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Palestine Solidarity Encampments Are a Rehearsal for Liberatory Self-Governance

“The movement is not going away,” says author and University of Chicago faculty member Eman Abdelhadi.

Part of the Series

“At UChicago, they were chanting, ‘40,000 people dead. You are fighting kids instead,’” says author and University of Chicago faculty member Eman Abdelhadi. “Palestine has laid open all the contradictions that are at the core of our society.” In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Abdelhadi and Alex, who participated in the Palestine solidarity encampment at Northeastern University, about what we can learn from the recent wave of student-led protest, and where the movement should go from here.

Music by Son Monarcas, David Celeste & Curved Mirror

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. A wave of student-led protest has invigorated the Palestine solidarity movement over the last two months. As the school year comes to a close, some university administrations have made deals with student groups in order to end the encampments, which were demanding that their schools divest from the Israeli war machine. Some of these deals included concessions, such as The New School’s agreement to hold a Board of Trustee vote on divesting from weapons manufacturing and other military supply companies, and the school’s agreement not to penalize student protesters. In some cases, administrators have opted for a violent approach by asking police to break up the student-led encampments. More than 2,900 protesters have been arrested at campus protests around the country, as police in some cities have beaten protesters, fired rubber bullets, deployed tear gas, and brutalized students.

Today, we are going to hear from Alex, a student activist who co-organized the encampment at Northeastern University in Boston, and Eman Abdelhadi, a Palestinian author, activist and faculty member at the University of Chicago. The encampments at Northeastern and UChicago are now the stuff of history, following raids that dismantled the protests, but as Alex and Eman will explain today, the encampments will have a lasting impact on student organizers, their communities, and our movements. I was so grateful for the opportunity to discuss this movement moment with Alex and Eman, both of whom offer invaluable insights about what we can learn from the encampments and where we should direct our energies in this moment of transition.

If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: Alex and Eman, welcome to the show. I am so grateful you could both join us today.

Alex: Thank you.

Eman Abdelhadi: Yeah, thank you for having us.

KH: Could you take a moment to introduce yourselves and say a bit about your work and your relationship to this movement moment?

EA: My name is Eman Abdelhadi. I am an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. I’m also a lifelong activist. My role, I’ve basically been in this movement in some version of it my entire life. Right now, most of my organizing is along three lines. One is on campus with faculty and staff, particularly around supporting students, but also doing our own political advocacy, particularly towards Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. I also work with a group of other sociologists on organizing a BDS campaign for our academic discipline. Then I do on the ground community organizing in Chicago with an affinity group that works more on political education and direct action.

A: My name is Alex. I am a recently graduated senior from Northeastern University. I am a community organizer here in Boston. For the past four years, I’ve been doing on-campus organizing, primarily COVID prevention work and labor solidarity organizing with our on-campus unions. Over the past few months I have gotten more involved as well in on-campus Palestine solidarity organizing, and I’m now an organizer with our unaffiliated Palestine solidarity organizing group on campus called Huskies for a Free Palestine. And of course, I think it’s important to note that the distinction between the campus and the city should be more flexible than it is. So I kind of view it as “campus organizing,” but also just location and place organizing. I don’t really restrict myself to that, especially as someone who just graduated. What I do right now is a lot of communications-type work. I was also involved in participating in our encampment that took place at the end of April.

Kelly: Thank you for that background on the important work that you’re both doing. The recent wave of on-campus protests has reinvigorated the Palestine solidarity movement, and I think we will all be feeling the impacts of these mobilizations for some time. Can you talk about how these encampments came about and why you think this tactic proliferated in the way that it has?

EA: I think these encampments were an important escalation that is responding or that was responding to the intensity of the situation in Gaza. I had a moment, I came across an acquaintance at the UChicago encampment, and she said something that I think was really profound, which is that she’d been trying to live her daily life despite watching the horror in Gaza and how hard that was. The encampment was a moment in which daily life became about Gaza, that there was a merging of the attempt to live your day-to-day life and the witnessing and protesting of the horror of the genocide. So, I think that’s part of why the encampments felt so important and why they have felt so meaningful for a lot of people. In terms of tactics, I think that students have rightly understood that their university administrations have been trying to ignore them in whatever ways they can. The idea is that if they ignore them long enough, then this whole movement will go away. The encampments were just such a physical reminder that the movement is not going away.

A: I think my experiences match up with yours, Eman, where I feel like for us it was a natural escalation based on our complete inability to get any kind of progress through the tactics that we’ve been employing, both over the past several years with all the iterations of Palestine solidarity groups on our campus. We’ve had an SJP [chapter] for many years that has been repeatedly targeted and sanctioned by the university in a way that is definitely not levied against other groups, which we’ve [also] seen across universities. So when this genocide escalated in October and we decided to form an unaffiliated new student group to provide more flexibility, more autonomy, and try to consolidate our power outside of the grip of official university-sanctioned groups, immediately we did all of the things. We wrote letters, we delivered them, we had our community contact our administrators, we had public rallies both on private property and on public property, different events, educational art. We did everything that we had in our tool belt.

We realized that the more that we use those tools that they say we are allowed to use, and of course they’ll crack down on us for those, and the less progress that we saw based on those tools, the more important it was that we stopped trying to play by their playbook. In December, we had a sit-in in our student center. Again, we tried to, in some ways, talk to or reason with the admin that showed up to “discuss with us.” But they were there to punish people and they decided to sanction and to punish the students that offered themselves in good faith as mediaries between the sit-in students and cops and administration.

So when the new semester came around and we were dealing with the repercussions (because of course they levied disciplinary sanctions and even legal threats against students for occupying our own campus space), we were trying to deal with the repercussions of that and trying to deal with the repression. Particularly at Northeastern, being a private university, they’re extremely strict about their whole we are private property and you need an ID to enter our property and we can demand it at any time. So, we were searching for a tactic that not only escalated and applied more pressure on our admin because they were so hostile, but also challenged that distinction between campus and non-campus.

Like what you were saying Eman, we were searching for a tactic that challenged the safety and sanctity of normal life on campus. We were tired of letting campus life go on without disruption and then peppering in whatever disruptions we could. We realized through the inspiration of the folks who had been camping out, for example, at Stanford for a while, even last semester, and of course the escalations at Columbia and other very high profile universities, that empowered us and gave us the fight that we needed to finally escalate to what we had been aiming towards. I do really think that that tactic of reclaiming the space and resisting the arbitrariness of the separation between the campus and the community is a very powerful way to make an argument about who deserves life and who deserves resources. That’s at the core of our fight for Palestinians as well as the fights that we’re fighting at home.

KH: What you’re saying, Alex, about making a point about who deserves life and who deserves resources – it strikes me that this is precisely the kind of message that a lot of corporate journalists were working to erase in their coverage of these protests. I think we often find that if a movement is truly threatening to the status quo, and that that movement cannot be ignored, eclipsed, or erased, then it will be sensationalized. I found it especially infuriating in this case, because the messaging coming out of student-led protests was often so meaningful and so insightful. But rather than focusing on the words of student spokespeople, we saw journalists writing missives about how only spokespeople would talk to them, and how disturbing this was for them. And for those who don’t know, it’s actually a standard practice at protests to have trained spokespeople who are tasked with interacting with media. Journalists know to seek those people out, but in this case, some chose to pathologize group discipline about messaging and who was tasked with delivering it. And of course, all of this goes back to the primary problem with how these protests have been covered: Rather than confronting Israel’s violence, the corporate press has really zeroed in on the protesters and tried to make critiques of their disruptions and group cultures the issue, instead of Israel’s violence in Gaza.

I’ve been really impressed with the student organizers in their work to continuously bring the issue back to Gaza and keep the focus on the struggle for Palestinian survival and liberation. So in keeping with those priorities, I wondered if you all wanted to say a few words about how students have done that, and how that work has been core to the organizing of these protests.

EA: I will say that the situation in Gaza is so dire that we are in a race against time. The Israeli government, to me, is clearly panicking and clearly understands that this is their chance to get as much ethnic cleansing done before policy catches up with public opinion in the U.S. and in the West more broadly. So I think what we’re seeing here, there is an urgency to this moment that I think is being reflected in the encampments. But that urgency is also, we are losing more and more lives every day. The sooner we end this, the more lives we save. It’s just that simple. It’s an incredibly difficult situation to face. So I think the students have been very clear that this is what this is about, that they have constantly at every turn turned whatever gaze is directed at them towards Gaza.

One of my favorite chants out of the encampments has been about how many people are dead, and contrasting that with the administration. So at UChicago, they were chanting, “40,000 people dead. You are fighting kids instead.” I think this really reflects the kind of absurdity of this moment that Palestine has laid open all the contradictions that are at the core of our society and all the hypocrisies that are at the core of our society and the kind of sheer absurdity of trying to suppress this movement, in this way.

A: Re-centering the genocide, and always centering the lives that we’re fighting for has been a huge, huge theme across pretty much every encampment that I’ve seen, [and] all of the community agreements, especially all of the programming. I mean, as you mentioned, when you’re trying to “live a normal life” while vicious genocide is going on, you’re sort of pulled in all of these different directions and your attention is being begged to go to a million different things, many of them, much less important and much less urgent. And the beautiful part about establishing a strong and united space with a purpose is that you create space for focus and you create space for intense and focused solidarity.

What we noticed is that by creating a very clear and intentional space where the issue is what people are most focused on when they enter the borders of the encampment, not only did we strengthen our own focus by doing things like having a Liberation Library, by doing art builds with a focus on the current issue, by having speakers speak about the ties between Northeastern University and the military-industrial complex and the ongoing genocide and the deadly exchange; not only by having that programming were we able to recenter our own focus and actually become more effective and stronger organizers to join, like Eman was saying, that very urgent fight that we’re fighting right now, but we also were able to create a space that welcomed more people into the fold.

So we would have people who came in because they saw that it was a beautiful community space, and they actually didn’t know a lot, which, there are still people like that, especially on college campuses. And we were able to talk to them, and do a lot of very important and urgent political education by using the encampment as a tactic. So that was also very beautiful.

We’ve been most successful in centering and re-centering Palestine and the genocide by understanding that our struggles and our issues are inherently intertwined. And so, when journalists want to come up to ask and ask us questions about, “What was it like in the encampment? What was it like to be arrested? Are you worried about university retaliation?” By understanding how our university’s investments, and research partnerships and public ties to the military-industrial complex, and to Israeli military and economic assets are all intertwined, we’re actually able to re-center – how do I put this? – by articulating our shared interests. So the same cops that are brutalizing students, arresting them and bringing them into their own classrooms for processing are the same cops that are being trained in the deadly exchange with the IOF. So we’re able to connect our own experiences of police violence and especially the experiences of our Black and Brown students on campus who have been repeatedly racially profiled and harassed by our campus police, with the violence that the Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of the IOF.

And not to say that they’re in any way parallel or equal, especially at this very moment, but instead to refocus through where we know our center is and what we can speak about. We’re very comfortable speaking about our university , and where our tuition dollars are going, the gentrification that our university is doing to the neighborhoods around in our city. And if we can understand that the same economic interests that make the university harm and destroy our communities and exploit their own students are those same interests that are allowing them to contribute to the genocide in Palestine, we have a very close and easy way to articulate our shared interests. And it’s a very nice way to get away from that sort of disconnected bridge that we sometimes feel like we have to use when we’re giving interviews, or when we’re talking about our encampments or movements where we’re like, “This is what’s happening to us, and instead of talking about that, we should be talking about Palestine.” That is a completely fair, I think, thing to say and to think, and I’ve definitely done it. But in some ways it can be even stronger to use the strategy of, not only should we be refocusing, but we should be understanding that the bad shit that’s happening to us is coming from the same roots of empire and capitalism that is happening to Palestinians in Gaza and all over occupied Palestine.

That’s been what I’ve seen to be the most meaningful, and to keep people in the fight as well, because when they can connect their struggles at home to what’s happening in Palestine, you see a stronger commitment, I think, to not only continually fighting against this genocide in a sustainable way, but also to staying in the fight, for all of these issues that we know are interconnected.

KH: I really appreciate what you’re saying Alex, about strengthening our sense of interconnection. At their best, I think encampments have the potential to help us dismantle the illusion of our separateness, as much as any tactic can. The shared struggle of meeting our shared needs, the work of learning together and sharing ideas, and the experience of facing threats together–this can all be very clarifying. I have seen those dynamics at work in the handful of Palestine solidarity encampments that I’ve visited, and I believe that those experiences are reshaping people’s politics, and in some cases, reshaping their lives. Most recently, I spent time running a workshop at an encampment at the University of Denver, and the conversation was just so layered and full of breakthroughs. There was so much love in that space, and we were all learning from each other in really profound ways. I was so grateful to be there and to be engaged with those young people. I really had a sense in that moment that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do, with the people I was supposed to do it with.

Have there been moments for the two of you, during these recent efforts, that felt particularly moving or transformative?

EA: I think that what you were saying, Kelly, is so important because one of the things that I… After our encampment at UChicago got raided, there was a rally and one of the things I told students is, “This was a rehearsal. This was us practicing the work of revolution. This is a dispatch from the liberated future that we’re all hoping for.” And it really is about the work of true democracy, which is the work of intensive conversation, intensive deliberation, and consensus building, and negotiating differences of opinion, differences of tactics among people that, as Alex said, come from different walks of life, come from different relationships to the camp and to the university as the kind of site where all of this is happening.

And so, I think it was incredibly difficult, particularly for the students. Our camp was entirely student led, and as faculty, we were sort of advising and we were always there. And I think the students were so exhausted. The students, along with everyone else in the encampment, were so exhausted, and it was really hard on everyone to figure out these questions of what would escalation look like? What deal is acceptable? How do we negotiate? What do we think about? What is the goal? If we take a deal from the administration, what does that mean for the camp? What does the fate of our camp mean for the movement? Whether it’s the movement of encampments in general, or the broader movement for Palestine, what does it mean for the future of Palestine work on this campus? What does it mean for the prospect of divestment, and disclosure, and repair, which were the main demands of the encampment?

And I think that work is so hard, but it is the work of governing ourselves. It is the work of actually having autonomy over our own lives, and it’s hard work, and it’s work that we have deliberately been sort of not taught to do. And so, I think that it was actually, despite it being the most difficult aspect of the encampment, I feel like it was actually particularly touching for me to watch that unfold and to watch students struggle with it. And to have done so having had the experience of encampments before, because I’m a generation or two older than these folks, realizing that, even though to them it felt like sort of new and difficult, that this was a much better iteration than what we saw in Occupy, or what was happening in the earlier waves of abolitionist movements in the mid 2010s.

