US: War machine cracks down on student anti-war protests

Ferocious repression underway

Jesada Jitpraphakhan, Socialist Alternative (ISA in the United States)

(This article was first published on 1 May 2024)

On the night of Tuesday, April 30, hundreds of NYPD officers in full riot gear stormed Columbia University’s campus, home to the first of nearly 100 student protest encampments across the country in solidarity with the besieged people of Gaza. That morning, a group of protestors had initiated an occupation of Hamilton Hall, renamed it Hind’s Hall in honor of a 6-year old Palestinian girl killed by the Israeli military earlier this year, and refused to leave until the school agreed to its demands: divestment from Israeli investments, financial transparency, and amnesty for disciplined protestors. Police broke into the second floor, guns drawn, and used flashbang grenades to subdue and zip tie the wrists of some 50 protestors in the building. By the end of the night, 282 were arrested at Columbia and nearby CCNY.

This was just the latest episode of ferocious repression by university administrations and local police working hand in hand to snuff out the explosion of campus protests against Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza. The war has reached a fever pitch, and over the last two weeks, students across the US are channeling their outrage through an escalation in tactics for the movement: campus occupations. Chief among their demands are for their schools to divest from companies that support Israel and its siege on Gaza.

University administrations are responding with a total crackdown: suspensions, expulsions, and well over 1,000 arrests at the time of writing. Arrests have frequently been quite violent. At UW Madison, police were seen kneeling on a person’s neck. At UT Austin, protestors were pepper sprayed and charged with criminal trespassing – punishable by a $2,000 fine and six months in jail. Three students were expelled from Vanderbilt University following a sit-in, and scores of students have been suspended and evicted from campus housing at other schools. USC ripped the carpet out from under its Muslim valedictorian for supporting Palestine, and proceeded to cancel its main commencement event. Significantly, at many schools, faculty have organized to defend the student protests against repression, in some cases getting arrested themselves.

During big waves of student activism, these major, cash-cow universities find themselves in a difficult position. They face a certain pressure to uphold their reputation as bastions of liberalism and free speech, but at the end of the day, they serve as pillars of the establishment and their administrations oppose the disruption of business as usual. Their image as free-thinking havens is one of western capitalism’s many pressure release valves, but as soon as protests become a threat to social stability or succeed at popularizing anti-establishment demands, the universities will shut it down. The House is now voting on bipartisan legislation to further define antisemitism legally and through this, make it easier for school administrations to stifle Palestinian solidarity protests. In the face of this wave of protests, university administrations are by and large conceding nothing: all stick, no carrot.

In the past few months, the US, Israel’s staunchest ally, had been forced by public outrage to recognize the brutality of this massacre, and to rebuke Israel for its blunt approach. However, the recent escalations between Israel and Iran have provided the US with reason to return to a more full-throated support of Israel, which now includes Congress’ $26 billion in assistance to Israel. Of course, a ground invasion of Rafah – which Biden has declared a “red line” – will cause problems for this approach.

As representatives of the liberal wing (mostly) of US capitalism’s ruling class, the university administrators and their boards of trustees want to discourage any escalation of the anti-war movement, especially during an election year, and especially with Biden as vulnerable and unpopular as he’s ever been. The school year is winding down, and they hope that if this swell in the movement can be quashed for a few weeks and denied victories, it will face difficulty regrouping over the summer, and social peace can resume shortly.

Whether they will succeed is still an open question. Many students are new to movements of social struggle, and have not experienced the demoralization that many have following the failure of the BLM movement of 2020 to solidify significant victories nationwide. Parts of the labor movement have taken important steps in opposition to this war, but are far from reaching their full potential. A full-scale, brutal invasion of Rafah could catalyze further escalation from the movement.

The movement needs to grow to survive and succeed. We need a national assembly pulling together all the student activists from the various campuses to coordinate next steps. A crucial focus of such an assembly could be preparing for a mass mobilization to the DNC this August to demand a permanent ceasefire. A vibrant, mass protest on the DNC, where pro-war Biden will be anointed the Democratic nominee, could provide a necessary boost to the most significant anti-war movement in decades.

  1. We call for full amnesty for student protestors, no to repression!
  2. Divest college funds from state and private institutions linked to the brutal occupation of Palestinian land
  3. Spread the struggle to every campus and build a mass anti-war movement of students and working people
  4. Major academic unions should organize strike action in coordination with student encampments
  5. Build towards a nationwide walkout and strike to shut down campuses across the country
  6. End all US military support to Israel, we need a permanent ceasefire and an end to occupation and siege
  7. No to Biden and Trump, for a new anti-war party for working people
  8. For a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel in a socialist federation of the Middle East