University of Mississippi: ‘abhorrent’ counter-protesters condemned

<span>A group of dozens of young white men and women, laughing and with hands raised, with two men wearing no shirt under coveralls designed like the American flag.</span><span>Photograph: Stacey J Spiehler/AP</span>
A group of dozens of young white men and women, laughing and with hands raised, with two men wearing no shirt under coveralls designed like the American flag.Photograph: Stacey J Spiehler/AP

Dozens of students at the University of Mississippi gathered this week to protest against Israel’s war in Gaza and to call for the state’s flagship university to be transparent in its potential dealings with Israel.

There were hundreds of counter-protesters, in contrast to the few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters. The scene evoked memories of the resistance to the civil rights struggle in the US south six decades earlier.

The counter-protesters included individuals waving American flags and Trump flags. At one point, they sang the American national anthem, drowning out the pro-Palestinian group’s chants. The Oxford Eagle reported that one person held a “Come and take it” flag while another flew a “Don’t tread on me” banner. The pro-Palestinian students held signs reading “Jesus was a Palestinian”, “Stop the genocide” and “Cut all ties with Israel”.

Less than an hour after the protest began, police disbanded it – notably after counter-protesters threw items, including water bottles, at the pro-Palestinian group. Police safely evacuated the pro-Palestinian students as the largely white, male group of counter-protesters chanted: “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye,” according to Mississippi Today.

Some university leaders and politicians around the US have used the term “outside agitator” to attempt to discredit student-led protests and movements. That label was also evoked frequently during the civil rights movement, during antebellum slavery and during 19th- and 20th-century labour movements, to imply that protesters were motivated not by their own interests and beliefs, but by those of shadowy others.

At the University of Mississippi counter-protest, there were at least two individuals on campus who were reported to be not affiliated with the school, according to the Clarion-Ledger. One counter-protester said he was a student at Mississippi State University, about two hours away, and drove in for the protest. Another told the publication he was a student at the University of Georgia.

There were no arrests, but the actions of the counter-protesters – who shouted “Fuck Joe Biden”, “Who’s your daddy?”, “USA”, “Hit the showers”, “Your nose is huge” and, in one instance, included a white man making monkey noises at a Black woman – have been widely condemned on social media.

On Sunday, Phi Delta Theta fraternity responded to the protest in a statement, saying it was aware of the video that showed the actions of one counter-protester and had removed that individual from membership as of 3 May.

“The racist actions in the video were those of an individual and are antithetical to the values of Phi Delta Theta and the Mississippi Alpha chapter,” the statement read.

The University of Mississippi’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticised the counter-protesters in a statement posted on Instagram.

“The behavior witnessed today was not only abhorrent but also entirely unacceptable,” the statement reads. “It is deeply disheartening to witness such blatant disregard for the principles of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

The Mississippi governor, Tate Reeves, who himself recently declared April as Confederate Heritage Month and April 29 as Confederate memorial day, celebrated the counter-protesters in a tweet that some say drew parallels to former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, a proud segregationist.

Reeves captioned a video of the counter-protesters singing the American national anthem with “the ‘protests’ at Ole Miss today. Watch with sound. Warms my heart. I love Mississippi!”

In September 1962, Barnett spoke to an all-white crowd of more than 40,000 people at the University of Mississippi football game against Kentucky. As Confederate flags waved, Barnett said: “I love Mississippi. I love her people. Our customs. I love and respect our heritage.” The next day, an insurrection took place on campus as James Meredith enrolled, becoming the first known Black student in the university’s history.

In a separate tweet before the protest, Reeves also echoed a statement made by Joe Biden the morning of the protests.

“Campus police, city, county, and state assets are being deployed and coordinated,” Reeves tweeted. “We will offer a unified response with one mission: peaceful protests are allowed and protected – no matter how outrageous those protesters’ views may seem to some of us. But unlawful behavior will not be tolerated. It will be dealt with accordingly. Law and order will be maintained!”

In Biden’s statements on the protests around the nation, he said: “We’ve all seen images, and they put to the test two fundamental American principles … The first is the right to free speech and for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard. The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld.”

UMiss for Palestine, the student group that organised the protest, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The group did share a statement on Instagram following the protest, saying the University of Mississippi “is playing host to US military officials who are complicit in the genocide of Palestinian people via an aerospace and defense conference”.

“Our vocal protest outside the library was a peaceful demonstration of our dismay with the behaviour of the university,” the statement continues.

“We were confronted by counter-protesters who engaged in blind reactionarism that had little to do with the genocide we were protesting as well as our demands. We condemn the hateful actions and rhetoric of the counter protesters, who threw food and made violent threats toward our protesters. We expected our first amendment rights to be better protected and were deeply ashamed that they were not.”

The University of Mississippi’s student newspaper, the Daily Mississippian, spoke with students in support of UMiss for Palestine’s efforts. A junior, Xavier Black, said: “There’s a lot of dissension towards this kind of movement.”

“But as we’ve seen throughout history, time and time again, the student movement is never wrong,” he told the paper. “Time and time again, anytime there’s a student protest, and you’re against it, you’re on the wrong side of history. So I would like to be on the right side.”