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The Student Revolt for Palestine

The student revolt for Palestine in the United States is spreading throughout the world. It is essential that the student movement unites against repression and draws the masses into the fight for a free Palestine.

Jimena Vergara

May 6, 2024
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Photo by luigiwmorris

On April 17, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik appeared before Congress. Aware that her job was hanging by a thread, she pledged, in front of the entire nation, to combat antisemitism at the university. 

After being reproached by both Republicans and Democrats for failing to silence pro-Palestinian students, Shafik said: “Antisemitism has no place on our campus, and I am personally committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly.” 

At the White House and on Capitol Hill, politicians and officials were outraged that, on the campus of one of the nation’s most prestigious elite universities — from which eight former presidents graduated, including Barack Obama — young people wearing Palestinian keffiyehs had been protesting against the genocide in Gaza for months. The protests were a direct affront to the government and a regime staunchly allied with Israel and dedicated to funding the Zionist state’s genocide of the Palestinian people. Joe Biden, Donald Trump, the mainstream media, university authorities, and all the regime’s institutions have spent months discrediting the movement as “antisemitic” in an effort to destroy it.

But the movement has risen in a crescendo, silencing these false accusations. Since October, young Palestinians, Jews, and youth of all races have been tenaciously fighting side-by-side against the genocide and the Zionist occupation of Palestine. “Not in our name!” is the slogan of thousands of anti-Zionist Jews in the United States. The false equivalence of anti-Zionism and antisemitism was laid bare before millions. If there is one thing that distinguishes these young people, it’s their anti-racism. Many of those mobilizing for Palestine today were part of the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, even those who were just children at the time. They are heirs to previous struggles, but there is something especially disruptive about this new generation, whose vanguard is between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The pro-Palestine movement is challenging a highly sensitive aspect of bipartisan politics: the unconditional alliance with the state of Israel. Democrats have been able to co-opt the great social movements of the past, from the colossal civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter movement more recently. But because the bipartisan regime is Zionist to the core, the current movement presents an enormous challenge to the Democratic Party. 

This is not only expressed in the United States’ material and political support for the genocide, but also in the fact that the institutions of the U.S. state and sectors of capital are shaped by relations with Israel. 

Hence, the central demand on university campuses is that universities stop investing in institutions linked to Israel and companies sponsoring genocide. The BDS movement, which has been growing for years, has gained momentum through this new student movement inspired by South African students who also demanded the defunding of universities that invested in the Apartheid regime.  

The spirit of 1968 — when U.S. students defied their own government to demand a halt to the Vietnam War — is echoing through university campuses, overpowering the noise of slander and media defamation. An anti-imperialist consciousness is emerging in the United States, embodied by the youth. 

But there are important differences in the general political situation between the present and the period of the Vietnam War. For one, U.S. imperialism and hegemony are in clear decline, and the movement for Palestine is directly questioning the United States’ role as the world’s policeman, as well as its genocidal alliance with Israel. Another difference is the danger of Donald Trump winning the presidency in a context of high political and social polarization. Trump may be successful in his attempt to wrest the Zionist base from the Democratic Party, arguing that Biden has not been tough enough on the pro-Palestine movement. 

On April 18, one day after appearing before Congress, President Shafik acted accordingly and sent New York City police (NYPD), led by Democratic Mayor Eric Adams, to violently sweep the Palestine solidarity encampment at Columbia University. But that was a big mistake: they dismissed the profound shift in U.S. public opinion on Israel, the genocide, and the criminal partnership between the Zionist state and the United States. 

As recent polls show, only 36 percent of the U.S. population sympathizes with Israel. This is a result of the pro-Palestine student movement, which dreams of seeing a free Palestine within their lifetime, and a result of the brutal, almost dystopian images of the people of Gaza being slaughtered by the Zionist machine. The repression on university campuses only stoked the fire of the ongoing student revolt.

Encampments Spread across the Country

Videos of the crackdown at Columbia on April 18 and students resisting arrest with peaceful methods of civil disobedience immediately went viral. The social networks of Palestinian student organizations spearheading the movement, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), have become the movement’s communication channels and a bridge between the United States and Gaza. Images of new encampments at other universities have poured in across these platforms.  

Students at the University of Texas in Austin, in one of the most reactionary states in the country, set up their own camp in solidarity with Gaza as a response to the repression. At Emory University in Atlanta, in the deep south of the United States, students likewise took up the baton. Numerous encampments were established in universities in and around Boston, including at Northwestern University, Emerson College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University.

In New York, after the repression at Columbia, encampments appeared within days at New York University and the City University of New York (CUNY) — one of the largest public universities in the country. Columbia students took back the initiative and reclaimed their camp. Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, the University of Los Angeles all followed, developing a real university revolt with common demands: divestment and free Palestine, and other diverse demands that express local struggles that intersect with the Palestinian cause. It is estimated that camps were set up at at least 49 universities and college campuses across the country. 

Bombs for Genocide in Gaza, Rubber Bullets for Students at Home

Despite growing popular support for students’ struggle, growing repudiation of the repression, and a widespread feeling of solidarity with Palestine, the consensus of the bipartisan regime as a whole — with the exception of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, including Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — was to repress the movement before it spread even further. 

Pressed by the need to advance in an agreement with Netanyahu — since the crisis in Gaza could cost Biden the election and drag the U.S. into an unpredictable regional war — the Democrats took the path of police brutality to silence the students. It was reminiscent of the repression of the Vietnam anti-war movement that is deeply embedded in the collective memory of millions of people in the United States. And the repression was brutal. 

On April 25, at Emory University, dozens of Atlanta police officers and Georgia state troopers attacked the students and faculty who defended them with pepper spray, tasers, and rubber bullets, seriously injuring dozens of people, destroying the camp, and arresting about 30 students. That same day, CUNY students set up their own encampment at the City College of New York in Manhattan.

By the evening of April 30, a collective from the Columbia encampment, after nearly a week of failed negotiations with authorities that reached an impasse, decided to climb up and take over Hamilton Hall on the university campus. The response from Shafik and Mayor Adams was swift. Two prominent Democrats, Jerry Nadler and Adriano Espaillat, called on university authorities to “move quickly and swiftly to remove students who are engaging in unlawful actions.”  

NYPD entered Hamilton Hall with firearms, prevented the press from documenting what happened inside the building, and violently arrested 112 students, as evidenced by early eyewitness accounts. The arrests took place on the 56th anniversary of the 1968 police raid on the same campus and the same building where hundreds of students protesting against the Vietnam War were arrested.

That same day, a group of students at City College took over the administration building and within hours the university police and NYPD surrounded the campus, violently attacking the people demonstrating outside in solidarity and destroying the encampment. Between Columbia and CUNY, 300 people were arrested that night. 

There is so much polarization around the Palestinian cause that a new actor entered the political scene: the organized Zionist ultra-right. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), students set up camp. It was perhaps one of the largest student camps, after Emory.

On the night of May 1, a horde of about 200 Zionists attacked the Peace Camp. For seven hours, the Zionists besieged the camp by throwing bricks, spraying pepper spray, and hurling fireworks at the students. The students bravely resisted and eventually repelled the Zionist attack, but many were seriously injured. As they attacked the students, the Zionists shouted, “Second Nakba!”

Two days after the failed Zionist attack, the camp was stormed and dismantled with extreme violence by the Los Angeles police who used rubber bullets, explosive devices to disorient the crowd, and pepper spray. Again, at least 1,000 students tenaciously defended the camp, chanting the slogans that have become the rallying calls of the movement: “Free Palestine!” and “From The River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free!”

The wave of repression has been spreading throughout the country and many encampments have already fallen. But some are still resisting, and the movement is still alive. We have lost strongholds and about 2,000 activists nationwide have been arrested. Some got out on bail, some are still in jail, many face criminal charges. In the midst of this repressive escalation with still uncertain consequences, on May 1 the labor movement mobilized in the United States and the world with contingents proudly raising the Palestinian flag. 

The Palestinian Cause Is Contagious

In the United States, the pro-Palestinian youth, who in many cases have been part of the unionization struggles of the last two years, are infecting the labor movement. A growing number of young college students are organizing unions at Amazon and other workplaces. A few weeks before the wave of encampments in solidarity with Gaza, the Labor Notes conference was held in Chicago.

Over half of the 4,000 conference attendees wore the Palestinian keffiyeh. The panels on the Palestinian cause were among the best attended. Many union locals and rank-and-file members are fighting for their unions to pass ceasefire statements. The United Auto Workers (UAW), led by Shawn Fain, spoke out against the genocide and demanded a ceasefire, defying the traditional policy of the AFL-CIO’s Zionist bureaucracy under pressure from the rank and file. The UAW organizes university unions — including student worker unions — that are energized by these pro-Palestine, pro-union youth. In fact, activists and workers organized in Labor 4 Palestine mobilized for Gaza and were repressed by local police during the conference. 

On May Day, one day after the repression at Columbia and CCNY in New York, 4,000 trade unionists, workers, and students marched to Washington Square Park, denouncing the repression and the genocide. Unionists from the UAW, university unions, teachers’ unions, and others marched to the five universities that were occupied, raising the Palestinian flag.  

As part of the workers’ actions in New York that day, CUNY professors held a one-day “sickout” in solidarity with all the five demands of the CUNY students and against repression. This work stoppage was in direct defiance of the New York state Taylor Law, an anti-worker law that prohibits work stoppage for public workers in New York City. Four hundred workers participated in the sickout, which had been voted on at an assembly at the CCNY encampment of 200 rank-and-file members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union, which organizes CUNY faculty. 

Left Voice faculty at CUNY fully supported this assembly, and, alongside their colleagues, are putting up a fight to get all charges against students dropped and to continue to expand and massify the movement against genocide in Gaza and for a free Palestine. Part of this fight is to demand that the PSC also step up to the plate and defend the mobilized faculty and become an active part of the movement. It’s urgent to begin organizing the student movement for Palestine and the university professors who are on the front lines defending the students. Broad organizations such as campus assemblies, in which these sectors take the direction of the movement into their own hands, are absolutely essential. In New York, we can promote campus assemblies that can elect delegates to coordinate the continuing struggle across all CUNY and eventually all the universities in struggle across the country and around the world.  

Examples like this one of student-worker unity against repression and genocide are beginning to spread. NYU students were accompanied by UAW workers when they retook the facilities after the repression. The UCLA faculty union announced a one-day walkout immediately after the repression in solidarity with the students. University faculty have signed dozens and dozens of statements in solidarity with the students against the repression. 

Although still incipient, a sector of the labor movement’s entry on the scene, energized by the youth, is exciting. Radicalized youth are breaking the U.S. Zionist consensus and stirring up the working class for an objectively anti-imperialist cause. If the student movement expands and massifies, and the labor movement enters the scene, it’s possible to go further in the struggle against genocide and grind U.S. imperialism to a halt. At the end of the day, it is the working class in America that can stop the shipping and production of weapons through its actions.

Strengths, Challenges and Tensions

Like any living movement, this great youth revolt — which has already inspired the international student movement, expanding to France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Mexico, and other countries — has its tensions and challenges. Namely, the movement is very heterogeneous and contains various political currents with diverse strategies. 

In the United States, the movement is partially led at the national level by student organizations, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), political organizations such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) at the national level, and Jewish anti-Zionist organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace. Among these organizations there are political and strategic differences that are becoming more evident as the struggle continues.

The most urgent challenge is perhaps knowing how to confront repression and prevent the state and the universities from expelling students or putting members of the movement in jail. We need to accumulate strength so that they cannot break our movement with state repression and violence. This repression is international, and is a danger that also looms over the movement elsewhere, like in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Left Voice’s sister organizations in France and Argentina are also suffering persecution and repression along with organizations and activists for opposing genocide.

