The Protesters and the President (2024)

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michael barbaro

From “New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

archived recording 1

Free, free, Palestine!

archived recording 2

Free, free Palestine!

archived recording 1

Free, free, free Palestine!

michael barbaro

Over the past week, what had begun as a smattering of pro-Palestinian protests on America’s college campuses exploded into a nationwide movement —

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United, we’ll never be defeated!

michael barbaro

— as students at dozens of universities held demonstrations, set up encampments, and at times seized academic buildings.

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[PROTESTERS CLAMORING]:

michael barbaro

response, administrators at many of those colleges decided to crack down —

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Do not throw things at our officers. We will use chemical munitions that include gas.

michael barbaro

— calling in local police to carry out mass detentions and arrests. From Arizona State —

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In the name of the state of Arizona, I declare this gathering to be a violation of —

michael barbaro

— to the University of Georgia —

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[PROTESTERS CLAMORING]:

michael barbaro

— to City College of New York.

archived recording

[PROTESTERS CHANTING, “BACK OFF”]:

As of Thursday, police had arrested 2,000 students on more than 40 campuses. A situation so startling that President Biden could no longer ignore it.

archived recording (joe biden)

Look, it’s basically a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of what’s right. There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.

michael barbaro

Today, my colleagues Jonathan Wolfe and Peter Baker on a history-making week. It’s Friday, May 3.

Jonathan, as this tumultuous week on college campuses comes to an end, it feels like the most extraordinary scenes played out on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles, where you have been reporting. What is the story of how that protest started and ultimately became so explosive?

jonathan wolfe

So late last week, pro-Palestinian protesters set up an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles.

archived recording 1

From the river to the sea!

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Palestine will be free!

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Palestine —

jonathan wolfe

It was right in front of Royce Hall, which I don’t know if you are familiar with UCLA, but it’s a very famous, red brick building. It’s on all the brochures. And there was two things that stood out about this encampment. And the first thing was that they barricaded the encampment.

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The encampment, complete with tents and barricades, has been set up in the middle of the Westwood campus. The protesters demand —

jonathan wolfe

They have metal grates. They had wooden pallets. And they separated themselves from the campus.

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This is kind of interesting. There are controlling access, as we’ve been talking about. They are trying to control who is allowed in, who is allowed out.

jonathan wolfe

They sort of policed the area. So they only would let people that were part of their community, they said, inside.

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I’m a UCLA student. I deserve to go here. We paid tuition. This is our school. And they’re not letting me walk in. Why can’t I go? Will you let me go in?

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We’re not engaging with that.

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Then you can move. Will you move?

jonathan wolfe

And the second thing that stood out about this camp was that it immediately attracted pro-Israel counterprotesters.

michael barbaro

And what did the leadership of UCLA say about all of this, the encampment and these counterprotesters?

jonathan wolfe

So the University of California’s approach was pretty unique. They had a really hands-off approach. And they allowed the pro-Palestinian protesters to set up an encampment. They allowed the counterprotesters to happen. I mean, this is a public university, so anyone who wants to can just enter the campus.

michael barbaro

So when do things start to escalate?

jonathan wolfe

So there were definitely fights and scuffles through the weekend. But a turning point was really Sunday —

archived recording

[SINGING IN HEBREW]:

jonathan wolfe

— when this group called the Israeli American Council, they’re a nonprofit organization, organized a rally on campus. The Israeli American Council has really been against these pro-Palestinian protests. They say that they’re antisemitic. So this nonprofit group sets up a stage with a screen really just a few yards from the pro-Palestinian encampment.

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We are grateful that this past Friday, the University of California, stated that they will continue to oppose any calls for boycott and divestment from Israel!

[PROTESTERS CHEERING]

jonathan wolfe

And they host speakers and they held prayers.

