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In the early 2000s, the author, who had recently moved from Turkey to study at the University of Texas, attended a protest rally in front of the State Capitol in Austin, Texas. The author’s fellow protesters were outraged by the presence of police cars at the demonstration, which was considered a sign of a police state by many of the protesters. However, the author, with experience of protests in Turkey, argued that American police presence at protests was mild compared to the suppression of protests in Turkey. As the author continued to study political resistance around the world, they observed that a disproportionate crackdown often accelerates protest movements.

America’s response to protests has changed significantly over the past two decades. The author attributes this change to the Iraq War, which allowed police departments to acquire surplus military equipment at no charge. This policy led to many local police departments acquiring heavy equipment typically used in combat situations. As a result, police officers became less likely to sit back and watch protests from a distance, and instead, they adopted a more militarized response. The protests in places like Preston, Idaho, and Dundee, Mich., have brought into question the need for such heavy armored vehicles in small communities.

Recent protests on college campuses over issues like the war in Gaza have led to a harsh crackdown by university administrators and local police forces. The author highlights incidents at universities such as the University of Virginia, Dartmouth, the University of Texas at Austin, and Indiana University, where riot gear-clad police officers and snipers were used to disperse small, peaceful protest groups. The author argues that the crackdown on protests is excessive and violates the social contract regarding how campuses handle demonstrations.

While protests are often messy and include a mix of coherent and objectionable messages, the author believes that the harsh countermeasures against the recent campus protests are counterproductive and dangerous. There is concern that such overreactions can lead to social breakdown on both sides of the barricade. The author draws parallels to the violent crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which eventually led to some participants resorting to violence. The author also highlights the dangers of violent attacks on protesters, such as the incident at U.C.L.A., where a pro-Israel mob charged at protesters with sticks and chemical sprays.

The author expresses concern over the precedent set by universities suspending students for minor offenses such as littering or building chairs in response to protests. There is a fear that these measures are aimed at preventing protests that the administration disagrees with. The author warns that authoritarian leaders around the world are watching these developments, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticizing the U.S. for its treatment of protesters. The comparison to a police state, once considered outrageous, now seems more plausible in light of recent events.

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