Campus Activism for Gaza Ignites

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Students at more than 40 universities and colleges in the United States and around the world have lit a fire under the Palestine solidarity movement by setting up encampments on their campuses. They are demanding that their universities end their complicity with Israel’s genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine more broadly.

While the first and longest-running student takeover has been at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, it was Columbia University that lit the fuse for a widespread student movement and drew global attention. The administration’s decision at the elite New York City school to sic the repressive New York Police Department on peacefully protesting students led to a global movement and gave hope for the first time in months to countless people. As of April 26, student occupations extended to France and Australiain addition to dozens of campuses in the United States.

Police repression at other sites besides Columbia has been fierce as well. At Emerson University in Boston, Massachusetts, the Boston Police Department was livestreamed manhandling protesters in the early hours of April 25. At Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the police threw Caroline Fohlin, an economics professor who attempted to intervene in arrests of students, to the ground, her head hitting the concrete. The University of Southern California allowed officers to fire rubber bullets at students, and the University of Texas–Austin had local and state police on motorcycles, horseback, and on foot arresting students.

But the police didn’t always have the upper hand. At Cal Poly Humboldt, students successfully barricaded themselves in a building. And, at the City University of New York’s City College, protesters pushed the police back and maintained the integrity of their encampment.

Through it all, students have grounded the protests in what matters: conditions in Gaza and their universities’ ties to Israel. Even as establishment figures hemmed and hawed in the face of the student uprising—President Joe Biden tried to link them to “antisemitism”—two mass graves were uncovered in Palestine, which was from the aftermath of terroristic Israeli raids on two hospitals in Gaza. About 400 doctors, patients, children, and others were found dead, in some cases buried alive.

The higher-ups on campuses, in boardrooms, and in presidential palaces around the world appeared to have nothing new to say about Israel’s horrifying and murderous tactics. The Zionist state’s genocide in Gaza has already reached its 200th day, with at least 34,000 dead and an invasion reportedly imminent in Rafah, the southern city and place of last refuge for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

While some have claimed that the mainly U.S. student movement is a distraction, movement figures like Harsha Walia have noted the connections between racist state violence in the United States and in Israel and elsewhere. And, if nothing else, the student movement in advance of both the launch of the aid-carrying “Freedom Flotilla” and International Workers’ Day has given countless Palestinian solidarity activists something concrete to do beyond doomscrolling horrifying images from Gaza for hours or attempting to carry on with their daily lives in the face of ongoing genocide.

Moreover, with billions of dollars in endowment money, social capital, and, in some cases, direct links to the state of Israel, universities are an important site of struggle for the advancement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. For example, Columbia University maintains a campus in Tel Aviv.

The United States proves increasingly inhospitable to free speech, a cornerstone of democracy; and it seems nearly every private and public institution has been corporatized, militarized, or both. Reprising the historical role of universities as centers of knowledge and public interest as students are doing now could offer a site for pushback to not just the genocide in Gaza, but much more.

In the coming days, there may be many more encampments in an ever-widening range of sites around the world. The protesters are united in their purpose; as a common chant, “Disclose, divest; we will not stop, we will not rest!” is heard across the globe.

This article was produced by Globetrotter

Saurav Sarkar is a freelance movement writer, editor, and activist living in Long Island, New York. They have also lived in New York City, New Delhi, London, and Washington, D.C. Follow them on Twitter @sauravthewriter and at sauravsarkar.com.