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Jewish students, you’re not alone! Oh, you’re not alone! We are right here with you! And we’re right here with you in until —

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[WORDLESS SINGING]:

jonathan wolfe

And then lots of other people start showing up. And the proximity between protesters and counterprotesters and even some agitators, makes it really clear that something was about to happen.

michael barbaro

And what was that? What ended up happening?

jonathan wolfe

On Monday night, a group of about 60 counterprotesters tried to breach the encampment there. And the campus police had to break it up. And things escalated again on Tuesday.

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[PROTESTERS CLAMORING]:

jonathan wolfe

They stormed the barricades and it’s a complete riot.

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[PROTESTER SHOUTING]:

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Put it down! Put it down! Put it down!

jonathan wolfe

I went to report on what happened just a few hours after it ended.

jonathan wolfe

Hello.

marie salem

Hi.

jonathan wolfe

And I spoke to a lot of protesters. And I met one demonstrator, Marie.

marie salem

Yeah, my first name is Marie. M-A-R-I-E. Last name, Salem.

jonathan wolfe

And Marie described what happened.

jonathan wolfe

So can you just tell me a little bit about what happened last night?

marie salem

Last night, we were approached by over a hundred counterprotesters who were very mobilized and ready to break into camp. They proceeded to try to breach our barricades extremely violently.

michael barbaro

Marie said it started getting out of hand when counterprotesters started setting off fireworks towards the camp.

marie salem

They had bear spray. They had Mace. They were throwing wood and spears. Throwing water bottles, continuing fireworks.

jonathan wolfe

So she said that they were terrified. It was just all hands on deck. Everyone was guarding the barricades.

marie salem

Every time someone experienced the bear spray or Mace or was hit and bleeding, we had some medics in the front line. And then we had people —

jonathan wolfe

And they said that they were just trying to take care of people who were injured.

marie salem

I mean, at any given moment, there was 5 to 10 people being treated.

jonathan wolfe

So what she described to me sounded more like a battlefield than a college campus.

marie salem

And it was just a complete terror and complete abandonment of the university, as we also watched private security watch this the entire time on the stairs. And some LAPD were stationed about a football field length back from these counterprotesters, and did not make a single arrest, did not attempt to stop any violence, did not attempt to get in between the two groups. No attempt.

jonathan wolfe

I should say, I spoke to a state authorities and eyewitnesses and they confirmed Marie’s account about what happened that night, both in terms of the violence that took place at the encampment and how law enforcement responded. So in the end, people ended up fighting for hours before the police intervened.

[SOMBER MUSIC]

michael barbaro

So in her mind, UCLA’s hands-off approach, which seemed to have prevailed throughout this entire period, ends up being way too hands off in a moment when students were in jeopardy.

jonathan wolfe

That’s right. And so at this point, the protesters in the encampment started preparing for two possibilities. One was that this group of counterprotesters would return and attack them. And the second one was that the police would come and try to break up this encampment.

So they started building up the barricades. They start reinforcing them with wood. And during the day, hundreds of people came and brought them supplies. They brought food.

They brought helmets, goggles, earplugs, saline solution, all sorts of things these people could use to defend themselves. And so they’re really getting ready to burrow in. And in the end, it was the police who came.

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[PROTESTERS SHOUTING]:

jonathan wolfe

So Wednesday at 7:00 PM, they made an announcement on top of Royce Hall, which overlooks the encampment —

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— administrative criminal actions up to and including arrest. Please leave the area immediately.

jonathan wolfe

And they told people in the encampment that they needed to leave or face arrest.

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[DRUM BEATING]: [PROTESTERS CHANTING]

jonathan wolfe

And so as night falls, they put on all this gear that they’ve been collecting, the goggles, the masks and the earplugs, and they wait for the police.

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[DRUM BEATING]:

jonathan wolfe

And so the police arrive and station themselves right in front of the encampment. And then at a certain point, they storm the back stairs of the encampment.

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[PROTESTERS CHANTING]:

jonathan wolfe

And this is the stairs that the protesters have been using to enter and exit the camp. And they set up a line. And the protesters do this really surprising thing.

