light to these protests, to these arrests of students who are exercising their constitutional rights, then we shouldn’t call ourselves journalists.

I showed up to cover a ceasefire march because I wanted to be impartial. It was an impartial march on all accounts – a ceasefire is the bare minimum. A ceasefire includes the return of hostages to Israel and the end of the murder of Palestinian civilians. Faith leaders from both synagogues and mosques were expected to be present. If people really cared about impartiality, about seeing both sides, they wouldn’t send threats of violence to a peaceful protest.

A sign taped to the side of the wall in the alley that housed the Emerson encampment. Over two hundred names were written on the sign. Photo courtesy of Mia Macaluso/BU News Service.

There is no doubt that hate crimes against Jewish people and actual anti-semitism have risen in the past few months. I’ve seen Christian extremists like Marjorie Taylor-Greene refuse to vote for anti-semitism prevention bills, not because she is pro-Palestinian (because she isn’t) but because she is a bona-fide anti-semite. There is a difference. Until the general population can distinguish the two, saying that whoever happens to be pro-Palestine, or even people who support a completely neutral ceasefire, is anti-semitic will get us nowhere.

Swinging in the other direction – being so pro-Zionist that you end up stomping out any other opinions – edges on fascism. In Germany, several Palestinian students were told to declare themselves as “stateless,” because Germany no longer recognizes Palestinian as a nationality. Just like that, the country who tells themselves “never again” has done it again – “it” being attempting to erase an entire identity from existence.

Not only does this directly violate the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it also directly mirrors what Germany did to more than 100,000 Jews right before the beginning of the Holocaust– stripped them of their citizenship and nationality, rendering them stateless.

I could go on and on about the hypocrisy I’ve seen over the last few months, but I’ll end it here. You may read this article and think that I’m biased, or that I’m not a good journalist because I’ve failed to be impartial. The truth is, I find it hard to care anymore.

I’ve seen videos of fathers carrying their children’s remains around in plastic bags. I’ve had to explain to my mom – the most offline person in the world, who only looks at videos of puppies and flower arrangements – what videos I post on my Instagram story are about, and why I’m so upset. I’m upset because they’re bombing hospitals, mom! She works in a hospital and is regularly on-call for hurricanes; the thought of someone bombing a hospital should terrify her.

If you think good journalists should be impartial on this, then that’s your opinion. I think a good journalist should have empathy and the ethical strength to recognize that something horrific is happening right now as most of the world sits and watches without lifting a finger.

As regular Americans, as college students, we might not be able to do much. However, morality calls on us to do as much as we can – which could be anything from joining encampments to marching in ceasefire marches to calling your local police station to protest the arrests of innocent students – in order to finally help to end this conflict, once and for all.

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