The Fiction of the “Outside Agitator”

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A student protester waves a Palestinian flag above Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall on April 30.  (Mary Altaffer / Getty Images)

With the “outside agitator” narrative, the media and politicians are puking up the worst of this country’s past.

More than 2,000 people have been arrested on US college campuses for peacefully protesting Israel’s war on the people of Palestine. For the “crime” of forming tent cities, or “encampments” on campus, students have been attacked by mobs, brutalized by police, and even faced gunfire at Columbia University after occupying a building. (I occupied several administration buildings in decades past and never had to face live ammo.)

President Joe Biden gave his tacit approval to release the hounds when he said, “Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest, it is against the law.”

If that’s the case, then police and violent counterprotesters should have been arrested in droves. Biden’s wink and nod is also politically derelict; it will repel the youth voters he desperately needs to defeat Donald Trump. Biden is sacrificing his election chances and perhaps any pretense of democracy for his support for Israel’s war crimes.

An incurious media in a state of bloodlust has egged on the violence. CNN’s Dana Bash’s comparison of campus protests to 1930s Germany is an insult to every victim of the Holocaust and their descendants—and I have met several descendants of Jewish Holocaust victims at the encampments. There is a Jewish presence at every one of the three dozen encampments that I have been able to research. In a sane media world, Bash would be looking for work, perhaps with a sign that reads, “Will lie for food.”

This is what the powerful do when they lose an argument. There is no moral or political justification for what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza, and students, professors, and community members are pointing that out. Being unable to argue with reason, political leaders have turned to deceit, state repression, and encouraging stochastic terrorism.

We have heard the greatest lie: that the encampments are “antisemitic”—an Orwellian falsehood told to justify state violence. But there is another dangerous narrative taking root: that those arrested are “outside agitators.” It has been striking to see the exhuming and resuscitation of that relic of an insult. One would have thought that calling citizens “outside agitators” had died of shame decades ago. It was used to slander Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, but in the mouths of politicians like NYC Mayor Eric Adams, the phrase is having a renaissance. The media and politicians are puking up the worst of this country’s past.

“Outside agitator” is a phrase with its origins in the late 1940s during the earliest days of the Black freedom struggle. It was first said by John Birchers and Jim Crow cops to denigrate and slander civil rights activists. Their argument was that Black people in the South were more than content with white supremacy until a bunch of Northern, radical, carpetbagging communists showed up to tell them that there was something wrong in the world.

Incredibly and ironically, one of the best refutations of the phrase came from Jackie Robinson in 1949, at a congressional House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. This was where Robinson—in the great regret of his life—criticized Paul Robeson for his communist sympathies. But that’s not all Robinson had to say. Little note was made of this in media reports that celebrated the Robeson takedown, but the trailblazing baseball player also said that

“…every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do. Just because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of the charges. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.”

One could rewrite this for today’s moment. College students are not stirred up because an adult shows up, bullhorn in hand, telling everyone to gather in the quad with tents to risk arrest, future career prospects, and state violence. They are stirred up by mass graves in Gaza; the killings of civilians, journalists, and children; and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. They are repelled that this genocide is being underwritten with our tax dollars. That’s what pushes people into action, not some imaginary outside agitator.

What the media elites and DC warmongers cannot compute is that they believed this generation was apathetic at best. Now seeing them rise up on college campuses across the country is causing them to malfunction. When Biden proclaims, “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent” while professors are being thrown to the ground and led away in handcuffs, it doesn’t take an “outside agitator” for students to see that something is rotten in our democracy.

The boomer elites have lost a generation, and instead of listening to the young, they search for excuses. What they cannot comprehend is that maybe they lost this generation—including many of my fellow Jews—because they have been selling a lie about Israel and the United States being forces for good, and the young are tired of pretending that it is anything other than an ugly hoax.

The winning team poses with their trophy after a youth soccer tournament in Rafah on April 28.  (Motasem Mortaja / American Friends Service Committee)

The soccer world of Palestine has also seen the killing of prominent players and coaches beloved throughout the region. Imagine what it does to a child to see their heroes slaughtered. As these matches take place, the death toll continues to mount, the hunger continues to rise, and the US-made weapons continue to be sent to Israel.

“In the US, teens might worry their soccer match will be called off because of rain. In Rafah, it is not weather but Israeli missiles that threaten the game, the players, and the 1.4 million Palestinians taking shelter there,” said Noor Nabulsi of AFSC. “We are calling on President Biden and every single member of Congress to support an immediate and permanent cease-fire, full humanitarian access, and an end of all military support for Israel. The young people of Palestine deserve a future where they can grow and play in peace.”

The playing of a soccer tournament in Rafah is an act of resistance—and even of survival. Israel’s destruction of sport is about killing the idea of play—of preventing people from having even the aspiration of feeling the wind against your face while chasing a ball. By playing soccer in the face of state violence, Palestinians are saying that they remain unshackled, that they still have dreams of being free.

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