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The birth of a global student movement: international voices from Palestine encampments

Over 500 students, workers and their supporters joined an international Zoom call on Wednesday linking student encampments for Palestine. It debated the political basis of the actions—and put out a call for a global day of action on 15 May. Here are some of the contributions by activists outside Britain.
Issue 2905
Police using pepper spray against pro-Palestine students at the Sorbonne

Cops attack pro-Palestine students at the Sorbonne in Paris (Picture: Tiphaine Blot on Twitter)

Rachel, a PhD student at Columbia University in New York

I’m a rank and file member of Student Workers of Columbia United Auto Workers Local 2710, which is a part of the coalition of 100 student groups making up the movement since October. I’m also one of the student workers participating in a sickout at Columbia that began on Monday.

Hundreds of student workers are withholding our labour to demand the New York Police Department (NYPD) is removed from our campus. We’re demanding that all student protesters, including the brave students who took over Hind Hall, be granted full amnesty by the university.

At the centre of our organising is Palestine. As students and workers at elite institutions in the imperial core, we know that unless we take action, we are complicit in a brutal and ongoing genocide.

In addition, we’re fighting against the repression of this movement, against the serious legal charges on students and faculty and the attacks from the right.

We’re demanding that they divest their investments from all corporations and organisations that support or benefit from this genocide and apartheid. And this is a drop in the bucket of global investment and imperialism and militarism.

But we believed when these protests began on 17 April that demanding divestment from Colombia was crucial. If we could force this institution to divest, it would create a domino effect.

And we now know that intuition is correct. This institution, which was egged on by the federal government, by the mayor of New York City, brought down brutal, violent state repression on a bunch of peaceful protesters.

They wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t represent a threat to the political status quo in the United States and its material support for Israel. If we weren’t a threat, they wouldn’t have beaten us. And to be very clear, Columbia administration and the NYPD are the number one threat to student safety on our campus. Columbia invited a notoriously deadly, violent, and racist police force onto our campus.

The police discharged a weapon in a classroom and tried to cover it up. Several of our students and union members were injured, including three who ended up in the hospital. Our comrades at universities across the United States face violent repression because together organised students and workers present a threat to imperialism everywhere—and labour action is the next step.

It’s the main thing that hasn’t been present in this fight yet. Massive student protests and public outcry have gone really far and the labour movement needs to step up and join. Not just by making statements, not just by mobilising members into street protests, not just by educating members internally—but by actually withholding our labour.

Now is the time. Many of us have been on strike in the last few years. We have the networks and the relationships with our co-workers and the physical infrastructure to strike. We know how to do it.

Other organised workers across the US are withholding their labour. At Columbia, we are withholding our labour for two demands, cops off campus and full amnesty for the student protesters.

At City University of New York, rank and file workers held a sick out on May Day and refused to work. This challenged a law which makes it illegal for public sector workers in New York to go on strike ever.

There is also a grading strike happening at NYU, calls for a strike at the New School and really, really historically in California, United Auto Workers Local 4811, which represents student workers—then and tens of thousands of them, has called for a strike authorisation vote this week about divestment specifically. These actions are historic.

We’re taking these actions not just because Palestine is a labour issue for us personally. All workers are hurt when they’re forced to work for a boss that is complicit in genocide. We stand in full solidarity of the international working class and in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

I want to encourage everybody who thinks that their union would never take action for Palestine. Our organising on our campus has never seen as much interest or as many workers or think that we are right now around Palestine. And finally, really quickly, I want to emphasise the importance of organising together in assemblies like this one.

This is incredibly important, what you’ve built today, sharing information and tactics, discussing and debating and making decisions together as workers.

It’s incredible that professors and student workers are joining the students in the encampment and everyone is putting their bodies on the line to defend each other and to fight back against the enormous amount of repression. And we put ourselves in harm’s way because we cannot tolerate another day of our labour being used to fund a genocide.

Sara, a recent graduate from Birzeit university in the occupied West Bank

Birzeit became a university in the 1970s and since then until today Israeli forces have closed the university over 15 times for periods ranging from four days to 1,571 days.

Students should not just come to university to get information and take exams, but must be socially active and immersed in the issues of the people.

The educational journey must be one of liberation from colonialism. Education must be liberated from imperial, Euro-American, white constraints. It can’t be education based on individualism, selfishness and indoctrination.

My most memorable incident during  my four years of university is the funeral of Jawad and Thafer. They were two brothers who were shot dead and killed by Israeli forces near Ramallah and we said their final goodbyes inside the campus.

