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Unite the Encampments Against Repression and for a Free Palestine

Student encampments in solidarity with Gaza are cropping up across the country and are facing intense repression by police acting on behalf of university officials. Defending the occupations requires uniting outrage with these attacks on the right to protest with broad support for Palestine across the student movement and the labor movement.

Left Voice

April 25, 2024
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Tents on a lawn in front of university buildings
Photo Credit: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images

When Columbia University president Nemat “Minouche” Shafik called in the NYPD on April 18 to sweep the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” from the university’s central lawn, arresting and subsequently suspending over 100 students, university officials made a high-risk bet. They thought (hoped) that this swift and brutal repression would bring the protest to an end and discourage similar actions at a moment when criticism of the Biden administration’s on-going support for Israel is threatening his reelection on the one hand and the demonstrations that brought tens of thousands of people into the streets against the genocide have ebbed on the other. They were forced to gamble on the odds that a hardline stance against the student occupation now would ultimately serve to silence pro-Palestine activism and defend the U.S.’s staunch support of Israel in the long term.

Instead, the repression has been met with an outpouring of support for the targeted students and the encampment as well as widespread outrage at the blatant curtailing of the right to protest. In a week, over 30 encampments have been erected in universities across the country to stand in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, to demand an end to U.S. universities’ funding of and profiting off of Israel’s settler colonial project, and in rejection of the repression of a resurgent student movement. Using Columbia as an example, these students are withstanding vicious attacks by police acting on behalf of the universities and the number of new occupations is growing each day.

The students’ tenacity, determination, and deeply-felt solidarity with the Palestinian people has moved all of U.S. society. The unity of Palestinian, Jewish, and young people of all races protesting against the genocide being perpetrated by Israel and financed by the United States — students willing to get arrested putting their bodies and futures on the line — poses the possibility and necessity of putting the student movement on its feet, alongside the working class with an anti-imperialist perspective. 

The encampments — and the outpouring of support and solidarity that has accompanied them — represent a shift in the movement that exploded in support of Palestine when Israel launched its latest genocidal offensive last October. Although they have just begun and already face immense challenges, these occupations could play an instrumental role in orienting and expanding the movement — taking the immense latent opposition to the genocide and turning it into fuel for the movement, motivating new sectors to take up the struggle. The quickly spreading occupations can become sites of coordination from below of pro-Palestinian sentiment and unite the student movement with sectors of the working class in defense of the right to protest and against the United States’ support for Israel.

A New Wave of Repression Amidst Surging Opposition to Genocide

The encampments come at an inopportune time for the U.S. regime. “Genocide Joe” faces a hard road ahead to win reelection against Donald Trump. The Biden administration has overseen and supported one of Israel’s deadliest onslaughts in Palestine; it has sent weapons and funding and political support to Israel since day one (as it has since 1948), making it clear for millions of people around the world just how deep the ties run between the imperialist power and its bulldog in the Middle East. 

Biden got a wakeup call with the results of the primaries, especially in Democratic Party strongholds and swing states. As Israel’s war on Gaza has stretched on with atrocity after atrocity against the Palestinian people, Biden has hemorrhaged support among Arab Americans and young people. This was clearly demonstrated in the emergence of “uncommitted” or “vote blank” campaigns in states across the country, in which voters are withholding their support for Biden in the presidential elections unless the government shifts its unconditional support for Israel and works to achieve the most basic demand of the movement, a ceasefire. 

These campaigns remain in the framework of ultimately “saving” and re-legitimizing both Biden and the Democratic Party, but they also reveal the widening gap between the Democratic Party and sectors of its voting base. And criticism of the United States’ role — and particularly the Democratic Party’s role — in the genocide in Palestine are more widespread than these ballot box initiatives and even the tens of thousands of people who have come out to protest so far. Public support for Israel has reached new lows in the United States, dropping to just 36% since October. Against a backdrop of discontent with either of the two options offered by the bipartisan regime and historic shifts in the consciousness of the youth and working class, Biden has had to take these warnings seriously. 

