United States: Students assess 'explosive' pro-Palestine encampment movement

June 17, 2024

With universities about to go on summer break in the United States, Green Left’s Isaac Nellist, Jacob Andrewartha and Chloe DS spoke to US pro-Palestine solidarity campus activists Cyn Huang, Daniil Sapunkov and Amey about the state of the campus protests.

Cyn is a student at the University of California (UC) Berkeley and a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Daniil studies at the City University New York (CUNY) and is also a YDSA member, and Amey is at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and an activist with SFSU for Palestine.

The following transcript has been edited and abridged.

* * *

Since the first encampments were set up a month and a half ago, what have been some major developments?

Cyn: Since the most explosive period, during the first two weeks, more than 140 encampments have been set up across the United States, Britain, Canada, Brazil, France and, of course, Australia.

There have been different responses from university administrations. There was immense repression at the beginning, particularly on the east coast, but there has also been radio silence from schools hoping the protest would fizzle out.

In some places, the administration has negotiated, often not in good faith. Their strategy has been to channel the activist energy into backdoor meetings, where they hope to confuse and demobilise us.

But other negotiations have won concessions that don’t require students to demobilise or give up their right to free speech and protest.

One obstacle, anticipated early on, was the end of semester: most schools have hit that.

People had different views about what to do. Some felt that divestment wins had to be won before the end of the semester or the movement would fizzle out. This encouraged confrontations with the police and the administration.

We can debate whether we had enough power to do that, or whether the student movement has to go through multiple iterations before divestment demands are won.

But at the end of semester, there were actions related to graduation ceremonies including individual acts of resistance, to banner drops and mass walk-outs.

The People’s Conference for Palestine, May 24–26, organised by the Palestinian Youth Movement and sponsored by many other organisations, was the first attempt to bring activists together from across the country, including encampment students, to debate how the movement should progress.

It was very heartening; it made connections and created more of a focus on strategy.

Now that the encampment upsurge has, for the most part, ended, we need to encourage all the amazing activists to become involved more permanently. We need to clarify the victories, the lessons learned and make plans for next semester.

Daniil: So much has happened since we last spoke. There have been many victories, including at San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, Brown University and many others, and losses.

The biggest question is how these student protesters can spark different political dynamics beyond campuses.

The political discussions in the encampments has been very inspiring, and also within YDSA and the Bread and Roses caucus.

We can share discussions on internal democracy, mass movement orientation and class struggle in the broader movement.

Our biggest task is to keep the energy going and motivate the politicised students to continue.

Student encampments have won disclosure agreements at some Australian campuses. Have any US campuses won full divestment?

Cyn: There has been significant movement towards disclosure and divestment on many universities. Scholarships for Palestinian students and commitments to stop anti-Palestinian racism on campuses have also been won.

A lot of universities, including the large California State University (CSU), have a rich history of organising around Palestine. The administration’s strategy has been to pursue campus-level negotiations, while picking off encampments one by one.

They know campus-level negotiations can’t impact their investment portfolio as much because the administration can claim they are sympathetic to the students but also say they can’t do much because, ultimately, it rests with the board.

Where there have been negotiations, administrations have attempted to corner students into a backroom where they can make things more legalistic and confusing, or they will set up a taskforce, or a committee, to delay meaningful change.

Most schools that have entered negotiations are in this grey area, where some deals are more empowering and some more demobilising.

The movement has also had some big internal organisational and political victories. Students at SFSU demanded and won “open bargaining” — the practice of some of the most powerful and democratic labour unions.

Open bargaining allows people to witness negotiations [with the administration]. But it is also crucial to meet beforehand, caucus during negotiations and debrief afterwards so as not to get cornered.

It allows people to make decisions themselves, about the best way to handle the negotiations and carry the movement forward.

At some of the camps which don’t have open bargaining, political disagreements became super personalised. Those who don’t get to see the negotiations will just start blaming camp leaders instead of directing their anger to the administration.

Open bargaining helps build unity in the ranks and, crucially, democracy is power. The more people being exposed these processes and engaged in tactical thinking, the more ideas will be generated.

Amey: SFSU won open bargaining early in the process, which allowed us to put a lot of pressure on the administration.

Our campus president was held accountable in front of everyone, not just those involved in the Palestine solidarity movement.

We have won three of our four demands; disclose, divest and defend. At this point we have not been able to get the campus to do the fourth one: declare that what is happening in Gaza is genocide.

Now we are focused on getting the campus administration to follow through. We are creating a website disclosing the university’s investments and deals connected to the genocide. Divesting follows directly on from that.

