Wed Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

Students Rally to Defend Palestine

By CARLOS SAPIR

Across North America, students have been facing down their university administrations and the police to challenge these institutions’ lockstep support for the state of Israel and its genocidal war against the Palestinian people. The eruption of these protests has been so staggering that the media has struggled to account for the full number of campuses and students participating in them, with even sympathetic outlets such as Al Jazeera struggling to tally up a full and accurate count over the weekend (as of this writing, they list 49 U.S. colleges and universities and 10 internationally across Europe and Australia).

At these universities, students have attempted to set up encampments and occupy space in outdoor areas (or in some cases, in administrative buildings). While a few of these encampments have been allowed to continue peacefully, the majority have been immediately attacked by police forces, which often succeed in dispersing the camp and arresting participants, only for students to reestablish it later on.

Students at universities such as Emory (in Georgia), University of Texas at Austin, and Ohio State University have faced brutal assaults by the police, including the deployment of tear gas and reports of handcuffed protesters being tased by the police. Arrests have taken place at more than 30 campuses nationwide, culminating with the arrest of over 300 students in New York City on the night of April 30. The detainees in New York included students who had been occuping a building at Columbia University and dozens of protesters at City College.

Many universities have also levied threats against students’ academic status and employment should they continue to participate in protests, with some suspensions already in force. Repression has been redoubled by Israeli and U.S. politicians who have rotely, baselessly accused students of antisemitism (despite the significant, vocal presence of Jewish activists within the encampments themselves) and denounced the students as Nazis even as they send in the riot police.

Why is this taking place now? Encampments have been a typical tactic of student activists, with some protesters explicitly connecting their current efforts to historical acts of activism at their universities in relation to South African apartheid and other causes. Earlier encampments were used to protest in the current Israeli invasion of Gaza, with examples occurring at Stanford University (California) and Smith College (Massachusetts) in November and March, respectively.

The current fever pitch of organizing must be attributed in part to the combination of an encampment attempt at Columbia University coinciding with the U.S. Congress summoning Columbia president Minouche Shafik to berate her for employing professors who have diligently studied and denounced Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and for allowing students to protest. Shafik completely failed to defend her university, conceded virtually every point to the Congress’s McCarthyite inquisition, and proceeded to order the arrest of student protesters at Columbia and threaten them with suspension, including threats of retaliation against student-worker organizers affiliated to UAW 2710. Students at Columbia, joined by community members rallying to the Palestinian cause, managed to defend their encampment. Then the news reported on the uncovering of mass graves in Gaza and the campus Palestine movement burst into action, rushing to follow Columbia’s example.

Encampments have varied in size, with the largest amassing a continuous presence of a few hundred students, supported by many more doing the logistical work of transporting food and supplies to maintain their presence, and swelling to include thousands during rallies organized in support. Small attempts by a handful of students have typically been quickly dispersed by police; other isolated student activists have joined forces to participate in encampments at nearby universities.

The encampments have raised demands that universities adhere to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and sever ties with Israeli institutions and arms manufacturers, denouncing the universities’ and the U.S. government’s ongoing complicity in the genocide being carried out in Gaza. The encampments are being encouraged and coordinated by National Students for Justice in Palestine, and have also received support from faculty unions, graduate student unions, and civil liberties organizations, including the formation of a national, union-based civil liberties’ defense coalition.

As of this writing on May 1, most universities that had previously negotiated or peacefully ignored the protests have switched to sending in large, heavily armed contingents of police to violently break up the camps.

Combined with the fast approaching end of the school year (ranging from late April to early June), the movement is now faced with the critical task of figuring out how to consolidate efforts before the student populations leave campus for the summer. While this has led some to make frantic calls for “escalation” by the small core of organizers already willing to sacrifice their careers or even lives for Palestinian liberation, it seems unlikely that these forces—students and faculty who at best have the support of student-worker unions, but much more frequently lack any broader organization beyond their immediate core of Palestine activists—will be able to wield enough leverage on their own to make any appreciable shift in university policy (let alone U.S. or Israeli policy).

Rather than allowing this spark of resistance to flare out, we must conserve our forces and continue to bring new people into the Palestine solidarity movement. The spontaneous heroism of the student encampments is inspiring broader layers of people to take action around Palestine. Activists need to be looking for as many openings as possible to broaden and strengthen the struggle on campus and beyond. This means having concrete plans for continuing Palestine solidarity activity throughout the summer—conferences, teach-ins, protests, and all possible avenues of bringing in new forces and helping to fortify the current activists.

Working-class people all over the U.S. are agitated by what they see happening in Palestine and on university campuses, even if not everyone is ready to themselves join (let alone build) an encampment. While students at Yale and UConn organized encampments on the weekend of the 27th, the Connecticut Palestine Solidarity Coalition organized a march of thousands, one of the largest that the state has seen. People are rightfully outraged at the suppression of peaceful protest, a democratic freedom that they believed they had but which they now see being ripped away by heavily armed police. There is an opening to connect the student movement with broader labor struggles through defense campaigns (including both passing resolutions/signing petitions and physically mobilizing civil liberties pickets) and mass action calling for immediately ending U.S. funding to Israel and dropping all charges against protestors here.