And so it was heartening actually for me to see that so much of the lessons of these previous waves of encampments had actually made their way down to this moment. So I really love that. And I have more to say about moments that were touching for me, I cried a lot at the encampment, like happy tears. But I’ll actually stop there because I suspect we might want to continue to talk about this particular point.

A: Oh gosh, yeah, definitely. I would love to hear some of your moments. I think of a couple moments that I really cherish, and were really transformative for me, and I think for many of others who were there. So for some context, the Northeastern encampment started as a group of probably 20 of us showing up to rush our central campus quad with some tarps. So the goal was to lay down our tarps and to not move, no matter what. And we had found out late that night, I think, that the university knew when we were setting up and where we were going to set up. And so, we knew that they would be opposed and that we would face some resistance.

So the first, I want to say five hours of our encampment was students linking arms, sitting on tarps, trying not to get dragged away by the police. And somehow we made it through those first couple of hours and we ended up in a sort of inner circle around some of our supplies. They stole most of our supplies actually at first, but we ended up with some of our supplies, sort of in the middle of the quad, and then a group of maybe 15 or 20 of us linking arms facing out, encircled by police. And I think they were hoping to wait us out. I think they were hoping to sort of stand there and threaten us until we felt like we couldn’t go on, or we needed to use the restroom or we needed food or water or whatever it may be. And instead, what started happening is that we called for help, we called for solidarity, and more students, and community members and faculty started showing up, and they started forming a chain facing us around us. And eventually, we got so many people that we had an inner ring, so those of us who had been there since the morning, and we had an outer ring of people there in solidarity, and the police were between us.

And essentially the police were trying to prevent people from reaching us, both to kind of give us supplies, although they threw us some pity water bottles here and there, and also to just prevent our numbers from growing because they knew and we knew that if we outnumbered them that we were staying. So first of all, it was beautiful to see people realize that they don’t actually have to listen to what cops are saying at all. They don’t have to talk to them. They don’t have to show them their IDs. They can just walk up, and link arms and start chanting. And we even came up with a chant sort of on the fly to tell people, “Just link up.” That was one of our hallmark chants of those first couple hours, “Just link up,” don’t talk to the cops, don’t show them your ID, don’t let them try to discourage you from joining. Just link up.

And eventually we had a big enough circle that it was almost closed and the cops started getting antsy. And then people realized that if they just waited for a cop or two to kind of leave a little bit of a gap, and turn their head, that they could just rush in and join us. So people started doing that, little by little. We had one person join, we had another person join, and then we realized if we can get everyone in this outer circle to join us in the middle, we will have more than enough people to expand this out and start building our camp in the middle of our circle.

And I’m not even sure how it happened because I was half delirious by this point, but someone had some kind of signal, and they just rushed us, and that outer circle just ran to us, joined us, linked arms, and suddenly we were one big group. I think that moment of defiance, and solidarity and just complete denial of police and admin power over us and denial of their attempts to immediately remove us from our own campus was so… It made it feel possible. Until that point, I was not sure if we were actually going to set up camp. And once we all joined up, we had enough people to sort of step out and start building. When I sort of broke out of that circle to go into the middle and take stock of what supplies we had and what we could start doing, I felt like I was in this liminal space of, “Oh my God, what did we just do? We are actually doing this.” So that was very transformative because it really showed me the power of solidarity and defiance and actually taking and creating space.

I think just lastly, there’s so many, so I’m only going to do one more, but the first night, it was very difficult for me to sleep. I did not sleep almost at all for the entire 48 plus hours that our encampment was up. I was attempting to sleep in a tent and I was just too anxious. We were always under threat of police raid, and I remember coming out of the tent around 4:00 in the morning, sort of expecting everyone to either be asleep or just kind of sitting around because they were tired and I came out of the tent and instead of being asleep, everyone… Not everyone, but instead of being asleep, people were up and they weren’t just up talking or laughing or having a good time, which would be perfectly valid and a great thing to do anyways. They were up reorganizing our supplies.

At 4:00 in the morning, the people who decided they were going to be up to keep watch saw our big hodgepodge pile of masks and hand sanitizer and food and snacks and tents and sleeping bags, and they saw a problem, they saw that they had time to fix it and they decided to do it. Our sort of inventory and supply system was set up between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. on the first night.

Again, that really just showed me the power of creating a space where we all understand that we owe each other solidarity and community and we give each other the space to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be and we finally have a place to put that solidarity and to put it into action and realizing the lie that we don’t have enough power, enough skills to govern ourselves or that we don’t have the grit that it takes to create a safe and welcoming community space, or that we need the university to create that space for us, or that we need the cops to keep us safe, or that we need the state in any way or authority in any way to tell us what to do in order to keep ourselves safe.

