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Faculty, Staff, and Students Must Unite Against Repression of the Palestine Movement

As Gaza solidarity encampments spread across the United States, faculty and staff are mobilizing in solidarity with their students against repression. We must build on that example and build a strong campaign for our right to protest.

Olivia Wood

April 23, 2024
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A group of Columbia University faculty dressed in regalia hold signs that say "end student suspensions now"
Photo Credit: Caitlin OchsREUTERS

After university president Minouche Shafik called in the NYPD to arrest over 100 students camping on Columbia University’s lawn on Thursday, April 18, the Gaza Solidarity Encampment in Morningside Heights has become a flashpoint all over the United States. Since then, roughly a dozen more encampments have sprung up at universities all over, with new ones announced every day. While “Ceasefire Now” has been the most well-publicized demand of the movement for Palestine in recent months, the student groups are focusing on university divestments from weapons manufacturers and Israeli companies, as well as demanding complete amnesty for protesters. These protests are taking place in the same week that the House of Representatives approved another $17 billion in funding for Israel, Israel is bombing Rafah, and mass graves are being uncovered in Gaza.

In addition to the arrests, dozens of students have been suspended, including over one percent of Barnard’s entire student body. Some of the suspended students from both colleges have been evicted from their dorms — normally, suspended students retain access to housing and dining services. 

While views on the ongoing genocide — and how motivated people are to mobilize for those views — vary considerably within the academy, anger toward the genocide has been growing as the death toll continues to climb, and higher education workers are much more unified in opposition to the harsh repression Columbia University and its affiliate Barnard College are enacting upon their students. A nationwide academic boycott pledge has begun circulating, with nearly 50 pages of signatures.

On Sunday night, a Barnard College staff member resigned after being asked to accompany an evicted student to their room during the 15 minutes they were allotted to gather their things. Another group of Barnard College staff, organized within UAW Local 2110, is staging a sick-out for three days this week. Monday afternoon, faculty and graduate student workers at Columbia rallied on the lawn against the suspensions, while workers from the City University of New York gathered outside the gates in support. Meanwhile, faculty at New York University (NYU) joined hands in a chain around their own students’ encampment, including during the Muslim students’ evening prayer. 

Monday morning, police arrested students at Yale, and Monday night, the NYPD began making arrests at NYU — including some of the faculty members. 

While the past few years have seen many graduate worker and contingent faculty strikes, it’s very unusual in recent decades for faculty to mobilize to this extent outside of the context of collective bargaining. And very unusual for faculty to risk arrest in their capacity as faculty outside of the context of coordinated civil disobedience actions. It’s true that this isn’t the 1960s, and we aren’t seeing the same level of militancy and mobilizations as during the campus anti-war movement then, but it is the 2020s. And things are different now: the pandemic; Black Lives Matter; January 6; the still-growing resurgence of the labor movement, where higher education is a particularly dynamic sector; high inflation; an ongoing genocide. This shift in the campus climate, and faculty and staff’s willingness to take bolder collective actions, is a response to the spirit of the times. Columbia, Barnard, and NYU are all home to recent unionization campaigns, contract fights, and strikes — class struggle was in the air already, and now it’s manifesting in a new way. More campus unions should follow Barnard and Columbia workers’ example and call for job actions on behalf of both the repressed students and to join the call for divestment. 

Students are urging the general public to keep their attention focused on Palestine and the encampments’ divestment demands, but fighting for free speech and against repression is a key part of that fight. If the universities successfully crush the encampments without immense, mass blowback, the movement is likely to wane. This week is a test for higher education — a test to see if the campus communities, allies in their cities and towns, and the higher education sector as a whole will allow this to happen. The White House, the Governor of New York, the Mayor of New York City, and many other politicians, as well as media figures, are attempting to split the campus movements from the support of the masses by calling them antisemitic. We cannot allow these attacks to go unchecked, or else we risk the failure of not only the current fight for divestment, but our future campus struggles too, including against the mass cuts that public institutions in particular are facing.

Let this moment radicalize and mobilize you, as the Kent State killings radicalized and mobilized so many in 1970. We must all stand up and stand with campus activists, to fight for their freedoms and to fight together for a free Palestine.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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