Behind the US campus encampments

Rasha Gaddah from Washington , Thursday 9 May 2024

Pro-Palestinian campus protests have been swelling across US universities but how that would serve the Palestinian cause remains an open question.

US universities
US universities


The world has been transfixed on American teen protesters, cheering them on for their courageous stance in defence of Palestinian civilians who have been subjected to six months of war that has so far claimed the lives of 35,000 civilians, while injuring and displacing thousands more. The reaction of university administrations and security forces have also opened a Pandora’s box of questions about US claims of democracy.

A wave of pro-Palestinian US campus protests against the Israeli war on Gaza seems to have been contagious, engaging both students and faculty members in a stand-up against police in riot gear and conjuring up images of US student protests against the Vietnam War 56 years ago. 

Last week saw massive arrests of students, and some faculty members who joined forces with peaceful junior protesters in support of freedom of expression as the academic year draws to a close and as students are preparing to sit for final exams.

University students in the United States are demanding an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip as well as a university boycott of investments in companies that support arming Israel on the grounds that the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip has in seven months killed more than 35,000 Palestinians while injuring and displacing thousands more.

The protests have led to the arrest of more than 1,000 demonstrators over the past two weeks ago. The wave of anger reached a peak late on Tuesday 30 April when New York police in riot gear stormed the Columbia University campus to disperse pro-Palestinian demonstrators, dismantled encampments set up by the demonstrators and arrested protesting students. Police arrived in response to a call from Columbia University President Minouche Shafik but the call for help was soon a catalyst for even more protests nationwide.

In the middle of all the chaos, however, there was one single victory giving protesters a ray of hope. On 30 April Brown University announced that it had reached an agreement with a group of protesting students. The agreement was that the students would remove their tents and, in return, the university would stop investing in companies linked to Israel.

There has been almost a consensus among students and politicians who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly that the pro-Palestinian protests may prove fruitful in the long term, increasing awareness of the Palestine issue and putting more pressure on the American government to change its policy towards Israel. That said, many were worried that recent escalations by the police and university administrations to suppress demonstrations and the right to free speech would grow even more violent, and which might even claim the lives of students as was the case in past incidents.


 US nationwide student protests against the Israeli genocide in Gaza began at Columbia University in New York on 17 April. Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College suspended dozens of students participating in the protests. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested in Columbia on 18 April after university President Shafik had summoned New York police to clear an encampment set up by the protesting students on campus. Shafik had testified before a US House of Representatives committee that the encampment was put up in violation of campus regulations and that the protests were unauthorised.

The escalation on the part of Shafik soon backfired, resulting in yet another sit-in at Columbia University, and ironically, a spillover of protests across dozens of other universities including Yale and Harvard in New York and in Texas and California.

“Police arrested pro-Palestinian protesters on college campuses across the country overnight, notably at the University of California, Los Angeles, where chaotic scenes played out early Thursday as officers in riot gear surged against a crowd of demonstrators,” according to the AP.

Social media was soon inundated with footage of heavily armed anti-riot police removing barricades and dismantling the encampments of peaceful demonstrators who defied police orders to leave. Images of students and faculty members forming human shields and chains in defiance of police, which fired flash-bangs to disperse the crowds, went viral across the globe.

Columbia University student Emmett, not his real name, told the Weekly that the escalation by the university’s administration “was totally unjustified”. After all, Emmet explained, the sit-in was a peaceful protest demanding a permanent ceasefire in Gaza as well as an end to US military aid to Israel. 

The protesters also called upon universities to halt all direct and indirect investments with Israel, as well as arms suppliers and all war beneficiaries, and an amnesty for all the students and faculty members who were disciplined, arrested or expelled from university. 

“Those legitimate demands, however, were met with violence by the police and most university administrations,” New York University student Lucas told the Weekly.  Lucas lamented that “students have not seen this degree of repression since the 1960s when students came out to denounce the war in Vietnam.” 

“The New York University administration has dismissed dozens of students who participated in the protests, while riot police have beaten protesters, and arrested more than 130 of them while storming and removing the encampment,” Lucas went on. “We have never ever been faced with such violence. We participated in the Black Lives Matter protests a few years ago, but nothing like this ever happened.” 


The brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020 sparked protests across the United States against what they saw as police hostility towards black people. Demonstrators then carried flags reading ‘Black Lives Matter’. American universities were provided one main venue for such protests and protesters were never met with the brute police force encountered in the Gaza protests.

Neither were protests denouncing the US war on Iraq on hundreds of US campuses met with any similar repression. The protests, dubbed “Books Not Bombs” by the National Alliance of Youth and Students for Peace, which was formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, included a series of marches and protests that were relatively controlled by the police with no violence. 

Professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma, Hossam Mohamed, said that this time is different because the protest supports Palestinians against Israel which remains the closest US ally.

