The Encampments for Gaza Interviews with Participants

by Endnotes & Megaphone


Banner from from the People’s Circle for Palestine 
at the University of Toronto


The unprecedented solidarity movement with Palestine, pouring out from US campuses, came as a surprise for many, especially after the earlier repression of BDS and Palestinian activism in the cultural field. There is no doubt that the transformation of the “incremental genocide” in Gaza into a “spectacular genocidal war,” as a student from Northwestern described it (see below), was one of the main reasons for this global wave of solidarity. The ongoing genocide, magnified by the spread of social and smartphone technology, imposed itself as the event of our times, despite the violent efforts of the authorities to return to the pre-October 7 ideological consensus.

The unprecedented violence of this genocide did not create structures of solidarity out of nothing. For decades now, subterranean transformations were slowly eroding the ruling doxa. Decades of protest movements in the US, from Standing Rock and Ferguson to George Floyd and Cop City, had already laid the basis for a radicalization of discontent in the US and a political formation for many of the participants in the current encampments.

This trajectory of radicalization intersected with activism around Palestine, which, following the crackdown on the BDS movement in the early 2000s, had grown on campuses and had begun to make inroads into the political mainstream, first around the Great March of Return in 2018, then around the Sheikh Jarrah Protest of 2021. The two trajectories intersected with the growing cooperation between Palestinian organisers and activists in other movements (including those named above), laying the groundwork for the present moment of solidarity.

This story of a growing entanglement between different families of discontent emerges clearly in the interviews we publish below. The contested space of the university, the location of the present lines of fracture, is another key theme of the interviews. In its exceptionally violent repression of the encampments, the university lost its liberal pretence as an institution of critical thinking and was revealed as a component in the reproduction of the ideological, military, and social basis of the US empire. The critique of the university represented by the encampments also comes at a time of growing right-wing repression of universities, which aimed at quelling one of the few remaining sites of dissent. It is this ambiguous nature of universities, as both nodes in the reproduction of power and sites of dissent, that rendered the encampments as such powerful forces of subversion. “Palestine” has become the name of these intersecting trajectories of critique.

The unprecedented mediatization of violence in the ongoing genocide, together with a closed political horizon, e.g. an upcoming US presidential elections between two candidates fully in support of Israel’s actions, gives the present political moment a particular affective mode. “The encampments are an explicitly apocalyptic project”, one of the interviewees writes below, echoing a widespread sense of having nothing to lose in a present that seems not only to preclude the possibility of a good life, but also to offer no exit from genocide, or even a glimpse of a future to come. The current protest wave is a critique of a system, academic and professional, that has been in crisis for decades now. In political terms the protestors are faced with a Hobson’s choice that is the latest version of a liberal blackmail that has ruled Western democracies since the end of the Cold War. They are told that to resist populist right-wing candidates they must accept genocide. They have refused to be blackmailed.

The interviews excerpted below, made between late April and mid-May 2024, give us a sense of what has moved students to protest across US universities. With no claim of representativity, either of the student movement as a whole or even the particular encampments, the answers draw the contours of a certain emerging sensibility with its dissonances, contradictions, and frailties. We contacted graduate and undergraduate student organisers and non-university participants in the following nine encampments across the US: Harvard, Northwestern, Chicago, CUNY, Texas, UMass, Princeton, Columbia, and UCLA. We distributed nine questions, later edited down to seven, from which we have selected responses below. This collective interview will be published in Arabic in Megaphone and in English in Endnotes, and the full interview transcripts can be downloaded here.1

— Salma Shamel, Samer Frangie, Endnotes

1 Why Gaza Now?

Why do you think Gaza has become a rallying cry after years, or decades, of Palestine not being a central issue in the US?

(Princeton, AR, Organiser with Princeton Israeli Apartheid Divest): It is undeniable that the generation of people organising the Student Intifada came into adulthood in a university where “Palestine” had reached its first level of liberal naturalisation. Said was a mainstay on many a syllabi, Darwish and Ovid might be nestled up as “exile poets”, and SJPs and JVPs were extracurricular clubs no more/no less than ultimate frisbee. Of course, liberal co-optation is the perfect invitation for radicalization.
It is also undeniable that in the Summer of 2020, we collectively watched our governments sacrifice millions to a virus for the sake of capital. And in the midst of that, we watched George Floyd murdered by a Minneapolis police officer over a fake $20 bill, engendering a necessary denial of carceralism and germinating, in the souls of youth, an abolitionary practice. So one answer to this is that we were well-read, better connected, better organised, acutely aware of racialized violence, spiteful of our government, and abhorrent of the police.
Still, a simpler answer might be that watching genocide awakens something deep in one’s spirit. I think it’s mostly that.

