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Our Gaza Encampments May Fall, But They’ve Already Radicalized a Generation

Many of the Gaza solidarity encampments have now been destroyed by police. How do we make sense of their legacy?

Students protest as they walk out from the George Washington University (GWU) commencement ceremony as GWU President Ellen Granberg speaks on the National Mall on May 19, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

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At 4:45 am on May 8, the University of Chicago Police Department arrived at the UChicago Popular University of Gaza, a Gaza solidarity encampment organized by a coalition of student organizations called UChicago United for Palestine, and destroyed it.

Within 15 minutes, the most beautiful, abundant, diverse iteration of university life many of us had ever experienced was gone. All the participants in the encampment — including me, an assistant professor — were left to wonder, did we win?

By now, many of the almost 200 encampments that sprung up across the country have been raided and destroyed by police. How do we make sense of the legacy of the encampments? This question is fundamentally about how we process the rise and fall of revolutionary moments within reactionary times.

First, we must celebrate the triumph of revolutionary thinking and practice — even when its material manifestations are brief. The encampments already won something simply by existing.

Liberal and centrist forces within U.S. politics are always working to co-opt and defang social movements in the United States by pushing them into silos of reformist single-issue campaigns. Too much of the energy of the movement for gay liberation got poured into the campaign for gay marriage for this reason. And too much of the energy associated with the movement for women’s liberation got poured into distilled milquetoast logics of white, middle-class feminism. Everywhere, movements of power and liberation have too often fizzled into bids for representation in compromised institutions or within more narrow spaces, and little more.

The liberal forces that seek to co-opt radical grassroots energy into the logic of single-issue campaigns usually try to persuade us that fundamentally the world is moving in the right direction. They argue that the institutions that rule our world — the government, the university, the market etc. — are replete with justice at their core and only need small tweaks to reach their equitable potential. They try to persuade us that to win those changes, we need to work only within our identity groups and stay within the system. Eventually, those who embrace this strategy may eke out some limited progress, usually in the form of increased representation. And this is held up as a promise that all will be well because the people in power will look like us, and the wealthy and privileged of our group will have all the benefits to which the wealthy and privileged are generally entitled.

The recent wave of student-led Palestine solidarity encampments at universities across the U.S. rejected these liberal logics. Students, faculty and organizers recognized the devastation of Gaza as a direct result of the capitalist world order under which we all live, a world order whose core logic is profit over people, that protects us so long as we are profitable and discards us when we are not.

Many encampments paired demands for divestment from Israeli apartheid with demands for repair of their university’s harms to local communities. For example, the UChicago United for Palestine coalition demanded reparations for members of the South Side community and a halt to the ravenous expansionism to which the university has long subjected the neighborhood. Demanding these reparations acknowledges the simple fact that the same logic that displaces Palestinians also works to displace the University of Chicago’s Black neighbors.

The encampment was not only a triumph of revolutionary thinking, it was also a triumph of revolutionary practice. In a reactionary present whose days are clearly numbered, each encampment was a practice run for a revolutionary future. Every time we seize a space in this world and decide to run it for ourselves, decide to feed ourselves, to shelter ourselves, to keep each other safe — we beckon to a revolutionary horizon. We open a window and look out onto a liberated future. We practice the hope that fuels our movements, wave after wave.

The encampments have been revolutionary, but they have not been the revolution itself. At the UChicago Popular University for Gaza, campers had to face the difficult work of debate and consensus building over strategy and tactics. Some questioned whether students should negotiate with the administration at all, while others debated what material gains would feel acceptable. After long discussions with the camp, students negotiated with the administration. These negotiations would come to naught when the administration suspended them on Sunday. In the processes of decision-making, many were eager to live out the abolitionist ideal for which the Popular University stood — an ideal where every voice in the camp had equal weight. But of course, we were not in the revolution. We were still on the campus of the University of Chicago, a private institution with a large and violent police force. We could act horizontally within the camp, but different people had different stakes in the outcomes of the encampment. Some could lose hundreds of thousands in tuition dollars or their livelihoods, others could walk away unscathed.

We must not mistake revolutionary moments for the revolution. If we do, then defeats — an unmet demand or a dispersed encampment — begin to feel like the end of the road. We have to treat every revolutionary moment as that — a moment. Moments are, by definition, ephemeral. It is in their nature to pass. But they matter because they leave us transformed in their wake. They give us a taste of freedom. Once we taste freedom, we hunger for it for the rest of our lives.

I learned civil rights activist and revolutionary Assata Shakur’s chant at a police abolitionist encampment in New York a decade ago named Liberation Square. I recited it again with my students at the UChicago Popular University for Gaza, then again with students at the University of Arizona’s Gaza solidarity encampment while in Tucson on a visit.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to win.

We must love each other and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Liberation Square in New York did not win its direct aims, nor did many of the encampments demanding dignity for Black lives that proliferated across the country. Along the way to liberation, we always suffer many defeats. For my generation, some defeats have included watching the Arab Spring turn into a winter, or watching the fall of Occupy Wall Street or watching the police continue to kill Black people despite the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. But this generation of uprisings has the imprints of everything we learned during these earlier waves of movement, just as our uprisings had lessons from our elders imprinted within them. We never lose in struggle. Every action we take toward liberation plants a seed, but sometimes harvests take a long time.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney said:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

We must practice hope until hope and history rhyme. As we move through seasons of struggle, we practice hope by creating revolutionary space, by continuing to sample freedom and continuing to feed our hunger for it. In doing so, we beckon to our liberated future, the future we deserve. We have a world to win, and truly, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

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