The message from U.S. campuses, protesting students

Inspired and informed, students are forging solidarities to disrupt the ideological and economic ties that bind the American university to the forces of genocide

Updated - May 10, 2024 07:28 am IST

Published - May 10, 2024 12:16 am IST

At the New York University

At the New York University | Photo Credit: Getty Images via AFP

In 1985, when American campuses were roiling with protests against apartheid South Africa, the legendary African-American feminist poet and philosopher, Audre Lorde, reflected that America was “the most powerful country in the world” but also “a country which stands upon the wrong side of every liberation struggle on earth”. Lorde noted that this filled her with both a sense of dread and a sense of urgency. Dread and urgency, once again, have driven students across campuses in the United States to protest against the catastrophe in Gaza. During the anti-apartheid protests calling for divestment at campuses in the late-1980s — when we ourselves were students — university administrators were embarrassed about aligning with the White apartheid state of South Africa. Today, with Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism so normalised in the U.S., university administrators are proudly aligning with this genocidal war. Armed police guard our libraries, check-points have been placed across our campus and we are learning that a police siege of our campuses is the new normal in the modern U.S. university.

Students are educating each other

Across the country, student protesters have a unified set of demands: Disclosure and divestment in corporations complicit in weapons manufacturing and the Israeli occupation of Palestine; “Cops off Campus”; and protecting pro-Palestinian speech and activism across the university. The call for divestment can be traced to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement beginning in 2008 that was inspired by the anti-racist, anti-apartheid student movement that Audre Lorde was addressing. The call for “cops off campus” can be explained by the abolitionist critiques of the police as a racist institution amplified in the wake of the George Floyd protests of 2020, along with the fact that this generation in universities today were mobilised into activism against the gun violence that has plagued them in schools since childhood. Finally, the call for the protection of pro-Palestine speech and activism is a reflection of the history of university administrators’ complicity in the “Palestine exception” to academic freedom made especially evident since October 2023.

In New York University (NYU), our students, whose leadership includes African-American, Arab-American, South Asian and anti-Zionist Jewish students among a multi-racial coalition, are educating each other on the history of the Levant and its diverse peoples and traditions in the region and the diaspora. They are convening teach-ins on the legacies of colonialism and racial violence and the fraught complexities of historic Palestine, post-Balfour, post-holocaust, post-Nakba, post-Oslo. They are studying apartheid as a technology of governance from native reservations, to apartheid South Africa to Jim Crow America, to settler colonial rule from Palestine to Kashmir. They are analysing the necessary distinctions between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism, between criticism of racism against Jewish people and criticism of the ethno-state of Israel. They are also learning about the history of Palestinian resistance — of political campaigns such as BDS and the Great March of Return, of the poetry of dissent by Mahmoud Darwish and Mosab Abu Toha, from the theatre of the oppressed to the Freedom Theatre from the Jenin Refugee Camp, of the meaning of terms that have been demonised by the U.S. and western media, such as intifada and ‘from the river to the sea’. They are studying the political economy of occupation and the money trail from Washington to Tel Aviv to Riyadh, from corporations’ profits from Israeli settlements to our university donors and trustees, from the university investments to the war that is being waged on the other side of the globe. The teach-ins and ‘people’s universities’ are about students taking back their right to education, speech and dissent from a history of repression of Palestine solidarity in the U.S., including, and perhaps especially, in our classrooms and campuses.

University clampdowns

From the beginning of the war, many university administrators began instituting disciplinary procedures against expressions of pro-Palestine solidarity and activism directed against the state of Israel, while banning local chapters of national organisations such as the anti-Zionist Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). As the war escalated, student protests proliferated, and university surveillance and crackdown of protests became ever more punitive. Meanwhile the Joe Biden administration doubled down on support for Israel’s war effort and right-wing politicians convened congressional hearings with university presidents to interrogate them on campus political culture. It is in this context, six months after the war began and even as the number of dead in that period had climbed to over 33,000, that students, feeling unheard and muzzled, channelled their protest into peaceful encampments in their universities. Even as the repression intensified, these de-occupation encampments spread to campuses across the country.

These protests can be situated in the specifics of the current historical conjuncture, but the use of the term “de-occupy” also speaks to a larger analysis of the university’s role in colonial, imperial and corporate extractivism. Thus, it invokes the histories and geographies of American military occupation from the American Indian Wars, to the occupation of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, to U.S. meddling in Haiti and across the Americas to the wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. In New York, this movement echoes the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011 against the grotesque inequality of U.S. society. These students know there is a bloody connective tissue between the economic and the military, between the war and the siege, between the bombs and the famine. But this is not just a New York moment. From the University of Florida, to the University of Texas, from Emory University in Atlanta to Cal State Sacramento, the students chanting for divestment and against Israel Defense Forces abuses come to those demonstrations with deep knowledge about the history of racialised police brutality. Across the country, it is a movement that has been shaped fundamentally by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements that seek to dismantle the U.S. policing apparatus that disproportionately surveils, arrests and jails Black and Brown communities. Similarly, the Standing Rock movement against the Dakota Access oil pipeline that travelled through first nations territory, was crucial in raising generational awareness about settler colonialism and the links between the U.S. and Israel as settler colonial states, and the links between occupation and dispossession. Social media savvy and alert to the narrative wars, these students are raising the alarm, refusing big media spin and forging solidarities from Georgia to Gaza, Harlem to Hebron.

Radical futures

We write this in the wake of the NYU administration calling on the New York Police Department to arrest NYU students in a violent invocation of the strong arm of the law as the partner to the McCarthyite surveillance and stifling of campus speech. Rather than shedding light on this repression, the conservative and liberal media have together platformed university administrators overseeing the corporatisation and militarisation of higher education. From coast to coast, our students have risked and endured suspensions and arrests in resolute solidarity with the people of Gaza. They have used their privilege as students in the heart of empire to expose and disrupt the ideological and economic ties that bind the American university to the forces of genocide. In turn they have been inspired by struggles in historic Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, those who studied and taught in all the bombed out schools and universities of Gaza that exist today only in peoples’ memories and their visions for a future in a free Palestine. In this they have joined Audre Lorde’s radically hopeful vision in that same piece that we cited at the beginning: “We can join together to effect a future the world has not yet conceived, let alone seen.”

Paula Chakravartty is James Weldon Johnson Associate Professor of Media Studies at New York University (NYU). Vasuki Nesiah is Professor of Practice in Human Rights and International Law at New York University (NYU)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.