Vinay Lal

Chancellor Gene Block

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Dear Chancellor Block:

On the night of April 30, just before 11 PM, a violent and armed mob comprised of something like 100-150 “outside instigators” or “counter-protestors” entered the Palestine Solidarity Encampment which had been built at Dickson Plaza on the UCLA Campus, and unleashed horrific violence on the students, faculty, and staff in the encampment. According to multiple reports from various news outlets, none of which are disputed, this mob used sticks and other objects to beat the protestors who were offering nonviolent resistance and threw fireworks and metal barriers into the barricades in an attempt to breach the barricades. This grisly violence went on unchecked for nearly four hours. It is also not disputed, and once again this claim is attested to reports by multiple witnesses, that the campus police stood by idly while violence was being let loose upon the students.  Such an egregious dereliction of duty, indeed encouragement of violence, must be weighed against repeated assurances given by you that you value nothing more than the safety of students and everyone else from the “Bruin community”. You apparently called the mayor of Los Angeles around 1 am on May 1st and it is not until 3 am that the LAPD and other police offers moved in and sought to separate the mob from the protestors in the encampment.

This round of violence, in which the complete abdication of duty and moral responsibility on the part of the UCLA administration headed by you is all too transparent to any observer, and to which I shall return momentarily, was followed by the events of the morning of May 2nd starting around 2 am.  For nearly the entire day of Wednesday, May 1, the campus had been turned into a garrison or police state. I was on campus for most of the day and left the campus around 12:40 am and saw well over 150 policemen armed to the teeth and apparently prepared for civil war.  Then, about 2 am, this horde of policemen moved in, and over the next two hours they deployed rubber bullets, stun grenades, and flash-bang devices to forcibly remove the protestors, place them under arrest, and dismantle the encampment. Rubber bullets, in case you are not aware, have been used in intense political disturbances such as “The Troubles” in Ireland.  Apart from a miniscule number of minor skirmishes, all the protestors nonviolently submitted to arrest. It is necessary for me to add that, in describing them as nonviolent protestors, I am speaking as a scholar of the history of nonviolence who has been writing and teaching on these matters for close to four decades. I am aware that, weighed against the most stringent and rigorous conception of nonviolent resistance, the protestors may not always have passed the test, but all scholars and students of nonviolence are equally mindful of the fact that we cannot apply a wholly purist conception of nonviolence to every situation. There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that the protestors displayed an extraordinary and disciplined adherence, all the more remarkable for their youth, to the principles of nonviolence.

The events at UCLA have shocked not merely the campus community and the city of Los Angeles but many others around the world who are aware of the reputation of the university and have been following the student protests.  There are many reasons for the outbreak of violence and the events the last 60 hours, and there is certainly much blame to go around, but there is one person, and one person alone, who is principally responsible for this tragic turn of events—and that one person is you, Chancellor Gene Block. You cannot run away from this fact, however much you have tried to do so and will doubtless continue to do so, but it is important that everyone understand your culpability. Your naked partisanship towards Israel and Zionism, and your scarcely disguised indifference to, if not contempt for, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims has been transparent since you arrived on this campus ten years ago, and has become painfully visible to everyone in the aftermath of the horrific attack launched by Hamas against Israel on October 7.

I shall turn, very briefly, to some considerations to make known to the world the way you abandoned UCLA’s students to the wolves.  You’ve spoken often in your usual anodyne language of “shared values”, the “Bruin community”, the “Bruin family”, and so on, but let us consider whether such language has ever been anything more than sheer humbug and chicanery.  Consider, for instance, your statement to the “Bruin Community” of October 13.  The subject heading was, “Reflections at the Close of a Difficult Week.”  The first sentence begins with an expression of your desire to share some “reflections” on a “challenging week”.  You then mention that “six days ago” a “heinous assault was perpetrated upon Israeli civilians by the terror organization Hamas, a despicable attack that included the killing of children and the elderly as well as the taking of innocent hostages.” I concur with you entirely, but you then point out this what happened on October 7 was “the largest one-day killing of Jews since the end of the Holocaust.”  This is not the time and place for a history lesson, but let me alert you to the fact that even many of the most reputable scholars of the Holocaust, and you are most emphatically not one, have pointed out how inadvisable it is to make such a comparison, and many have even argued that there is grave peril in exploiting the narrative of the Holocaust to confer perpetual immunity to the state of Israel for any and every kind of action it deems fit. But let us ignore all this: by October 13th, Israel had already inflicted massive and illegal collective punishment on the Palestinians, destroyed large chunks of Gaza, and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children.  Yes, I suppose all this made for a “difficult” and “challenging” week. Indeed, your very framing of the mass killings of Palestinians as producing a “challenging” time, while of course the attack perpetrated by Palestinians was “heinous” (which, let me reiterate, it indeed was), is an incitement to hatred for Palestinians.  As for the “hostages”, I will not refer to the tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of them but boys, who have been languishing in Israeli jails under the grossly inhumane practice of administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold them in confinement for indefinite periods of time without charging them.