(Princeton, CB, Graduate student organiser): I think Gaza’s centrality today is due to its nightmarish position as a site of spectacular Zionist violence. While Palestinians living in other parts of occupied Palestine have had to face the daily violences of the Zionist settler-colonial project, the five bombing campaigns carried out against Palestinians living in Gaza since the Second Intifada have been the most visible, most widely legible instances of the long-form genocidal violence that undergirds the Israeli state.

(Northwestern, KK, Graduate student organiser): The mass mobilization we’ve seen is a result of the by-now indisputable fact that an incremental genocide ongoing in Gaza for decades has turned into a spectacular genocidal war—live-streamed by Palestinians in Gaza to the world—making the otherwise “safe” Western consumption of screen-mediated horror at a distance utterly unbearable.

(Chicago, CI): It’s difficult to account for these things in simple causal terms, but there’s no question that youth support for Palestine has been trending markedly upward in recent years. This shift has been especially pronounced among younger Jewish Americans – 33% of whom viewed Israel as a genocidal regime even before the current onslaught – but it can be observed among other groups as well. There are probably a number of factors at work here. The emergence of Black Lives Matter, for example, dramatically heightened many young people’s sensitivity to systems of racial domination and state violence. It also forced many non-Black Americans to grapple with their collective implication in those systems of violence to an extent that, unfortunately, they had not done before. And it brought unprecedented numbers of young Americans onto the streets – many for the first time – in ways that posed a radical challenge to the political, discursive, and behavioural norms imposed by liberal electoralism.
The impact of social media and smartphone technology is worth mentioning here as well. Until quite recently in U.S. history, corporate media outlets exerted overwhelming sway over public discourse. When Palestine was permitted to enter that discourse at all, it did so on terms dictated by those outlets and the political interests they serve. This is part of what Edward Said was getting at when, roughly four decades ago, he described Palestinians as being denied “permission to narrate” their own histories, struggles, and political aspirations. Things have begun to change in recent years – not because corporate media has become less hostile to Palestinians, but because it has largely lost its ability to regulate what does and doesn’t enter public consciousness. Growing numbers of Americans, especially younger ones, get their news about the world from independent pages, organisations, and journalists they follow on social media. In this context, Palestinians and other oppressed peoples have been able to communicate directly to Western audiences in ways they could not do before.

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB, Organisers with the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine Coalition): Palestine has always represented – especially for young people – the question not settled, the struggle still to be fought. There are interesting questions to be asked about why Palestine has been, for the left, a – if not the – central question of our time; but certainly, this has been true since before October 2023. If Gaza has become a rallying cry, it is thanks, first and foremost, to the protraction and renewal of Palestinian resistance in all its forms. The strength of the present movement relates directly to the role Palestinians have played in refusing to accept the indefinite deferral of their fate. We must not underestimate the significance of October 7th — the latest, most forceful manifestation of this refusal — especially when it comes to galvanising international solidarity, or at the very least forcing the world to grapple once again with the question of Palestine. But the events of May 2021 [the Sheikh Jarrah protests] were particularly significant in politicising the current generation of students protesting around the US and the world, especially since this was also a moment in which a number of influential young Palestinian activists and intellectuals became increasingly prominent, both in the mainstream, but especially on social media. Part of the consciousness and organising infrastructure that was mobilised in the 2024 encampments was built out of the experience of 2021, as well as the protests in solidarity with the Great March of Return in 2018.

(University of Texas at Austin, LL): The shift provoked by the Al Aqsa Flood has forced Palestinian liberation to the centre. Previous solidarity work around Palestine, such as #SaveSheikhJarrah or the BDS movement, had been siloed as largely activist concerns for the Palestinian diaspora and allies. Palestine solidarity organisers in the US have done crucial groundwork for the present moment over the past few decades. Decades of advocacy and campaigning, from BDS to solidarity rallies, has seeded awareness and support for the Palestinian cause, expanding the field of sympathisers. Palestinian organisers participating in anti-police uprisings, abolitionist campaigns, indigenous resurgence and land defence, and others have illustrated the material links between our shared enemies and helped circulate a culture of militant strategic thinking across movements. It’s no accident either that this recent wave of resistance has spread to campuses. On many campuses, local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine or similar solidarity organisations are usually the most consistent, sometimes the most radical, component of the student radical milieu. Due to their connection to a larger organised network of Palestine solidarity work, these organisations can withstand the cycles of turnover and organisational collapse that plague most campus leftist groups.

2Genealogy of the Encampments

Do you imagine your movement to belong to a genealogy of other US movements? Does it signal a generation shift in the US?

