Republican senator Tom Cotton calls for vigilantism to break up Gaza protests

<span>Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, in 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, in 2021.Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

The Republican senator Tom Cotton has urged Americans to “take matters into their own hands” when encountering pro-Palestine supporters, an apparent call to vigilantism as Israel’s military strikes in Gaza continued despite global calls for a ceasefire.

Demonstrations on Monday by supporters of Palestine blocked roads in major US cities, including New York and Philadelphia; delayed flights at the bustling Chicago O’Hare and Seattle-Tacoma international airports; and caused traffic congestion on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

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Cotton, a Republican, eventually appeared on Fox News and labeled the protesters “criminals”. He also expressed his sympathy for the people whose commutes were interrupted by Monday’s demonstrations, which demanded that the US government drop its military support of Israel.

Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, killing 1,100 mostly civilians and taking hostages. Israel responded with a ground and air onslaught that has killed more than 30,000 mostly women and children as well as pushed the region to famine.

The far-right senator from Arkansas told the Fox News host Sandra Smith that as far as he was concerned, those who deserved his sympathies were “all those people who are trying to get to work or trying to pick up a kid”.

He also said he “very worried about the diversion of police resources where it needs to be stopping crime in cities like San Francisco, where firefighters are having to go there when they might have calls for fires out”.

He soon went further, arguing that people in his state would inflict bodily violence on the protesters, whom he called “antisemitic” and “pro-Hamas”.

“If something like this happened in Arkansas on a bridge there – let’s just say I think there’d be a lot of very wet criminals that have been tossed overboard, not by law enforcement, but by the people whose road they’re blocking,” Cotton said.

“If they glued their hands to a car or the pavement, well, [it would be] probably pretty painful to have their skin ripped off. But I think that’s the way we’d handle it in Arkansas.”

Cotton said he “would encourage most people anywhere that get stuck behind criminals like this who are trying to block traffic, to take matters in their own hands” and solve the problem without involving police.

It is not the first time Cotton had expressed such sentiments. In a notorious 2020 New York Times op-ed headlined Send In the Troops, the senator likened Black Lives Matter protests to a rebellion and urged the government to deploy the US military against demonstrators by invoking the Insurrection Act.

“The Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military ‘or any other means’ in ‘cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws,’” Cotton wrote. “These rioters, if not subdued, not only will destroy the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens but will also take more innocent lives. Many poor communities that still bear scars from past upheavals will be set back still further.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

At the time, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement were exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and advocate for social justice after a white Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in plain view of a cellphone camera.

Cotton argued in the 2020 piece that “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants”. He also falsely claimed that anti-fascist – or “antifa” – members had infiltrated Black Lives Matter marches, meriting a military response.

Mainstream reaction to Cotton’s op-ed was largely negative, forcing the Times to issue a statement saying that the piece did not meet its editorial standards and should not have been published. The editorial page editor subsequently resigned, and his deputy was reassigned.