UW students set up anti-war encampment on campus

Protesters lead chants during a Palestinian anti-war encampment on the campus of the University of Washington on April 29, 2024 in Seattle, Washington, USA.

(Photo by Noah Riffe/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Student Encampments Are the Laboratory of Our Future

When I visited demonstrators at the University of Washington, I entered a skeptic and left a believer. Overall, there was a spirit of peace and caring in the encampment I visited.

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”Henry David Thoreau

Thousands of students, many of them people of color, have in recent weeks gathered in encampments staked out on college greens across the country.

They will tell you, many of them — and their protest signs will convey — that they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, who are now being systematically annihilated by the nation of Israel’s war machine.

The students are clear in their goals, asking, among other things, that their respective universities divest from entities, such as military contractors, that feed the Israeli war machine; and likewise insisting that the U.S. government cease shipping munitions to the Israeli government that are helping to pulverize Gaza — where millions of Palestinians are now trapped and which has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.

We are asked to believe the innocent in Gaza are not the targets of the Israeli war machine by those who seek to justify the mass killing underway. The defenders of that carnage are quick to hurl accusations of antisemitism against critics who merely question the Israeli government’s commitment to human rights. They fortify their justification of the looming Palestinian oblivion by invoking the memory of a vicious mass killing of Israeli citizens carried out last year by the militant group Hamas. Never mind that the number of Palestinians now dead as a result of the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza far exceeds by multiples of ten the number of Israelis slaughtered by Hamas.

In short, it appears the critics want us to turn a blind eye to the escalating cycle of carnage and destruction in Gaza as the price of future Israeli security — and an ill-defined peace in the region. It is simply flawed reasoning that leads to an unacceptable outcome. More hatred and death.

The only path to ending the violence is through the creation of a new peace, with justice and dignity. And that process starts with once again humanizing those in the path of the blind destruction underway in Gaza.

Impossible, some will say. And these students are only making matters worse with their antics and agitating, their disturbing of some supposed peace.

Well, maybe it’s time for such critics to actually visit a student encampment in the spirit of peace, instead of demonizing them from afar, labeling them antisemitic or a threat to public safety, or fermenting public pressure to unleash heavily armed police on them.

What they will see if they take the time to walk among the students in these encampments, at least what I saw after visiting the student encampment at the University of Washington-Seattle, is a real community of hundreds of people camping out under the cherry-blossom trees on campus. It’s not unlike a musical festival, although with a far more important, engaged focus.

Winding through the cluster of student tents is a pathway that remains unblocked and open to all on campus. There also is a medical tent; a food-supply tent; press tent; crafts and art; a library, protest signs (some inspiring, some not so clever, but information is everywhere); and an intricate system in place to deal with community needs, such as disposing of garbage and personal hygiene.

Again, most of the folks I encountered in and around the UW encampment were young (compared to me, anyway) and the majority were students of color. Their views of the world are still taking shape on these campuses, both in and out of the classroom, and those world concepts will surely continue to evolve. Those of us a bit longer in the tooth have all been there ourselves, whether we went to college or not.

Importantly, in the case of this student movement, however, it should not be lost on anyone that part of the reason it has been so easily attacked by ill-intentioned critics and demonized in the media and elsewhere is because it is largely composed of and led by people of color. Until we see racism through the prism of power, we will never fully get it.

From my experience with these students, they already know right from wrong in this world, and they are clearly willing to take a stand for their convictions. After all, they are merely invoking their First Amendment rightsto freedom of speech and assembly — rights that apply under the U.S. Constitution to all who inhabit this land, whether born here or not. Remember that the next time the words “foreigners” or “outside agitators” are thrown around with McCarthyistic glee by pundits and politicians — both foreign and domestic.

And, most importantly, if you visit many of these student encampments, you will find both Jewish and Palestinian students in tents next to each other, sharing bread, conversation, ideas and hope — along with a diverse cohort of protesters across race, gender, and class lines. And they are discussing the issues that matter in this world today, listening to speakers, creating art, and planting seeds of hope and action for their future.

What I did not see is a single antisemitic sign nor did I hear such a slur. (Note to the media: Provocateurs, crazies and racists of all kinds attach themselves to social movements to feed off the energy, or to advance their own warped visions of reality, or to disrupt and spy. But that does not mean those outsiders and hangers-on define the social movement or are to be considered part of it. For example, a man with a bullhorn shows up at the UW student encampment occasionally to preach the gospel — according to him.)

Overall, there was a spirit of peace and caring in the encampment I visited. There also was a real sense in talking with students and professors from UW-Seattle that they had a deep commitment to the struggle for justice with dignity for the innocents in Gaza — who are being disappeared by the thousands in the name of a senseless bloodlust that has no prospects of making the nation of Israel safer, nor the world.

If peace can be achieved in these student encampments among Jewish and Palestinian students, even while they are under the threat of expulsion and police action, there is the hope, the model even, for peace to be achieved on the grand field of the Mideast among the peoples inhabiting the lands where war now rages.

No peace born of war is ever easy. It must start with building relations, not only among official leaders, but as importantly from the bottom up, with a quest for trust, with a vision for the future that offers hope — not perpetual fear, hatred and death.

It starts by giving peace a chance.

That’s what I saw and heard at the student encampment I visited recently. I entered a skeptic and left a believer. These students are organized and united in a spirit of expanding the range of the possible. Time will tell if they can remain united, with their strategies and tactics flexible enough yet aligned and focused effectively on accomplishing their goals. But those goals are achievable.

For the sake of the human race and this planet, peace in the Mideast must be achieved as well. So, don’t demonize these students, don’t reduce them to stereotypes and two-dimensional cartoon characters and, most importantly, don’t underestimate the power of a social movement to achieve victory.

Instead, ask yourself what you can do to make the world a more tolerant, peaceful place for all of us, and then do it.

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