(Princeton, AR): I think my answer to the previous question actually largely speaks to this one, but to go a little deeper, I think resistance becomes most possible among generations that have less attachment to their own lives and more attachment to the lives of others, more attachment to the future. I can’t speak to the generations before mine, but personally, I can say I have grown up minutely in the chronic sickness of the American soul. The nation has devalued all life to the point it feels impossible to not say hey, if you care so little about me, let me use my body, my mind, in a risky way, in an unsafe way, let’s see where that gets us. So many people I know, academics with careers like myself, are willing to look towards Palestine and say that it deserves all of us, every inch we can get – such acts of looking are only produced when you understand how your own government looks at those same people with glee for their demise, knowing that they would look at us that way too if they had the chance.

(Princeton, CB): What the Student Intifada materialises is the growing understanding that our struggle for justice in the United States is inextricably bound up with decolonial struggles around the world. The encampments were started by students who came of age during the Flint Water Crisis, the NODAPL Standing Rock protests, the George Floyd protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement. These movements, organised under the sign of the global climate crisis, have made it readily apparent that we will not find justice in a nation that is predicated on resource extraction and mass death. What we are witnessing, then, is a widespread rejection of capitalism’s self-perpetuating myth. We must make another world in order to survive.
I saw a sign from the Toronto encampment with Klee’s Angelus Novus and a quote from Césaire that read, “The only thing in the world worth beginning… the end of the world, of course!” The encampments are an explicitly apocalyptic project, and what joy, what power, to be a part of that! If the encampments are a rejection of the division between student and community members, they are also a rejection of the world as we know it: individuated, divided, and brutalised. Like Occupy, the encampments are as much a mode of community-making, of living in kindred, as they are a mode of protest.

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): It is not lost on us that the Unity Intifada of May 2021 unfolded almost exactly a year after the months of protest that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Starting in 2014, with the Ferguson uprising after the murder of Michael Brown and Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, anti-racist struggles and Palestinian solidarity in the United States have been mutually complementary. Our coalition is but one example of tangible organisational connections between African American organisers and Palestinian solidarity activists that were forged in the last decade of protest.

(UCLA, JP, Participant in the UCLA encampment): Many of the students at the campus protests today participated in protests against gun violence at their high schools in 2018. They graduated around the time when George Floyd was murdered in 2020. To them, the George Floyd protests may have been their first experience of a major social movement. I’m not sure this movement signals a shift on behalf of the protesters, but it certainly signals a shift in how the state responds to protests. The amount of repression for protests that have mostly been peaceful is completely unprecedented. This is having an extremely radicalising effect on this movement.

(UMass Amherst, RH & KG, members of SJP and Prison Abolition Collective): The pro-Palestine movement and the prison abolition movement and the BLM Movement are all interconnected. Before BLM, there was the Ferguson uprising, when we saw Palestinians tweet for the first time at American protestors, telling them how to deal with pepper spray etc. And Ferguson had so many banners and so much messaging in conjunction with Palestine. And when we saw Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes – those were tactics that we had seen in Palestine for the past decades. These cops are being trained by the IDF. They’re literally getting sent to Israel and learning these horrific, violent tactics from the Israeli army. You realise just how connected all of these struggles are. People here now are opening their eyes to the injustices, the façade of free speech. When you get brutalised on your own campus, it’s life-changing; it radicalises you.

(CUNY, SK, Participant in the CUNY encampment): There has been a sequence of struggles unfolding over the last decade and a half. Each new wave of struggle sets the stage for the next. How quickly this particular movement spread, its choice of tactics and how radical it was in both form and content, is all understandable when thought of as part of this sequence. My impression is that many participants in the encampments were a little bit too young to have participated in 2020. Those who have never been part of a movement before are earnestly figuring things out for themselves without either fetishizing or being disillusioned with the past. There is a clear set of historical reference points: Columbia in 1968, the anti-Apartheid movement on campuses in the 1980s, and to some extent the 2008-9 student occupations. But there also seems to be very little historical memory, especially of the more recent past. This is not so surprising, though. We live in a time of permanent amnesia in which each new movement that emerges has to very quickly relearn all of the lessons of the previous one.

3The Politics of Divestment

In your calls to “Disclose” and “Divest,” we see your movement as moving between two categories: one is material (don’t make money this way), and one is ethical (don’t involve us; we don’t want to be complicit). First, can you give us concrete examples of the first material category? What do you think are some of your university’s most problematic investment practices? What would be the strategic significance of divesting from these practices?

