The long reach of student activism in the US

Nevine Khalil, Wednesday 22 Nov 2023

Last week saw a surge in pro-Palestinian activism, arrests, and retaliation at universities across the US, but more is yet to come.

Demonstrators against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in Seattle, US  (photo: AP)
Demonstrators against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in Seattle, US (photo: AP)


“I wouldn’t be caught dead holding a Starbucks cup,” exclaimed one student at the University of Michigan (UMich), as she adjusted her Palestinian kuffiya. “It’s so embarrassing.”

Wearing a kuffiya, boycotting Starbucks and McDonalds, occupying university buildings, walkouts, sit-ins, doxing, arrests are all par for the course if you are a student advocating for Palestinian rights at many university campuses in the US right now.

Lance Lokas, the leader of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at George Washington University (GWU), told Al-Ahram Weekly that his group was banned from campus for 90 days, after weeks of non-stop activism that brought together  hundreds of students in solidarity with Palesitnians. The ban came after the group projected onto a school building phrases like “End the Siege on Gaza” and “Divestment from Genocide in Gaza Now”.

“That is our most important, central demand,” said Lokas, who having been doxed is willing to speak on the record. “George Washington University [must] immediately divest from weapons manufacturers and defense contractors that aid and abet the genocide of Palestinians, and end all financial and material ties to the Zionist entity.”

In response to SJP’s suspension, a solidarity movement formed on campus, demanding that it be reinstated as GWU’s administration continues to crack down on pro-Palestinian speech from students and faculty across campus. “They have largely ignored our demands, and completely refused to acknowledge the genocide of Palestinians,” he explains. “They will never willingly acquiesce to our demands, so we must build power in our communities to attain them.”

SJP built a strong Student Coalition for Palestine in the Washington, DC area and around the country, including indigenous, Black, Armenian, Jewish, feminist, Asian, and abolitionist organisations. “They have been our strongest support system in the wake of our suspension.”

Intimidation tactics by GWU include mobilising campus police force en masse to surveil and harrass pro-Palestinian activists, as well as dictating demonstration routes and volume. “We know that these are signs of a weak and desperate institution,” asserts Lokas. “Just like the student movements against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, we are part of an international movement and we must organise against all educational institutions that fund settler colonialism and Western imperialism.”

The same sentiment echoes for a student at George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia, who chose to remain anonymous. The student said that the SJP chapter on their campus participated in the Shut It Down for Palestine event on 9 November, and has organised protests and walkouts to demand that their university should divest from war profiteering companies that advertise and recruit students on campus. They also want the administration to officially recognise and acknowledge that genocide is being committed in Gaza, and provide equal protections for Palestinian and Arab students, especially from doxing.

“The main problems we face are intimidation by fellow students, punishment and restrictions by the administration,” the student says. “As well as doxing and claims of anti-semitism online.”

Doxing is the collection of someone’s private information across multiple platforms (including social media) by an unauthorised individual, who then publishes the information in an attempt to shame or embarrass the user. Pro-Zionist groups also post pictures of students on Canary Mission, an online blacklist to out people for being anti-semitic.

The group at George Mason University also has strong allies among the 37,000 students on campus, including the Native American Indigenous Alliance (NAIA), the Arab Student Association (ASA), the Muslim Student Association, and the Kurdish Student Organisation. They are also part of the national SJP movement through which they work and support each other.

“We have yet to have a formal meeting with the president to discuss our demands,” says the student at George Mason University.

While the prospect remains bleak, the door appears to be ajar at UMich in Ann Arbor, with a student body of more than 50,000. The university’s President Santa Ono finally recognised “how enraged so many in our community feel… We will, I will, do better in the future,” he said in a video statement on 17 November.

Ono made these statements as students occupied the university’s main administration building that day, demanding to speak to him and pressure UMich to divest from Israel and release a full list of the university’s investments there.

Joseph Fisher, the activism chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), the SJP chapter at UMich, told the Weekly that a coalition of 56 organisations also wanted the university to initiate an inquiry into anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic student harassment, as well as reaffirm faculty who were vilified for supporting Palestine. They also demand that their university should issue a statement describing “the massacre of Gaza as a genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign led by Israel and aided by the US”.

“Fund our education, not the occupation,” chanted hundreds of protesters that evening as they stood outside Ruthven Hall, where Ono’s office and central administration are located. At the end of the seven-hour occupation of the building, 40 students were arrested, processed and released at the scene.