The “defend” demand is specifically about defending the Arab and Muslim student body from Islamophobia, hate and anti-Palestinian vitriol.

Daniil: Observing from the East Coast, SFSU has been a trailblazing model. The situation in New York City, by comparison, seems very grim with a lot of police violence, brutality and repression.

We have not been able to pursue open bargaining and open organising models: we have been forced to resort to more secretive culture. Decisions are made by a shadow leadership who are not accountable to the movement and bargaining has been done behind closed doors.

We are trying to learn lessons from other parts of the country.

More than 2900 students have been arrested, or detained, for taking a stand. How have arrests, police violence and harassment impacted the movement?

Cyn: That repression made the movement explode, initially. Seeing your friends or other students brutalised can have a radicalising effect. Many questioned why the supposedly liberal institutions are going to such great lengths to clamp down on free speech and suppress the pro-Palestine movement. That questioning then led to looking at who benefits from the genocide including the Zionist lobby, US imperialism and the donor class behind university administrations.

Capitalists control most of the world's media but social media platforms have spread dissident opinions. Many socially conscious college students find it impossible to avoid sympathetic coverage of the movement. The repression is the first thing we see each morning.

A lot of people have been comparing this movement with those of the past, such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, and asking: “Why is this movement so powerful and so radicalising when we are not directly implicated in a draft”.

Social media and the intense repression has a lot to do with that.

Images of mutilated bodies, hospitals and schools bombed to oblivion, and every kind of mass suffering possible makes genocide less abstract. We are seeing what our university administrations fund, what the liberal media and political elites are running cover for.

The repression has also raised strategic complications.

While we don’t want to be silenced, most encampments haven’t saturated or built a majority on campus. We aren’t sure if we can withstand police assaults.

This is why we need to discuss strategy and have a concrete analysis of our power and our ability to win demands, such as divestment.

Daniil: In New York, the encampment movement ended in a very violent, yet cathartic and radicalising moment for many.

It seemed like the “strategic-ness” of the encampment movement wasn’t in question but in the “post-encampment” period, we need to think about focal points to organise around.

We need to assess students’ economic power in the university, through tuition and labour, but also academically through academic boycotts. Preferably it maintains its mass movement character, one of its strengths.

In New York City, autonomous groups are throwing themselves into action to keep up the pressure. Some are attempting occupations, replicating elements of the encampments on a smaller scale.

Building the numbers will allow the movement to become more democratic. YDSA are using the summer period to train people how to lodge freedom of information requests, how to research divestment, how to analyse power on campuses and other practical skills.

We have seen some inspiring union action supporting students, including the United Auto Workers Local 4811. What other actions have unions taken?

Cyn: UAW4811, which represents academic workers at the University of California system, is waging a political strike for Palestine and free speech. It is the first time that many in my generation are involved on such a large scale.

We know the challenges that come with that. Taking a stand on social justice affects other aspects of union work. How do we relate to our co-workers?

We have the benefit of having a more politicised union, but it is not the same across the country.

Depending on the collaboration, it can be one of the most meaningful demonstrations of the combined force of the student and labour movements.

We have taken cues from the UAW stand-up strike strategy, waged by autoworkers last year. This means workers at certain campuses are called on to withhold their labour, while other campuses are not. University management don’t know which is going to be hit first. It is also a way to plan, despite the union’s uneven organisation.

Developing coordination is a challenge, already evident in the encampments. We work in a huge university system and these camps were often operating on the campus level. Then building coordination between the camps and the union is another factor.

One example was when one campus was given their “final offer” a couple of days before we knew the results of the strike authorisation vote. There was a high possibility that they were going to be raided and students and workers had to decide whether to risk getting swept, hurt and demoralised or pack up and come back after the strike is authorised.

These are the kinds of questions we faced but it was a privilege because no other camp has been able to escalate alongside the prospect of a strike.

These decisions should be coordinated between the camps and the union. While there is a lot of coordination at an individual level, the student and labour movements are largely operating autonomously.

Other examples of union actions include day-long “sick outs” and walk outs, including at the University of Austin, Texas, where professors and other workers have formed pickets around the camps.

Daniil: The connection between the labour and student movements was there from the get-go. The more radical rank-and-file union members and leftist academics, as well as adjunct, full-time, part-time workers and union members were in the encampment.

We are seeing the fruits of previous efforts to make the union more militant and democratic. Rank-and-file organising and socialist and leftist activists taking jobs in these strategic industries is a core part of that.