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): At the heart of our demands is a call for disclosure and transparency around the university’s investments. This is not merely a means to identify ‘bad’ investments, but a way to try and subordinate decisions around the endowment to democratic oversight. Disclosure must entail the increased participation of the university’s students and workers in the management of the endowment, upending the current model based on extremely limited advisory committees on shareholder responsibility.
The prospects of this at Harvard, an institution whose deep and entrenched conservatism has routinely resisted attempts to devolve at least part of its governance to faculty senates (let alone student councils), are as distant as they are urgent. Harvard has the largest academic endowment in the world, with a value of over $50 billion. Only 3% of the endowment is invested directly in publicly traded equities. The rest is controlled indirectly through a maze of subsidiaries, and 70% of the total endowment was allocated to hedge funds and private equity in 2023. The vast majority of the endowment is, therefore, shielded from public disclosure.
We demand full disclosure because university endowments cannot be allowed to shift their most unsavoury investments to secretive private holdings while laundering the endowment with the small number of direct investments in public equities. This was recently revealed to be the case with Brown University’s commitments to fossil fuel divestments, for instance, which turned out to apply to less than 5% of the endowment invested directly in public equities. Our activism for BDS and for Palestine lays the groundwork for student movements to resist other kinds of financialized expropriation.
We demand university divestment and transparency in particular, because university life has never been so financialized. We believe that this drives the growing disconnect between students, faculty, and staff who support divestment and administrators who are beholden to donor classes and asset managers. By interrupting “financialization as usual” and demanding transparency, we aim to reverse the ways that reactionary forces are increasingly taking control of the university.

(Princeton, CB): Princeton University has sitting members of the Board of Trustees who work for RTX, the arms company that provides Israel with the air-to-surface missiles, cluster bombs, and fighter jets that have been used to bomb Gaza. The university also receives over $300 million of Department of Defense funding. While the university doesn’t “officially” perform weapons research, one should be sceptical of DoD funding for “nose-cone optimization” research, for example. The demand for material and academic divestment is a demand that the intellectual labour being performed at this university not be co-opted by a militarism dependent on the collective immiseration of people the United States has marked for death.

(UMass Amherst, RH & KG): Three colleges at UMass have partnerships with Raytheon Technologies. Raytheon pays UMass to recruit on campus, gives students tuition discounts to conduct research, and influences curriculum. Students are incentivized to work in the “defence” industry, which resulted in Raytheon being the sixth-largest employer of UMass graduates in 2021. Our demands aim to sever ties with Raytheon. We also oppose the allocation of $7 million annually to the police department, which exacerbates student hardships, and advocate reallocating these funds to address the student housing crisis. We also want the UMass Foundation to disclose where our endowment is invested and to divest from weapon manufacturers. Marty Meehan, the head of the UMass system, signed onto the Universities Against Terror coalition, particularly focusing on support for Israel following October 7. Last semester, we utilised the Freedom of Information Act to search for correspondence regarding Palestine, Israel, and protesters to uncover what the administration was discussing in their emails. We found correspondence with the ADL that reveals UMass admin had “ADL brunches” where they discussed ADL talking points and equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. This is all to say it’s clear why there’s a disconnect between student values and institutional decisions.

(University of Texas at Austin, LL): The University of Texas has the second-largest endowment of any University, trailing only Harvard. The endowment’s investments include military contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. Beyond these financial investments, UT operates as a research hub that directly collaborates with the military and corporate governance. Most significant is UT’s recent collaboration with the US Army Futures Command, a division of the Army dedicated to modernising the military.

(Chicago, CI): Despite its rhetoric of “institutional neutrality,” the University of Chicago has long functioned as an enabler of Israeli colonialism and an enemy of Palestinian liberation. This past January, for example – as Israel was being actively investigated by the ICJ for the crime of genocide – President Paul Alivisatos formally hosted an Israeli Consul General to discuss ways of “further enhanc[ing] partnerships” with Israeli institutions. But the University’s material and ideological entanglements with Israeli colonialism run far deeper than any one meeting. Since the mid-2010s, the University has maintained an active partnership with the Israel Institute, a propaganda organisation founded by a former Israeli ambassador and extensively tied to the Israeli military and security establishment. Founded in connection with the Schusterman Family Foundation – a Zionist organisation that funds pro-Israel advocacy on U.S. campuses – the Israel Institute sends annual fellows to the University of Chicago to teach propagandistic courses about Israel and its history. One Institute fellow the University has hosted regularly is Meir Elran, a veteran Israeli general who served as Deputy Director of Military Intelligence during the first intifada . Drawing directly on his experience as an occupation general and military strategist, he offers courses on “counter-terrorism” that frame Israel as a security model for other “liberal democracies” to emulate.
A 2020 report revealed that the Exchange Trade Funds in which the University maintains investment “have $6 billion invested in the manufactures of both conventional and nuclear weapons.” Recipients of this investment include General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other leading arms suppliers to Israel. For this reason and many others, the University’s investment policies received a failing human rights grade of 0/40 from Amnesty International. Not only does the University refuse to sign the UN Principles on Responsible Investment, but, Amnesty noted, its endowment has no policy mentioning human rights as a consideration and no public disclosure of investment holdings.

