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Campus Protests Are New Wave in an Anti-Colonial Struggle Waged for Centuries

Fighting to destroy the legacy of colonialism, youth are on the front lines in the battle for a livable future.

UCI Divest and pro-Palestine students hold a walkout and protest at UC Irivne in Irvine, California, on May 22, 2024.

“Down, down with the occupation!”

In May, students at The New School danced with a large Palestinian flag. They banged buckets. They called for an end to Israel’s genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. Democracy Now! interviewed a professor who said, “I teach a class on decolonization, and there is no better way to put into place the knowledge that students learn in our classrooms into practice.”

Protests at colleges erupted across the U.S. Students set up tents in hallways and quads. While marching, they held signs that read, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” and “By any means necessary.”

Just four years ago, at the peak of the Black Lives Matters movement, calls to decolonize rang through the streets. Youth activists demonstrated at museums and oil pipelines and pulled down colonial era and Confederate statues. Names on buildings, highways and even pancake boxes were changed.

Pull the lens back. Today’s protests are the next wave in an anti-colonial struggle waged for centuries. Activists fight the legacy of European settler colonialism from Standing Rock, mass incarceration of Black people and Israeli apartheid of Palestine. They fight as if their lives depend on it — because they do. The future is not livable until we get rid of the legacy of colonialism.

The Kids Are Alright

Liberal media from The New York Times to right-wing rag The New York Post have cynically mischaracterized the protesters as enabling terrorists or as spewing antisemitism. In this warped mirror, student protesters against Israel’s genocide in Gaza looked like naïve dupes. Or they were portrayed as irresponsible brats bringing down President Joe Biden’s chances of reelection.

The youth are much, much more. Millennials and Gen Z see through the illusion of American exceptionalism. How did this amazing superpower develop? Were they bitten by a radioactive spider? Or born with a mutant gene? Nope, they just lived in times of intense contradictions. They witnessed the Great Recession of 2008, Occupy Wall Street, ever-dire global warming, Donald Trump’s 2016 election, COVID-19, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and now the possible end of democracy. Crisis after crisis forced them to look beyond any one catastrophe to see them linked to the larger system of capitalism. Going further, they saw that U.S. capitalism was born from settler colonialism. Concepts like systemic oppression and intersectionality went viral. Ideas distilled chaos into clarity. It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where the curtain was pulled back and the “man behind the curtain” could be finally seen.

The ability to see the larger system begins with a shock. What divides accidents or crime from what sociologist Karl Jaspers called a “moral shock” is that the latter ignites political action. In an interview, he defined a moral shock as an event “…that gets our attention and makes us realize the world is different from how it seemed to us. It requires some rebuilding some of our feelings or of our thinking about the world to make things right again, so it’s a puzzle. It’s a challenge to who we are and how we view the world. Some shocks … can also motivate action.”

Maybe it was seeing Wall Street suits walk free after wrecking the world economy? Maybe it was disgust at a Black teen shot by cops? Maybe it was staring helplessly as a lecherous, real estate con man became president. Whichever shock opened their eyes, millennials and Gen Z began to ask the vital question: Why?

You can imagine after all this, a youth blinking as if they just walked into bright sunlight. Why are innocent Black people being shot over and over? Why are criminal bankers being protected? Why am I in debt just to get a college degree? Why does my job not pay enough? Why do we glorify slaveholders and mass murderers in our public art?

The new vision crystallizes. Behind the official history is a disturbing truth. Capitalism is like the face hugger from Alien. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi described finance capitalism as “…a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Not just banks. Many institutions founded during colonization — like the corporation, colleges, real estate firms and prisons — have violently vacuumed wealth and labor out of our bodies for centuries.

You can imagine a college student, working and going to school, carrying a heavy backpack and heavy debts, watching a new police-perpetrated killing on their phone, seeing Israel bomb civilians and passing by a statue of Columbus. You can feel the rage rising in the throat. You can see where the protests began.

From the River to the Sea

“Israel must have security control,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January 2024, “over the entire territory west of the Jordan River.” Of course, he was mocking the pro-Palestinian protesters. He also expressed the vision of the Israeli right wing. Netanyahu’s Likud Party’s 1977 platform declares that, “between the sea and the Jordan” there will only be Israeli sovereignty. The Likud Party is just following the vision of Zionist “founding father” Theodor Herzl, who wrote of Israel in The Jewish State, “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.”

“Palestine will be free,” the marchers chanted in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on May 18, “from the river to the sea.” The air rocked with tens of thousands of voices. It felt like thunder.

For Netanyahu, “from the river to the sea” means an ethno-state, a nation dominated by one ethnic-religious group. For the college protesters, “from the river to the sea” is a call for their universities to divest from Israel, a call for Palestinian liberation and for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

Today’s protesters see Israel as an apartheid, ethnonation-state because a century of global struggle woke up our ancestors, here in the belly of the beast. The 1950s anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean resonated with Black America. In 1964, Malcolm X visited Gaza and saw the refugee camps. He called the foundation of Israel a “new form of colonialism” in his essay “Zionist Logic” for the Egyptian Gazette in 1964. In 1967, right after the Six-Day War, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee issued a newsletter article titled, “The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge.” In the Black Power era, Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, saw Black people as an “internal colony.” He said in an interview, “In the colonies, Black people … our political representatives in the past have always been pawns for their white political colleague.” The concepts of anti-imperialism and decolonization connected various independence movements into a united front. The many freedom marches were one immense, long river of people, encircling the Earth, moving toward reclaiming power.

The right-wing attack on the left forced these ideas to retreat but they rose like a phoenix during Black Lives Matter uprisings. Protesters waved Palestinian flags at BLM marches and held signs with the slogan “From Ferguson to Palestine.” The police-perpetrated murder of Michael Brown in 2014 coincided with Israel’s bombing campaign of Gaza that slaughtered 2,251 Palestinians and reduced a city to rubble. The mirror was right in your face. BLM protesters faced military-equipped police who shot tear gas and pummeled them. Palestinians faced Israeli soldiers who shot at and bombed them. Two peoples, trapped in Huey’s phrase, “internal colonies.” Two peoples, stretching arms across the Atlantic Ocean, seeking liberation.

Fighting for the Future

This new generation of advocates faces a titanic struggle. Vocal and media savvy as they are, they are unfortunately a minority on most campuses. They faced suspensions, expulsions and arrests. They face hiring boycotts by corporations. Add to that, working-class students who protest face more severe punishments. And are ignored by the media.

Two generations are coming of age at a time when the violence of the past caught up to the present. They are in a tragic solidarity with those who lived and died at the start of the 20th century, eulogized by Albert Camus in his 1946 speech, “The Human Crisis,” in which he said, “The best I can do is sketch, as clearly as I can, the moral experience of my generation. Because we have seen the world crisis unfold … whose intelligence and hearts were formed during the terrible years when, like their country, they were nourished on shame and lived by rebellion. Yes, this is an interesting generation.”

They are more than interesting. They are on the front lines of the future. They lived through terrible years. Now they are trying to give us a chance to live.

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