It was that moment of realizing that people were just going to do the shit that needed to get done because they wanted to and they liked it. That was also very empowering to me because that’s the energy and the beauty of solidarity that kept the camp running so well and kept people so taken care of for those few days that we were able to stay there.

KH: I am getting choked up, just hearing you all talk about these moments. And Alex, what you are saying about self organization is so meaningful to me. Because I know from experience that occupation is an incredibly challenging tactic. From mundane concerns like trash disposal and weatherproofing, to managing internal conflicts and the constant precarity of possible police raids; this can be truly exhausting work. Like Eman, I have been involved in some of the encampment protests of the last couple of decades, and I know how important that shared commitment to place-making is, in order for a group to not only have staying power, but to have future bonds beyond the expression of the tactic.

And in terms of that work, of place-making, what skills do you think you and your co-strugglers have developed, and what analysis do you think you’ve strengthened or built together as a result of these challenges?

A: That’s a great question. I’ll be brief with it. I probably learned more in those 50 odd hours about organizing and relationship building and politics than I have in the past many years of my life.

I think a very important skill that we learned is how to trust and also how to have discipline. We would not have been able to protect our camp, have a night watch system to keep out a lookout for cops and an imminent raid without our community supporting us. We had to put out public calls for help, we had to ask for help. And that’s the amazing thing about sort of being an ungated campus, is we can kind of reject, again, that distinction between the campus and the community and just say, “This is our community. Everybody has a stake in this fight.” We had to learn how to trust our community and believe that they would show up and they definitely did.

Then we also learned what it looks like to try to organize a mass of people into a system that works with maybe not as much preparation as we would’ve liked to have. I’ll use the example of the cop watch system that we had. We had to learn how to be vigilant without being paranoid. We had to learn how to report things that we were seeing in a way that was helpful and efficient, and we had to learn how to build and form relationships that helped our organizing and helped us be safe rather than hurting us. We definitely had hiccups and we definitely had mistakes that we made, but I think the number one piece of analysis that I learned is if you have a strong set of principles and you have a set of people that you trust, there’s a lot you can accomplish and there’s a lot that you can plan on the fly.

It is very important to have political education, it’s very important to have knowledge based on experience. We had a lot of community members who were experienced and brought a lot of amazing things like marshall training or past experiences with similar encampments to the table, and that was really amazing. If you can learn how to accept new information and accept people and broaden your community while also staying grounded in a set of shared principles, that is such a tough balance, but we were practicing it. I can’t say that I’ve fully developed those skills. I think there’s always going to be more skill building [to do] but yeah, learning how to thread the needle between doing things with intentionality while also being open to new knowledge and spontaneity and support from places you would least expect it. That is something that I have personally had to learn as someone who usually hates spontaneity. It’s very important to stay open-minded while also being grounded, I think.

EA: I just want to say that one of the things that I think the encampment also did was give people a sense of abundance, that we were able to feed everyone who wanted to be fed in these spaces. It wasn’t always easy, but there was this sense that within our community, the broad community of the Chicagoland area and the narrower communities of the neighborhoods, we could really meet so many of people’s day-to-day needs on such a short notice and with no commodification at all. I think that was really remarkable for people to experience.

A: I wanted to add to that too. That was one of the major things that we learned, was to stop underestimating both ourselves but also our community. I mean, I’m personally kind of an anxious person, and before we established the encampment, I was very worried. I was very worried, “Would we be able to carry out the strategies we wanted to carry out? Would we be supported? Would we have the attention on us that I felt that we would need in order to be protected from imminent police violence?”

The answers that I got from actually carrying out the encampment is that people show up and that you can do anything if you have the audacity and to have a bigger imagination than you think you can afford to have because, like I said, when you have audacity and you have people that you trust, there is so much that you can accomplish. I think one of the major shifts in my mind and in my fellow organizers’ minds is that we now believe in our capacity to change the things around us in a way that maybe we didn’t before because we just haven’t done it. Now we understand that a lot of those arbitrary rules and laws and restrictions on our political imaginations are either self-imposed or imposed by the oppressive systems that we’re under and that if we can shake them off collectively, we can actually accomplish much more than we were scared that we couldn’t.

Kelly: I love hearing that. Because while most people aren’t inherently brave, I do think that courage is something that many of us have the potential to find in each other. I also think that people become bolder when they get a glimpse of their own potential and a sense of what’s possible. I think this movement moment has helped generate a lot of collective courage and a lot of audacity, and that we’re going to need those things moving forward.

Circling back to how student protesters have been characterized, much has been made of whether or not student protests have been peaceful. The popular fixation on peacefulness has historically been used to ascribe innocence to some protesters, while implying or outright stating that others deserve to experience violence and repression. It is blatantly obvious to some of us that the quality of being peaceful has never insulated anyone from violence and that people who benefit from the status quo will always accuse people who disrupt it of being violent.

Can you speak to ideas about peaceful protest that have been applied to the recent waves of student protests and how activists should engage with these arguments?