(UCLA, JP): Universities are weapons manufacturers. They develop the technologies, launder the money, train the workers, and manufacture consent. University trustees have direct links with war profiteers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Countless STEM programs end up sending their students to work at DARPA. People are trying to see how the movement to end apartheid in South Africa worked. Perhaps something unique about this struggle is the number of demands that seem both meaningful and winnable. It would be highly significant if major universities could be forced to cut contracts with Zionist interest groups. However, there are real limits to discourses surrounding ‘defunding’ institutions. This was one of the ways radical energy was co-opted during the George Floyd movement: people began to focus on defunding the police. It’s also important to note that no amount of pressure seems like it will convince the United States to sever ties with Israel completely.

(Northwestern, KK): We have observed in our local context that the failure to transform an economic demand for divestment into a political organising tool toward liberation and abolition has allowed an insidious logic of business/contract negotiations to dominate this demand-based movement. The entryism of political organisations like PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation), undemocratic organisational structures, and an unprincipled, opportunistic de facto leadership have accelerated the defeat of the Northwestern encampment. We had many flashbacks of recent graduate worker union betrayals, except that betraying the movement for Palestinian liberation for crumbs is an insult to the very meaning of humanity. Without a political horizon that understands that genuine divestment from death cannot happen within a necropolitical regime, campaigns for divestment at best offer the university an opportunity to whitewash its endowments and colorwash its image, at worst, a “win some, lose some” game of chess that sells out the Student Intifada—may it live up to its name—for more student life resources and better DEI representation.

4The Politics of Complicity

...Second, you transform your material demand into an ethical one when you point to the ways that US universities, or some of them at least, are complicit with genocide. This ethical demand provides the fold for politicising the material demand. Can you talk a bit more about how you see the ethical claim that your movements are staking, vis-a-vis the university, but also the US system as a whole?

(Princeton, CB): The recognition of complicity is a break from the individual as the basic unit of social analysis. I’m drawing some inspiration from Samah Jabr here, who marks individuation as an epistemological failure. Which is to say, we must think at the level of systems. We must insist on our relentless relation. The recognition of complicity, and the right to DENY being complicit, is in part a refusal of the bad faith the American social order is premised on. If there can be no escape from the extraction and violence that structures our political economy, why reject investment in evil at all? We must refuse these terms at every possible juncture.

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): The question provides us with a useful distinction: are we really pursuing a politics that targets complicity, or do our analyses lead us to a broader definition of the problem? Complicity is, of course, at stake; to say that our university is bankrolling the machinery of genocide and ethnic cleansing — implying a lower degree or distant form of involvement — is to attribute to the institution an accompanying role in the atrocities. This is somewhat true, especially when compared to the actions of the perpetrators on the ground in Palestine. But is it enough to accuse our institutions of complicity? Elite universities are a fundamental component of the apparatus of American imperialism. They train its political and capitalist class, its bureaucrats and technicians; they develop, test, and refine its weaponry and other, indirect forms of repression. Universities play a much more expansive role in the maintenance of American hegemony than that addressed by the question of divestment. Though we should afford Israel some autonomy from its larger imperial ally in our analyses, it is also undeniable that Zionism has been a fundamental strategic asset for the larger project of US hegemony.
The question could equally be posed nationally: to what extent is it accurate to characterise the US’s role in the ongoing annihilation of Gaza as mere complicity? One of the most unexpected developments of the past weeks was the student movement’s ability to exercise power on a national and international scale. As encampments around the country began to mutually reinforce their individual power, it became clear that the pressure that was being exerted vastly exceeded the confines of the campus. It is no coincidence that after weeks of stalling, the Biden administration finally began pressuring Israel to accept a ceasefire agreement it had drawn up. Whilst the movement itself never really articulated a position on the elections in November, we have to believe that its scale began to represent a serious electoral problem for the incumbent president, whose prospects of building a ‘popular front’ against Trump in six months are now in serious jeopardy.

