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Future Generations Will See Students Backed Palestine as Admins Attacked Protest

These moments determine how history will remember each of us, as well as how we remember history in the future.

Students hold a pro-Palestinian demonstration during the University of Michigan's spring commencement ceremony on May 4, 2024, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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What efforts contributed to ending the war in Vietnam and South African apartheid? What brought successes in the civil rights, gay liberation and women’s rights movements? Alongside decades of organizing, protest and global resistance movements, the student movement on college campuses has been, and continues to be, a vital ingredient. Students taking action today ensure that history is on the side of justice; they’ve put their hands on that long arc of history and are bending it themselves.

As we pass the 54th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre while watching the current mobilization of Israeli-trained U.S. police forces against students in the United States, we are once again witnessing the return of Aimé Césaire’s “terrific boomerang” as the imperial and colonial violence the U.S. government exports globally comes back with full force upon its own citizens. Colleges and universities across the nation have cracked down with tactical, militarized force on students protesting Israel’s genocidal onslaught on the people of Gaza, a move so familiar in U.S. history that the 2024 playbook seems almost identical to that from 1970. As students gather across the country to protest their government’s involvement in unethical wars abroad, the state works with the administration of their universities to violently suppress the resistance movement.

While many of these colleges claim to encourage students to become leaders of social action and change, those same institutions turn around and try to quell the very voices they’ve educated. Consider the University of Southern California’s 2024 valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, who, after receiving a minor from the university in resistance to genocide, was then banned from delivering the graduation speech after she made an anti-Zionist post to Instagram. The hypocrisies are so numerous, they are difficult to tabulate. For instance, the disturbing irony of Columbia University’s news site boasting a page titled “A New Perspective on 1968,” where they claim to be a “far different place today than … in the spring of 1968 when protesters took over university buildings amid discontent about the Vietnam War” seems lost on administration, not least on President Minouche Shafik, who authorized the NYPD’s violent assault on protesters, which included police indiscriminately firing rubber bullets at students. Meanwhile, a banner runs across the top of the Columbia University homepage directing visitors to a page detailing the closures and new security measures in place amid the violent arrest of students, faculty, and other community members. Similarly, the University of Virginia held a symposium commemorating and honoring the struggle for civil rights which ran in tandem with administration’s decision to deploy police with riot shields and chemical weapons to remove students that were peacefully assembled.

Meanwhile, a pro-Israel mob largely funded by Jessica Seinfeld (wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld) descended upon anti-genocide protestors at UCLA, using wooden planks, sticks, fireworks and chemical agents to attack students at the solidarity encampment. Billionaire Bill Ackman funded a similar effort at George Washington University. Ackman, it ought to be remembered, was the chief personality behind the recent campaign to oust Claudine Gay from Harvard, citing “racism against white people” and accusing Gay of plagiarism following her appearance before Congress. In an ironic twist, it was shortly thereafter discovered that Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, had plagiarized passages from her 2010 doctoral dissertation.

The very same administrations that claim to “regret” the violence that students were subjected to decades ago, and that glorify the history of student movements on their campuses to attract prospective students, called for the police to descend upon their students in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours in riot gear; brutalizing them, ripping hijabs off of Muslim students, throwing students into police vans and carting them off in scenes that resemble Columbia in 1968 or Berkeley in 1969. In New York, arrested students were reportedly denied food and water and placed in solitary confinement while in NYPD custody. At Columbia, those of us paying attention to the current student movement nearly witnessed a repeat of the Kent State massacre, as police reportedly fired a gun while raiding Hamilton Hall (renamed Hind’s Hall by students taking over the building in protest).

There’s a reason the administrative and right-wing responses to these protests follow familiar historical patterns — these social movements are not disconnected. As students supporting Palestinian liberation march outside MIT chanting the slogan “MIT, MIT, we know which side you’re on! Remember South Africa, Remember Vietnam!” they are answering the historically repeated call for students to join the global movement for liberation. MIT’s Coalition Against Apartheid fought for divestment from South Africa in the 1980s — and the university responded by having 32 of its anti-apartheid students arrested. The chemical weapons deployed against student protesters in 1969 at the antiwar demonstration at UC Berkeley, in 2009 at the G-20 summit at the University of Pittsburgh and in 2011 at the Occupy Wall Street movement at UC Davis are being used now against students at the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. The students protesting for the liberation of Palestine have even organized under the same banners as those that came before them — the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that fought against university complicity in the Vietnam War has now morphed into the New SDS which has picked up the fight against investment in the Zionist project.