Let me, however, turn to the chronology of the last 2-3 days alone. You declared the encampment “unlawful” and “unauthorized” on the afternoon of April 30, and less than twelve hours later the violent mob tore into the protestors at the encampment.  It is not at all difficult to imagine that they construed your declaration of the encampment as “unlawful” and the warning to the students to take it down as a green light to proceed to expedite the outcome that you desired. As I have suggested, you have persistently been throwing dog whistles at Islamophobes, racists, and Zionists, and it is also remarkable that repeated letters addressed to you by faculty concerned about this incitement to hatred against Palestinians and Muslims were never answered.  Perhaps you think that it is beneath you to reply to faculty, though you periodically mouth the customary platitudes about “shared governance”. Did you take the faculty into consideration before you declared the encampment “unlawful” and threatened that it would be taken down? I am not aware that you did. And, similarly, did you consult with the faculty before you summoned a massive police force—an ungainly sight if there ever was any, and one that should mortify anyone who thinks of the university as a home to the exchange of ideas and as “temple” of learning—to take down the encampment and arrest the students? But, to return to the chronology of events, the newspapers reported just a couple of days ago that you have been summoned to testify before the US Congress on May 23 on anti-Semitism at the UCLA campus.  You saw, as we all did, how a McCarthy-like inquisition was unleashed upon the presidents of three Ivy League institutions a few months ago, and the painful consequences two of them had to bear as a result of the congressional hearing.  You were determined to prove that you could stand up to the protestors.  And so, of course, this meant that you were determined to show to the students that you meant business.

Many canards and fabrications have been floated by you, your acolytes and the extreme Zionists on this campus.  One of those canards, which constitutes the principal justification you have advanced for your actions, is that many students were blocked from entering classrooms or were obstructed in their day-to-day business around campus.  No evidence has been furnished by you or anyone else: one student appears in nearly every media video showing that he was obstructed, and one might even allow for the possibility that a few were, but those of us who have been teaching on the campus and speaking with others have witnessed no such incidents nor have we heard of any. This is yet another instance of the cheap, instrumental, and deplorable use of the term “anti-Semitism”—which, let me be very clear, is a real problem in this country—to tarnish protestors.  The sad part of the story is that the protestors understand very well, as you apparently do not, the difference between anti-Semitism, which I agree should be condemned unequivocally at every turn, and anti-Zionism.  The fabrication about the threats being experienced by Jewish students became one of the principal justifications for deploying a massive police force on campus and terrorizing and intimidating students. No one can fail to notice that, when the police were needed on the night of April 30, they were nowhere to be found; when they were not required at all the following night, had the protest been allowed to continue, they were deployed with your authorization. As Nithya Raman, Los Angeles City Council member for the 4th District has noted, “The police actions at USC and UCLA have implied that the response protestors get from law enforcement is dependent on their politics, not their actions.”  Senator Bernie Sanders has described what is happening in Gaza as “ethnic cleansing”. I will allow you to draw your own inferences on what I might possibly mean in invoking Senator Sanders in describing the turns of events on our campus.

You, doubtless, are aware of the clear-headed editorial of May 1 published in The Daily Bruin which describes the attack by the police on student journalists and the “complicity” of the UCLA administration.  Please do not rub salt into the wounds of the students by arguing, as you have been doing all along, that you are acting to protect the campus from anti-Semitism and to ensure the “safety” of the students.  “The whole world is watching”, says the editorial, and the whole world also knows the donors and politicians to whom you are beholden.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the audacity, several days ago, to demand that the National Guard be called in to crush the protestors and you evidently appear to have been all too happy to take your marching orders from this much-reviled foreign leader.  You may wish to reflect on the indubitable fact that there has throughout been a significant presence of Jewish faculty, staff, and students in the encampment, and Jewish voices for peace have been important in ensuring that the world understands that the war in Gaza is a war against humanity.  Many of the Jewish protestors, it appears to me, are speaking from an awareness of the deeply rooted ethical traditions in their faith and an attack on them is, in fact, the real anti-Semitism in which you may be complicit.  Nothing gives the lie to the claim that the protests were marked by anti-Semitism as much as the solidarity of Muslim and Jewish protestors, though what is equally remarkable is the extraordinary commitment to the cause displayed by people from all walks of life, nationalities, religious backgrounds, and ethnicities who are not being driven by a narrow-minded conception of identity politics. If you have seen the videos of the encampments at UCLA and at other university campuses, and videos on the anti-war protests more broadly, you could not have failed to notice the very large, indeed I would say almost dominant, presence of women and female students of color from all backgrounds. They have been at the forefront of this movement which, quite rightly, speaks of an alternative and better future.  It is precisely this aspiration that the administration has sought to crush at UCLA.

Since, in the tradition of nonviolence, I do not like to use the language whereby one makes demands of others, and who am I in any case to make demands of a powerful person such as yourself, I would like to invite you to take the steps enumerated below if you have any sense of contrition.  Though I have no expectations in this regard, I invite you to (1) issue an unconditional apology to the entire UCLA community, and specifically to those in the Palestine Solidarity Encampment who have been harmed; (2) issue whatever rejoinders you can muster in the form of an open letter; (3) pay for the medical treatments borne by the students who were injured in the violence; and (4) tender your resignation, effective immediately.  I would be amiss if I did not suggest to you, considering that you end nearly every letter to the “Bruin community” with suggestions about counseling resources, that you undertake intensive sensitivity and anti-racist training.

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal

Professor of History and Asian American Studies

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