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What My Students and I Learned in Jail After Protesting on the UTD Campus

Ben Wright, a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, reflects on the arrests following an on-campus demonstration against the war in Gaza.
History professor Ben Wright, wearing a suit, photographed after being released from the Collin County Jail on May 2, 2024. Yaakub Ira

I am a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. At 4:03 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1, I was arrested along with 20 other faculty, students, alumni, and community members.

Fifteen minutes earlier, university administrators released a statement assuring the protection of peaceful student protest and freedom of speech. Along with this assurance came an immediate order to disperse a student-created “Gaza Liberation” encampment calling for the university to divest from five weapons companies responsible for the systematic killing of Palestinian people. As a historian, I teach my students about the importance of citing sources with clarity and specificity, so I noticed that the order did not reference any specific campus policies. Still, I attempted to comply.

A ring of students locked arms and sat calmly at the center of the encampment. A colleague and I stood silently well outside the encampment but between the students and the army of riot-gear-clad state troopers, who were flanked by officers from at least four other law enforcement agencies. They massed in front of what appeared to be a tank. Behind us, another professor implored the advancing officers that force was unnecessary. I had no illusion that an out-of-shape, middle-aged professor could actually offer physical protection for my students, but I believe in peaceful protest. This was my attempt to demonstrate disapproval of an extreme and unnecessary show of force. For this, I was arrested with 20 others. We face up to six months in jail on charges of criminal trespassing at the university where we study, teach, and learn.

We were chained at the wrist, feet, and legs, and piled into police vans. There we sat for almost 30 minutes in a metallic, un-air conditioned, sunbaked sweat box before being brought to a jail in an adjacent county where an officer lectured us about the “suicide” of Sandra Bland. Despite being arrested in Dallas County, we were booked into the Collin County Jail and arraigned. We will be tried in the neighboring, more conservative jurisdiction.

This has been an overwhelming experience. People who I love and respect expressed their wishes that I rot in jail. Many more expressed care and support. I mostly just wanted to get back to work. After being released on bond, I raced to campus to teach the final session of my class on the history of religion in the United States.

Ben Wright and a colleague prior to being arrested during a demonstration against the war in Gaza. Yaakub Ira

The purpose of a university is to foster students’ free inquiry as they think and care deeply about the world they’ve inherited. A jail is not the type of classroom that is typically featured in publicity materials for donors, but our students learned a great deal behind bars that day. I did, too. I swelled with pride as I heard them eagerly discussing their academic interests, ranging from computer systems engineering to biochemistry to digital video design to the history of precolonial Africa. They joyfully and eagerly connected with the other inmates, recommending their favorite books and encouraging several to finish their uncompleted degrees or otherwise pursue their intellectual interests. These students are remarkable. They are smart, curious, and courageous. It was a privilege to learn from them.

We also learned from the other inmates, who showed the exact opposite response of our university administrators. Just after the people paid to look after the students called down a violent attack, the strangers we met in jail demonstrated compassion and care. One inmate discovered he was going to be a father the day of our arrival. He had been entangled in the legal system for a decade since he was picked up with half a joint at the age of 20, ending his college career as an anthropology student. All of us eagerly hope he launches his promised blog and podcast where he can share his insights with you that he shared with us, including an impressive knowledge about the Mande people of West Africa.

The starkest lesson was one that many, especially poor Americans, know all too well: the brutality of the American legal system. The most common cry we heard in jail was a yearning to lie down. Inmates had been spending up to 48 hours without beds, restricted to one of two places at the whim of the guards. The first place included two crowded holding pens with cement floors and small metal benches where only a fraction of us could sit, much less lie down on the ground. The other space was a larger room with rigid plastic chairs where lying on the ground was strictly prohibited and even reclining too much risked angering the guards who kicked the feet of one of our students before dragging him to the holding pen.

Most of the students were incredulous at policies clearly designed to increase suffering. The other inmates in turn were often incredulous at the students’ surprise. Many knew from past experience that this is how the system works. Now we know that, too. The dissemination of this type of knowledge to students has a historical antecedent. The repression of the Freedom Rides in the 1960s exposed a generation of college students to the stark realities of state violence. Like those from more than a half century ago, our students have new, hard-earned but important, lessons to teach our academic communities.

This past fall, I enjoyed a difficult but important conversation with a colleague who I very much respect and who I know feels very differently than I do about events in Gaza. Among other things, he noted that students are students; they have come to our universities to learn. And he is absolutely correct. We as faculty have the privilege of sharing knowledge that is gained only after years, if not decades, of study. The present crisis in Gaza and the rash of attacks on student protests are both opportunities to educate, and it is imperative that we connect the knowledge from our specialties to the great issues of the day, both today and every day. So after learning about the encampment before our arrests, I sought to channel the student energy into a meaningful educational opportunity and asked the student leaders if I might share some readings. Five hours later, the police threw those readings in the garbage. 

History suggests that students also have something to teach us. Students have often been at the vanguard of our democratic experiment, whether it be the Lane Rebels protesting slavery in 1834, the Tuskegee student uprising against industrial education in 1903, the 1917 College Day in the women’s suffrage movement (the same year’s UT-Austin students rallied against Governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson), the 1925 Fisk University students who ousted their university president after he sent Nashville police to break up their protests, the 1930s resistance to the Red Scare, the courageous sit-ins and other forms of activism during the civil rights movement, the massive student protests against the Vietnam War, the anti-Apartheid boycotts of the 1980s, or the current generation who condemns the mass death in Gaza and the abuses of modern policing. We make a great mistake if we do not support students’ right to think, learn, and act–especially in a university, a place dedicated to creating thinkers, learners, and leaders. Their curiosity and passion are essential for our democracy.

The sniper rifles, tear gas cannons, and armored vehicles that appeared at UT Dallas have no place on college campuses. But questions do. Even hard, unsettling questions. Questions like whether the deaths of thousands in Gaza constitutes ethnic cleansing or genocide. Questions about the morality of the university’s vast investment in weapons companies. Questions about the purpose and utility of protest, civil disobedience, and the divestment movement. I applaud our students for asking these questions, and I look forward to continuing to learn from them.

Ben Wright is a history professor at UT Dallas with a specialty in abolition studies.