Since those results, the Biden administration has shifted its rhetoric toward the war in Palestine, distancing itself from Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for a ceasefire, and signaling that the carte blanche it offered Israel in the name of “defending” itself is no longer applicable as tensions skyrocket in the region and as protests continue across the world. This is a sign of the United States’ declining influence in the region and a response to internal criticism — an attempt to reconstruct some stability in the functioning of U.S. imperialism; however, this is in no way meant to fundamentally change the United States’ support for Israel. This is obvious as the United States continues to make weapons sales to Israel behind closed doors and as the government passed $17 billion in aid to Israel this week.

But in an effort for the United States to salvage the foundations of support for Israel and to bolster its self-proclaimed role as the “beacon of democracy” across the world, the cooling relations between the United States and Netanyahu’s government are being coupled with a crackdown on criticism of Israel and the United States with the cover of defending against “antisemitism.” As we know, what this amounts to is a hardening of its stance against pro-Palestinian activism and a McCarthyist offensive against those who speak out against Israel or the United States’ role in the genocide.

This has resulted in an intensification of the repression against student activists on university campuses, particularly against the encampments which represent an escalation and resurgence of the protests in solidarity with Gaza that harken back to the anti-war protests of the 60s and 70s against the Vietnam War. In addition to the 100+ Columbia University and Barnard College students who were arrested, the police barreled over the encampment at University of Minnesota in just two hours; dozens of students were arrested at Yale University; the police beat and arrested protesters (including faculty members) at NYU. The repression was particularly harsh at University of Texas-Austin, where state troopers chased and attacked students. At Emory University in Georgia, police were caught on camera tasing a student to the ground and over 100 people were arrested at Emerson College in Boston. Students at these different universities face suspension and criminal charges and consequently risk the potential loss of jobs, housing, scholarships, and more.

Universities have been epicenters for the movement in support of Palestine since Israel began its latest genocidal campaign. The universities have been targets of student protests because of their deep ties to the state of Israel, including large investments in companies that do business with Israel from Google to Lockheed Martin. U.S. universities have long histories of censoring Palestinian voices and suppressing criticism of Israel, serving as material and ideological pillars propping up the Zionist project. Since October 7, university officials have overwhelmingly clamped down on pro-Palestine activism, including shutting down long-standing Palestine solidarity organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and creating outrageous laws to suppress the right to protest on campus. University officials are facing pressure from the state to keep the protests in check, doing the dirty work of the bipartisan regime to clip the wings of a resurgent antiwar movement. This pressure has been on display for the entire world to see, with university presidents being called to Congress to account for their failure to efficiently quash student activism. Some officials have resigned; others, like Shafik, have ramped up repression and bowed to pressure from right-wing donors and MAGA Republicans.

Are you part of the student movement or a faculty/staff supporter? We want to hear from you, check out our call for submissions

From Solidarity to Expanding the Movement for Palestine

But it seems the universities — and the regime they prop up — are digging their own graves. What was meant to curtail the movement for Palestine instead threatens to draw more sectors into the fight, uniting the movement for Palestine with a struggle to protect free speech and the right to protest. Faculty and staff at several universities are coming out in defense of their students and against university administrators’ use of armed police to break up peaceful demonstrations. They are standing up against the firings of their coworkers for speaking out against the genocide. Faculty at NYU locked arms to prevent the cops from advancing on their students. Faculty at UT-Austin have organized a 24-hour work stoppage in protest of the repression on their campus, defying laws that prevent them from organizing. 

Unions are jumping into the fray as well, though it is urgent that many more unions — and unions outside of academia — stand up against the repression with the force of the labor movement and its methods. A solidarity statement by the Student Workers of Columbia has gained dozens of signatures from union locals across the country who are outraged at the repression on Columbia’s campus and who call on the university to reinstate each and every suspended student. UAW Region 9a has called solidarity actions in solidarity with members facing repression in New York City.  

