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Campus Crackdowns Ignite Gaza Solidarity Movement

ColumnApril 25, 2024
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Image Credit: Left image: X/@RyanChandlerTV // Right image: X / shoebyron

By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

“What starts here changes the world. It starts with you and what you do each day.” So reads an encouraging sign that greets students at the University of Texas–Austin. The university’s actions tell a different story. A photo shared on social media this week shows the sign in front of a row of state troopers in riot gear. They assembled to disperse students protesting Israel’s assault on Gaza. Police, some armed with semi-automatic rifles, some mounted on horseback, proceeded to violently arrest at least 50 people, including a journalist.

The UT protest was part of a student uprising sweeping campuses nationally, inspired by a Palestinian solidarity encampment at Columbia University in New York City. Columbia President Minouche Shafik’s mishandling of that peaceful encampment has sparked the protest movement’s momentum.

The encampment followed months of anti-war protests following Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel and Israel’s relentless bombing and ground invasion of Gaza. As President Shafik appeared before a Republican-controlled Congressional House committee last week, where Columbia was accused of tolerating widespread anti-semitism on campus, scores of students, many of them Jewish, pitched tents and a banner reading, “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Later that night, President Shafik called in the New York Police, saying the protesters were a “clear and present danger.” While the police responded, arresting over 100 students, Police Chief John Chell described the protesters as peaceful and cooperative. After authorities dismantled the initial camp, more students quickly established a new one, which remains standing as this goes to press.

Following Columbia’s violent response, student groups across the nation are launching Palestine solidarity encampments of their own, from Harvard, Tufts and Emerson in greater Boston, to Emory in Atlanta, Princeton, Cornell, UC Berkeley, Cal Poly Humboldt in northern California, and at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, in midtown Manhattan, to name just a few.

At Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, students set up tents, chanting, “From Columbia to Brown, we will not let Gaza down!” It was last November when Palestinian-American Brown University student Hisham Awartani was shot with two of his friends while visiting his grandmother in Burlington, Vermont for Thanksgiving. He remains paralyzed.

It’s not surprising that Columbia was the locus of solidarity. In April 1968, students occupied buildings on campus to protest the Vietnam war as well as Columbia’s plans to build a gymnasium in the largely-Black adjoining neighborhood of Harlem (which they called “Gym Crow”). Columbia officials summoned the NYPD then, too. Over 700 people were arrested.

Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez was one of the student organizers of the 1968 Columbia occupation. He recalled those events this week, 56 years later, speaking on Democracy Now!

“The Columbia strike unfolded over several weeks. The first week was the week of the occupation, but because of the brutality of the attacks by the police — more than 150 people were hospitalized the night of April 30th — it led to a massive strike of the entire university. Over 10,000 students shut the university down for the rest of the semester.”

Juan compared Columbia’s response, then and now:

“We occupied buildings. We did not allow classes to go forward in 1968. But [now] classes are going forward. The students were camped out peacefully on the lawn. So, the disproportionate nature of the response of the university, the quickness with which it responded, without even consulting or listening to the faculty, is really astounding.”

The 1968 Columbia crackdown preceded the Chicago Democratic National Convention by three months. The DNC will be in Chicago again, in just over three months.

Columbia grad student Sarah King was arrested at the initial encampment, and has since been suspended and banned from campus.

“The camp itself is very beautiful. It’s been a real place of interfaith celebration and solidarity, in support of the people of Gaza, who are now at over 200 days of genocide,” she said on Democracy Now! King, who is Jewish, responded to accusations that the protests are anti-semitic:

“The worst persecution that the Jewish students on campus are facing is from Columbia University. We were disproportionately banned by Columbia because so many of us are part of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, trying to prevent a genocide in our name.”

On Wednesday, President Biden signed into law a $95 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, with $26 billion designated for Israel.

“The universities across America have to realize that the young people of this country do not support the constant imperial wars that our government is either participating in or funding, and that something has to change,” Juan González concluded.

What for the University of Texas is a slogan, “What starts here changes the world,” is quickly becoming, for thousands of students across the country, a call to action, demanding peace in Gaza.

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