Large number of students in Birzeit are politically active. And therefore, the annual election for the student council is not just to select a representative for academic, financial and material demands for the student but also reflecting the political opinions of the student. 

There is a representation for both Palestinian right and left in universities. The student movement started to become very active during the 70s when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) also was very active. And in the 80s the students helped in and encouraged to ignite the first intifada.

However, after the Oslo agreement came, both the Israeli occupation forces and the Palestine Authority pushed the idea that universities are only for studying—which I totally disagree with. 

With all appreciation to all the encampments around the world, I do not believe there is a valid comparison between the demonstrations in the American and European universities and those in Palestinian universities. 

What you are doing by supporting Gaza, it’s you as citizens and students in the colonising community asserting your right to express opinions. Perhaps you’ll go beyond that to genuine political action, and that’s great. There is no comparison for me between people from colonisers expressing their desires not to be current colonisers and those of us being colonised in Palestine. 

Here, confrontation against Israeli occupation and being an activist inside the campus could cost your life. It’s an existential struggle and when our voices are raised there are hands with guns and fists put into our faces.

I sincerely believe that the Palestinian cause is the moral compass for global issues and in the liberation of Palestine you find your own liberation. This awareness is important in the struggle inside the encampments and in our shared struggle against global imperialism.

Eshah is a national rep for Students for Justice in Palestine, which has been part of coordinating the wave of encampments and actions across US universities.

Students for Justice in Palestine in the last few weeks has launched the popular University of Gaza as a campaign in the wake of the current escalations happening on campuses. It is inspired in part by the traditions of the freedom schools of the black Civil Rights movement. It aims to consolidate the coordinated mass movement of students, faculty and staff.

What we are doing is forcing our universities into a situation where they must answer the community calls for divestment. And we’re cultivating a counter-space to distance ourselves from the system that the university has invested in.

What we are doing is taking back the university. We are asserting the willingness and undeniable ability to dismantle the system itself through a critical mass of students, faculty and staff. We choose Palestinian liberation over maintaining the universities’ legitimacy and despite the police brutality and the violent repression that we’re seeing.

This has transcended our borders and we are seeing a global student intifada. And we carry this mantle proudly. We see divestment—knowing that our universities are invested in these systems of oppression—as the core demand of what we want to see out of these encampments.

Now is the time to escalate, and now is the time to act. Our students are responding to that call through their encampments, through their occupations, showing both our universities and the leaders of our country that we will not be complicit in this genocide.

Students are playing the most crucial role. We know that the people of Gaza are watching and we have a responsibility to respond to that more. Furthermore, people are looking at our youth as the forefront of our struggle.

Students have reinvigorated this movement. They lead this movement and they transform society.

Ruby, Palestine Youth Movement, California

UCLA had a very aggressive experience with the encampment. And the reason that we got that response was because of the power that the students built in UCLA and principles that they were pushing. They were exposing UCLA as an agent of the imperialist project.

There was a high Zionist presence from the very beginning. And students experienced a lot of push back from the Zionists. They used tactics like blasting music at 5am and throwing fireworks into the encampment.

And the administration used that as justification to empty out the encampment. So what we see here is very clearly an analogy of how Zionist interests are aligned with the US imperialist interests that the administration represents.

Zionists were able to use violence without being stopped, against students who were rightfully there on their own campus.

But although the aggression was intense, people have endured. And although the violence was really at a high level, the spirits of the community and at UCLA are stronger than before.

They have built an understanding of the encampment as a tactic in a larger project of building power and building the movement for liberation.

UCLA students have said they’re willing to go through the violence a hundred times over as long as it gets them closer to divestment, as long as it gets them closer to Palestinian liberation.  

UCLA and the LA community have a strong political consciousness of what it means to sacrifice for Palestine and to work towards the liberation of Palestine. And we’re seeing that the community here is more invigorated than ever before.

Fatima is the general secretary of Progressive Students Federation in Pakistan

Theoretically, governing regimes in Pakistan pay lip service to Palestine due to the pressure from the public but we’re more interested in building meaningful solidarity. So the people of Pakistan have proven time and time again that they will not stand by any decision to normalise ties with Israel ever.

This is among the demands of the current student protests. We’re also demanding an immediate ceasefire, the removal of the ambassadors of the US, Britain Germany and France until their countries acknowledge Israel’s genocide and the complete liberation of Palestine and the state endorsement of the BDS movement.

Student unions in Pakistan have been banned for 40 years now. And upon admission in educational institutions, students are made to sign affidavits banning them from any sort of activity.

