Knowing the Machine, Understanding the Rage, Breaking Away from Tribalism

Jacob Bertram
Law enforcement begins to set up for their raid on the student encampment

Now, a couple weeks removed from going to see the pro–Palestinian encampment at UCLA for myself on the night of May 1, 2024, and seeing subsequent response by the LA County Sheriffs, California Highway Patrol and the LAPD. I am still trying to fully come to terms with what I saw, and how it made me feel.

Well over 150 officers in better-than military grade riot gear fired indiscriminately into a peaceful–surely disobedient–but entirely peaceful crowd of hundreds of protestors, resulting in over 200 arrests.

Rubber bullets, flashbangs, and blatant, violent suppression of the constitutional right to peacefully assemble.

In short, I’m furious. And I didn’t even get beaten, shot or arrested.

While violent clashes between police and protestors are a tale as old as time in the United States, as seen with the state response to the labor movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam war protest and the Black Lives Matter movement in the latter half of the 2010s, these aren’t obscure one-off occurrences but recurring actions of solidarity by an unsatisfied public and the violent reactions by an apathetic or hostile establishment.


A look at the messaging within the encampment. (Jacob Bertram)


Most progressive protest movements speaking out against the status quo have been met with violent opposition from state and police forces. It is important to consider that throughout history as time passes and as society has time to better understand and reflect on these student movements, the message of the protesters often ages very well; the response of the state and authorities is also often seen as an embarrassing blunder.

I have little doubt, assuming our volatile social and political landscape doesn’t send us beyond the pale, the story of the student encampments and the pro-Palestinian movement will be remembered in a similar light.

I knew this before visiting the encampment, but I’ve never quite experienced the frustration, the anger– the rage associated with seeing how the situation developed firsthand. The callousness of big-time media when they arrive on scene to report and the clear animosity that police seem to feel for those that choose the path of civil disobedience in protest of what they believe to be unjust.



Even more frustrating was knowing that the night before, hundreds of students and activist were brutalized and arrested, authorities stood by for nearly three hours while pro-Israeli counter-protesters attempted to break down the encampment, threaten, pepper spray and physically attack the pro-Palestinian protesters. Even going so far as to throw massive, illegal Disneyland-level fireworks into the encampment with the clear intention of causing serious bodily harm, or even death to those inside.


Jacob Bertram


Yet on that night, despite actual violence being directed at those inside the encampment by chest beating, “USA” chanting, flag waving counter-protestors, not a single arrest was made. Cable news gave a both-sides narrative to a one-sided onset of violence, and politicians nationwide denounced and grossly misrepresented the message of the students within the encampment.

As far as any rational actor can tell, the police couldn’t care less about the safety of the people, the American students, within the encampment– particularly those they don’t see as the “in crowd” and worthy of their protection or empathy.

The New York Times recently reported that a police dispatcher “told one caller pleading for help that they were ending the call because ‘[they had] actual emergencies to handle.’”

What in the actual fuck is considered an “actual emergency” if not American students being attacked by political agitators with the intent to seriously harm or potentially kill, on behalf of or at least in support of a far-right, trigger-happy ultranationalist foreign government?

I would argue that it is, at a bare minimum, reasonable cause for concern, but I digress.


A nationwide epidemic of reaction and a terminal failure by those entrusted to lead

When all was said and done, the New York Times reported that over 2,800 students were arrested or detained for their participation in pro-Palestinian encampments nationwide.

Just days after when the smoke had seemingly cleared Joseph Robinette Biden, the President of the United States and supposed leader of the free world, whilst whistling through his teeth, chose to defend the unnecessarily militant response of police, denounce the student protest and completely omit the actions of the agitators saying:



I know this hardly seems out of character for anyone who has a working knowledge of Jim Crow Joe’s political career, and even less surprising to those who are aware that he is the single highest recipient of donations from the pro-Israel lobby, but that is hardly the main point.


Image from a previous protest where protesters hold massive cutouts of Biden and Netanyahu depicted with devil horns. (Jacob Bertram)


Seriously, this is what the only viable opposition to the highly reactionary, inching ever closer toward fascist, MAGA crowd looks like? Spare me. This is what you call a free and just society built on the principles of personal liberty and democracy? Again, spare me.

Few things trouble me more than just how grim another Trump presidency could be, but outside of an embarrassing orange spray tan and minimal differences of opinion on labor, LGBTQ rights, abortion law and taxes the two are all but indistinguishable as far as I am concerned.


