Analysis: Bernie Sanders asserts limits to protests during Irish visit

While visiting Trinity’s debating societies for his contributions to public discourse, Sanders showed the extent to which he believes protests are appropriate

US Senator Bernie Sanders visited Dublin this week as a part of a book tour for his new book, It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism. He attended various events across the city, promoting his book about challenging the “uber-capitalist status quo” and being commended for his contributions to public discourse. Sanders’ clashes with protestors at University College Dublin and Trinity, however, also showed the extent to which he believes protests are effective.

Sanders was born to working-class parents in Brooklyn in 1941, has been active in the US Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement, and is seen nowadays as his country’s most prominent left-leaning politician.

At his first visit to Trinity, he was awarded an Honorary Patronage by the University Philosophical Society (the Phil). The last-minute ceremony saw a huge queue form outside the Graduate Memorial Building an hour ahead of the event, mostly Trinity students availing of the free entry.

Sanders’ stance on Israel

Although Sanders is typically very well-received in young and progressive circles, his brief trip to Ireland was blighted by small, but vocal, protests regarding his stance on Israel’s assault on Gaza.

While he disagrees openly with US President Joe Biden’s stance on the escalating conflict, and has recently voted against sending military aid to Israel, Sanders has consistently refused to label Israel’s actions in Gaza as a genocide and does not agree with the implementation of a permanent ceasefire.

Sanders has also previously noted his disagreement with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement. While he voted against legislation that would limit Americans’ right to boycott Israel in 2019, he was clear in saying that he does “not support the BDS movement”.

This stance has been perceived by some as complicity in the US’ support of Israel, as shown by Sanders’ visits to Irish universities after the Phil.

Protests at UCD

The first show of discontent took place on Thursday night outside of UCD’s O’Reilly Hall, where Sanders was in conversation with economist and journalist David McWilliams. The presence of UCD BDS was undeniable from the get go, with protestors draped in Palestinian flags and donning Keffiyehs, chanting “it’s okay to be angry about capitalism, what about zionism?”.

Inside the event, which was organised by Dalkey Book Festival and was independent of UCD as an institution, Sanders’ warm welcome was weakened by protestors interrupting his response to a question on the conflict.

“Resistance is an obligation in the face of occupation” they shouted, adding that “occupation is terrorism”.

Sanders simply responded to protests by asserting public meetings were an essential part of democracy and disrupting them was wrong: “Good slogan, but slogans are not solutions.”

Pushback at Trinity

Less than 24 hours later, Sanders and his team were waiting in a side room of Trinity’s Exam Hall. In an event organised by the Sanders Institute and New York Ireland Project, Sanders was interviewed by Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole. While turnout for this event was also huge, the €45 ticket forged a different audience from the students who flocked to the Phil the previous day.

Outside the Exam Hall, a small group of pro-Palestinian activists gathered, and were quickly told by security to remove a banner with the words “Boycott Apartheid Israel” painted on it from the locked gates of the Chapel. While they obliged, the group persisted in their protest.

They positioned themselves in prime view for the growing queue that had formed, which tidily snaked across Front Square from the steps of the Exam Hall to far outside Front Gates.

Photo by Ellen Kenny for Trinity News

Their chants included the to-be-expected “Free Palestine”, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, and the more pointed “USA what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?”, as well as short speeches critiquing Sanders’ position.

They were, at times, met with boos from the queue, and a small group of young men shouted back that they should “protest Biden” instead. One young woman, who stood alone in the queue, responded with “from Hamas” after each individual “Free Palestine” chant (with a consistent mispronunciation of the word Hamas).

During the discussion between Sanders and O’Toole, one could occasionally hear the protestors chanting outside, with a small yet persistent alarm reminding Sanders he was not welcomed by all at Trinity.

Broadly speaking, the event was a success, with interesting dialogue between the interviewer and the guest, the occasional joke and subsequent laugh, and applause for Sanders when he praised the Irish people’s 2018 vote to legalise abortion.

It wasn’t until the end of the event, however, in which O’Toole asked two pre-submitted questions from the audience, that protests broke out within the Exam Hall itself.

Photo by Ellen Kenny for Trinity News

A young woman stood up and walked down the aisle, loudly asking the senator why he is yet to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. She was eventually stopped by security, while O’Toole called for polite engagement.

“I don’t like people interrupting me” Sanders said, and was met with applause from most of the audience. He did not answer her question, but saw an opportunity to address the elephant in the room.

Sanders insisted that he had made his “views on Gaza” clear. He pointed to his opposition to US military aid to Israel, harshly criticised Benjamin Netanayahu and his government, and insisted that he was doing everything he can.

People reacted to this final statement, shouting from the very back of the Exam Hall “no, you’re not!”, and “ceasefire now”.

At this, Sanders threw up his right arm in frustration and looked at O’Toole, as if to ask him what would be done. A man, sitting within the first three rows of the audience, calmly asked Sanders about a ceasefire. Sanders then suggested that the man himself should “call Mr. Netanyahu and say, you know, Bibi, I think you should have a ceasefire”.

These disruptive scenes continued for a short while, and Sanders did indeed speak extensively about the topic, concluding in saying “I am more than aware of 27,000 people being killed, two-thirds of them [being] women and children, 70,000 people wounded [and] of 75% of the housing being damaged or destroyed. People can believe it or not – I’m trying to do my best to end that horror.”

Photo by Ellen Kenny for Trinity News

Sanders emphasised that calling for a ceasefire was not as effective as cutting aid to Israel, but while he received consistent applause from the audience, the continued protests showed this is not a view shared by all.

Same college, different receptions

The senator’s Honorary Patronage from the Phil couldn’t have struck a more different tone from Friday’s protests. Indeed, reports state that “he was met with wild enthusiasm” by those in attendance. The structure of the event, however, did demonstrate once again the limit to Sanders’ preferred discourse on this visit.

Typical Honorary Patronage events consist of a speech made by the guest of honour, followed by a dialogue between them and the President of the Phil, and then open questions from the audience. This was not the case for Sanders, who was not asked questions by audience members, but pre-submitted online questions from audience members.

Sources close to the Phil say that Sanders’ team asked them to avoid direct questions about current affairs, presumably in the knowledge of Ireland’s staunch support of the Palestinian cause and the fact that the audience would be primarily student-based. His team, perhaps, did not anticipate the overwhelmingly positive reception that he received.

Sanders’ team likely also did not anticipate multiple interruptions over the course of his other appearances, judging by his frustration with protestors. Despite both Trinity events being hosted by societies who value themselves on dialogue and discourse, it is evident that dissent from Sanders’ preferred topics was discouraged.

Sanders is undoubtedly a popular politician. However his complicated stance on Israel’s assault on Gaza, which depending on point of view can be viewed either as refreshing or frustrating, proves him to not be a populist one.