Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2903

Students speak out from US protest camps

Campus Palestine protests are sweeping the US. Numbers grow by the day and already the state has arrested more than 1,000 people. An activist in New York spoke to Sophie Squire about what’s at stake
Issue 2903
New York university’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment

New York university’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment (Twitter/ @nyupscoalition)

A student movement is roaring in the heart of imperialism. And the US ruling class is now caught between wanting to smash it—and fearing what happens if it does. “We’ll have our demands met by any means necessary,” Benjamin, a pro-Palestinian student at New York University (NYU), told Socialist Worker last Sunday. 

Benjamin is part of an exciting and growing anti-war movement that has spread to well over 70 US campuses. Its impact dominates nationally and internationally—and it shakes the establishment. The US elite will be hoping that the protests go away, but at the same time it cannot ignore the strength of the students.

Swathes of US politicians have been forced to speak out to smear the ­movement as antisemitic. Joe Biden ­himself said he condemns “the antisemitic protests”. And despite including a core of Jewish students, US leaders paint the protests as dangerous to Jewish students. Even Binyamin Netanyahu spoke out to label them as “horrific”, “unconscionable” and “antisemitic”. This shows the challenge that the students pose—and the potential force they could mobilise.

After more than a week of ­protest, Benjamin explained that students at NYU were ready to up their action. “It’s been a process of learning and realising what we’re up against,” he explained. “At NYU, they sent in riot cops with full gear the first night of the encampment. They arrested over 120 students and faculty and a few others, bringing the total arrests to around 140. 

“We have taken those lessons and are ready to escalate and take things more seriously. Students have realised that the university has absolutely no pretence of civility. We’re getting more prepared to do whatever it takes to meet our demands, whether that’s through encampments, occupation or disruptions.”

Benjamin added that the police has been brutal at NYU. “But it’s made students more resolute. Getting arrested for the first time has obviously been intense for many, but I think the game has changed in many students’ minds. 

“Especially now our university administration has set the cops on us, including the notoriously violent Strategic Response Group, which is a unit of the New York Police Department.” Benjamin added that many students have lost faith in official politics and politicians. 

“Students know politicians are ­grifters and do not welcome them. They say one thing against Zionism but end up approving military aid for Israel. We don’t trust them.” The movement for Palestine on US campuses has also spread worldwide, with occupations springing up in France, Turkey, Italy and Australia. Students in Britain must also take confidence from the movement in the US. 

A united, global student movement that calls out the crimes of ­murderous world leaders, would shake them further. Benjamin explained that students can’t truly win by negotiating with the state or university institutions. “It feels good to be part of this movement,” he said. “But I do believe things need to escalate. 

“I don’t think students should get bogged down in stupid bureaucratic negotiations. I hope we can breach that barrier between the student movement and a wider people’s movement. If this remains a student ­movement, we are doomed to fail. I hope we can turn our campus into a people’s ­university for Gaza. I’m hopeful that we can get there and that we can do the same across campuses.”

‘Our unity made them scramble’ 

Columbia University students that kicked off the wave of occupations stood firm last week after over a week of protests. University bosses at Columbia want to contain the protests as quickly as possible. The university was forced by the action to negotiate with the students, who built an encampment outside the West Lawn. 

However students have said negotiations are not progressing, and the university is only ramping up the repression. The Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group said the university administration was considering a campus-wide lockdown. This would evict thousands of students from their accommodation. 

The SJP replied, “We are consistently a step ahead of Columbia admin. While the administration will continue to employ scare tactics, we will stay calm and hold them accountable publicly. Our collective unity and response has already made them scramble. Our message to Columbia admin stands. We will not be moved.” Students have also announced plans to withhold paying tuition fees if their demands aren’t met.

Public universities part of the struggle too

It’s not just students at elite private universities that are rising up. A video of a student hitting a police officer with a water container who was trying to break up their occupation at Humboldt Polytechnic College, a public university, went viral last week. 

The water container has become a symbol of the student movement. Students at Humboldt in California transformed their campus into a “liberation zone” and built barricades at every entrance. The university’s Siemens Hall was renamed Intifada Hall by the occupation. 

The university president Tom Jackson said students weren’t occupying for “noble causes” and described them as criminals. This didn’t stop them. Students broke into Jackson’s office and scrawled “blood on your hands” on the walls. Riot cops with bulldozers arrived at the campus last Saturday, but left after protesters began gathering to protect the occupation. 

A Humboldt student said, “When the occupation started, we brought our homework. We thought this would be a casual sleepover, and we thought the response from the police would be mild. The police rolled in and said, you’ve got to go outside. The police immediately started manhandling students.”

The student added that the movement is an expression of rage against the rotten US empire. “The reason why these protests have been met with such violence is because the state doesn’t want to see a repeat of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement,” they added. “Sentiment about the police is at an all-time low.

“People are publicly calling to defund, if not abolish, the police. More than ever since Covid, since the death of George Floyd and since rampant poverty and inflation, people are realising that the deal that those of us who live in at the centre of the US empire isn’t even that good. Increasingly, people are not interested in taking that deal.” 

Southern cops relish their violent history

Students at universities in southern states faced some of the most violent repression from the state for their pro‑Palestine protests. The police used Tasers, rubber bullets, and tear gas against students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday last week. A day after, over 500 people gathered in protest at the Emory quad and chanted, “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go!”

The Emory students’ SJP pointed out how Palestine protests have grown massively in the last week. The group posted a picture on its Instagram of a very small protest it had organised in February besides a much larger protest it had organised this week. Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on the state’s troopers to crush student protests at the University of Texas.

But students fought back, linking arms and forming lines to stop the cops from taking hold of their campus. After hours of resisting attacks from the police, the students were able to push the police from their campus. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, students have been occupying the Kirkland Hall building since 26 March. 

Pro-Palestinian students started the occupation because university bosses decided to cancel a referendum on whether the university should uphold Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Students at North Carolina State and Duke universities joined to build an encampment outside North Carolina’s South Building.

College workers stand with students

Students aren’t fighting alone. Workers are taking action and standing with them. A group of educators at the University of Texas wrote a statement stating they would be taking part in “No classes, No grading. No assignments. No work” while the cops occupy their university. 

The group added that there could be no “business as usual” until they left. Last Friday members of the UAW union marched through the streets of New York to show their solidarity with the NYU encampment. 

And at the Gallatin School of Individualised Study—a school within NYU—workers voted in favour of a no-confidence motion in NYU president Linda Mills for calling the cops on students. Other workers are putting themselves between the students and the lines of cops invading their campuses. 

Steven Thrasher, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said, “Once we heard that they were going to be doing this encampment, we wanted to be here as a presence to help protect them and support them.” ,He explained that workers and students used a colour code system to identify whether they were willing to be arrested. The assistant professor explained that red indicates a willingness to risk arrest. 

“I’m a level red,” said Thrasher. “I was horrified to see students (around the country) being assaulted by cops. So I wanted to put my body on the line before they could touch our students.”

Lessons from 1968 revolt 

Many students see the parallels between their protests and the great anti-Vietnam protests in the US during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Beth Massey, who took part in protests at Columbia in 1968, told crowds there last week “There were students that were killed at Kent State and Jackson State, and we have to remember them. 

“That doesn’t mean stop what you’re doing and cower. It means make it bigger and bigger and bigger.” The repression today, as in the 1960s, is a reminder of the lengths that the US state will go to crush anti-war movements.

In May 1970 around four million students walked out of their classrooms to protest against the war. It’s this kind of action—especially if combined with workers’ action, that has the potential to crack the Democrats’ support for Israel.

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