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From Strikes to Encampments, Faculty Join Campus Movement for a Free Palestine

Academic workers are stepping up to support students in the face of crackdowns by university administrations.

New York University students and faculty join hands at an encampment in support of Palestine, in New York City, on April 22, 2024.

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As Israel’s latest assault on Gaza entered its seventh month in April, students in the U.S. assembled Gaza solidarity encampments at countless universities from coast to coast. And now, after university officials gave police the green light to arrest more than 2,900 students at the encampments, faculty and academic workers across the country are stepping up to support them, and to continue pushing for their demands.

“They cannot suppress our voices, they cannot suppress our movement, they cannot suppress our anger and our pain, and our desire to be public-facing in showing that this administration has blood on its hands,” Suneil Sanzgiri, a part-time professor at The New School in New York City, told Truthout.

Sanzgiri helped establish the U.S.’s first faculty-led encampment on May 8 in The New School’s University Center. The Refaat Alareer Faculty Solidarity Encampment was named in honor of the Palestinian writer, poet, professor and activist assassinated by Israel last December. Composed of about eight tents beautified with solidaristic slogans, it began as a critical response to the administration’s decision to sweep the students’ encampment the week prior, and to ensure the struggle continues, according to Sanzgiri.

Last Monday the encampment hosted a teach-in on revolution and counterrevolution, and a talk examining colonization of Turtle Island (North America) and Palestine through the lens of Islam and anarchism.

“The atmosphere is full of excitement and joy, it’s full of pain, it’s full of anger and hurt,” Sanzgiri said. “But at the same time, it’s full of possibility. And I think that’s what people see in our encampment. …We hope that this encampment can serve, not necessarily as a model, but as an inspiration for other faculty to step up.”

On May 14, Sanzgiri joined other faculty, students and alumni in taking over all seven floors of a second building, The New School’s Welcome Center, which sits across the street from the Refaat Alareer encampment. The group barricaded two entrances and quickly established the “Lama Jamous Center,” named after a 9-year-old journalist in Gaza. According to a press release from the Refaat Alareer Faculty Solidarity Encampment and The New School Gaza Solidarity Encampment, security officers violently assaulted two community members attempting to bring tents into the space. But in the end, the encampment was successful, and are currently in control of all activities in the building, including who exits and leaves.

“Our demands remain the same,” the press release said. “We call on the Board of Trustees and the Investment Committee to immediately call for a vote to divest.”

The New School’s student-led encampment, swept by police on May 3, won its demand for investment “disclosure,” a precursor to divestment, revealing the university’s deep ties to the weapons manufacturing industry, and also to Chevron.

When one encampment is shut down, another materializes. When one strike is broken, another forms.

“They are deeply invested in 13 out of 14 weapons and surveillance manufacturers that are directly contributing to the genocide,” said Sanzgiri. “The university said that they had divested from fossil fuels in 2015 and many people worked to make that happen. But it turns out that one of the investments that they have is with Chevron, so we know that they are still invested in fossil fuels. So they lied.”

At the time of this writing, The New School had not responded to Truthout’s request for comment.

Around midnight over the weekend, security officers working for The New School dismantled the Refaat Alareer encampment, leaving the Lamar Center as the last Gaza-solidarity encampment in New York City.

Then finally, on May 20, the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees agreed to vote on divesting from weapons manufacturing and other military supply companies identified by the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) “on or before June 14th,” according to a statement from the university, in what organizers are calling a small but perhaps vital step for direct action and for the Gaza solidarity movement at The New School and beyond. The President also agreed not to sanction anyone involved in the encampments. Activists have agreed to disband the Lamar Center in response to these negotiations.

Academic workers at other universities are experimenting with a wholly different set of tactics to support their students and Palestine. Last Wednesday, graduate student workers in the University of California system voted in favor of a strike authorization with 79 percent support through UAW 4811, a union representing 48,000 workers, in response to the UC system’s repression of Gaza solidarity demonstrations. Their demands include amnesty for protesters, the right for free speech on campus, and divestment from weapons manufactures and other companies profiting off Israel’s war.

In late April, hundreds of Columbia University and Barnard College faculty members protested the arrest of more than 100 students by walking out of class. A few days later, faculty at the University of Texas Austin went on strike for a day in solidarity with students arrested at a Gaza solidarity educational event. At Princeton, over a dozen faculty members fasted for a day in solidarity with 18 students on a hunger strike for Gaza. The University of New Hampshire’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling on the administration to investigate a police crackdown on a May Day rally for Palestine on campus. Faculty at numerous universities — including Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania — have held press conferences in support of suspended students. More than 500 faculty and staff at CUNY signed a letter calling for charges to be dropped against the at least 173 people arrested at a Gaza solidarity encampment on the City College campus in April. Hundreds of faculty across Columbia, Barnard and Teachers College have signed onto a strike pledging to “only do work that directly serves students” until the administration removes the New York City Police Department from campus.

“We have one common goal and that is to end the genocide and for Palestine to be free. The methods and tactics that we use are as diverse as our voices are.”

At New York University (NYU) academic workers launched a grade strike on May 1. As of last week, nearly 150 faculty and 160 graduate student workers had signed onto the pledge, which demanded cops off campus, amnesty for all students, investment disclosure and divestment, and a full academic boycott of Israel.

Tania, a course assistant and graduate worker who withheld her last name to minimize the risk of retaliation, said she immediately signed the pledge once she heard about it and joined a group chat for course assistants to move the pledge forward. “It’s been terrifying to see NYU’s administration as a whole not only stonewalling students for negotiations,” Tania told Truthout, “but also taking disciplinary action against students.”

But the strike was an uphill battle within NYU’s Global and Environmental Health school, Tania’s department. At a department-wide town hall she helped organize, some faculty agreed to make space for discourse about Palestine within their classrooms, but would not sign onto the pledge. Many professors stopped engaging at all after hearing the word divestment. She said a lot of them did not agree with the academic boycott of Israel, and in some cases, claimed students were not protesting the “right” way.

“It reminds me of during the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement, when it reached a fever pitch, during the early stages of COVID, people were like, ‘Oh my god, these protesters, these disruptions, they’re so annoying. They’re so disruptive,’” she said. “When a professor says that I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the point.’”

Before long, the department’s vice dean sent an email telling professors to remove course assistants from their grading platform in an attempt to sabotage the strike. And their own union leadership condemned the strike, claiming it was a breach of contract, she said.

Ultimately organizers were unable to secure a “critical mass” of faculty pledges, according to an email sent to pledgees, and called off the strike. “Nonetheless, our numbers prove that a lot of us are very motivated to engage in escalatory labor action,” organizers wrote in the email. “We believe it’s important to take that collective energy and redirect it towards other forms of organizing/direct action. This grade strike is not the end of the road for any of us.”

To date, setbacks within the Free Palestine movement haven’t halted momentum at universities. When one encampment is shut down, another materializes. When one strike is broken, another forms. When a student’s encampment is supported by a faculty strike, the movement is not only embracing a diversity of tactics, but is strategically interlinking them, mutually reinforcing each other’s tactics to achieve a similar goal.

For Sanzgiri, the diversity of the movement is responsible for its longevity and strength. “The call is clear from Gaza, to our universities and our students, that we have to fight like hell, every single one of us — students, faculty, staff, alumni, student or non-student, university or not university — we have to dissolve these hierarchies and boundaries,” he said. “We have one common goal and that is to end the genocide and for Palestine to be free. The methods and tactics that we use are as diverse as our voices are. Our diversity is our strength.”

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