The backlash from the repression has put the Democratic Party in the position of struggling to toe the line between definitively repressing the movement to appease Zionist sectors of its base and at the same time trying not to further jeopardize its election prospects with a nationwide movement against repression. So-called “progressive” sectors of Democratic Party are making public statements in support of students and the encampments, denouncing both the genocide and the decision by university administrators to send in riot police to squash the encampments. Meanwhile other sectors of the party are explicitly lined up behind the White House, which has called the Columbia encampment “antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous.” This brings them increasingly closer to the stance of the GOP, which is making strengthening repression against protesters a key part of their profile — including urging governors to call in the National Guard to university campuses, a thinly-veiled reference to BLM and even the specter of the Kent Massacre. 

But there is a widespread democratic sentiment among a large swath of U.S. society — not just the mobilized pro-Palestine movement but beyond — a sector that is outraged at the blatant curtailing of free speech by a government trying to squash political opposition and deter protests; and among these sectors there exists immense sympathy for the demands of the students and criticism of the United States’ support for Israel’s genocide in Palestine.

In that sense, the outrage and solidarity that has emerged in response to the repression on university campuses is one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of the pro-Palestine movement, because — if organized and developed — it has the potential to expand the movement, drawing more sectors into the struggle. On the one hand, the question of repression of the encampments and the censorship of pro-Palestine speech is an existential question for continuing the struggle for a free Palestine and for all future struggles waged against university administrations, the bosses, and the state.

On the other hand, developing this solidarity has the potential to unite the struggle against repression with the demands of the encampments to disclose, divest, and defend Gaza. Rather than being a “distraction” from or “de-centering” the situation in Gaza, it could give the encampments a megaphone from which to publicize their demands and serve as the basis for coordinated action across the country with the perspective of expanding the protests.

The Seeds of a New Anti-war Movement Uniting Students and Workers

Expanding the encampments and “activating” the support around them is a crucial task in the next days and weeks when the encampments are likely to face increased repression on the one hand, and the end of the semester and all that it entails on the other. It is the best way to defend the protests against both repression and cooptation, precisely because it can limit the range of maneuver by both the universities and the state. We have already seen at Columbia how public outrage at the repression has stayed the hand of university administrators, even if just in the short term. Just hours after a thousand protesters flooded the university lawn in response to threats of a sweep by the administration, Columbia and Barnard began making overtures to suspended students and pushed back its deadlines for “negotiations” with student representatives.

This is not just about getting more bodies on the line; expanding the movement requires transforming the encampments into sites of organization and deliberation that discuss the way forward to draw more sectors into the struggle and to defend against repression and ensure the continuation of the protests. Many of the occupations have already developed bodies that discuss the functioning of the encampments, the challenges facing the occupation, and daily decision-making; some even hold “assemblies” to disseminate information and vote resolutions. These forms of self-organization from below are free from the university administrators and the politicians who work against the movement’s demands; they make the encampments truly “ours” in the sense that it is the members of the encampment who make decisions. 

In taking up a new escalation in the fight for Palestine, the encampments — self-titled “People’s Universities” — are exposing the profiteering of the university system that serve as ideological poles for the imperialist regime. With many student bodies having passed successful resolutions for divestment, the repression directed by university administrators against the encampments is a clear sign that the universities as they stand are firmly on the side of the capitalists and their politicians who support genocide to protect their interests — not on the side of their students, faculty, or staff. These are institutions that force students to go deep into debt just to be chucked back into the churning machine of capitalist profit-making while exploiting increasingly precarious faculty and staff. The encampments show a glimpse into the possibility of universities that are cut free from these tethers: universities open to all, truly accessible to all, where every student is granted the resources to focus on their studies, and where the knowledge produced at those institutions serve the interests of workers, the oppressed, and society at large, not capitalists and their drive to destroy the planet.