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The people united!

jonathan wolfe

They open up umbrellas. They have these strobe lights. And they’re flashing them at the police, who just slowly back out of the camp.

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[PROTESTERS CHEERING]:

jonathan wolfe

And so at this point, they’re feeling really great. They’re like, we did it. We pushed them out of their camp. And when the cops try to push again on those same set of stairs —

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[PROTESTER SHOUTS]:

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Hold your ground!

jonathan wolfe

— the protesters organized themselves with all these shields that they had built earlier. And they go and confront them. And so there’s this moment where the police are trying to push up the stairs. And the protesters are literally pushing them back.

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Push them back! Push them back!

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Push them back!

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Push them back!

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Push them back!

jonathan wolfe

And at a certain point, dozens of the police officers who were there, basically just turn around and leave.

michael barbaro

So how does this eventually come to an end?

jonathan wolfe

So at a certain point, the police push in again. Most of the conflict is centered at the front of these barricades. And the police just start tearing them apart.

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[DINGING]:

[METAL CLANGING]

[CLAMORING]

jonathan wolfe

They removed the front barricade. And in its place is this group of protesters who have linked arms and they’re hanging on to each other. And the police are trying to pull protesters one by one away from this group.

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He’s just a student! Back off!

[CLAMORING]

jonathan wolfe

But they’re having a really hard time because there’s so many protesters. And they’re all just hanging on to each other.

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We’re moving back now.

[SHOUTING]

jonathan wolfe

So at a certain point, one of the police officers started firing something into the crowd. We don’t exactly know what it was. But it really spooked the protesters.

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Stop shooting at kids! f*ck you! f*ck them!

jonathan wolfe

They started falling back. Everyone was really scared. The protesters were yelling, don’t shoot us. And at that point, the police just stormed the camp.

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Back up!

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Get back. Get back.

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Back up now!

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Get back.

jonathan wolfe

And so after about four hours of this, the police pushed the protesters out of the encampment. They had arrested about 200 protesters. And this was finally over.

michael barbaro

And I’m just curious, Jonathan, because you’re standing right there, you are bearing witness to this all, what you were thinking, what your impressions of this were.

jonathan wolfe

I mean, I was stunned. These are mostly teenagers. This is a college campus, an institution of higher learning. And what I saw in front of me looked like a war zone.

[TENSE MUSIC]

The massive barricade, the police coming in with riot gear, and all this violence was happening in front of these red brick buildings that are famous for symbolizing a really open college campus. And everything about it was just totally surreal.

michael barbaro

Well, Jonathan, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

jonathan wolfe

Thanks, Michael.

[TENSE MUSIC]

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Peter, around 10:00 AM on Thursday morning as the smoke is literally still clearing at the University of California Los Angeles, you get word that President Biden is going to speak.

peter baker

Right, exactly. It wasn’t on his public schedule. He was about to head to Andrews Air Force base in order to take a trip. And then suddenly, we got the notice that he was going to be addressing the cameras in the Roosevelt Room.

They didn’t tell us what he was going to talk about. But it was pretty clear, I think. Everybody understood that it was going to be about these campus protests, about the growing violence and the clashes with police, and the arrests that the entire country had been watching on TV every night for the past week, and I think that we were watching just that morning with UCLA. And it reached the point where he just had to say something.

michael barbaro

And why, in his estimation and those of his advisors, was this the moment that Biden had to say something?

peter baker

Well, it kind of reached a boiling point. It kind of reached the impression of a national crisis. And you expect to hear your president address it in this kind of a moment, particularly because it’s about his own policy. His policy toward Israel is at the heart of these protests. And he was getting a lot of grief. He was getting a lot of grief from Republicans who were chiding him for not speaking out personally. He hadn’t said anything in about 10 days.

