Tin Soldiers and Nixon

Anand Kamalakar
8 min readMay 8, 2024

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© Columbia University Student

Blasting Floyd, Dylan, Clapton, and Morrison in my living room, surrounded by friends as a teenager, was a regular affair.

It was the 1980s and the lure of America was ever present in India, through its movies, music, comics and books.

When I discovered CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), their song “Ohio” quickly became a favorite.

The two-verse song “Ohio” begins with the lyric

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

I hadn’t the faintest idea what Neil Young was talking about. But I gladly sang along and tried to learn the chords on my guitar. The Google gods had not been created yet for me to get instant answers.

When I came to America in the early 90s, it became clear what Young was talking about. The song was referencing the killing of four students on the Kent State University campus by the National Guard in the spring of 1970. Four freshmen lost their lives in a violent crackdown against free speech as they protested the Vietnam war.

The specter of deploying the National Guard on college campuses a half century later was raised again, when House Speaker Mike Johnson visited the Columbia University campus in April. The pro-Palestinian protestors had taken over the quad, pitching tents on the vacant greens.

Students were responding to the horrific images they were witnessing on their phones, from a war in a foreign land thousands of miles away.

Columbia University has the reputation of being the “activist ivy” and the current batch of students were living up to the history of their school. The protest was making enough noise to attract the attention of the national media and politicians.

The ghost of Joseph McCarthy emerged, when the president of the university was hauled into Congress and was railroaded by the Republicans to take action against what was perceived as antisemitism gone wild on campus.

The same Republicans, who believed in Jewish space lasers and were nonchalant about Tiki-Torch marches on campuses not long ago, were suddenly now sensitive about antisemitism on campuses, for the sole purpose of an impending election.

The university president was sent home with bruised knuckles and decided to call the police on student protesters to placate the powers.

Police action is a move that has never gone well ever, in the history of any protest, in any era, especially ones spearheaded by passionate students. It didn’t work at Berkeley in 1964, or Columbia in 1968, or Harvard in 1969 or at Kent State in 1970.

As you would expect, things escalated.

Protests started spawning across the country spontaneously it seemed. But students communicate across campuses and then there are Tik-Tok algorithms at play. So it was only a matter of time.

When the protests reached my niece’s campus at the University of Wisconsin, I sent her a concerned text, as I saw images of police in riot gear battling students there. She responded saying she was shocked by the police raid. She further elaborated saying, a Neo-Nazi march last semester on an avenue in Madison had seen no police intervention. She was shaken by the violent response towards peaceful protesters.

No doubt there have been incidents on campuses where students have faced threats and verbal abuse for being Jewish. But to dismiss a legitimate student movement spreading across the nation as antisemitic, or as a stir up radicalized by “professionals” and “outside agitators” or calling students pro-terror or pro-Hamas as New York Post and Fox News often do, is not only dangerous, but also disingenuous, despicable and tone deaf.

Similar language was used during the civil rights and other anti-war protests. Peaceful protesters were labeled terrorists, agitators and communists to delegitimize their demands and suppress dissent in the most brutal manner. It was happening again.

A daughter of a close friend has been actively participating in the protests at Columbia University. She was “doxxed” for a letter that she, along with other members of the Columbia University human rights working group, signed calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza War. Her photograph was found pasted on a bus outside campus and she feared for her safety. The personal details of several students who signed the letter were outed to a conservative organization known as Accuracy in Media.

Her parents feared for her safety and her career. The concern that she would be blacklisted and probably would not be able to get a job after she graduated was a concern. As many Wall Street heavy weights had openly called for the dismissal and boycott of students who participated in protests. Others threatened to cut funding to universities if the protests were not dealt with.

While camping overnight on the quad, my friend’s daughter would send photos of her fellow protesters in Keffiyehs calling for Columbia University to divest from all support of the Israeli government, financial and otherwise. There were calls for a ceasefire and cries for a free Palestine.

During Passover she shared images of her Jewish friends organizing a Seder in the encampment. It seemed like any other student protest for peace, driven by passion and awareness for justice for everyone. The hostages and their families included.

There was singing and dancing and a sense of camaraderie seen among young people when they gather anywhere in the world.

