By: Macy Meinhardt | Voice & Viewpoint Staff Writer, special to NNPA

Mateo Olmos, a San Diego State Graduate student is among the thousands of students right now actively exercising their freedom of speech in opposition to the war in Gaza.

“I don’t identify as Middle Eastern or Palestinian, I am Black and Mexican, but I do have friends that identify with both cultures, and I feel strongly about the liberation of people and helping the oppressed be free,” said Olmos, a graduate student in the Public Health Department.

Voice & Viewpoint caught up with Mateo last Tuesday as the “Walk out for Palestine” demonstration was ending at the university. Sporting a Martin Luther King t-shirt and Palestine flag in hand, directly across from him was an Israeli student holding up the Flag of Israel. The conversation was peaceful, but the scene was a sharp contrast to the images seen just an hour ago within the newsroom. Chaotic encounters of police arresting students, and violent engagements between Jewish and Palestinian students dominated the news cycle and took over our television. What was seen in front of Hepner Hall at SDSU couldn’t be farther than that.

“I feel like it is fair to get both points of view, because when people are protesting and there are counter protests or a conflict, there should be room for discussion. Both sides feel strongly about what they believe in, and I find it important to understand the opposing view and both sides of what is going on,” said Mateo.

Specifically, among their Jewish and Palestinian students, many campuses have been grappling with the intersection of free speech, censorship, and academic freedom in a way that does not marginalize any belief.  Students in support of Palestine have made their reasoning to demonstrate clear: to call upon their institution to cut financial ties with funding sources supporting Israel. Meanwhile, in the wake of this heightened intensity, many Jewish students feel as if their safety is threatened and the demonstrations display antisemitic undertones.

In controversial mitigation efforts, across 68 campuses since April 12, AP has recorded that 2,400 plus student arrests have been made by law enforcement. Those numbers continue to rise, as of this week,64 UCSD students and supporters at the Gaza Solidarity encampment on campus were arrested by law enforcement for their peaceful protest.

Meanwhile over at SDSU the walk, organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, drew a crowd of over 1,000 students gathered in front of SDSU’s Hepner Hall to listen to speeches and rally peacefully in solidarity with Palestine.

“The turnout was great. There were a lot of people. It was peaceful. There was no violence. There was no vandalism— that I know of— just chalk, and the people calmly dispersed after, it was great,” said Olmos.

Officials report that there were no incidents that occurred on Tuesday. In a statement issued by the school, they said: “As a public university, and as aligned with our institutional values, San Diego State University must allow for constitutionally protected free speech and an individual’s right to acts of peaceful protest.”

According to Mateo: “we’re standing up against government powers that have control of our money and have control of our voices and opinions, and a lot of the time they do things that we don’t agree with. And so the people have the right to protest against children, mothers, women, men and families who are losing their lives, and nobody wants to see anybody lose a life. The Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, Palestinian Christian any—nobody wants to see anybody lose a life.”

What did the Israeli student share with you? 

“He talked to me about how his family is from Israel and the time he lived there. He told me how he protests the government in Israel and does not believe in what they are doing and how there are a number of people who are protesting their government there as well.”

“I find it necessary and important to speak to people and get their point of view. And I actually learned a lot from that young man, so I’m glad I spoke to him.” Mateo reflects.

However, Mateo emphasizes that there is still a need to recognize what is transpiring in the United States and Israel, as well as the plight of the Palestinian people who are victims of displacement and genocide.  Understanding the intricate context of history is essential, he noted.

Whether or not the students will ever see eye to eye, Mateo states that he ultimately recognizes that everyone is a human being in this conflict.

“Life is valuable. You don’t get to choose where you’re born or what culture you’re in. People have the right to live.”

As students and young people across the country navigate the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mateo’s willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints and his call for empathy underscore the universal value of human life and dignity. In a world where voices over this issue continuously clash, the message resonates: regardless of differences, every individual deserves the right to live in peace.

Read our latest report on the developing landscape of college protests: HERE.