EA: Well, you just put it very beautifully, Kelly, that those who are invested in the status quo will always see attempts at changing the status quo as violent. I think that as activists, we don’t need to… I think we are past the moment, particularly in Palestine solidarity, where we have to take these arguments at face value or treat them on their own terms.

When someone brings this up for me, I try to turn their gaze back towards the people with the guns and the riot gear and the people actively destroying things, and that’s the police and that’s the administration and that’s the system. I think we need to constantly be making the violence of the state more visible all around us for what it is, that we actually live in the most violent version of government in human history. We are under an enormous amount of violence and the fact that the encampments were treated the way they were treated, the fact that even being a professor at an elite school couldn’t protect you from being thrown onto the ground, from having a boot on your neck, shows the fragility of the supposed peace, the supposed nonviolence that we all live under.

In reality, we are subjected to state violence every day in that it is in every corner, it is lurking in every shadow waiting for us to step even a little bit out of line. That’s the violence that we need to constantly be pointing people towards. Luckily for us, I guess, the state is constantly showcasing that violence and the evidence of it is all around us. So I think contesting the legitimacy of the violence of the state needs to be one of our main talking points and needs to be one of the main ideological edifices that we attack as abolitionists and as activists.

A: Yeah, I’m on the same page. I would say we have definitely felt the pressure as students trying to talk about and to defend our tactics, to lean on that argument that we were peaceful, so of course the violence that was used against us by our administration and by cops was disproportionate and terrible.

But I think people are learning. They’re learning that angle actually lacks utility because it doesn’t capture the whole issue and we are hopefully, as a group across the country, shifting toward what Eman was saying, the understanding that the existence of these universities in many cases is predicated on violence, the existence of the state itself is predicated on violence. That’s why we’re experiencing or seeing a genocide in Palestine. Why is peace or a lack of violence the noble position in this category, right? It’s not.

I think we’ve been shaking that off and we’ve been accepting that there is no disruptive tactic that we can use that will not be perceived as violent. Messing with their graduation plans is seen as violent. Messing with the beautification of the green spaces on campus is seen as violent. The statement that the university made, which was a very dystopian statement, the day after they raided our encampment, was that “Campus is open again and people are taking pictures and families are going on tours.” All the while, they gated up their own green spaces and none of them were accessible and tours were not happening. That was a blatant lie.

They try to sort of project this image of peace and normalcy and happiness, and really it’s a piece that’s dependent on ignorance of genocide, so we hate that anyways. But it’s a lie because in reaction to our own disruption, they got so militant and so defensive that they disrupted their own campus environment anyways. The only time they see disruption as violent is when we do it because they see us as inherently violent because we are inherently a threat to their violence.

I feel, really, that most students now who are part of this movement are realizing how useless it is to try to argue over and over again that we’re peaceful. I don’t think that has any use for us anymore. We will never be peaceful in their eyes and we don’t need to try because we’ve heard it time and time again, “Peace without justice is not a real peace.” It’s predicated on suffering. And when there is no justice, there is no peace; that’s the popular refrain. And I think we’re all on the same page about that now.

KH: I think a moral confrontation around what the word “peace” means to us is so important in these moments. Mariame and I talk about this a lot in the chapter “‘Violence’ in Social Movements” in Let This Radicalize You. It’s so clear that when the ruling class talks about peace, they are talking about order, which means they are talking about our cooperation with legitimized violence. If we all cooperate, and don’t shut anything down, or make anyone uncomfortable, or break any windows, and everyone who is deemed disposable in this society dies, and the genocide in Palestine continues, we are told we are experiencing peace. The idea of peace, as deployed by authority figures in this country, is about the maintenance of norms and the maintenance of the violence they approve of. When students are protesting a genocide, the ongoing annihilation of tens of thousands of people, and the moral question of the day is whether they were wrong to break a window, or whether someone pushed back when counter protesters were allowed to violently lay siege to their camp for hours on end – those are not serious questions. And those questions have nothing to do with morality or actual concerns about violence. Because if people were actually concerned about violence, on a moral level, they would be concerned with the genocide in Gaza, and attacks on students, and the violence of police. Those would be the primary concerns, rather than the punditry of critiquing protests, and using metrics of “peacefulness” and “order” to decide whether students deserve to experience police violence. It’s just all such a sham, and I am so glad to hear you talking about young people rejecting these standards, Alex. Because the ruling class will always try to defame and shut down movements in this way, just as a group of billionaires lobbied New York City Mayor Eric Adams to send police in to raid the Columbia University encampments. There was a piece in The Washington Post recently that exposed the existence of a group chat where billionaires plotted together about how to leverage campaign donations to push for a raid, and they ultimately had a Zoom with Adams where they made their case. This is appalling, but it’s also standard stuff. We will never model resistance in a way that the ruling class won’t seek to destroy, unless our efforts are purely expressive, impotent and ineffective. If we pose no threat to the status quo, they may allow us to cling to notions of “peacefulness,” by which they mean, “insignificant.”