Nevertheless, we have been organising for years for Palestine. We organised a march last year in November in which thousands of people answered the call and came to the city squares.

The Left Democratic Front, an alliance of left parties, also had a countrywide day of action for Palestine in which large demonstrations took place in dozens of cities.

Students in Lahore also heckled the German ambassador at a human rights conference and they also protested outside the US consulate. So last week we initiated a countrywide campaign on campuses and so far we’ve covered almost 15 campuses. And this number is expected to reach over 35 campuses by next week.

For people of the land which was colonised for two centuries by the British, we know how important it is to build solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Ismael, Sciences Po, Paris

We’ve been campaigning a lot since October, but we decided to start in terms of escalation a few weeks ago. We face a lot of police repression. Actually, our campaign didn’t survive even one night of occupation before the university called the police. And this is unprecedented in the French context.

We haven’t seen these scenes since 1968, which is very important. We are exposing a double standard when it comes to talking about Palestine—supposed free speech and the reality of repression.

We have to make sure that we as students are always focusing on Gaza. But at the same time, internally we’re destroying our institutions who are now ripping themselves apart because faculty and professors are going wild.

Angus, Sydney university, Australia

Since 7 October we’ve been building a campaign. And there’s been some highs such as when Tel Aviv University came onto our campus for an exchange fair and we occupied the building to kick them off.

But the encampment has been deeply needed because our university is massively complicit in Israel’s genocide and students want to fight but don’t know how.

The response since we started the encampment a little over two weeks ago has been massive. When the Zionists tried to shut us down, we organised a massive counter-rally.

We’ve stuck to the same politics we’ve been arguing for since 7 October and before but with a much more active and much broader audience.

It’s very important that there is now a growing anti-imperialist pole in the Palestine movement. It’s linked to a growing awareness of issues such as Aukus—the alliance of Australia, the US and UK and the war on China. Students and staff don’t have to accept the militarisation and wars.

Universities have huge numbers of students but they are also massive workplaces. And some of the most inspiring scenes from the US are workers taking action in defence of student rights.

We’re working towards more of that in Australia. In Sydney the staff union will be voting in just a few hours to implement an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

The call also heard from activists in British universities, and from the victory at Goldsmiths university in south London.

Marc from Goldsmiths university in south London

We set out to campaign against our university’s moral and financial complicity in the genocide that started to take place after 7 October.

We were initially following the national call outs for walkouts and protests on campus but it was becoming evident to us as a group that it was easy to ignore us.

So we decided to issue a letter to our senior management team with key demands. These were around issuing a new statement for an immediate ceasefire and a commitment to uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression.

We demanded management protect the right for students to protest on campus. And we demanded it officially commit to rebuilding Gaza and educational infrastructure and establish links with Palestinian universities. We called for an expansion in scholarships as well as the divestment from a number of complicit investments, and removal of the IHRA definition on antisemitism.

And it was also evident that these demands wouldn’t be met without severe escalation. So following the walkouts we were doing, we decided to storm the council meeting with all of the governance bodies at the university present. And then, following again being ignored, we decided to occupy one of the main buildings on campus.

This was the Stuart Hall building. We shut this building down entirely and managed to draw the senior management team to negotiations. In these we managed to verbally get a number of commitments that addressed all of the demands that just said previously.

However, we left that occupation without getting a published statement of commitments and a timeline for the fulfilment of these commitments. It’s what we wanted so that they could be publicly held accountable. And therefore, on 1 May we managed to gain entrance to the library building on campus. We decided spontaneously to hold another occupation to demand another meeting with management

This obviously is the main building on campus at the moment with students preparing for exams and assignments. And so management were quick to respond and grant us another meeting in which they’ve publicly released the statement of commitments.

They are now committed to doing a new statement which condemns what’s happening in Gaza. And they’re committed to an expansion in scholarships, including some that are the first of their kind in Britain. And they will review protest guidelines that were introduced in response to our campaign.

They are committed to reviewing and raising the concerns that we have around the investment fund with the view to finding an alternative investment fund. So that should hopefully lead to divestment and from the complicit investments. And there is also a commitment to reviewing the definitions of antisemitism.

  • The call was initiated by Goldsmiths for Palestine and University and College Workers 4 Palestine, and was chaired by Sophia Beach. It was supported by Palestinian Youth Movement, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, UCU London Region, Progressive Students Federation in Pakistan, Media Workers 4 Palestine, Leeds Student Against Apartheid Coalition, Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine & London Student Action for Palestine.

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