(Chicago, HD): It is an understatement and almost analytically incorrect, to say that the United States government is complicit in the genocide of Palestinians. The United States and Israel – currently led by the Biden and Netanyahu administrations, are committing genocide against the Palestinians together. They’re sharing weapons, intelligence, money, and propaganda points, carrying out domestic counterinsurgency, etc., in service of this genocide, which is integrated into the Global War on Terror both materially and discursively. Repression of the student movement on US campuses is guided by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Zionist organisations like the ADL.
To understand the escalated genocide against Gaza, framed as the “war to destroy Hamas,” we have to start by understanding the US project in the region, of which Israel is a key military-strategic component. The US grants Israel a qualitative military edge over its neighbours that oppose it and absolute political cover in international arenas like the UN Security Council. The ideological and cultural ties between the US and Israel – with their shared settler-colonial pasts, the influence of Christian Zionism, white supremacy, etc. – are, of course, inextricable from these other dynamics.
The War on Terror framework by which the US approaches the region is also an Israeli project, and the guiding concept of “terrorism” is one that is heavily based on the Zionist settler experience with Palestinians. Terror discourse is weaponized in the repression of Palestinian advocacy on US university campuses, which far predates the growth in the movement since October 7. Professor Sami al-Arian spoke virtually at our encampment. At the instigation of his Zionist university president, the US government held this Florida-based Palestinian academic as a political prisoner, tried to frame him as a “Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist” using books in his personal library, and eventually pushed him out of the country for his advocacy against the use of secret evidence by the post 9/11 US national security state, and his work building institutions that supported the Palestinian cause.

5The Figure of the Student

The antagonist of the native is the settler, the antagonist of the worker is the capitalist, but the antagonist of the student is not necessarily one particular agent, it is not merely the administrative class of the university. Yet maybe because of its uncertain position, the figure of the student can stand as a locus for staking political claims that can reverberate in other sectors of society. Can you say a bit more about the manner you are mobilising this figure and, through it, reaching beyond the confines of the university?

(Northwestern, KK) : The student activist is a transitional figure that ideally helps the movement for Palestinian liberation broaden itself from the campus as a battlefield, and generalise into a struggle that engages with the material contradictions and antagonisms of society at large. We have also seen the figure of the student derail, abandon, or betray the mission of transcending itself when it’s terrified by how much it stands to lose if it were stripped of the privileges and protections that come with being a student. Of course, these losses are nothing compared to what Gazans are going through. But they are also not immaterial. It takes a lot of training, experience, commitment, courage, intelligence, and collective confidence to overcome these fears. We’re only at the very beginning of this process.
The encampments have functioned as invaluable spaces for newly politicised students to meet each other, to learn, to fight, and to discover first-hand the terms and the limits of demands-based mobilisation and campus-based confrontations in the current phase of the liberation movement. I believe this is true for encampments that have been violently attacked and raided by police, as well as encampments that surrendered without a serious fight and lost all legitimacy in the fallout. The most serious and committed among us will be learning from these limits for a long time.

(Columbia, S, SJP): I would say that positioning students as a separate category feeds into the status quo discourse, in which our uprisings are segregated from those led by the working class. We did not invent encampments, or divestment campaigns, or mutual aid, or abolition praxis; we have learnt all of this from the working class-led actions before us. Our efforts are a part of the working class struggle against capitalism and its agents. And this is where difficult conversations around privilege and complicity take place. We as Columbia students are complicit in the gentrification of Harlem and the displacement of its inhabitants. We as Columbia students are complicit in making education more inaccessible. And we are complicit in multiple genocides taking place across the globe. A conversation we just had this morning was around how our comrades arrested at CCNY were charged with felonies while the ones arrested at Columbia were instead charged with misdemeanours. The Ivy league privilege is alive and well. What do you do with a privilege that feeds you, makes you visible to the world, makes people empathise with you, protects you?

(UMass Amherst, RH and KG): I think our context as a public university makes our experience very different from that of the Ivy League. Our movement is not just students; it is the alumni, community members, staff, and faculty. It is everyone who was in that encampment, and we are legally allowed to welcome all these people onto our campus because we are public. Our antagonists are the administration and police, which is a symptom of the larger societal contradictions, which is the fact that we are on stolen land, and this whole country is just built on violence. And so to say that our only antagonizers are the administrators is not right. Our antagonizer is the state. We talked earlier about free speech and censorship. While our goal is all eyes on Rafah, the figure of the student is being mobilised because our campuses pride themselves in being the vanguard of free speech and the melting pot for all these ideas. Getting brutalised by police is shattering this illusion.

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): Of course, the encampments throughout the country — perhaps most starkly at Columbia — have invoked a long tradition of student occupations and other direct action at American universities that dates back to the 1960s. To that extent, the figure of the student has been mobilised in this now familiar manner. The popular association of students with political radicalism has also been why American college students remain the inveterate targets of counter-BDS repression (which has been led explicitly by the Israeli state and followed by various American Zionist organisations) since the movement’s inception. The repression of the recent encampments was merely an intensification of this ongoing Zionist backlash over the past two decades.
At the same time, the figure of the student has in recent years undergone some key transformations. The experience of precarity—in particular, among graduate students—has led many to embrace the identity of “student worker,” and its accompanying political subjectivity. Students have organised themselves into unions, often within larger industrial unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). Our actions as students are thus increasingly tied to other sectors of society, even beyond the reverberations through the media spectacle. The BDS resolutions that were passed in unions across the country in the fall are a case in point. Most recently, the successful strike authorization vote at UAW 4811 — representing nearly 50,000 academic workers in the University of California system — in response to the UC system’s repression of these protests testifies to the growing articulation of the national labour movement to the international Palestine solidarity movement.