However at City College and CUNY, where the union is less militant, an organised core of members are butting heads with the leadership because the latter didn’t want to endorse the encampment movement.

The union leadership did not denounce the encampment openly, but it didn’t stand with it. It failed to rise to the challenge which would have benefited the labour movement. It shows how much more reform is needed in the labour movement and unions in the US.

But the UAW 4811 strike gives us hope that our strategy of entrenching ourselves in the labour movement is working and will pay off.

Cyn: The strike was only possible because our union has a more politicised base. The UAW strike has been immensely inspiring and politicising.

But to have a more direct role in stopping the genocide we have to target logistics and shipping companies. The workers who deliver the arms have to be unionised too and that process will not happen overnight.

The left has to develop a more sophisticated plan to unionise blue-collar workers. You can’t stand on the outside and tell workers to withhold their labour: you have to build trust for your ideas.

Is US President Joe Biden feeling the pressure of the Palestine solidarity movement? What impact will Israel’s genocide in Gaza have on the 2024 presidential election in the US?

Amey: I have voted “blue” in the past, particularly when [former Independent] Bernie Sanders ran a campaign. But I am not alone in seeing the Democratic Party as completely alienating and distant from the principles I hold dear, particularly on Palestine.

Biden has supported the genocide: he has materially and politically supported Israel and should be held responsible. That has really impacted people on the left.

Even people who are more liberal-minded are feeling quite disillusioned and disagree with Biden’s position on Palestine.

However, if Donald Trump wins the election and becomes president it would be worse for the Palestinian people, both in the US and in Palestine.

He has been extremely pro-Israel, including during his previous term when he moved the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He said he would expel pro-Palestine protesters from the country.

It feels disingenuous to tell people to vote one way or the other. Particularly as people’s basic freedoms are at risk. For example in some states people are losing their reproductive rights because of Republican-stacked courts, so it is understandable that they would vote for Biden despite his position on Palestine.

But the level of dissent towards Biden is stratospheric and is only going to get worse as the genocide continues.

Daniil: A lot of the left, including in the DSA, have been pushing voters to vote “uncommitted” as a show of anger and dissent against the establishment support for Israel’s genocide.

However I would not be surprised if a lot of less politicised people do come out and vote for Biden.

There has been clear disillusionment on the left.

Before the encampment movement, people had a clear analysis of Biden’s complicity in the ongoing genocide, but still feared Trumps re-election, his proto-fascist agenda, the impact on labour, issues of bodily autonomy, trans rights and education.

But after the encampments — and the clear violence against students — it has become a more defined “no” to Biden. It was a shocking wake-up call and has made the situation for the Democrats much worse.

It brings up the need for an independent party. We need to continue to fight for electoral reform and other ways to push for an independent identity away from the Democrats.

Even if [left candidates] still have to run under the Democratic ticket for the time being, as we do in NYC, an independent identity is critical for the left’s success on the electoral front.

However this is more of a question for local campaigns at the moment.

There is a need for a new independent voice that must come out of DSA and the labour movement to become a fighting alternative and real representation for the working class.

Cyn: The movement for Palestine has become a decisive factor in the upcoming election, though not decisive enough to stop the genocide.

There are people who have always voted blue, but are now refusing to because Democratic mayors stuck the police on their children.

There are many examples of how the Palestine movement has drawn out the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party, but the more interesting question is what do we do about it?

There are short-term considerations which are in contradiction with long-term and medium-term goals.

The first is that we recognise the dangers of a Trump presidency, especially on the ability of workers to organise and defend our rights.

Endorsing Biden, even on a tactical level, even with a hundred qualifications or statements saying we do not endorse his foreign policy, would be non-negotiable for a lot of activists.

So how do we bring this new layer into organisation but also thwart the prospect of a Trump presidency?

In my mind there is not a satisfying way to “square the circle”.

Moreover, even if we did have a program that could harmonise both these goals, the left is not a decisive factor in national politics and is still quite marginal.

The bigger question is how to break out of this cycle. One thing we have been debating is how to build a broader political organisation.

Coming out of this encampment movement, it is clear we need some political representation or broader catch-all movement organisations.

It is clear that not everyone is ready to enter socialist organisations: our goals and politics might seem lofty or disconnected. For example we have reading groups about historical topics such as the Russian Revolution, but some people just want to focus on Palestine or other current issues.

There has to be a way for people to commit to these politics long-term and we need to find an organisational form and a political program for that. This Palestine movement has been a really great place to start figuring out how that might look.

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