Meanwhile, those billionaires who used campaign donations and whatever leverage they had to pressure the mayor and to pressure the university president to unleash police violence on protesters are not going to be accused of being violent, even though they leveraged their power in order to inflict brutality on students – not emotional unease or a broken window, but actual brutality and carceral violence. There is no social guilt ascribed to these men. We also saw at UCLA, there was that photo essay in the LA Times of horrific stormtrooper-like violence from police, and that is not at the center of the conversation about violence, nor are the vigilantes who were allowed to attack the UCLA students for hours on April 30.

So, I found it noteworthy when Biden singled out “order” as being so fundamentally important, and the disruption of order as justifying these police raids on college campuses. Protest is meant to disrupt the order of things. That’s what it’s supposed to do. To create a tension that forces a moral confrontation and a negotiation. So what he was justifying with his words was the commission of violence against all protesters who are even somewhat effective in their work. Biden is obviously not concerned with violence, or he would not be facilitating a genocide in Palestine perpetrated by a fascist government in Israel. So, I want to thank you both so much for your thoughts on this, because I get really agitated discussing it. I think we need to get over these illusions about performing perfection in the eyes of our oppressors. That which forces their hand will always be depicted as violence. We have to have our own moral standards about what’s moral and what’s necessary, and we have to push that analysis forward into the popular imagination, rather than trying to fashion ourselves into the mold our enemies insist upon.


Now that many of the encampments have been dismantled by police or have disbanded due to the school year ending, where do you see the momentum of this moment flowing? Do you think students will continue organizing this summer, and what do you think needs to come next for the Palestine Solidarity movement?

EA: I think that it’s interesting because I think one of the narratives that’s been kind of floating up a little bit is like, oh, this movement, the Palestine Solidarity movement is student-led, or that it’s emerging on campuses. And I think that campuses have always played an enormous part in the movement, but I think the movement has also always been bigger than campuses. We have seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people take to the streets in pretty much every American city. And I think that what’s going to happen in the summer is that there’s going to be a merging between student activism and broader activism for Palestine.

I know in Chicago we’re preparing for the DNC, and so it’s going to be a very spicy summer in Chicago, and I think students have done a great job of connecting to the broader movement and will work seamlessly with the broader movement as the summer unfolds. But this is just the beginning. Divestment, I think, is going to happen. It’s just a matter of time, unless universities are planning to somehow have operations without students, without this generation, which I think some administrators would frankly love to do, [to] somehow get rid of the student part of universities.

We are going to see more and more activism for Palestine, and we are going to see people even more energized because of their experiences in the encampments and because of the solidarities and connections that were built in the encampments, and particularly strengthening those links between university students and their broader communities. I mean, everyone, and I know in Chicago, I saw at the encampments from every walk of life, from every part of my life, from the mosque to leftist spaces that I’m a part of. And there’s overlap there of course, but I think we’re coming out of this stronger. I think we’re coming out of this motivated and I believe that we will win.

A: Yes, I’m on board. I totally agree. By using violence against us and by showing their hands, showing what tactics that they’re capable of, the universities have first of all gotten us familiar with their playbook. We know exactly what they’re going to do. We know the faces and the names of the administrators who are trying to stop us. We know who is responsible for the investments and the inflows and outflows of the money. We’re getting more and more familiar with the machinations of the university and how exactly their complicity and genocide works. And through that resistance that we’ve come up against, we’ve gotten smarter, we’ve developed new strategies, we’ve built relationships with our alumni, we’ve built relationships with parents in our community. We’ve built much stronger relationships with our supportive faculty. So I’m not saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s kind of the feeling that I’m at right now where we have learned so much over the past, even just months, that I think the education from experience and strategy that we’ve received over the past couple of weeks is going to carry us so far in the campus movements.

But I agree. I think the theme for this summer, in my opinion, should be “out of the quad and into the streets.” And I see that happening already. Students are really excited. They’re building coalitions and relationships between all the different campuses, especially cities like Boston that are college towns, college cities. We’re realizing just how much power that is if we knit our movements together. And that is definitely happening. And we’ve maintained and strengthened our relationships with community members and community organizations.

And I see so much power growing and I feel personally that other people are on the same page too. They’re excited, they are very clear-eyed about what the end to these encampments means. They’re very clear-eyed about how it was a tactic of the moment that we can leverage for the future. I don’t think I know anyone who’s feeling demobilized right now. I know that people are still dealing with the consequences of the violent crackdowns and the university retaliation, but we have the tools to address that and move forward and move through it and change those circumstances. And so I think overall, the energy is high. People are ready to keep building and that’s what I’m seeing happening. I also really hope it’s a red-hot summer and I think we’re going to make it happen.