6The Space of the University

By the mere fact of mobilising on campus, you have foregrounded the collusion between the state and the university, which has taken different forms, from the threats by wealthy Alumni to the congressional hearings of university presidents to the deployment of repressive state apparatuses inside US campuses. The supposed autonomy of the university has been violently squashed in the last months. Do you think it is possible to break down this engulfing relationship between the university and the state?

(Princeton, CB): It’s clear from the Ivy League congressional testimonies of the last few months that there is a coordinated effort operating at the highest governmental level to quash student protests at elite universities. Anxieties about an impending end of “academic freedom” under a future Trump presidency have been actualized under President Biden. But Princeton University’s allegiance has always been, first and foremost, to the dollar. What is at stake for Princeton and its ultra-wealthy peer institutions is their tax-exempt status. The “autonomy” of the university is always balanced against controlling financial and governmental interests that adjudicate on, and continue to allow for, the draconic wealth hoarding that exists at a globally unparalleled scale at these elite American institutions. The crackdown we’ve seen nearly across the board is only a demonstration of the very real precarity of that status.

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): American mainstream media have a long history of reporting on elite and Ivy League campus politics as though they were the key to understanding the political moment more broadly. We have seen this with the long panic about “cancel culture,” a motif which originated in breathless media coverage of elite university classrooms and has over the past decade migrated to the core of how many talk about political life and articulate grievances. Unsurprisingly, American media were most preoccupied with the protest movements on elite campuses. In part this represents their real centrality as places where elites are formed and socialised and expertise is consolidated and validated. And in part it is true that students demanding divestment at these universities were making the largest demands simply because of the sheer size of their institutions’ endowments.

(CUNY, SK): In “On the Poverty of Student Life”, Mustapha Khayati discusses the nostalgia for a time when the university appeared to have a privileged role in society and was thus afforded a degree of autonomy. But by 1967, when the text was published, the university had already been reduced to an assembly line turning out low-level functionaries needed for the modern economy. But he argued this process was incomplete. Students who “understood the system” could take advantage of the grants available to them as well as “the contradiction that, for the moment at least, obliges the system to maintain a small, relatively independent sector of academic ‘research.’” These students are “already among the theorists of the coming revolutionary movement.” If the university had been subsumed by the logic of the economy, then struggles against the university could lead to directly calling all of capitalist society into question. Khayati saw this potential in the unrest unfolding in the University of California: “their revolt (in Berkeley and elsewhere) against the university hierarchy has from the start asserted itself as a revolt against the whole social system based on hierarchy and on the dictatorship of the economy and the state.” This was seen as part of a rising tide of youth revolt: the Provos in Amsterdam, the Zengakuren in Japan, the peace movement in England. “But the revolt of the youth needs allies.” Its natural allies were proletarians engaging in wildcat strikes and the riots in black neighbourhoods such as Watts. This seemed to be confirmed the next year when the NYPD was hesitant to enter Columbia because they thought it might inspire a riot in Harlem. But this text is interesting not only for its content but the manner in which it was published. The “Strasburg scandal,” which included taking over a student union and using nearly all of its funds to print and distribute “On The Poverty of Student Life”, set in motion the events which led to May 1968. This showed that a fuse lit within the university could trigger a wider social explosion. Obviously, the conjecture today is different. Thousands of young people are not fighting at barricades to defend the university occupations, as once happened in Paris. The occupations have not inspired much labour unrest either. But the question remains: can this movement of disruption, which began in the university, find a way to spread outward through different layers of society?

7Encampment versus the Street

It is significant that the multitude of protests that transpired on the streets (remember the One Million march, etc.) elicited minimal response from the government, in contrast to the heightened reactions we have seen towards the encampment from both Congress and the university administration. Why does the encampment evoke such particular concern from the state?

