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When is law enforcement needed in protests? Security expert weighs in


From New York to Illinois to Los Angeles, encampments in support of Palestinians dot campuses across the country. And over the last couple of days, the tension has only increased as police have intervened on several campuses, including Tuesday night at Columbia University as well as at UCLA when protesters and counterprotesters began fighting. Juliette Kayyem assesses national and international security threats. She was a Homeland Security adviser in the Obama administration and for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Now she's the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Juliette, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: I want to talk about a number of aspects of what we've been seeing recently, but let's start on the campus of Columbia University where campus officials have been trying to bring an end to the encampment since Monday. And Monday night, protesters took over Hamilton Hall. Tuesday, a massive force of NYPD officers in riot gear moved onto that campus. They cleared Hamilton Hall. Without taking a position one way or the other, what's the tipping point for a decision...


SUMMERS: ...Like that?

KAYYEM: So I talk to people who are at Columbia, I work with people who are helping Columbia, and I - my youngest is going to Columbia next year. So you could say I have a very strong interest in hoping that they can not just deescalate what's going on but get back to being the great university that we all know it is. And so one of the things that was surprising, looking on the outside, was simply the vulnerability of the main building for being taken over. These are the basic things that can be put in place before to essentially help to deescalate a situation that can get out of hand.

But there is a difference between protest and unlawful trespass. There just is. And even if you support the protesters, the taking over of a building, the destruction of parts of the building, and the impact it had on the functioning of the college and university - it's justified in having a tiered approach to getting them out. What I recommend and what I've been saying is not only do colleges and universities have to have outlets for these students, you can't pretend you could just, like, silence an entire viewpoint. These are legitimate protests about a very difficult issue that lots of people are passionate about.

But secondly, you have to provide offramps for protesters in terms of escalation techniques. And so, you know, sending the police out originally really provided no opportunity from going from, you know, basically, you know, DEFCON 5, which is peace to DEFCON war - DEFCON 1, which is war.

SUMMERS: I just want to ask you about another university where we saw things look quite different, and that's at Brown where...


SUMMERS: ...The administration agreed to discuss student divestment plans, to vote on it later in the year. Protests there evaporated. What do you make...


SUMMERS: ...Of that approach versus what we've seen on so many other campuses?

KAYYEM: Yes. I'm only laughing - is because you're going to think I have 20 children, but I have another child at Brown University, and I'm well aware of - not just Brown, but you saw it at Wesleyan, you saw it at Northwestern - other schools that are trying to deescalate. That's the responsibility of an institution. It's the responsibility of public safety. We don't - you know, the - whatever you think of the protesters, the responsibility of leadership is to deescalate. And I think what Brown showed itself willing to do is to actually listen, to not say it's outside agitators or these are Hamas- or Hezbollah-funded entities.

These are students with ideas. That's why they're in college, and they have ideas that they want to bring to the table. And I think Brown's willingness to listen and to provide a forum outside of protests where the students can be heard - and that's going to be in the fall when the board meets - is essential and was essential for the students to feel like their university wasn't picking sides but was willing to listen.

SUMMERS: Juliette, if the ultimate goal of all of these efforts is indeed deescalation, to...


SUMMERS: ...Keep everyone safe - do you think that's possible at this point?

KAYYEM: Yes, I do. I mean, I - you know, we're focusing on, say, at worst, a dozen colleges and universities. But if you look at where the protests are occurring, it's not these elite colleges where we pay all of our attention. It is across the country. And I think it's reflecting a deep sentiment that voices want to be heard about U.S. policy and about university policies or investment decisions that they've made in the past. But what we're seeing on colleges and universities is a reflection of the divisions in our foreign policy. We can solve the issue at hand, but we're not going to solve the overall problem. That's not going to get solved for a while.

SUMMERS: Juliette Kayyem is the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is also the author of several books, including "The Devil Never Sleeps." Juliette, thank you.

KAYYEM: Thank you for having me.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.