In the 1980s, students pushed colleges to cut off South Africa to boycott its apartheid policies. About 150 colleges and universities divested, to varying degrees. It was clear, similar tactics were being employed here, hoping for a comparable outcome.

While the mainstream media was in a tail-spin to understand what was going on and were viewing it through their narrow lens to cater to their own narratives, the staff of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the nearly 150-year-old undergraduate newspaper, was covering every minute of this story, showing you how it is done. They polled over 700 students and were in the trenches reporting on what was going on.

Reading their reports made it apparent that their goals were unambiguous and the views were as diverse as you would expect. There were Jewish students who felt perfectly safe on campus. There were some who were harassed with antisemitic slurs. There were Muslim students who felt threatened for calling for a free Palestine and an end to the killing. Most aligned on free speech and were in solidarity with those in the encampments.

A professor on campus summed it up by saying, “there is this narrative that it’s all anti-Israel and no antisemitism. And there’s this other narrative that it’s all antisemitism and none of it is about Israel. And I believe that we just have not modeled listening to each other”.

One would wonder why Americans are protesting about a war that does not affect them directly in any tangible way. America does not have boys coming home in body bags. Why has this particular conflict ignite so much activism sparking a widespread movement among young people?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever present in the American zeitgeist. It is always on the top of every president’s foreign policy agenda. The Middle East with all its oil and conflicts has always been an integral part of American influence, clout and global dominance.

America’s unilateral support of Israel, in a part of the world that is a powder keg, has been the bulwark of American policy. Historically, America’s role in the conflict came about partly because of the perception that only the US could broker a peace between the fractured people of this land. The affinity American Jews have to this land created for Jews, has had an added emphasis to its involvement and close relationship.

Therefore, the massacre on October 7th was quickly framed as Israel’s 9/11. It was the first time Jews were murdered in such a manner since the Holocaust. The very survival of the Jewish state was at stake, even though they are a military superpower. The rallying cry “from the river to the sea” was seen as “antisemitic” even though not much was said when Netanyahu showed a map of Israel at the UN without any demarcations for West Bank and Gaza. The framing of this massacre in these terms ignited a passion for revenge and gave legitimacy to Israel to respond as it seemed fit.

photo credit: Reuters/BRENDAN McDERMID

The Palestinian suffering is undermined in the public mind, by doubting the death toll as it is being reported by the Hamas Health Ministry. Collectively, Palestinians are seen as deserving of the carnage meted out, as they brought it upon themselves for supporting a terrorist organization. Israel has no other way of prosecuting this war, as America did the same when they were attacked on 9/11. Hamas uses civilians as human shields so all collateral damage is acceptable. The IDF does its best to limit civilian deaths. If Hamas gave up the hostages, fighting would stop. There is not enough outrage about those kidnapped from those who are calling for a ceasefire. These are all opinions being heard in the mainstream media and from politicians.

Meanwhile the destruction and death brought upon the Palestinians has never been so widespread and deliberate since the “Nakba”, “catastrophe” in Arabic. It refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which they perceive as their holocaust.

This value placed on whose pain is greater, only extends the misery and suffering and raises the mountain of trauma to new heights.

Many anti-Zionist intellectuals feared Jews would lose sight of what is “just” in the pursuit of a homeland, and that is what seems to be happening.

While the idea of “never forget” is kept alive through a regular and constant stream of films, books and museum exhibits about the Holocaust, the trauma also seems to have created a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that blinds one from acknowledging the suffering and injustice being meted out to others. Consequently, anyone who protests against Israel and its methods is by default branded an antisemite.

Columbia University has a tradition called the Primal Scream, where during finals week students spill onto the quad and scream in unison to release stress and steam. Since the quad was now off limits guarded by the NYPD, they chose to gather at the university president’s house, and scream as loudly as possible.

Nothing could be more emblematic of the present situation around the country, than the screams of students piercing through the windows of a university president.

Students want to be heard and listened to. They are the future and they are smart enough to know, that truth is the first casualty of war and free speech is a close second.

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Anand Kamalakar

Anand Kamalakar is a Brooklyn based documentary film director, producer and editor. His latest film is Colonel Kalsi (colonelkalsifilm.com)