In the face of repression Palestine solidarity protests erupt on US college campuses

By Harper Cleves

On Thursday, 18 April, 108 students at Columbia University in New York City were arrested for setting up an encampment on campus in solidarity with Palestine, calling both for a permanent ceasefire and for the university to divest from any Israeli funding. Columbia and Barnard students set up the encampment on Columbia’s main campus on Wednesday, 17 April, in the early morning hours, with students saying they would occupy the main lawn on the upper campus until their demand for divestment was met. Many of the students who were arrested have also been suspended, and the University announced on Monday, 22 April, that classes for the rest of the semester would meet online rather than in person.

Pulling private funding 

Colombia is a private Ivy League university that relies heavily on wealthy donors. In the wake of Palestine solidarity protests erupting on college campuses, such donors have threatened to cut their funding. In the last week, the billionaire sports executive Robert Kraft threatened to pull funding from the college, outrageously claiming that was in protest against “anti-semitic violence”. This McCarthyite hysteria has been echoed by media outlets such as Fox, with panellists such as Alan Dershowitz and Mike Huckabee suggesting that the National Guard should be sent in to defend Jewish students. 

Far from tampering with the spirit of these protests, the clampdown on the encampment has only inspired students in other universities to take up similar initiatives. Columbia organisers reinstated their encampment over the weekend, even after the gates to the university were closed to the public. Students at Brown, Princeton, Northwestern, Stanford and likely many others have held walkouts and New York University, Yale, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, the New School, UC Berkeley, Tufts, and Emerson College students set up their encampments. As the week goes on, the list of solidarity actions is growing. In many of these examples, faculty members demonstrated their support, walking out and even forming protective rings around students, many of whom were Jewish. At the same time, they held seder for the Passover celebrations.

Repression against Palestine solidarity

The repression of the Palestine solidarity movement has been a feature throughout the current Israeli bombardment of Gaza. In December, Brown University had 41 students arrested who occupied a university building in protest, and they were charged with trespassing. In early April, Vanderbilt University expelled three students out of 27 who were suspended for being a part of a sit-in protest on campus. Twenty students at Pomona College in California were suspended for holding a protest at the office of the university president and during the same week as the Columbia encampment, University of Southern California faced criticism from non-profit organisations that aim to challenge Islamophobia for cancelling the valedictorian speech of a Muslim student for critiquing the Israeli state. 

Several university presidents in the recent period, including Columbia’s president – responsible for the arrest of the 108 students – have had to answer to the House of Representatives education and workforce committee with charges of not adequately responding to “campus anti-semitism.” One of those at the helm of these congressional hearings is Elise Stefanik, a Republican congresswoman from New York state. She a vocal Trump supporter and has herself espoused white supremacist hate speech, something pointed out in the open letter signed by over 20 Jewish academics in Columbia University, who described the congressional committee’s approach as a new wave of McCarthyism. 

Two university presidents from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard resigned in the wake of their own hearings on the same. The latter, Claudine Gay, being the first ever black person, and second ever woman in the post who was also harassed and targeted by conservative politicians claiming she only received the position because of her racial background. 

This repression of student Palestine solidarity protests also occurs as Google workers have bravely staged protests in New York City, California, and Seattle to oppose the $1.2 billion Project Nimbus contract, which will provide a range of technology services to the Israeli government and occupation forces. At the time of writing, Google has fired over 50 workers who have participated in these protests, with CEO Sundar Pichai saying that “the workplace isn’t for politics.”

Israeli state and its allies “deny and reverse victim and offender”

This wave of renewed student and worker activism in solidarity with Palestinians, as well as the significant university, corporate and state backlash of the same, comes at a time when the brutality of the Israeli state in its genocide in Gaza is becoming more bare-faced every day. Evidence of mass graves has emerged from two of Gaza’s largest hospitals. Many of the over 300 exhumed appear to have been executed with their hands tied behind their backs. 

There have also been reports of Israeli drones playing the sounds of women and children screaming for help in order to lure people outside of shelters to shoot; and a heart-breaking story of a newborn baby being born an orphan after an Israeli airstrike. As Malcolm X once said “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving people who are doing the oppressing.”

The movement must continue

It is striking to witness the complicity of so many facets of capitalist society in the current genocide in Gaza: newspapers, academic institutions, official government bodies, the police, and some of the world’s biggest corporations. Their heavy-handed response to the peaceful demonstrations of students, workers, and activists on the streets demonstrates that what ordinary people are doing to rise up against the genocide and in solidarity with Palestinians has power and poses a threat to their ability to terrorise with impunity. 

Just as students all over the United States have redoubled their efforts in the face of repression, so must the broader movement. We must join the students, the Google workers, the activists on the streets; we must become more organised and hone our demands and use our labour power, our protests, and our occupations to bring the genocidal system of capitalism to a halt. Not only can that place pressure on those in power to put a halt to the mass murder of Palestinians, but it can also be a stepping stone towards building a mass anti-capitalist and socialist movement that can liberate us all.

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