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Police crack down on my talk (in Pittsburgh, not Palestine)

While Joseph Dana was giving a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh recently, police intervened to block the entry of a number of Occupy Pittsburgh activists. The experience reminded him of the very tactics – about which he was lecturing – designed to stifle Palestinian activism and debate.

Recent police violence at Occupy Wall Street events demonstrate a crackdown of legitimate political protest in the United States. Watching video (like the one embedded above) from a recent Occupy Oakland protest, one is certainly left with the feeling that American police are using increasingly violent methods of crowd control. Some Occupy events are beginning to look like Friday demonstrations in the West Bank. Last week, while giving a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh, I experienced some of the tactics used by police to stifle dissent and combat the occupy movement.

For the past two weeks, I have been touring around the East Coast, delivering lectures on the state of things in Palestine based on my reporting and commentary. Last Thursday, my tour stopped at the University of Pittsburgh for an event with Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi, organized by Students for Justice in Palestine.

The event started smoothly with Remi reciting his fiery poetry to an engaged crowd.  Midway through Remi’s set, a group of Occupy Pittsburghers triumphantly entered the cavernous auditorium where we were speaking, followed closely by an angry-looking group of police officers. Fists in the air, the occupiers announced that they were coming to the lecture. Within moments, the auditorium was buzzing. The organizer of our event, rather timidly, explained to Remi and I that an additional 30 occupy Pittsburghers were waiting to enter the lecture but the police were preventing them from attending. Now, the entire event was threatened with cancellation by the police.

An hour of chaotic back and forth between the organisers, protesters and police ensued as Remi and I kept speaking. We discussed the techniques which Israel uses to stifle Palestinian dissent in the West Bank. We talked about the rubber bullets that Israel fires on unarmed protesters in reference to what happen in Oakland, when police used similar bullets against Occupy Wall Street protesters (again, see video above).  I spoke about the first Intifada when Israel would routinely outlaw public political lectures. Even flying a Palestinian flag during those days was an offense punishable by long jail sentences. As we talked, police and protesters outside were loudly wrangling with one and other but those inside hung on every word.

Eventually, the head of the campus police entered the lecture hall and addressed the, by this time, rambunctious crowd. He explained that the police were simply trying to “protect campus property” and occupy Pittsburghers were not trustworthy. He reportedly told organisers of the event that he wished he “could pick and choose” who attended since he did not want to shut down the entire event. As he spoke, it felt as though something serious could kick off between the protesters and the police, despite his generally jovial personality. I joked with the crowd telling everyone that the police were actually paid actors in a plot to recreate the Israeli occupation in Pittsburgh. The police chief either did not understand the joke or did not find it very funny.

In the end, the police allowed us to finish our event but 30 occupy Pittsburghers were denied entry and  left standing outside. One person was arrested for “disobeying a police order” as we finished our lecture. The police attempt to shut down our lecture backfired as the incident clearly emboldened the occupiers.

After losing an important component of my freedom of speech in Israel due to the passage of the anti-boycott law, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with the entire episode in Pittsburgh. It was the first time that I experienced a clear attempt to stifle debate and selectively choose who can attend a free and open lecture in the United States. Before you know it, the Palestinian experience just might come to America.

*For those of you in the UK, I will be doing a number of events in London next week, including a lecture at LSE on Monday evening and a book launch event at Amnesty International Human Rights Centre on Thrusday. Event details can be found on my Twitter feed and Facebook profile.

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    1. Henry Weinstein

      Great post. I like it!
      Just one formal critic: “The American police recreates the Israeli occupation in Pittsburgh”, to quote your own words, would be a better title than the Chosen One.
      You Israelis, are really too self-centered!!

      Reply to Comment
    2. ToivoS

      Police departments in different cities in the US have really different personalities that seem to last decades. For example the Oakland and Pittsburgh departments are among the nastiest. Oakland is flanked by two cities, Berkeley and SF, with very mellow (relatively) police.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Woody

      It certainly won’t be the last time you experience it if you get involved in US politics.

      Reply to Comment