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Dispatches from the present


Indifference and Intensity


Despite drawing much of its student body from northeastern and West Coast megalopolises and being located in the heart of the most cosmopolitan city in the South, Tulane—where I am a Ph.D. student in philosophy—is a strangely provincial campus: national trends, if they ever catch on here, do so rather late in the game, and few that do have anything to do with politics. It is the top “party school” in the country according to numerous college-ranking websites; few list it among the most politically active campuses.

Last fall, however, Tulane stopped being a place where nothing happens. Some local pro-Palestine activist groups—an agglomeration of small campus organizations from Tulane and neighboring Loyola University joined by long-standing New Orleans leftist and anti-Israel activist groups—marched through Uptown, culminating in a rally on the stretch of Freret Street that divides the northern half of campus from the south. A counterprotest formed, made up of Tulane students who had likely never participated in such a thing before; things got heated, a scuffle broke out, and footage from the fight made Tulane an object of conservative news discourse for a week or two. It was the most exciting thing to happen on campus since 2021, when Hurricane Ida forced evacuation of students to Houston and two weeks of canceled classes.

I was out of town when the rally happened, but when I came back my Introduction to Philosophy classroom was abuzz with discomfort. More than 40 percent of Tulane’s undergraduate population is Jewish, and many of my students interpreted the rally as a provocation directed specifically against them. “Why here?” was the reigning sentiment: City Hall was just a streetcar ride away, Baton Rouge an hour down the road. University upper administration issued an obligatory statement, mostly for the sake of nervous parents, who were promised that further activity of this sort would be met with harsh opposition from campus security. The hubbub soon subsided, and the mood on campus settled back into its default state of humdrum hedonism. Winter break arrived, a new semester began, and everyone looked forward to the summer.

That is, until April 29th, the evening the alert went out. I had a half hour before my evening seminar on Rousseau and knew I’d have to see what all the fuss was about. I biked to the southernmost edge of campus, where Gibson Hall stands along St. Charles Avenue; in the waning light of dusk, I could make out a small cluster of bodies draped in keffiyehs and Palestinian flags hurriedly pitching tents around a live oak. Surrounding them was a ring of onlookers, some holding signs and chanting but most looking puzzled, as if they’d just stopped out of curiosity on their way to class or a party. Passing cars sounded their horns—whether in support or disapproval wasn’t clear. A small handful of campus police stood to the side, unsure how to respond. I biked off to class, guts knotted with a sense of foreboding. Later that evening, campus police—some on horseback—arrested six people in their first unsuccessful attempt at shutting down the encampment. Only one of those arrested was a student.

In my late teens and early twenties, I’d spent a few years participating in activist campaigns, including a few in New Orleans; I’d volunteered at the local anarchist bookstore and community bike shop, now both defunct, the Marigny building that housed them now a condo with a ground-floor wine bar; I knew rather well the kinds of people who devoted themselves to political agitation and provocation as a profession or a way of life. I knew there were groups in the city who held rallies against Israel on a regular, sometimes weekly basis, and even more people who, out of a sense of obligation to “the movement,” would show up to assist whatever radically branded political event happened in town. So it came as no surprise when rickety pickup trucks began delivering stacks of wooden pallets to the encampment, and even less so when the Palestine flags hanging on those pallets were joined by a large red banner bearing the logo of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group Freedom Road Socialist Organization (known locally for conducting year-round banner-and-bullhorn denouncements of this or that bad thing in the Central Business District).

As I visited the protest site over the next two days to observe, it was clear that whatever was happening there was hardly a student protest in the normal sense. Of course, students from the various Uptown campuses came by to observe, to hold signs in support of the action or (as did a number of Tulane undergraduates) to counterprotest draped in Israeli flags. But many of those gathered were considerably older, more countercultural, more tattooed than you ever see at Tulane, Loyola or Xavier. At the edge of the crowd, I noticed one sign reading “Tulane Professor—Protect Our Students!” Sympathetic locals from the neighborhood stopped in with small children and food donations, and the day-in-the-park, family-friendly atmosphere they brought juxtaposed strangely with the pallet-and-umbrella-enforced barricade full of masked, chanting militants. In the afternoon, Tulane police cordoned off the area with metal crowd-control fencing, and a tractor wheeled out an electric game-day billboard displaying “PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING” and blasting a jaunty, lyric-less tune at a deafening volume; the protesters responded by setting up a sound system and performing a few warbling R&B originals about the evils of colonialism. It was clear that the more militant contingent were gearing up for a fight with the police, and in due time the cops would give it to them.

In the early dawn hours on Wednesday, after most of the crowd had gone home, police moved in to clear the camp; fourteen arrests, two of them Tulane students. (Four others were students from Loyola.) Seven more Tulane students were suspended on account of their participation. Nobody seemed to have gotten hurt, though the protesters were understandably pissed that their tents, umbrellas, books and food had gotten junked by the cops. Later that morning, biking past on my way to my last philosophy class of the semester, I saw just a few police officers and campus workers tossing the last remaining tents, umbrellas and signs into a pile.

I expected a small showing of students made anxious, like they were last semester, by the excitement; instead I found nearly every seat filled, students sitting attentive and expectant. “What a wild couple days it’s been,” I dithered, eliciting only one or two quiet chuckles in response. (A grad student colleague related a similar experience from that day: “I’m glad you all made it back from the campout,” he jested to his mostly full classroom, to a kind of collective shrug.) I considered our final reading of the semester, from W. E. B. Du Bois. “Patience, Humility, Manners, and Taste,” he writes, “common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance,—all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university.” He mentions Tulane by name, by way of example. In our time, the campus seems more defined by the values of hedonistic indifference on the one hand and passionate, zealous intensity on the other. But in front of me nonetheless, stood a collection of minds. I collected my notes, uncapped a marker. “Alright, gang,” I began: “let’s get started.”