Columbia University Gaza Solidarity Encampment. Photo: Public Domain Columbia University Gaza Solidarity Encampment. Photo: Public Domain

Palestine solidarity action is holding firm and spreading despite the brutal efforts of university authorities to suppress them, reports Des Freedman

The morning after hundreds of New York City cops smashed up the pro-Palestinian occupation on the campus of Columbia University, the city’s mayor Eric Adams warned that ‘There is a movement to radicalize young people and I’m not going to wait until it’s done and all of a sudden acknowledge the existence of it’.

Adams is right: there is a movement afoot on US campuses and it is radicalising thousands of people who are demanding justice for Palestine.

Since students at Columbia set up the first encampment on 17 April, more than 100 other camps have been established in solidarity with the people of Gaza. It’s a mass movement not seen on US campuses since the anti-Vietnam war protests more than fifty years ago.

Student occupiers are combining broad objectives – calling on US president Joe Biden to stop his weasel words on Gaza and to pressurise Israel for an immediate and lasting ceasefire – with very local demands. For example, activists at both the University of Washington and Portland State University in the Pacific Northwest have demanded that their university cut ties with Boeing, the giant airplane manufacturer and defence company while students at the University of Texas are insisting that not a cent of the university’s nearly $45 billion endowment be invested in companies that do business with Israeli companies.

The student encampments have made issues of divestment and the whole BDS movement headline news in the most dramatic way possible. As well as the usual accusations that they are motivated by anti-Semitism more than a fundamental opposition to genocide, students have also faced horrendous repression from local cops and campus security with more than 2000 people arrested since 18 April. There have been more than 100 arrests alone at institutions including Columbia, City College of New York, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin, Emerson College in Boston and Washington University in St Louis. When students at UCLA were attacked in the middle of the night by pro-Israel thugs, the LA police failed to protect the students and instead simply brutally broke up the occupation later that day.

Repression and resistance

At New York University, the NYPD were called in at 6.10 am on 3 May to ‘sweep’ and arrest peaceful protesters. NYU professor Paula Chakravartty told Counterfire that ‘for a second time within 10 days, the university administration has shown complete disregard for students, staff and faculty by calling riot police on peaceful protests in solidarity with Gaza. American universities are being taken over by authoritarian forces, but students remain steadfast in their commitment to peace and Justice in Palestine.’

From Indiana to New York University and from Columbia to Emory in Atlanta, faculty have shown their solidarity with students by walking out in support or organising no-confidence votes in their bosses. In some cases, even the most inoffensive demonstration of concern for their students – such as that shown by Emory’s chair of Philosophy Noelle McAfee – has been met with violence and arrest.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, AAUP-AFT President Todd Wolfson told Counterfire that his and other campus unions had established 200 ‘faculty defenders’ who were prepared to get arrested to protect students’ right to protest. On 2 May, facing the threat of expulsion, the students had successfully negotiated nine of their eleven demands including a process for divestment, scholarships for displaced Palestinian students, and a possible program in Middle East studies, and suspended the encampment.

What have activists been arrested for? Affray? Incitement? Calling for genocide? Of course not. Students and faculty members have been charged instead with ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘criminal trespass’ despite working and studying in the spaces they’re alleged to have trespassed on.

Meanwhile, students found guilty of trespass are being threatened at the very least with suspension, expulsion and eviction from housing. Suspended students at Washington University were told in no uncertain terms that their ‘continued presence on campus poses a substantial threat to the ability of faculty and other students to continue normal University functions and activities.’

If only universities in Gaza were allowed to continue with ‘normal functions and activities’. As the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted at the start of their encampment: ‘We refuse to accept the mass slaughter of Palestinians as normal or acceptable. As elected officials and media outlets weaponize the concept of “campus safety”, remember that there are no universities left in Gaza.’

Corporate authoritarianism

These aggressive reactions by university administrations are the perfect illustration of the direction of the modern university: more interested in protecting the ‘brand’ and policing both free speech and campuses themselves than in actually protecting the rights of the students who pay their bills. As one Jewish-American UCLA student Ryan told Al Jazeera, ‘the School would rather physically intimidate their students, eventually hurt their students, rather than even consider divestment.’

Yet unlike the media and political establishment with their craven support of Israel, this generation of students is not going to be patronised or physically prevented from taking action. As one professor at Georgetown University has written:

They know that this slaughter [in Gaza] is paid for with American tax dollars. They know that Zionism and Judaism are separate things and that to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism is to empty the latter of all meaning and put Jewish life at risk. They know that to call Israel an apartheid state is not a slogan but a description based on international law and facts on the ground … They know that their universities hold investments in lucrative arms corporations, like Lockhead Martin and Northrup Gruman, which profit from the manufacture of the Hellfire missiles and other U.S. weapons that have killed so many Palestinians in Gaza. They know university endowments support technology companies, like Google, Intel and Elbit Systems, which Israel uses to surveil, detain and kill Palestinians.

The students’ knowledge of what’s going on and their commitment to social justice stands in stark contrast to President Joe Biden who, in a bizarre speech on 2 May, condemned the ‘violence’ of the protestors, embraced the police’s action as upholding ‘the rule of law’ and described racism (despite its long and continuing history in the US) as ‘un-American’. Given his ongoing support for Israel and refusal to countenance a cut in aid, Biden and the Democrats are now likely to face a backlash from younger voters in what looks like a very close presidential election next November in much the same way as Labour is going to lose support from Muslim voters at the next UK general election.

Some may want to dismiss the encampments and wider student protests as ineffectual and irrelevant to the wider conflict. But students have been at the heart of so many powerful social justice movements over the years: from defending abortion and civil rights to opposing apartheid and war. They may not have the power by themselves to deliver the change that’s needed, but they can further open up the cracks in the American establishment’s backing of Israel and inspire others – for example dockers refusing to load ships to Israel and consumers boycotting complicit businesses – to act.

You know that something is shaking up American politics when students in the Republican stronghold of Tampa Bay in Florida left their encampment to take to the streets, chanting ‘Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest’ and ‘The more you try to silence us, the louder we will be’. In the US, it feels like these voices are booming.

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.