Ali: Mocking Gaza protesters as ‘gluten-free warriors’ was fun — until a mob at UCLA attacked them

Demonstrators in a Pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA face off against authorities
Demonstrators in a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA face off against authorities who later breached and broke up the encampment on Thursday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Bill Maher on his HBO talk show this week said that pro-Palestinian student protests on college campuses are what happens when “activism merges with narcissism.”

The Atlantic columnist David Frum referred to protesters like the UCLA students who were violently attacked Wednesday by a mob of counterprotesters as “banana-allergy revolutionaries.”

During Tuesday night’s tactical police response to Columbia University students’ taking over a building on campus, author Judith Miller tweeted: “Hey Columbia protesters! If you’re so proud of what you’re doing, why are you covering your faces?”


Mocking student protesters has become a fun and easy pastime since they began marching and camping out in opposition to Israel’s ongoing military incursions in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel. All critics and jeering old folks need is a platform (cable TV, Instagram, a tattered soap box) to discredit the movement as the performative act of feckless snowflakes and spoiled children.

The protective gear of the “gluten-free warriors” is a form of dress-up. Their safety measures — encampment barricades and self-manned medical tents — are seen as ploys for attention. They’re called cowards for covering their faces with masks and goggles.

Less than 24 hours after a violent attack on a pro-Palestinian camp at UCLA, officers pulled apart barricades as they tore down the encampment and made arrests.

May 3, 2024

But these actions weren’t just for show. UCLA’s pro-Palestinian demonstrators did need to shield and defend themselves when a violent mob of pro-Israeli counterprotesters attacked their encampment.

Video shot by The Times, other media outlets and witnesses at the scene show counterdemonstrators in black attire and white masks ripping down barricades, beating people with batons and poles and screaming racial epithets. Campers were dragged, kicked and pummeled by the predominantly male mob Tuesday night and Wednesday morning while police and campus security stood by for three hours before responding.

Law enforcement eventually cleared the counterprotesters, who reportedly included non-student organizations. No arrests were made.

Five days before pro-Israeli counterprotesters attacked a pro-Palestinian camp, UCLA police asked other campuses for additional help, then canceled the requests.

May 2, 2024

But 24 hours later, more than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested when UCLA called in a massive police presence to clear the student encampment.


“What we’ve just witnessed was the darkest day in my 32 years at UCLA,” David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA who is working on initiatives to bridge differences on campus, told The Times. “Why didn’t the police, UCPD and LAPD, show up? Those in the encampment were defenseless in the face of a violent band of thugs. And no one, wherever they stand politically, is safer today.”

The optics, at best, discourage free speech on campus and encourage violent reprisal from those who disagree with the message. Recent weeks have seen police summoned by universities such as USC, UCLA and Columbia to quash largely peaceful student rallies and clear encampments, while racial slurs, verbal threats and violent attacks perpetrated against antiwar protesters have not been treated with the same seriousness or urgency.

Fox News naturally took the “Good vs. Evil” theme a step further when describing the protest movement as a Trojan horse for nefarious, anti-American operations.

“A lot of them seem to be the same type of protester we saw during the George Floyd protest,” anchor Trace Gallagher said in response to the tactical response of the NYPD at Columbia this week. “They have changed the chants. It’s a new location and a lot of the same crowd that moves into these things.”

His guest went on to say that the protesters are “targeting the American system and using the Palestinian cause to piggyback their nonsensical, glazed-over beliefs in order to start mass anarchy.”

Tensions have escalated and arrests have been made as protesters continue to stake out areas on the campuses of many California universities, including UCLA, USC and Cal Poly Humboldt.

May 1, 2024

Delegitimization is a classic tactic in the debate over who has the higher moral ground. But it shouldn’t matter: All peaceful protesters — on and off campus — need to be protected, regardless of where their participants stand on the war.


Watching footage of the violence at UCLA this week is chilling, and there’s sure to be more dangerous clashes if the safety of protesting students is mocked as unnecessary, or colleges continue to treat them as the threat. Their right to safely exercise free speech has to be protected.

Cynical agitators like Maher will always leverage incendiary moments for ratings and clicks. But tucking one’s opposition to the protest movement into a flippant screed against Gen Z isn’t just obnoxious, it’s dangerous. It feeds a harmful narrative that their need for protection is make-believe, that they’re a whining, pampered generation we should ignore, or worse, allow others to target while we watch from the sidelines.