Police clash with pro-Palestinian students after destroying part of the encampment at UCLA

Police attack pro-Palestinian students after destroying part of their encampment at UCLA

(Photo by ETIENNE LAURENT/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2024 Class of Gaza: The Students Have Done Their Part

As pro-Palestinian college students confront weekend commencements - with walkouts, keffiyeh-draped gowns, signs noting, "There Are No Universities Left In Gaza" - their historic role as "the most reliably correct constituency in America" is celebrated by an earlier generation of activists "seeing them, just as we were, sick at heart," willing to "stand firm for their beliefs" against a genocidal war and its systemic support. To a more judicious generation, they urge, "Don’t emulate us. Transcend us."

Thousands of students at over 100 U.S colleges in all but four states ⁠have embarked on protests and encampments denouncing an Israeli genocide in Gaza that's now killed at least 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children. Their righteous actions have resulted in nearly 3,000 arrests, often by over-zealous, riot-geared police in a response widely deemed "unhinged," and a similarly over-the-top propaganda campaign by cartoon-villain Republicans hysterically labeling them "terrorists," "anti-Semites," "dangerous mobs" or "campus criminals." As to the once-cherished right to free speech: Marco Rubio has revived an effort to deport protesters who have "endorsed or espoused the terrorist activities of Hamas," Texas Rep. Beth Van Duyne helpfully introduced a deportation bill called the "Hamas Supporters Have No Home Here Act," and Tom Cotton recently said people "who get stuck behind pro-Hamas mobs blocking traffic" should "take matters into your own hands to get them out of the way," but no of course he wasn't endorsing violence.

Still, the protests have spread among students often showing a striking awareness of the systemic forces arrayed against them. "Even at Princeton," notes Sarah Sakha of a now-common call at what was once a bastion of white privilege but where diverse students and faculty have sat in, built a Gaza Solidarity Encampment (where administrators even forbade tents in the rain) and taken part in a hunger strike, all despite "the larger apparatus working against them." Sakha cites Noam Chomsky's “manufactured consent" by which mass media and those in power coalesce around a simplified reality that becomes accepted truth, and Edward Said's charge Palestinians have been robbed of the right to narrate their own history. "To whom do we extend the permission to narrate?" she asks of an administration that has co-opted that right by demanding "we reconsider our tactics, our lexicon, our politics." "No matter how peaceful a protest may be" - or how rooted in histories of resistance - "Palestinian solidarity protesters will never be able to be in the right."

And no matter how peaceful they've been, administrators have often, unconscionably called in police. At Columbia, they burst in, "incredibly vicious," armed with tasers, batons, and zip ties amidst students screaming in rage and terror. At Virginia Tech, a professor was violently arrested for standing in solidarity with students; he says the administration has fostered a hostile climate for Palestinian students and faculty. At Indiana's Bloomington campus, snipers set up on a roof overlooking the encampment, and a black activist, writer and PhD student was arrested and banned from campus for five years. With commencement ceremonies on the horizon, some schools - Brown, Northwestern, Rutgers, Minnesota - made concessions or agreed to consider divestment demands in exchange for encampments disbanding. But protests still disrupted weekend ceremonies at multiple schools - Duke, Emerson, Berkeley, Virginia, Chapel Hill. Students wore keffiyeh, waved Palestinian flags, turned their backs on and walked out of speeches, acknowledged on their caps "Those Who Will Never Graduate" and proclaimed themselves, "The Class of 2024 of Gaza."

A social work grad getting her master's at Columbia strode on stage with her hands zip-tied above her head to honor the violent arrests that came before, and ripped up her diploma as she was handed it. A month before, Lebanese-American master's student Tamara Rasamny chose to forfeit her Columbia ceremony by getting arrested and suspended for a sit-in. Instead, she spoke at a class day, arguing, "My speech is a testament to courage and the power of speaking up. If I cannot adhere to my own words, then what right do I have to speak at all?" Lebanese schools hope to award her an honorary degree; meanwhile, her father, Walid Rasamny, praised her decision as "not just a personal victory but a call to all parents to support our children as they stand firm for their beliefs." "As a father, I am inspired by her resilience and dedication to peaceful protest and justice," he said. "Let us foster a world led with integrity and passion."

"The student left is the most reliably correct constituency in America," writes Osita Nwanevu. "Over the past 60 years, it has passed every great moral test American foreign policy has forced upon the public," from Vietnam to South Africa to Iraq, along with fights for civil, women's, LGBTQ, economic and climate rights. "Time and time and time again...straining against an ancient and immortal prejudice against youth, it has made a habit of telling the American people, in tones that discomfit, what they need to hear before they are ready to hear it." Thus have they condemned not just the slaughter of 35,000 and Israel's criminal collective punishment but the willingness of this country - from pols to private institutions beholden to the power and profits of arms manufacturers - to "sanction Israel’s denial of Palestinian human rights for decades." "The students have done their part," writes Nwanevu. "Now it’s up to the rest of us" to honor protests that Gazans say, "echo all the way to the Occupied Territories." "Your actions are our hope," says one. "You're either with humanity or against it."

"What is the ethical response to witnessing a great moral crime?" asks Mark Rudd, who in 1968, as head of Columbia's Students for a Democratic Society, helped organize protests that saw hundreds of students occupy five buildings and lead a mass strike that closed the campus for over a month. In the face of the Vietnam War and the subsequent invasion of Cambodia, a mass murder against a civilian population undertaken by "our own government, with the complicity of our university," students "felt the imperative to act." In response, "Columbia called on New York City cops to empty the buildings, badly beating and arresting 700 students," he writes. "56 years to the day later, the NYPD were again called in... All the rest is commentary." Today's activists, he argues, are smarter, calmer, more nonviolent, more diverse - where he is not "an unJew." He cites a Community Values post from the Gaza encampment asserting a movement "united in valuing every human life." He confirms, "Setting up tents and praying for the souls of the dead, all the dead, is not violence."

Today's activists in Berkeley set up their encampment on the steps of Sproul Hall, site of the birth of the Free Speech movement and Vietnam and apartheid protests; they also broadcast the sounds of Israeli drones for a grim reality check from Gaza. Their organizing smarts are praised by Michael Albert, who, as student body president, led 1968 anti-war protests at MIT, which he dubbed “Dachau on the Charles” for war research whose victims were "half a torn-up world away in Vietnam." "History sometimes repeats," he writes, citing both ironic and healthy differences. "We were inspired. We were hot. But here comes this year and it is moving faster," he writes. "We were courageous, but we also had too little understanding of how to win...On your campuses, do better than us. Fight to divest but also fight to structurally change them so their decision makers - which should be you - never again invest in genocide, war, and indeed oppression of any kind. Tomorrow is the first day of a long, long, potentially incredibly liberating future....Persist."

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