He’s getting a lot of pressure from Democrats, too, who wanted him to come out and be more forceful. It wasn’t enough, in their view, to leave it to his spokespeople to say something. Moderate Democrats felt he needed to come out and take some leadership on this.

michael barbaro

And so at the appointed moment, Peter, what does Biden actually say in the Roosevelt Room of the White House?

archived recording (joe biden)

Good morning.

archived recording

Good morning.

archived recording (joe biden)

Before I head to North Carolina, I wanted to speak for a few moments about what’s going on, on our college campuses here.

peter baker

Well, it comes in the Roosevelt Room and he talks to the camera. And he talks about the two clashing imperatives of American principle.

archived recording (joe biden)

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.

peter baker

One is freedom of speech. The other is the rule of law.

archived recording (joe biden)

In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues. But, but, neither are we a lawless country.

peter baker

In other words, what he’s saying is, yes, I support the right of these protesters to come out and object to even my own policy, in effect, is what he’s saying. But it shouldn’t trail into violence.

archived recording (joe biden)

Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses —

peter baker

It shouldn’t trail into taking over buildings and obstructing students from going to class or canceling their graduations.

archived recording (joe biden)

Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.

peter baker

And he leans very heavily into this idea that what he’s seeing these days goes beyond the line.

archived recording (joe biden)

I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions. In America, we respect the right and protect the right for them to express that. But it doesn’t mean anything goes.

peter baker

It has crossed into harassment and expressions of hate in a way that goes against the national character.

archived recording (joe biden)

As president, I will always defend free speech. And I will always be just as strong and standing up for the rule of law. That’s my responsibility to you, the American people, and my obligation to the Constitution. Thank you very much.

michael barbaro

Right, as I watched the speech, I heard his overriding message to basically be, I, the president of the United States, am drawing a line. These protests and counterprotests, the seizing and defacing of campus buildings, class disruption, all of it, name calling, it’s getting out of hand. That there’s a right way to do this. And what I’m seeing is the wrong way to do it and it has to stop.

peter baker

That’s exactly right. And as he’s wrapping up, reporters, of course, ask questions. And the first question is —

archived recording

Mr. President, have the protests forced you to reconsider any of the policies with regard to the region?

peter baker

— will this change your policy toward the war in Gaza? Which, of course, is exactly what the protesters want. That’s the point.

michael barbaro

Right.

peter baker

And he basically says —

archived recording (joe biden)

No.

peter baker

— no. Just one word, no.

michael barbaro

Right. And that felt kind of important, as brief and fleeting as it was, because at the end of the day, what he’s saying to these protesters is, I’m not going to do what you want. And basically, your protests are never going to work. I’m not going to change the US’s involvement in this war.

peter baker

Yeah, that’s exactly right. He is saying, I’m not going to be swayed by angry people in the streets. I’m going to do what I think is right when it comes to foreign policy. Now, what he thinks is that they’re not giving him enough credit for trying to achieve what they want, which is an end of the war.

He has been pressuring Israel and Hamas to come to a deal for a ceasefire that will, hopefully, in his view, would then lead to a more enduring end of hostilities. But, of course, this deal hasn’t gone anywhere. Hamas, in particular, seems to be resisting it. And so the president is left with a policy of arming Israel without having found a way yet to stop the war.

michael barbaro

Right. I wonder, though, Peter, if we’re being honest, don’t these protests, despite what Biden is saying there, inevitably exert a kind of power over him? Becoming one of many pressures, but a pressure nonetheless that does influence how he thinks about these moments. I mean, here he is at the White House devoting an entire conversation to the nation to these campus protests.

peter baker

Well, look, he knows this feeds into the political environment in which he’s running for re-election, in which he basically has people who otherwise might be his supporters on the left disenchanted with him. And he knows that there’s a cost to be paid. And that certainly, obviously, is in his head as he’s thinking about what to do.

But I think his view of the war is changing by the day for all sorts of reasons. And most of them having to do with realities on the ground. He has decided that Israel has gone far enough, if not too far, in the way it has conducted this operation in Gaza.

