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Biden Stays Quiet Amid Gaza Protests, College Police Clashes
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By Associated Press
Published 4 weeks ago on
May 2, 2024

President Joe Biden is staying mum about student protests and police crackdowns as Republicans try to turn campus unrest over the war in Gaza into a campaign cudgel against Democrats. (AP/Matt Kelley)

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is staying mum about student protests and police crackdowns as Republicans try to turn campus unrest over the war in Gaza into a campaign cudgel against Democrats.

Tension at colleges and universities has been building for days as some demonstrators refuse to remove encampments and administrators turn to law enforcement to clear them by force, leading to clashes that have seized attention from politicians and the media.

But Biden’s last public comment came more than a week ago, when he condemned “antisemitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

The White House, which has been peppered with questions by reporters, has gone only slightly further than the president. On Wednesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden is “monitoring the situation closely,” and she said some demonstrations had stepped over a line that separated free speech from unlawful behavior.

“Forcibly taking over a building,” such as what happened at Columbia University in New York, “is not peaceful,” she said. “It’s just not.”

Biden’s Stance on Protests

Biden has never been much for protesting. His career in elected office began as a county official when he was only 28 years old, and he’s always espoused the political importance of compromise over zealousness.

As college campuses convulsed with anger over the Vietnam War in 1968, Biden was in law school at Syracuse University.

“I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dyed shirts,” he said years later. “You know, that’s not me.″

Despite the White House’s criticism and Biden’s refusal to heed protesters’ demands to cut off U.S. support for Israel, Republicans blame Democrats for the disorder and have used it as a backdrop for press conferences.

“We need the president of the United States to speak to the issue and say this is wrong,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said on Tuesday. “What’s happening on college campuses right now is wrong.”

Johnson visited Columbia with other members of his caucus last week. House Republicans sparred with protesters while speaking to the media at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Republican Response

Former President Donald Trump, his party’s presumptive nominee, also criticized Biden in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

“Biden has to do something,” he said. “Biden is supposed to be the voice of our country, and it’s certainly not much of a voice. It’s a voice that nobody’s heard.”

He repeated his criticisms on Wednesday during a campaign event in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

“The radical extremists and far-left agitators are terrorizing college campuses, as you possibly noticed,” Trump said. “And Biden’s nowhere to be found. He hasn’t said anything.”

Kate Berner, who served as deputy communications director for Biden’s campaign in 2020, said Republicans already tried the same tactic four years ago during protests over George Floyd’s murder by a police officer.

“People rejected that,” she said. “They saw that it was just fearmongering. They saw that it wasn’t based in reality.”

White House’s Reluctance to Engage

Apart from condemning antisemitism, the White House has been reluctant to directly engage on the issue.

Jean-Pierre repeatedly deflected questions during a briefing on Monday.

Asked whether protesters should be disciplined by their schools, she said “universities and colleges make their own decisions” and “we’re not going to weigh in from here.”

Pressed on whether police should be called in, she said “that’s up to the colleges and universities.”

When quizzed about administrators rescheduling graduation ceremonies, she said “that is a decision that they have to decide” and “that is on them.”

Biden will make his own visit to a college campus on May 19 when he’s scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse University in Atlanta.

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