“Israel is the key word,” Mohamed told the Weekly. “This explains all the violence seen this time in curbing protests. The fear of anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in this country, and university administrators fear that they would be targeted as anti-Semites in case they fail to support Israel and prevent anti-Israeli protests at all costs.”

Mohamed recalled an important incident to corroborate his viewpoint. “When the president of Columbia University was questioned, a member of Congress told her that those who curse Israel would be cursed by God,” Mohamed elaborated. “He then asked her if she wanted God to curse Columbia University. This shows how evangelical cultural and religious trends are not only deep-rooted in American society but are also inculcated in the US political institutions, namely Congress and the White House, as well as some American educational institutions (evangelical colleges). This makes it easy for Americans to support Israel at any cost.”


New York Police stormed Columbia University on the eve of 30 April in an attempt to disperse protestors in Hamilton Hall, an academic building on the New York campus. The protesters were blocking entrances and raising the Palestinian flag from the building’s windows.

Hamilton Hall was one of many university buildings which students picketed during the 1968 demonstration protesting the Vietnam War before police forcibly dispersed them.

Today, in 2024, history seems to be repeating itself as student demonstrators staged a sit-in on the same premises. The protesting students raised a large banner renaming Hamilton Hall “Hind Hall” in tribute to six-year-old Gazan girl Hind Rajab who was killed at the hands of Israeli forces in a car with her family members in a horrific incident earlier this year.

But what’s the difference between the student movement back in the 60s and current protests?

Peter Kuznick, a political expert and director of the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the American University in Washington, said that “the United States witnessed the largest wave of protests in history in the 1960s, when student demonstrations swept university campuses in protest against the Vietnam War.”

“Today’s protests, albeit growing in size, remain smaller in scale when compared to the anti-Vietnam War protests,” he told the Weekly.

Kuznick applauded the student protests as a “long-awaited” incident but he would rather view today’s student movement as a mixture of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s.

“The 1980s witnessed a number of “encampments” or mock shanty towns built across American universities to protest apartheid in South Africa,” Kuznick said. “Today, tents at places like Columbia and the University of Michigan conjure up memories of the same old tactics of that era.”

Kuznick, although happy with the student protests, expressed concerns about the violent police intervention. 

“Universities have a long history of violent response to student protests, but this time, it is clear that violence was hastily used to disperse the demonstrations, all despite the fact that they are peaceful and smaller in scale than those of the 60s.”

Kuznick said “the brutal police crackdown on protesters” at the University of Texas in Austin as a case in point. “Unarmed and non-violent student demonstrators were confronted with heavily armed riot police using batons, sticks and stun devices to disperse the demonstrations,” he said. “This is the first time that police responded with such violence against student protests since the late 1960s when about 500 students were arrested in Columbia in 1968.” Kuznick cited the National Guard which killed four students at Kent University in Ohio at the time, “and two were killed at Jackson University in Mississippi in 1970.”

“Calling the cops to curb peaceful student sit-ins is such a despicable act,” Kuznick added.


Leila Hadroog, a student protester from Yale University, was arrested in Connecticut on 22 April. She was in one of the campus encampments when she woke up at 6:30am only to find herself in handcuffs. The police had stormed the camp, arresting a number of students and Hadroog was one of the unlucky ones. They were all released in a few hours and asked to remove the tents.

Hadroog, however, remained in shock. She had always considered the university her second home, but now she feels so disappointed by “the cheap attitude of the university administration.

“Violence and racism were so clear in the way police double-dealed with protesters,” she told the Weekly. “Students from different ethnic backgrounds had participated in the protests but it was clear that Muslim students were the first to be arrested, followed by coloured students and, ultimately by white students.”

Just like many fellow protesters, Hadroog was critical of the fact that the US administration spends billions of dollars in military aid to Israel and in support of the genocide in Gaza at the same time Americans are suffering unemployment, inflation and rising prices. “And, by the end of the day, we are accused of anti-Semitism which is far from the truth.”

Adam, a student at the University of Maryland, concurred.

Adam told the Weekly that “accusing students of anti-Semitism on the part of politicians and university administrations is no more than an attempt to silence voices condoning Palestinian human rights. 

“These accusations are unfounded and have been repeatedly refuted by countless Jewish fellow students on our campus who do not accept the confusion between Zionism and Judaism,” Adam said. “The escalation by university administrations and the police only leads to more escalations on the part of protesting students who adhere to peaceful protests to defend Palestine and reject the genocide taking place there.”

For Adam, “security escalations at Columbia University would only mean that students have a strong power and influence on the political scene, a matter which seems terrifying to decision makers.”


Wednesday 1 May marked a turning point in the turbulence surrounding campus protests. Violence had been particularly intense on the eve of 1 May when riot police rounded up a number of students after storming their tents. The cries of assaulted students soon echoed on social media, pleading for help. Student pleas soon reached faculty members via social media and email and many professors decided to join forces with their students against what they saw as a clampdown on freedom of expression. This joint movement created a state of community empowerment that had many faculty members applaud it as perhaps historic.