As the encampments grow, these bodies of self organization must expand to include all sectors represented in the protests — including faculty, staff, and the community — in order to respond to rapidly changing circumstances and to expand the possibilities of the occupations and the actions they take to fight for their demands. With the benefit of holding down physical space, the occupations have the possibility of serving as centers to organize broad solidarity in the fight against U.S. imperialism’s funding of the genocide in Gaza. Support for Palestine touches the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States — people who are outraged at the imperialist profit-making machine, who protest against police repression and for the right to defend our movements — ensuring the staying power of the movement for Palestine requires drawing these sectors together in a common fight.

This means that these assemblies and meeting spaces cannot solely be administrative bodies that make and execute decisions based on immediate needs and who is on the ground each day. Beyond addressing matters specific to the daily functioning of the occupation, these assemblies could be spaces to discuss how to take the movement forward with bold proposals and broad support. This requires converting the assemblies into places in which participants debate positions and proposals with the widest possible democracy and participation. These assemblies have to elect representatives to coordinate the struggle in the encampment; they would be responsible for organizing the important steps that need to be taken by the encampments in accordance with the discussions and deliberations of the assemblies, including the articulation of demands and negotiation with any university officials. These representatives must be held accountable to the assemblies.

The encampments have popped up spontaneously mainly as a result of the efforts of university organizations leading pro-Palestine solidarity actions. A step towards expanding the struggle taking place on university campuses could be to create a functional network of the student movement that is dedicated to discussing the path forward for the movement — including common campaigns and a plan of action to protect the movement from repression and to go on the offensive with their demands. This could facilitate common actions between campuses in the same region, as well as all across the country. 

It is in our hands to coordinate the fight for Palestine and against the genocide at city, regional, and national levels. Students could discuss the grounds on which that could happen, electing representatives to meet with members and representatives of other encampments to discuss how to implement decisions voted on assemblies, creating a national plan of action to unify and mobilize support for Palestine, not just among the student movement but that encompasses all those who oppose the genocide.

The latter requires bold initiatives in terms of expanding the movement, reaching beyond the limits of university campuses which ultimately only represent a small selection of the population that supports Palestine. In the spirit of the First Intifada in Palestine and the uprisings of the student movements in the 1960s, it is necessary to unite the student movement with the labor movement and the broader working class. It is this unity that can organize the support for Palestine and against the United States’ complicity in genocide on a massive scale, one that interrupts the status quo and cannot be easily silenced.

The solidarity from faculty and staff unions as well as the broader labor movement in response to the repression of the encampments — on top of numerous union statements calling for a ceasefire — points in this direction. Many of the activists taking part in the encampments or protesting alongside them in solidarity likely belong to unions, outside and inside academia. From within these unions — and likely in struggle against their leaderships with ties to the Democratic Party — the rank-and-file can mobilize their workplaces to take part in the occupations and organize solidarity from outside, prepared to mobilize whenever the occupations face repression, and call on the broader labor movement to take a stand against state repression and against the use of their labor to wage a murderous campaign against the people of Palestine. This requires democratic spaces for the rank-and-file to organize their solidarity.

In the last several years, the working class has gained new consciousness of its power to make society run; a new generation has come to the conclusion that we can fight for our rights when we are organized in our workplaces and schools. The encampments can articulate and amplify these shifts and direct the might of the working class and social movements against the bloody imperialist regime that oppresses the working class and poor across the world from the U.S. to Palestine. We can set our horizons on taking back our universities and divesting from Israel, yes, but also on taking back our labor from this bloody regime, refusing to produce and transport the tools of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

The expansion of the encampments to universities across the country and their response to immense repression from the state could qualitatively shift the course of the movement for a free Palestine. Now more than ever, in the face of immense repression from the universities and the state, it is necessary to expand the movement and take the organization of the struggle ahead into our own hands. The unity of the student movement with the labor movement could deal a sharp blow to the imperialist world order and pave the way for the fight for a free, secular, socialist Palestine where Arabs and Jews can live in peace.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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