Upheaval at US universities

Azza Radwan Sedky
Friday 3 May 2024

Protests in solidarity with the Palestinians are taking place at universities across the US, with students aiming to put pressure on Israel to halt the genocide in Gaza.


Protests are continuing to rage on major university campuses in the US against Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza. In acts of defiance, students across US campuses have camped on school grounds demanding that their schools divest from companies and institutions, Israeli and US, that advance Israel’s military efforts in Gaza.

After 7 October last year, many student coalitions began sit-ins and encampments on US campuses calling on their universities to act against the genocide occurring in Gaza. Columbia University in New York became the epicentre of the disruption when University President Minouche Shafik called on the New York Police Department (NYPD) to remove the Gaza solidarity encampment on the campus.

The NYPD arrested over 100 students, sparking further encampments and further protests across many other campuses elsewhere.

Protests on US university campuses are neither novel nor original, and campuses across the US have always been considered hotbeds that reflect the anger and frustration that can be present in society at large.

What is unorthodox in today’s protests is the fact that the students are protesting against a volatile situation beyond US borders and one that is not on US soil or directly affects US student lives. However, the students believe that if their universities are complicit in the war by supporting Israel, then they become complicit too.

History tells us that student protests can bring about change. Early in the 1960s, four black students in the US sat at a lunch counter that served only whites. Students in 50 cities across the US followed suit and sat at white-only lunch counters. A huge victory occurred when integrated lunch counters became the norm, and blacks were served in restricted lunch parlours.  

As early as 1968, Columbia University faced a similar clash to the one we are seeing today when students protested against the Vietnam War. For more than a week, students occupied five university buildings, which were emptied after a violent police crackdown. The students’ efforts helped the anti-war movement, which grew exponentially into a broad social movement over the years.

In mid-2010, students instigated and shaped the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Student protests defined the movement, only to have it catch on and become mainstream.

Lorne Fultonberg in an article published about Denver University in the US comments that “words resulted in actions. City councils and state legislatures reallocated policing funds and banned chokeholds. Mississippi’s Confederate-inspired flag was redesigned.”

Protests at Columbia University led the university to drop its investment in private prisons in the US in 2015. At Georgetown University, student demonstrations led to the rechristening of two buildings originally named after college presidents who had been involved in the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, protests, sit-ins, and encampments in solidarity with the Palestinians are raging at a growing number of universities in the US as students aim to affect similar change. However, to date these protests are prompting university officials to take alarming steps to confront the crisis, with none seeming to be willing to appease the students.

Here is a glimpse of what is happening across the board in the US, what it exemplifies, and what the students are willing to take on.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Emerson College, George Washington University, and Columbia University are only a few of the over 30 universities in the US that have seen protest encampments on campus.

Their responses have varied. Police have arrested protesters at many universities, and by 26 April their number had reached 400. Some universities have resorted to remote learning; others have closed altogether. At New York University, 120 people, including faculty and students, were arrested after professors encircled a small encampment to protect student protesters from arrest.

Two professors were detained during Emory University protests. One of them, Caroline Fohlin, was heard screaming, “I am a professor,” as she was knocked down and dragged around by police. The University of Southern California (USC) cancelled its May graduation ceremony, while faculty walked out at Columbia University and joined the students.

One retaliatory measure at USC saw the cancellation of the valedictory speech of Asna Tabassum, a South Asian-American Muslim, citing safety concerns. The decision sparked another wave of protests.

“Whether or not I planned to speak about Palestine, or to speak about any sort of conflict in general, I think is beside the point. The point here is that the University pre-emptively made a decision, not on the basis of safety, but on the basis of potentially other factors that I think impede my freedom of expression,” Tabassum said.

University presidents, frustrated at the disturbances occurring on their grounds, have sided with Israel and been against any show of pro-Palestinian action on their premises. Shamefully, no university president in the US has denounced Israel’s destruction of every university in Gaza or used the term “apartheid” or “genocide” to describe its actions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the pro-Palestinian protests on US university campuses, finding them “horrific” and using the usual cry that they are “antisemitic.”

On a visit to the Columbia campus, House Speaker Mike Johnson called on the Columbia University president to resign.

US President Joe Biden has remained on the fence. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” he said, adding that “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

The demands of the students, wanting to see their universities divest from any Israeli company or institution, may not be easy to meet, though supporters of divestment cite the successful campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime as an example. Divestment from South Africa began in the 1960s, though it was not implemented fully until the mid-1980s.

It is a tall order to expect US universities to comply with the demands of the students, but there are voices that believe that change is in the making. Journalist Mary McNamara wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently that “the crackdown on student protesters shows exactly why we need them.” She believes that protests do work and will ultimately be listened to.

US journalist Chris Hedges has also posted an article called “Revolt in the Universities” that has been picked up by various outlets.

“Student protesters across the country exhibit a moral and physical courage — many are facing suspension and expulsion — that shames every major institution in the country. They are dangerous not because they disrupt campus life or engage in attacks on Jewish students — many of those protesting are Jewish — but because they expose the abject failure by the ruling elites and their institutions to halt genocide, the crime of crimes,” Hedges wrote.

“These students watch, like most of us, Israel’s live-streamed slaughter of the Palestinian people. But unlike most of us, they act. Their voices and protests are a potent counterpoint to the moral bankruptcy that surrounds them.”

Students mirror their societies, and they can help to bring about the change that is needed.


*The writer is a former professor of communication who is based in Vancouver, Canada.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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