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Parents of campus activists speak out

Signs posted along the perimeter of the anti-war encampment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kirk Carapezza
Signs posted along the perimeter of the anti-war encampment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Eduardo González was half a world away from his daughter when he learned on social media that police were breaking up the Emerson College encampment where she was a protester.

A sociologist conducting human rights research in Guinea, he waited helplessly for hours for her to call or respond to his texts.

“I was looking directly at my screen at actions of very significant violence by the police, and so I had to call her,” he said. “I wanted to know whether she was OK. I was very distressed.”

Thousands of parents across the country whose children have been involved in protests over the war in Gaza have felt the same anxiety in recent weeks as campus protests erupted, and in some cases, police cracked down and made arrests.

Police arrested more than a hundred protesters near Emerson, supported by campus officials and local authorities including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey. González's daughter wasn't ultimately arrested, but he is among the tuition-paying parents who expressed disappointed over how colleges handled the protests.

Leonid Fridman, the stepfather of a MIT junior, said the encampments should've been shut down sooner because the anti-Zionist messages of the protesters have veered into antisemitism.

“That becomes really not a protest against governmental policy, it becomes a protest against aspirations of a whole people,” Fridman said.

Fridman said he worries about his stepdaughter's physical and mental safety on campus.

“She and other fellow students feel that they can’t just be students, they have no choice but to be activists,” he said. “They were pulled into something that attacks them as a people — and that’s unsafe.”

Parents on both sides of the divide are rallying, whether on Facebook or in real life. Hala Amer, the mother of a protester at George Washington University is leading a petition signed by more than 120 parents demanding change, starting with the resignation of the university's president.

She said the police response to the George Washington University protests went too far and that colleges are missing an educational opportunity to show patience and tolerance.

“It’s extremely frustrating and very shocking,” Amer said of the police response. “We were really taken by surprise.”

She added that students and parents are “horrified in having our money invested in companies that are part of war crimes and we don’t want to be complicit.”

“I believe in the cause,” she said.

Israeli officials have said they're doing all they can to spare civilians, and they blame Hamas for hiding among the civilian population. While the conflict rages thousands of miles away, Amer and other parents of protesters said the college experience in the U.S. has become too focused on grades and a degree. Instead, they want administrators to create college communities that value free speech and open debate.

At MIT, days after administrators threatened to suspend students participating in a three-week-old encampment in Cambridge, protesters disrupted campus life by blocking the entrance to an MIT garage.

Twelve hours later, in the middle of the night, police arrested the last remaining activists on campus, clearing tents, signs, tables and chairs.

“The show of force at MIT’s demolition of the student encampment was nothing short of disgusting,” said Maria, the mother of one of the protesters at MIT.

Maria refused to say what she fears could happen if she gave her full name, but thinks the university went too far.

“These are our future intellectual leaders of this country and yet when they speak out the administration's response is to crush them into silence and to ruin their lives and to cost their families money,” she said. “It's just not right.”

MIT President Sally Kornbluth described a very different scene. Kornbluth said in a statement that the arrests were “a last resort,” and activists were given four separate warnings. None resisted arrest, she said.

“The actions we've taken, gradually stepped up over time, have been commensurate with the risk we are in a position to see,” Kornbluth said. “We offered warnings. We telegraphed clearly what was coming.”

Police cleared anti-war activists from the entrance of a garage at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday, May 9.
Kirk Carapezza
Police cleared anti-war activists from the entrance of a garage at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday, May 9.

Not all parents of student protesters agree that college administrators have gone too far in their actions. One student sitting near the MIT encampment in Cambridge said their mother wanted them to “get the [expletive] back to class and back the [expletive] down.” 

Across town, the encampment concluded peacefully at Harvard last Tuesday, after administrators issued suspension notices.

Visiting professor Brian Rosenberg said academic sanctions often work because of the power of parental pressure.

“Grades, GPA, and college credentials and then parents who are not really happy about having paid tens of thousands of dollars for a semester of college that just went out the window,” he said.

Eduardo González, the far-away father of an anti-war activist at Emerson College, agreed that leveraging grades is better than law enforcement intervention. But an even better strategy, he said, would be to use the moment to teach.

“We are losing an incredible opportunity to teach the young generation what a democracy is and not what a plutocracy is,” he said. 

While these protests have captured media attention, most students did not participate in the unrest. Most families are just worried about students graduating and getting jobs.

Copyright 2024 WGBH Radio

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.