He is upset about the humanitarian crisis there. And he’s looking for a way to wrap all this up into a move that would move to peacemaking, beginning to get the region to a different stage, maybe have a deal with the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for some sort of a two-state solution that would eventually resolve the Palestinian issue at its core.

So I think it’s probably fair to say that the protests won’t move him in an immediate kind of sense. But they obviously play into the larger zeitgeist of the moment. And I also think it’s important to know who Joe Biden is at heart.

michael barbaro

Explain that.

peter baker

He’s not drawn to activism. He was around in 1968, the last time we saw this major conflagration at Columbia University, for instance. At the time, Joe Biden was a law student in Syracuse, about 250 miles away. And he was an institutionalist even then.

He was just focused on his studies. He was about to graduate. He was thinking about the law career. And he didn’t really have much of an affinity, I think, for his fellow students of that era, for their activist way of looking at things.

He tells a story in his memoir about walking down a street in Syracuse one day to go to the pizza shop with some friends. And they walk by the administration building. And they see people hanging out of the windows. They’re hanging SDS banners. That’s the Students for a Democratic Society, which was one of the big activist groups of the era.

And he says, they were taking over the building. And we looked up and said, look at those assholes. That’s how far apart from the antiwar movement I was. That’s him writing in his memoir.

michael barbaro

So to a young Joe Biden, those who devote their time and their energy to protesting the war are, I don’t need to repeat the word twice, but they’re losers. They’re not worth his time.

peter baker

Well, I think it’s the tactics they’re using more than the goals that he disagreed with. He would tell you he disagreed with the Vietnam War. He was for civil rights. But he thought that taking over a building was performative, was all about getting attention, and that there was a better way, in his view, to do it.

He was somebody who wanted to work inside the system. He said in an interview quite a few years back, he says, look, I was wearing sports coats in that era. He saw himself becoming part of the system, not somebody trying to tear it down.

michael barbaro

And so how should we think about that Joe Biden, when we think about this Joe Biden? I mean, the Joe Biden who, as a young man, looked upon antiwar protesters with disdain and the one who is now president and his very own policies have inspired such ferocious campus protests?

peter baker

Yeah, that Joe Biden, the 1968 Joe Biden, he could just throw on a sports coat, go to the pizza shop with his friends, make fun of the activists and call them names, and then that’s it. They didn’t have to affect his life. But that’s not what 2024 Joe Biden can do.

[easy-listening music]

Now, wherever he goes, he’s dogged by this. He goes to speeches and people are shouting at him, Genocide Joe! Genocide Joe! He is the target of the same kind of a movement that he disdained in 1968. And so as much as he would like to ignore it or move on or focus on other things, I think this has become a defining image of his year and one of the defining images, perhaps, of his presidency. And 2024 Joe Biden can’t simply ignore it.

michael barbaro

Well, Peter, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

peter baker

Thank you.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

[easy-listening music]

[UPBEAT MUSIC]

michael barbaro

Here’s what else you need to know today. During testimony on Thursday in Donald Trump’s hush money trial, jurors heard a recording secretly made by Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, in which Trump discusses a deal to buy a woman’s silence. In the recording, Trump asks Cohen about how one payment made by Trump to a woman named Karen McDougal would be financed. The recording could complicate efforts by Trump’s lawyers to distance him from the hush money deals at the center of the trial.

A final thing to know, tomorrow morning, we’ll be sending you the latest episode from our colleagues over at “The Interview.” This week, David Marchese talks with comedy star Marlon Wayans about his new stand-up special.

archived recording (marlon wayans)

It’s a high that you get when you don’t know if this joke that I’m about to say is going to offend everybody. Are they going to walk out? Are they going to boo me? Are they going to hate this. And then you tell it, and everybody cracks up and you’re like, woo.

michael barbaro

Today’s episode was produced by Diana Nguyen, Luke Vander Ploeg, Alexandra Leigh Young, Nina Feldman, and Carlos Prieto. It was edited by Lisa Chow and Michael Benoist. It contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you on Monday.

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