KH: Thank you both. That’s so beautiful to hear. I know that I plan to spend a lot of time this summer working on political education with young folks and student groups. I’ve already been contacted by some student organizers, and I hope people will continue to reach out through my website at kellyhayes.org. I’m already planning some small group, virtual workshops on things like organizing 101, direct action, and lessons from Let This Radicalize You. And I just really want to emphasize that this is such an important time to learn. Yes, I want us in the streets. Yes, I want us to take collective action, but I also want us to carry forward the energy of collective learning that folks were experiencing in these encampments because that is so powerful and it’s really going to help us get free.

Now as we wind down, I wanted to circle back to what you were saying earlier, Eman, about powerful experiences that you had at the UChicago encampment. Are there any other stories or memories you would like to share as we wind down our conversation?

EA: The flagpole in the midst of campus was empty and the students raised the Palestinian flag. And I just couldn’t help but tear up. I’m tearing up now just talking about it. And I think the reason it felt so powerful is that Palestinian life and history has been so defined by erasure, and to see the Palestinian flag up there felt like Palestinians in that moment were impossible to ignore for the campus community. And that felt really powerful. And in general, the encampment is a few feet from where I work. You can kind of see and hear it from my office. And it was just mind-boggling for a kid from mid-Missouri to hear Arabic playing on the quad of the University of Chicago, to see Muslim kids praying unproblematically, to see Palestinian flags everywhere, to sort of have our lives matter in this way and be prioritized in this way when my entire life, I have watched our lives be quite literally erased and extinguished.

It really was transformative for me. I don’t think it’s something that… It was healing. It didn’t change my politics because my politics have already kind of been on this, but it was healing. It brought me a sense of wholeness and a sense of safety and a sense of comfort that I honestly haven’t felt in at least seven months. And it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s something that even in the few days that I’ve been on campus since the encampment, I look at the empty quad and I see the quad from the encampment in my memories. I am sort of super imposing it in my mind’s eye onto the empty quad. And I think I’ll always do that. And I feel just immensely grateful to everyone who made that happen to everyone who participated in that. I don’t think people even realize how beautiful and how important that was.

KH: That is so beautiful, and I am so grateful that you got to experience that moment. Is there anything else you all would like to share with or ask of the audience today?

A: I think we spoke about the incredible generosity of our communities toward the encampments and how much that opened up our imaginations as to what is possible in terms of feeding people, clothing people, protecting people from state violence. And it’s beautiful that that was happening in our communities here in the so-called United States, and I really implore people who feel an ease to give and an ease to support for the encampments to multiply that ease of giving in generosity for the people in Gaza and occupied Palestine in general.

For every dollar that you send toward a university encampment, send 10 or 20 to Palestinians, for every food item or clothing or hygiene item that you bring to an encampment, donate 10 to the people who are undergoing genocide. I think we experience the potential of solidarity and community and it’s amazing. And part of our duty in focusing on who is experiencing the most depravity and the most violence right now is to always encourage people to dig deep and to understand why they may be more comfortable being a part of this movement in ways that include giving to people who are near them or look like them, but less comfortable giving to where it’s really most needed.

So that’s what I would challenge people, especially people who have been really invigorated by the encampments or are very excited to listen to an episode like this. Dig deep and figure out where you can find that excitement and that generosity toward the people who are experiencing the genocidal violence.

KH: Thank you, Alex, for that important intervention. Eman, do you have any final thoughts to share?

EA: I think as always, I ask you to stand with us and to do whatever is in your power. And really, I mean that, if what’s in your power is sending one text a day, if what’s in your power is blockading a weapons ship, if what’s in your power is writing something on social media, I just hope you do it because really the situation is so urgent. So thank you.

KH: Well, Eman and Alex, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a really beautiful conversation and I think it’s going to help folks expand their understanding of the power of this moment and where we can go from here. So thank you so much for joining me today.

EA: Thank you, Kelly. You are an inspiration as always.

A: Thank you so much for having us.

[musical interlude]

KH: Well, I am so grateful for this conversation, and for the work of organizers like Eman and Alex. I have been so lucky to have the chance to interact with students at a number of encampments around the country, and I look forward to continuing to connect and build with the young people I’ve met. There is so much potential in this moment, as so many young people have experienced the power of making place together, of defending one another, and of wading through the messy work of collective governance. I believe that these protests are a sign that something is shifting in our troubled society. In this declining empire, where so many have proven that they will accept the unthinkable in exchange for some semblance of what’s familiar, we are now seeing righteous waves of refusal. We are seeing young people reject a genocidal status quo, and test the bounds of what they are capable of when they participate in collective defiance. I hope we all heed Alex and Eman’s appeals to continue to show up and to give what we can in support of the Palestinian people. I also hope that we can build upon the power of this moment, forging new bonds across generational divides, across struggles, and across borders to challenge the death-making and annihilatory forces that threaten us all. As the ruling class ramps up human disposability to maintain the status quo, amid the proliferation of AI targeting, mass surveillance tech, and the ecocide of militarism, to defend Palestine is to defend the world. So let’s learn what we can, and act together, wherever we can, to defend Palestine, and each other.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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