Optics may not be everything, but they sure aren’t nothing 

What the optics tell me, through our over-militarized police force and our government’s willingness to deploy them with no holds barred on dissenting college students is that:

We are pretty damn authoritarian when told something we don’t want to hear.

Our political establishment willingly chooses politics over clarity, for the right price.

There is hardly any protection for peaceful protest, and there is little concern given over violent counter-protester agitation.

Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is perfectly fine if it aligns with the agenda of authority.

Dissent is only acceptable to a very limited degree in our democracy, no matter how peacefully it is expressed.

That may very well be cynical, but it’s also rational.

I don’t care where your sympathies lie regarding the Israel-Palestine situation, the blatant contrast in the law enforcement response and the lack of regard given to the safety of students doing nothing more than calling to an end to hostilities that the International Court of Justice ruled were ‘plausibly’ indicative of genocide, is nothing short of absurd.

I am angry. I am disgruntled. I am disillusioned but more than anything else I am desperately trying to understand how anyone, cops included, could think this is okay, rational or anything approaching normal and acceptable.


Trying to find common ground

Let me provide some context to my perspective.

I was born into a white, Christian, relatively conservative family in Henry County, Indiana. I started grade school the same fall as the 9/11 attacks and grew up in the hyper-patriotic fervor that followed.

I was raised drinking the red, white and blue Kool-Aid. I’m sure it’s obvious if you’ve read this far that my place on the political spectrum has completely shifted but bear with me here. I have members of my family that I loved, and still love, who have found careers in law enforcement. I know who they are on a person-to-person level and, for the most part, I believe they are good and decent people.

I am also a veteran, I deployed as a Navy H-60 crewman during the campaign against ISIS in 2018 with the John C. Stennis carrier strike group, and to support “Freedom of Navigation” and “Projection of Power” operations in the South China Sea with the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group in 2022. In total, I accumulated exactly 1500 hours of flight time and spent over two of my six and a half years of service underway at sea.

I joined the military at 18 years old because I wholeheartedly believed that I was supporting and defending freedom, democracy and all of the other corny core value buzzwords we claim to represent as a nation.


Returning from my last flight in the Navy. (Jacob Bertram)


While I know the two professions are not the same, there are similarities. I firmly believe that parallels can be drawn between cop and military culture, the shop mentality, comradery and the desire to defend “your boys.”

But it is this kindred experience that made me realize that no shared identity should make you wholly uncritical of the task at hand, being unquestioning of the motives of your “superiors” or make you willing to abandon your moral compass and sense of empathy toward your fellow man.

I know admitting that your actions, much less your entire worldview are wrong is as terrifying as it is difficult, but at some point something has to give.


Do better, be better

Seeing your boys kneecapping students with billy clubs and shooting them with less than lethal rounds for practicing non-violent political dissent should upset you. It is objectively horrible.

Seeing an aircraft carrier of roughly 1,000 sailors break into roaring applause when the skipper announced over the 1MC that our fighter jets successfully dropped bombs on some remote village in the middle east certainly upset me. It was objectively horrible.

Regardless of your preconceived belief in the righteousness of “your side,” be that as a member of the armed forces, a law enforcement officer, a person of faith or as a plain- old American citizen, we have to be able to take a step back and assess whether or not the actions of “our” groups still pass our own moral litmus test and hold up to our sense of humanity.

I know that in both the Military and in Law Enforcement, insubordination may as well be a cardinal sin, but we must be willing to be better and we must remember that authority must still be met with objectivity, reflection and accountability.

That “band of brothers” sense of loyalty can be a beautiful thing, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it can also be volatile and toxic. And without the ability to set identity aside and assess reality, decent people can do truly awful things without even the slightest hint of consideration or doubt.

We’ve seen how bad things became in places like Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Israel today. To think we are immune by sheer virtue of being American is, frankly, just really, really stupid.

And if that’s what those annoying college kids are telling you they see, you really ought to listen because if they are right and you aren’t, oh boy, dark dark times loom on the horizon. We’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

I still believe that the United States can be what I spent the first twenty-odd years of my life believing it was, or at least had been. But clinging on to a mythical past isn’t going to get us there. I know that for certain. We must learn to accept valid criticism about our institutions, our economic policy and our society at large and be willing to change or at least amend what we once believed.


Student protesters amidst the turmoil. (Jacob Bertram)


Instead of blaming the dissenting youth for wanting no part in the continuance of carnage, ask why you no longer hold that same desire for peace, for humanity and for justice in your hearts. Listen to the kids, they’re all right. And history shows, they pretty much always have been.

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