The event was intended to be another peaceful sit-in, but turned into “a violent nightmare of police brutality”, according to Assmaa Eidy, a member of SAFE’s activism committee and director of community action expansion for (ASA). “Our students were trampled on, tackled to the ground, punched, and thrown,” Eidy told the Weekly. “Muslim women’s hijabs were forcibly removed by officers, along with other articles of clothing, and many women were also inappropriately handled.”

She reported that students inside the building were denied water, food, access to bathrooms, medication, and medical support. Ten police precincts within a 30-mile radius descended on the location, with 50 officers surrounding the students inside Ruthven.

In his video address that evening, Ono had changed his tune completely since the beginning of October, when he slammed the “horrific attack” by Hamas and ignored the killing of Palestinians and emerging Islamophobia on campus. Angered and ignored, pro-Palestine students spent the next 40 days trying to meet with him.

Ono ignored pro-Palestinian demonstrators, even when they held a candle vigil outside his residence on campus; even when they organised “die-ins” to honour martyrs; even when they shut down traffic; even when they taped a letter of demands to his front door; even when they wrote the names of 10,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza on a 40-foot long banner and hung it outside his house; even when they staged a silent protest holding up bloodied hands and taped the pictures, names and ages of martyrs on their shirts; even when they marched 1,000 students to the main administration building.

In his video address last week, Ono acknowledged that pro-Palestine students have been intimidated and faculty members suffered verbal abuse for their political views. “This tempest of war has placed a terrible burden on our students, faculty and staff from our Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish, and Arab communities,” he said.

But arrests and citations are not the most intimidating for kuffiya-wearing activists, who shield themselves from the fallout of doxing and retaliatory measures by other students or university administration by coalescing with other groups on campus: safety in numbers. While SAFE partnered with 56 other organisations, a Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) Umich chapter was created in early November to counter pro-Zionist groups and silence accusations of anti-semitism.

Shut it Down for Palestine on 24 November promises to be another sweeping call to action, where protesters are being rallied to organise sit-ins, walkouts, wear kuffiyas, wear armbands, picket companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, as well as Israeli embassies and consulates.

Shut it Down for Palestine has sponsored several rallies, including on 9 November at the University of Arizona where over 1,500 students, faculty, staff and individuals participated in a walkout. The National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) supports over 200 Palestine solidarity organisations to develop a student movement that is “connected, disciplined, and equipped with the tools necessary to achieve Palestinian liberation”.

On 13 November, 120 faculty at Harvard University wrote to their president Claudine Gay that they are “astonished by the pressure from donors, alumni, and even some on this campus to silence faculty, students, and staff critical of the actions of the State of Israel.” They called on Gay to support intellectual freedom at Harvard, with its 25,000 student body, and create an advisory group on Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.

Rallying more allies around pro-Palestine protesters on campus is key to growing the momentum for activists. In solidarity with the members of the MIT Coalition for Palestine, the Black Graduate Student Association at MIT penned an open letter in response to the administration’s attempts at “intimidation, censorship, and restriction of peaceful protests” by some of its nearly 12,000 students.

But the picture is grimmer on other campuses. Students protesting for a ceasefire are fighting an uphill battle, as universities started banning pro-Palestinian groups on campus. On 16 November, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Florida’s ban on pro-Palestinian university groups, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the state is violating students’ free speech. Last month, Florida’s university system and Governor Ron DeSantis ordered colleges to shut down chapters of (SJP).

Brandeis University has also banned SJP indefinitely, and Columbia University has suspended the group. In response to this suspension, more than 20 elected officials sent a letter to Columbia University, which is attended by over 30,000 students, calling on the Ivy League University to reinstate the local chapters of SJP and JVP. Both were suspended for holding an “unauthorised” silent protest, and are now blocked from receiving any university funding or holding events on campus.

Signatories included representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Nydia Velázquez, who said that students have been doxed and some have had job offers withdrawn.

On the same day as the “unauthorised” protest, more than 100 of Columbia’s faculty wrote an open letter to university President Minouche Shafik condemning the attempts to stifle freedom of speech, and unfairly labelling students as violent, disruptive, or anti-semitic for expressing empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians.

“Activism has my full priority and attention,” asserts Eidy at UMich. “All other areas of my life and education have become insignificant.” Her colleague Fisher agrees: “Activism is my primary responsibility,” he said. “Ahead of classes, ahead of sleep, even ahead of eating at times. As campus organisers, we know the impact we can make here, and know where our priorities should lie.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: