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The Democrats lost the White House in 1968 amid anti-war protests. What will 2024 bring?

When student Lauren Brown first heard the commotion, which included fireworks, she assumed the sounds were coming from nearby dorms. Then she heard helicopters around 4am. She later woke up to news and images of a violent attack by pro-Israel protesters on an encampment set up to oppose the ongoing war in Gaza.

“It was hard to watch,” said Brown, 19, a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose dorm was near the encampment. ‘And I wondered where the police were. I saw messages from people saying they were being shot with tear gas and campus security just stood by.”

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Eventually, a large police contingent arrived and forcibly cleared the sprawling camp early Thursday morning. Bangs were launched to disperse the crowds gathered outside, and more than 200 people were arrested. Afterwards, campus facilities workers were seen picking up the trampled tents and pieces of spray-painted plywood and throwing them into gray dumpsters.

Similar scenes of commotion have played out at about 40 universities and colleges across America this week, resulting in clashes with police, mass arrests and an order from Joe Biden to restore order. Unrest has spread from coast to coast on a scale not seen since the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

The president has reason to worry as the issue threatens his youth vote, divides his Democratic party and gives Donald Trump’s Republicans an opening to raise charges of anti-Semitism and portray Biden’s America as out of control.

There are inescapable parallels to 1968, a tumultuous year of assassinations and anti-war demonstrations that led to chaos at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Democrats lost the White House to Republican ‘law and order’ candidate Richard Nixon.

Now there are fears that history will repeat itself as anti-war protests once again roil college campuses and the Democratic National Convention heads back to Chicago. Biden will face Republican “law and order” candidate Donald Trump in the November presidential elections.

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Bernie Sanders, an independent U.S. senator from Vermont, told CNN this week: “I think back and other people make the comment that this might be Biden’s Vietnam.”

I think back and other people make the comment that this might be Biden’s Vietnam

US Senator Bernie Sanders to CNN

Sanders drew parallels with President Lyndon Johnson, whose considerable domestic achievements were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and who did not seek re-election in 1968: “I am deeply concerned that President Biden is putting himself in a position where he is not only concerned with young people alienated, people, but a large part of the Democratic base, in terms of its views on Israel and this war.”

The Gaza war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7 last year, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 240 hostages. The Israeli retaliatory offensive has killed more than 34,600 people in Gaza, mostly women and children.

The brutality of that response and America’s “ironclad” support for Israel sparked student protests at Columbia University in New York, which quickly spread to other campuses across the country. Students built camps in solidarity with Gaza, demanding a ceasefire and demanding that universities divest from Israel. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, although some demonstrators were caught on camera making anti-Semitic comments and violent threats.

University administrators, who have tried to balance the right to protest against complaints of violence and hate speech, have increasingly called on police to clear out demonstrators before end-of-year exams and graduation ceremonies. More than 2,300 arrests have been made in the past two weeks, some during violent clashes with police, prompting accusations of the use of excessive force.

Biden, who has been under pressure from all political sides over the conflict in Gaza, tried to pick up the thread on Thursday, saying: “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or stifle dissent. But we are not a lawless country either. We are a civil society and order must prevail.”

The president faces opposition within his own party over his strong support for Israel’s military offensive. Hundreds of thousands of people registered versions of “uncommitted” protest votes against him during the Democratic presidential primaries.

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Yaya Anantanang, a student organizer at George Washington University in Washington, told the Politico website: “My message is that we do not support Biden. We are not capitulating to liberal electoral politics, because, frankly, the liberation of the Palestinians will not come through a Democratic president, but through organizing and guaranteeing complete disinvestment within all these institutions.”

Such views are raising alarm bells among those who fear that even a small dip in support from Biden’s coalition could make the difference in a close election.

Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F Kennedy, who was shot while running for president in 1968, urged protesters to support Biden despite their misgivings. “We need their voices now,” she said. “They may not like Joe Biden’s policies, but the choice is not between Joe Biden and their ideal. The choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, who will impose the Muslim ban from day one.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to exploit the unrest for political gain. They have accused Biden of being soft on what they say is anti-Semitic sentiment among protesters and Democrats indulging in “wokeness” in the US education system.

Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, said: “The crisis you see on college campuses is the result of the colleges themselves not providing and encouraging the right education, the right discussion in the classrooms, in the right way. . They play this woke game where they don’t want to touch a problem.

“They create an information vacuum. The students receive bad information and propaganda. They are being used effectively by terrorist organizations abroad to push an anti-American, anti-Israel message, which is just terrible. It’s not a difference of opinion. It’s complete misinformation.”

Images of campus disorder have played endlessly on Fox News and in other right-wing media, fueling a narrative of instability and lawlessness under Biden while sucking political oxygen from Trump’s own negatives.

On Tuesday, for example, the Republican candidate was in court for his hush money trial; Time Magazine published an interview in which Trump laid out an extremist vision of an imperial presidency; and Florida implemented a six-week abortion ban after Trump helped overturn Roe v Wade. But the television screens were dominated by the protests.

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Ezra Levinco-founder and co-executive director of the progressive movement Indivisible, said: “All of these stories – every single one might have disqualified a presidential candidate in previous elections – received a fraction of the coverage of the protests against [the Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Massacre of Gazans.

“That’s problematic for those of us who want to see Joe Biden re-elected and the Democrats win, because every day we talk about this immoral war supported by American tax dollars is a day we don’t talk about the dangerous, creeping fascism presented by the Republican party.”

Still, Democrats hope that with the academic year soon to end, students will go home for the summer and the energy will dissipate. Donna Brazile, former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, doubts the issue will be decisive in November.

“We will have a surprise every month in October and we cannot predict which of the many surprises will actually determine the election.” she said. “A month ago it was abortion that would determine the election. Now it’s the protesters on campus. Next month it will be a little different.”

Brazile also defended the right of students to protest, as previous generations have done against the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, the Iraq War and, during the most recent election campaign, police brutality. “I’ve been to several college campuses and most of them are pretty peaceful,” she said.

“These are students using their First Amendment rights to advocate for change in the Middle East, and it should be clear to everyone that there are rules. Only a handful have gotten out of hand, because if you break the rules or break the law, you don’t have the right to do so. That is prohibited.”

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