(University of Texas at Austin, LL): Many universities have drawn a line between acceptable (i.e. ineffective) forms of protest versus the encampments as a way of justifying the oftentimes extreme show of force they have used to disrupt or disband the encampments and building occupations. At the University of Texas, the administration has repeatedly insisted on the fact that, prior to the April 29th encampment attempt, there were 13 protests organised by a Palestinian student group that were allowed to occur uninterrupted, in contrast to the encampment, which, because of its drawing in of the broader, non-student community and its more militant ethos, deserved and triggered violent and swift repression. This makes me laugh, but, similarly, the president of the University of Chicago released a statement saying, “I believe the protesters should also consider that an encampment, with all the etymological connections of the word to military origins, is a way of using force of a kind rather than reason to persuade others.” There is a distinct line being drawn here between chanting and marching, which is reasonable, versus an encampment, whose supposed militancy allows the administration to justify all manner of violence and repression against protesters. It echoes, too, broader arguments about Israel and Palestine wherein the violence of the Israeli state is invisible, acceptable, or even noble while the violence of Palestinian resistance is gratuitous, terroristic, and illogical. American politics for decades have been fueled by the racist caricature of the “savage” Arab man, using this spectre to legitimise atrocity after atrocity. American universities are happy to form a likeness between this figure and the pro-Palestinian student protester; both are, in their book, impossible to reason with and inherently violent. For the American political project, it is impossible to see Palestinians as human beings; it is useful, also, to forget the humanity of pro-Palestinian protesters. It’s funny in the statement from the president of UChicago to consider the etymological origins of the word “encampment” without considering its use colloquially. In the US in 2024, the word is most often paired with “homeless.” The “homeless encampments”, too, are often violently raided, the occupants brutalised and robbed of their possessions. But surely they aren’t seen as military occupations?

(Harvard, FA, SG, SW, OL, and SB): These broadly general concerns intersected with local particularities. It is not coincidental that some of the most pointed police repression occurred on city campuses — New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston — where campus struggles were more likely to connect with movements outside of universities. The emblematic example here is Columbia’s relationship to Harlem, with City College nearby too; another is the connection evident between the militancy at Emory and the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta. Harvard’s strategy of avoiding police was certainly shrewd, given the media attention it would have received. Importantly, though, the institution’s distance from its immediate context (by virtue of its location, insularity, but also its sheer size) meant that the figure of the ‘outside agitator’ (determinant in the police repression at Columbia) was far more difficult to mobilise by the university.

(Northwestern, KK): The encampment at Northwestern, which agreed to dismantle itself on the fifth day in exchange for a treacherous deal shows the extent to which the elite private university has become a laboratory for counterinsurgency. When the young generation cannot be manipulated into political apathy by the illusion of academic autonomy, the DEI industrial complex and other post-George Floyd reformist programs have stepped in to contain and neutralise radical impulses within institutional confines. Disgraced presidents and the hyper-militarization of campuses have exposed the imbecility and cruelty of elite institutions, but these schools have been losing legitimacy primarily due to the student debt crisis—to large swaths of society, the stature of the university is no longer defensible given its astronomical price tag and stagnant wage return, if not a ticket to downward class mobility. These schools require cops because they are failing at the increasingly untenable task of class reproduction in America.
The ideological apparatus of class reproduction cannot be simply “liberated” or expropriated from the masters it serves; it needs to be collectively destroyed before something else can be built in its place. It is therefore unsurprising that students at schools like Cal Poly Humboldt and the City College of New York created some of the most militant and radical campus movements, which have not received nearly as much media attention. A basic class analysis tells us that most students and faculty at elite institutions are invested in the institution’s success. This is why negotiation, collaboration, and reform have been the rules of the game at encampments like Northwestern, Brown, Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, and others that have cut conciliatory deals. Students have a much easier time tearing up pieces of paper at commencement when the values of their degrees are already low. They have a much harder time—I include myself as a grad worker here too—when universities threaten to revoke their expensive degrees or fire them from their jobs. This is where symbolic refusal becomes woefully inadequate. Attacking the collusion between the state and university must begin by breaking down their mutual assurance of social, moral, and economic value. This breakdown has to some extent already been happening in higher ed for decades, though the outcry has mostly been about the decimation of the humanities. I think the Student Intifada—and the People’s Universities—can and should make much greater contributions toward destroying not only the symbolic, but the material value of the Ivy League pedigree. Not to be accelerationist about it, but the 13 conservative judges’ recent boycott of all undergraduates and law students entering Columbia in Fall 2024 might be a place to start.

(UCLA, JP): Ultimately, the tactic of encampment has its limits in the US. In 2020, they quickly became places where self-appointed ‘security teams’ monopolised the occupied zones with weapons. I think the struggle will have to find a strategy that does not rely on encampments if it wants to succeed. At the same time, some of the encampments for the Gaza protests had a real Tahrir square feel: here I’m thinking especially of UCLA, where after Zionist mobs attacked the encampment on April 30th, thousands of people from all over Los Angeles (students and non-students) mobilised to defend the encampments. There was a sort of relentless effort to defend the space in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in quite the same way in the US.