The same systems and forces that oppressed the antiwar, civil rights, labor and social justice movements of the past are the very same we continue to fight against today. This moment, an eruption of activism, has been building for a long time; the bubbling undercurrent of dissent was nurtured in classrooms by humanities teachers, practiced on the strike lines of the United Auto Workers, and fed in the strategy meetings of labor organizers and activist groups for years. The refrain that “outside agitators” are somehow orchestrating these student protests and radicalizing students from behind the scenes is a common conspiratorial trope which has been deployed throughout the history of Black Scare and Red Scare politics in the 20th century, as the recent work of Charisse Burden-Stelly so lucidly recounts.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the same ideological tropes and red-baiting rhetoric used to accuse W.E.B. Du Bois of being an agent of a foreign government for his peace activism in 1951 are now being deployed on predominantly Black, Brown, Arab, Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim students around the country. These students — who have been doxxed at both Harvard and Columbia for their anti-genocide activism (the latter currently, and rather ironically, under federal investigation for anti-Palestinian discrimination) — have been accused by Benjamin Netanyahu of being Nazis and by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt of being the “campus proxies of Iran.” Most recently, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson likened student protesters to Nazi soldiers, claiming that the movement is comparable to the antisemitic pogroms of 1930s, alluding specifically to Kristallnacht, while also explicitly and grotesquely citing the “screams coming from the gas chambers.”

We will not capitulate to these spurious allegations that Nazis, “terrorists” or “outside agitators” are conscripting and radicalizing students. The origins of the student movement — to the chagrin of Johnson, Joe Biden, Netanyahu, Greenblatt, John Fetterman, and others — are organic to the crises fueled by U.S. capitalism domestically as well as by its imperialist exploits around the globe. As our neoliberal economic system ushered in a new phase of far right extremism, U.S. leaders have disinvested from public support systems, gutted our health care system and ravaged our academic institutions, producing widespread discontent that has boiled in our bellies until the global attention on the genocide of the Palestinian people fanned our ire into a wildfire. The students on campuses fighting for the liberation of Palestine are fighting the yoke of global oppression; for students camping out demanding their institutions sever financial ties with weapons manufacturers and Israeli-backed firms, the struggle for a free Palestine is a fight for liberation everywhere. The student struggle is a testament to the indomitable quest for collective liberation from the fetters of white supremacy, settler colonialism, imperialism and rapacious capital.

Those at the top who are champing at the bit to call in the force of the militarized state to come down on students and faculty would rather encourage arrests and brutalization than allow free speech and engage in substantial negotiations with students on their own campuses.

Striking and camping students are moved by a passion similar to Mario Savio’s, the Berkeley free speech activist who inspired students to lay their bodies upon the gears of the machine to bring it to a halt in California in 1964. Recent commencement walkouts at Duke, Harvard and Yale are not dissimilar from the walkouts of 1909, 1913 or 1920, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) refused to participate in an exploitative system.

The strength of the IWW, like that of the students, comes from the larger solidarity movement. It is not insignificant that UAW 4811, which represents 48,000 academic workers in California, held a strike authorization vote on May 15 in solidarity with the student movement. UC Santa Cruz became the first campus to strike on May 20, followed shortly thereafter by workers at the UCLA campus. We should also pay attention to the joint efforts of faculty, instructors and teaching assistants at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who have organized a mass grade strike in protest of the treatment of students at the hands of police and in solidarity with their demands for divestment and an end to financial support of Israel at these institutions. Similarly, it is important to keep a close eye on the recent call for student workers and faculty at NYU to participate in an organized grade strike, which comes on the heels of similar job actions that have occurred at CUNY. History will remember the divestments, disclosure votes, and strike actions right alongside the arrests and encampment sweeps.

Unlike what happened at Kent State, students organizing in our present moment have the tools of the internet and social media at their disposal. Not only have students taken to social media to post and live-stream their current efforts on college campuses, but updates on the genocide itself have also been live-streamed directly from Palestinians in Gaza. Activists are able to use platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Signal to communicate organizing strategies to mass audiences instantaneously. When police officers are mobilized by campus administration, student organizers can post on Instagram, for instance, calling for broader community support. These encampments popped up quickly across the country, while word swiftly spread internationally via social media. We are no longer subject only to the news of the mass media with their tailored rhetoric and general disavowal of Israel’s onslaught on the people of Gaza. Despite the Netanyahu regime’s best efforts to obfuscate a genocidal campaign by banning Al Jazeera and continuing to assassinate journalists, and in spite of the U.S. Congress’s bipartisan vote to potentially ban TikTok for its role in “radicalizing” American youth, the whole world is watching.

These moments determine how history will remember each of us, as well as how we remember history in the future. And when future generations look back at these movements the way we look back on the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, they will shame and condemn those who didn’t stand with the student movement against genocide, against neo-fascism, against colonial and imperial expansion, and against deliberate historical amnesia. History is coming for all of us.

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