At the end of April, members of the Hopkins Justice Collective created an encampment at the bottom of what is known on campus as The Beach, the large grassy area in front of the Johns Hopkins library, in protest of the Israeli military action in Gaza and Hopkins’ investment policies.

On May 11, faculty and protesters worked out an agreement that saw the protesters potentially gain ground on divestment. Hopkins’ Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee has a process by which investments are analyzed, and the timeline has been reduced by several months in exchange for ending the encampment. The protesters didn’t receive amnesty but were granted deferrals from disciplinary action. Faculty members have committed to several projects designed to increase knowledge about the region.

The encampment tactic harked back to 1980s-era divestment protests against South Africa as well as to the occupations emanating from Occupy Wall Street. It followed encampments established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, California Polytechnic University, Humboldt and Harvard University, among others. There are now or have been encampments on every continent.

Unlike other encampments at Columbia University, Emory University, the University of California, Los Angeles, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan, police didn’t step in. From what I understand, Baltimore city officials decided against intervening once they recognized the protest was peaceful. As I think about the encampment, I think about what could’ve happened if Hopkins’ planned private police force was already in place.

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In April, Hopkins’ graduate student workers’ union ratified its first contract with the university, which included the right to peacefully protest without being met by force.

But like the other protests on public and private university campuses in every region of the country, a narrative began to emerge that the Hopkins protesters were perhaps being directed or at least influenced by external actors not affiliated with the university. The phrase “outside agitators” started being routinely used by university administrators, law enforcement, political leaders and media figures wherever the protests and encampments were occurring.

At Hopkins, Provost Ray Jayawardhana raised the outside-agitator scenario in a university email.

“We acknowledge the intentions and efforts by our student protesters to manage the site in a safe way; however, as we have already seen at other universities, encampments attract individuals from outside the campus community who are not within the protesters’ control and who may seek conflict and escalation,” Jayawardhana said.

This wasn’t what occurred when Hopkins students participating in the encampment reached out to advocates for information and guidance.

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Zainab Chaudry, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Maryland told The Hill newspaper that she worked with Hopkins students who reached out to advocacy groups for support, including food, spreading the word about events and getting assistance for negotiations with schools or dealing with the police if necessary.

“What I’ve observed overwhelmingly has really been advocacy groups who really have just been wanting to support the students and make sure that they are not alone as they move forward on these actions,” Chaudry said.

At Hopkins, the students set up a press center and dedicated individuals to talking with the news media, which showed “they were the ones who were coordinating that,” Chaudry said, adding “that can help dispel some of the rumors that it was outside influences” running the show.

The narrative about students being controlled by sinister, outside forces has a not-so-complicated history, used during labor struggles and then again during the civil rights movement to de-legitimize dissent and to stigmatize participants.

Discussing use of the “outside agitator” term in the 1960s, Bruce Arcus referenced a South Carolina editorial titled “The North Meets the Outsider”:

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“This editorial … made clear that the professional agitators in question were not only illegitimate by virtue of their ‘vocation’ and politics, but also by virtue of their geographical origin. Authentic politics in this vision — which included authentic collective anger presumably — was the province of the local. By placing agency elsewhere — in the bodies of deviant outsiders — critics sought to occlude any potential political meaning such that events might elicit. The author’s point in the editorial was that in the same way that Southern cities had previously been disrupted by the ‘outside agitators,’ Northern cities were now also the victims of these same individuals. If the North saw itself as above sectional finger‐pointing, then it was only consistent to argue that the previous performances of dissent in the South were equally illegitimate. The editorial thus concluded that `we sympathise with our northern brethren in their time of trial, but we find the methods by which they meet that trial unworthy of solid government and sound sense.’”

I see troubling similarities in the way the term was applied to this and other protests.

I and other faculty members visited the encampment every day it existed, with many also visiting during the evenings. What I witnessed with my own eyes looked nothing like the image of protesters and protest being disseminated. The protesters consistently practiced nonviolent tactics of de-escalation and held sessions designed to train interested parties, protesters and non-protesters alike, in de-escalation tactics. On more than one occasion, they used these skills to tamp down potential conflicts with counter-protesters.

Shown is the area of the Johns Hopkins University campus known as The Beach following the departure of the protest encampment. (Courtesy of Lester Spence)

A broad swath of faculty, students and community members have consistently opposed a private Hopkins police force, believing such a force would exacerbate existing tensions between Hopkins and surrounding communities, would make some populations within Hopkins less safe and secure and would be unaccountable. In response, we’ve been told that a Hopkins police force would be the most progressive in the country.

We’ve seen little to suggest this is true. The Hopkins police accountability board barely functions. The jurisdictional boundaries of the proposed force contain mixtures of public and private Hopkins-owned space that make little sense.

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But perhaps most importantly as it relates to the encampment, the proposed policies designed to deal with protest and demonstrations pose problems, particularly given rhetoric deployed against protesters. While a directive that would apply to the planned Hopkins Police Department “requires JHPD members to make reasonable efforts to protect demonstrators and preserve their ability to engage in assemblies and demonstrations on campus,” and itself suggests de-escalation is a JHPD goal, it also defines disruption in ways that encompass protected acts of free expression and propose criminal charges for offenses such as disrupting a meeting.

Rhetoric expressed toward the encampment and protesters suggests a gap between professed aims of a private police force and its practices. Given this, we should be worried about the role such a force would play in stifling dissent.

Student protests have historically played a valuable role in extending democracy. Many of us believe they continue to do so.

Lester Spence is a professor of political science and Africana studies at the Johns Hopkins University