At the same time, we need to be wary of attempts to rechannel this movement into efforts to elect Democrats; the Democratic Party is the party that has enabled the Israeli war effort since the beginning. Politicians have already begun to play their shell game with the movement. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke commented that he is “proud” of UT Austin students standing against police repression, AOC visited the Columbia encampment, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley put out a statement urging “restraint” to law enforcement, etc. While there is no need to reject these shows of support out of hand, as they help to give legitimacy and defense to the movement, we have to also understand that they come with the expectation that these token gestures will pay off later for the politicians and the Democratic Party.

We cannot win an end to funding to Israel, or even just the end of police repression of protests calling for it, by electing unaccountable officials who are then atomized in government and forced to fit the mold of the party apparatus, approving military budget after military budget. We need dedicated, repeated mass protests in the streets that keep up the pressure and demonstrate that while the Democratic Party might support the war, the democratic will of the majority of society does not.

To both steer clear of the Democratic Party and the dead end of martyrdom for martyrdom’s sake, we need to build mass rallies and win union support to clear, principled demands around Palestine and civil liberties. The dissonance between people’s beliefs about “free speech” under capitalism and the reality of universities’ response to dissent is extremely agitational and needs to be capitalized on. By organizing mass rallies with core demands around freedom of speech, academic freedom, an end to the war on Gaza, and an end to apartheid, we can bring in enormous layers of workers concerned by the attacks on democratic rights and put them in contact with organizers who can help them set in motion the next round of rallies. By doing so with clear demands around ending arms shipments to Israel and giving full democratic rights for all Palestinians, we position the movement on footing that cannot be finessed into fitting a Democratic Party platform that continues to support Israeli apartheid.

Beyond how to continue mobilizing for the next few months, the chaos inherent to organizing all of these disparate actions across universities without a centralized, democratic framework shows the need for the formation of a dedicated antiwar movement, rooted in unions and student organizations, that can provide a democratic planning ground for nationwide organizing. Democracy is not just an abstract right that we demand of the government: it is our best tool for developing political thought and our best defense against infiltration. While paranoia and secrecy may go hand in hand, open and democratic political decision-making guarantees that we control our own politics by subjecting proposals to the movement’s own scrutiny and deliberation. Such a coalition is what we need to bring student groups and unions together to discuss how to best combine our forces and put an end to the war against Palestine.

The level of protest in the past months has been so high that supporters and detractors alike have been comparing it to the 1960s. Opportunities for political organizing seem to be springing up everywhere. The most essential lessons from the antiwar movement include developing nationally coordinated, open, and democratic coalitions capable of organizing and mobilizing hundreds of thousands through collective discussion, which were essential to its growth.

Throughout the movement against the war in Vietnam, there were a number of examples of such coalitions. An important one was the Student Mobilizing Committee (SMC), which included everyone committed to mass action of the broadest layers possible and the basic demand of “Bring the Troops Home Now!” The SMC was a major factor in organizing historic mass mobilizations and student strikes, including on April 26, 1968 that saw over 100,000 public school students (high school and college) on strike in New York City alone.

The initiating body for the student strike is described by participant Fred Halstead: “The January 27-29, 1968, conference of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam was the largest up to that time, and the major antiwar conference of the period. More than 900 students and youth from 110 colleges and 40 high schools in some twenty-five states registered. There were even a handful of junior high schools represented. The average age was twenty, with fewer than a dozen registrants over thirty” (“Out Now!” page 373).

The Vietnam antiwar movement would continue to grow, not only in the size of demonstrations but also in the participation in organizing and discussion at all levels, with the 1970 SMC conference having 3500 attendees. These nationally coordinated, democratically organized coalitions—along with the realities of war and mass mobilizations themselves—helped create a context where the antiwar movement was able to win over broad ranks of active duty soldiers through direct propaganda and the constant growth of publicly stated antiwar sentiments all over the country.

We need movement spaces that allow for political, democratic discussion and decision-making, and that are welcoming to people who do not think of themselves as socialists or anti-imperialists, because that is the only way that the movement can become something with the power to change society and not just a reunion for activists who are already committed to spring into action when the moment calls. Movements like this have been the historical meeting ground of students and workers where we can best coordinate a winning struggle. It’s what gave the anti-Vietnam War movement the staying power that both contributed to the decision to withdraw U.S. troops and left a cultural footprint in its wake so large that people still use it as a reference point today.

The task at hand is to go beyond rhetorical comparisons to past generations of struggle, to actually learn from the successes of that era, and to take up these current opportunities to surpass them and win a future without apartheid or capitalism.

  • End U.S. aid to Israel!
  • End the war on Gaza!
  • Stop arresting protesters! Free them all! No police on campus!
  • Reinstate all students and faculty facing retaliation!
  • For a unitary, democratic, nonsectarian Palestine!

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