Our comrade Anasse Kassib, a trade unionist and spokesman of Revolution Permanente, was summoned by the French police as part of an investigation into “apology for terrorism,” and recognized activists like Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France Insoumise and Phillippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party could also face charges. In this face of this repression, Revolution Permanente and the Trotskyist Fraction promoted a tribune that collected almost 500 signatures of artists, intellectuals, union leaders from all over the world including Enzo Traverso, Assa Traoré, Bhaskar Sunkara, John Bellamy Foster, Nancy Fraser, among many others repudiating the repression. 

In Argentina, our comrade congresswoman Myriam Bregman of the PTS was the only presidential candidate who denounced the Israeli military offensive on the Palestinian people and the Zionist occupation two days after October 7. As a result, she received virulent attacks from the Zionist ultra-right and death threats. This comes in the context of far-right President Javier Milei’s brutal austerity against Argentina’s students, workers, and poor, and repression against those who confront him. Milei is a staunch ally of Israel and friend of Donald Trump. 

Some organizations in the movement, particularly those that have been at the forefront of the encampments and have been harshly repressed, such as Within Our Lifetime, Columbia University Apartheid and Divest coalition (CUAD)  or the PSL, correctly denounce the repression. However, they have not put forward a program to build the power necessary to defeat such repression by massifying the movement, but have instead embraced a strategy of endless escalation for its own sake. This is, in part, because they consider the concrete struggle against the criminalization of the movement and for the political prisoners and those expelled as secondary or see it as a distraction from the struggle against genocide. 

As part of the movement, in absolute and unconditional solidarity with all the organizations that are part of it and are suffering state repression, we believe that this is a false dichotomy. Fighting against the repression of the movement means strengthening the struggle against genocide and massifying it. This increases our power, so that the state and reactionary forces cannot not repress us — or if they do, we can defend ourselves and our right to protest. The struggle against repression and for the development of self-organization can allow us to integrate the thousands of students, professors, and workers who support us but are afraid and not organized. This can help massify the movement so that we can take collective measures to defend ourselves from the attacks of the university authorities, the police, the Zionists — and the state. 

We must follow the example of the great democratic and anti-repression campaigns launched by the social movements that preceded us, the enormous civil rights movement and even the Black Power movement. In 1967, Black Panther leader Huey Newton was arrested and falsely accused of murdering a police officer. The national and international campaign for his release was powerful enough to wrest the activist from the hands of the state. 

In 1970, activist and university professor Angela Davis was jailed and tried for murder after attempting to free three political prisoners from jail. A huge democratic movement emerged in response to the cry of “Free Angela Davis” and she was freed two years later. 

Some comrades in the movement feel that emphasizing repression may limit our demands and open the way to co-optation. But it is the Democratic Party and President Biden who are at the forefront of repression in many states like New York. In other words, Democrats and Republicans are in this together, and the repression is bipartisan. The risk of co-optation, no matter how many radical actions the movement takes, comes from allowing the movement to, one way or another, fall into the clutches of the Democratic Party or the lesser evil. It is a contradiction for Shawn Fain, the UAW leader to speak out against genocide and repression on the one hand and call to vote for Biden in the presidential election on the other.

The risk of co-optation comes from turning our struggle into one with radical methods but with the objective of being a pressure movement for Biden to moderate his cooperation with Israel. The movement’s organization in independent bodies of discussion and direct democracy in the universities would put us in a better place to be independent of the Democratic Party. So, the second challenge is to follow the example of those campuses that have held assemblies, like the grassroots professors at CUNY. 

The third immediate challenge is to build the broadest unity between the student movement and the labor movement. This unity can be built not only by denouncing the repression — as all the organizations of the movement do — but by demanding and taking concrete actions to lift all the charges of the detained comrades; for the immediate release of those still imprisoned; no punishment or disciplinary measures against students, teachers, and workers who protest against the Genocide; and for all the expelled students to be reinstated. We must reverse the criminalization of pro-Palestinian organizations suspended from campuses and silenced on the internet and demand that the police leave our universities.  

The tenacity of this student revolt has already changed the United States. Let’s go further — let’s organize a great movement of workers and students of all races in the heart of imperialism to fight for all our rights and for the Palestinian people.

Translated by Otto Fors

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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