Sarah Philips, an anthropology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that she was in a meeting when she saw students pleading on social media. She went to see the encampments herself and found the protests were totally peaceful.

“My instincts just kicked in,” Philips told NPR, a US independent, non-profit media organisation. “And a few moments later, I found myself on the ground, handcuffed and being marched with some students and other faculty to a bus that was ready to take us to the local jail.”

Philips, who was released later, was not the only case. Dozens of other university professors joined student protests at various universities, and some of them were similarly arrested.

None of them, however, seemed to regret it despite the fact that they were banned from entering the campus for a year for trespassing. Faculty members are allowed to appeal the trespass ban but they insist they did the right thing by standing on the right side and against police infringement on peaceful rights of expression.

Students organising the protests at Columbia University had earlier issued a statement which they sent via email to many faculty members explaining the situation and condemning the use of excessive force against peaceful students. The students lamented what they said was “Columbia University’s violation of campus laws by inviting security cops and hundreds of armed riot police, including the sinister Strategic Response Group, to invade Columbia classrooms, barricading students and the press alike inside the dorms.” 

The students said that hundreds were brutally treated using tasers, grenades and batons while more than 100 students were arrested. At least one student was taken to hospital for injuries from the NYPD. Video footage corroborated students’ testimony showing police shoving students to the ground, students screaming and a girl pushed over concrete stairs and rushed to hospital after losing consciousness.

Steve Tamari, a history professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who was among the faculty members arrested by the police, told NPR that one student statement showed how he was “body slammed and crushed by the weight of several St. Louis County police officers and then dragged across campus by the police”. The student, according to Tamari, “remains hospitalised with broken ribs and a broken hand”.

Columbia students, for their part, have reiterated their resilience in the face of the suppression.  

“Columbia’s attempt to suppress the movement will only strengthen our resolve,” a student statement said. “We are not done yet. There is a reason why this student-led movement is gaining unstoppable momentum on campuses around the world: because we stand on the right side of history and humanity, and we will not rest until Palestine is liberated.”

“I feel like faculty are in triage mode right now,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) told NPR. “They’re helping the students, putting their bodies on the hot line… they’re dealing with the administration with no-confidence votes, but also trying to deal with the administration directly to get them to back off and do the right thing.”


But how will this momentum help the Palestinian cause remains an issue of debate.  

Political researcher Zach McCurry believes that the protests will not affect the policy making of the Biden administration and those who hold current leadership positions in the United States.

“The student protests will unlikely change American policy in the short term,” McCurry told the Weekly. “However, their impact will be more felt in perhaps reshaping public opinion, especially among the younger generation, who did not think favourably of the US policy towards Israel before the 7 October attack and onward.”

This positive impact, McCurry suggested, would occur in the long term in the coming years or perhaps decades but not in the coming months.

Political expert Kuznick does not agree. He believes that the student protests have already had “a significant impact” on the current US political discourse, making it difficult for Democrats to keep up with Biden’s comprehensive support for Israel.

“Biden has already paid a price for providing military aid to Israel, since according to statistics, 70 per cent of Israeli weapons are provided by the US,” Kuznick explained. 

According to Kuznick, Biden has reiterated his support of Israel as America’s closest ally, all despite his “miserable attempts to steer clear of Israel’s most brutal behaviour”.

“This unfortunately means that there is no space between Netanyahu’s rear and Biden’s lips — a truly nauseating thought,” Kuznik lamented.

Professor Mohamed similarly believes that pro-Palestinian sentiment has perhaps reached a breaking point in US policies.

“Americans have grown increasingly receptive to hearing and understanding Palestinian narratives,” Mohamed explained. “If this naked sympathy could be employed in the polls —  for example, refusing to vote for Joe Biden or other strong Democratic candidates who shower Israel with American taxpayer money —  we might begin to see a shift in American politicians’ attitudes towards Israel. Biden and his allies realise this fact.”

To corroborate his viewpoint, Mohamed mentioned Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic US House of Representatives member, and former House speaker who recently called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, calling him an “obstacle” to the “two-state solution”.

According to analysts, Democrats increasingly view Netanyahu’s war as an embarrassment to them at home and a potential threat to their electoral victory. However, said embarrassment has not yet translated into calls to end military aid to Israel.

Recently, the US approved a military aid bill worth $95 billion, with more than $25 billion allocated to Israel.

That said, Mohamed insists that “the impact of this movement is strong and will create increased awareness of the Palestinian issue and more influence on the political scene in the coming years.

“The desired effect will take some time, especially since the challenges faced by students are much higher than in the case of the student protests that occurred in the 1980s against apartheid,” Mohamed went on. “The South African regime was more clear to Americans as a brutal apartheid rule, but for many Americans the Israeli narrative remains incomplete and unclear, and what the student protests do today is that they uncover Israel, revealing its ugliness.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: