Why US and UK student protests for Palestine take different (and similar) shapes

Illustration - In-depth - UK/US student protests
13 min read
02 May, 2024

Violent scenes from Columbia University, UCLA, and dozens of other US campuses have made global headlines over the past few weeks, with 52 universities across the US seeing pro-Palestine action and encampments.

Much of the spotlight has been focused on Columbia University, where a student protest and encampment has been ongoing for nearly two weeks, demanding that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel amidst an ongoing war on Gaza that has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians.

“What we’re seeing is a historic student uprising in the US with very few parallels or precedent,” a professor at Columbia, who asked to remain anonymous, told The New Arab. “Even during Vietnam and the civil rights movement we didn’t see this level of spontaneous student uprising that immediately went from one US campus [to nationwide and then] international.”

All of this is made even more remarkable by the fact that the US does not have a history of occupations like those taking place right now.

“Even in the 1960s, they didn’t do encampments like this. Occupying a space on campus is very much part of the European political tradition, as seen across universities in 1968. In America, meanwhile, you have a long history of sit-ins,” says Ashok Kumar, a political economist at Birkbeck University.

"What we're seeing is a historic student uprising in the US with very few parallels or precedent"

'Where are the UK students?'

As action and violence have flared across US campuses, a growing number of online commentators have criticised the UK student movement for a supposed lack of radicalism.

“I think it’s an error to try and rank these movements in order of radicality. In part, because student actions across the US and UK are instances of one and the same struggle to end the genocide in Gaza, and Western government and university complicity,” says Kai Heron, lecturer in political ecology at Lancaster University.

“That said, it’s certainly the case that the US and UK student movements are operating by different logics and using different strategies in response to different economic and political contexts.”

In the UK, students have used a diverse range of tactics. There have been building occupations at universities such as Leeds, Manchester, UCL, Bristol, Goldsmiths, and others. But students have also organised teach-ins, teach-outs, local rallies, and national demonstrations in London. On Wednesday, students at five elite UK universities set up pro-Palestinian encampments.

“These actions have been happening for years, and have won for years,” says an organiser with the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), a transnational, grassroots movement of Palestinians.

Live Story

“But they have been underreported, as per the strategic intention of media, government and university managements to ensure student activism is not spotlighted in British news outlets, something that mirrors the media’s ridiculously poor coverage of the national demonstrations for Palestine, in which the huge number of protestors are purposefully understated and underreported.”

Alongside these actions, students in the UK have also organised more confrontational strategies like Palestine Action’s direct targeting of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems, or the blockading of BAE systems sites. The Samlesbury Aerodrome outside Preston, for example, has been disrupted on multiple occasions (the site manufactures the rear fuselage for F-35 stealth planes, which are currently being used to kill Palestinians in the Gaza Strip).

“In the US the student movement has also taken a diversity of tactics, including the establishment of a US branch of Palestine Action, but it is fair to say that the occupation of Columbia University - or rather the university management’s disproportionate response to it - has escalated the struggle considerably,” says Heron.

“Because of this draconian response, occupation has now become the preferred and most effective strategy in the US in ways that have, and perhaps cannot, be replicated in the UK.”

Students in the US and UK are both hostile to police involvement in managing student protests. But it remains rare for the police to be called to student protests in the UK, though it does happen, says Heron. This is not to say that students in the UK have not seen an unacceptable amount of disproportionate and brutal responses to student organising from both the police and universities, such as widespread student suspensions, to name but one outrage.

A student protest and encampment has been ongoing for nearly two weeks at Colombia University. [Getty]

The situation in the US, however, is more dire given that it is a highly militarised police state. “The unprovoked police violence at campuses in Texas, Georgia and other states is at once shocking and entirely predictable,” says Heron.

“When cops are filmed tackling professors to the ground for demanding peace or pounding on students with their bare fists in the name of ‘campus security’, as we've seen in the US, that causes a crisis of legitimacy for the entire state apparatus, including individual universities.”

The role of the police is a crucial difference. In the US, protestors do not get approval from the authorities about their A-to-Z route as they do in the UK, says one anonymous student organiser for Palestine in the UK (who has studied in the US). “In the States there is no orderly process of protesting like there is in the UK. There, the police are inextricably linked to the systems you are resisting and fighting, by default, in whatever protest.”

The decision by most US universities to call in the police has only escalated the situation in the US. “It created a spectacle for the media, and since the preferred crowd dispersal mode of US cops is violence, the footage coming out of these encampments generates global sympathy and outrage on behalf of students and staff,” says Heron.

"The US and UK student movements are operating by different logics and using different strategies in response to different economic and political contexts"

This is one of the US encampment movement's successes, a strategy that prompts a crisis of legitimacy for complicit US state and educational institutions.

“We need to think about how to replicate it here in the UK. This doesn't necessarily mean mimicking the US encampments, though I've been pleased to see Warwick among others taking this approach. It means thinking strategically,” says Heron.

“I think university management in Britain will look at things played out in the US and think twice before bringing cops to campus to disperse new encampments. They'll use technicalities, safety regulations, or whatever else they have at their disposal to minimise the spectacle. This is of course a different kind of violence.”

Live Story

A very different set of finances

American universities are much more powerful in the circuits of global capital and financial support for Israel-linked companies, thereby making calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) even more pressing.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest wants the university to divest its $13.6 billion endowment from any company connected to Israel, including tech behemoths like Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet with business ties to Israel. Similar demands are being made of Harvard’s $49bn endowment, Yale’s $41bn, Cornell’s $10bn, and many others.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Oxford’s endowment is valued at £7bn (the highest in the country), while all of London’s biggest universities have endowments of just £300m and below.

There is also the fact that, in the US, the presence and influence of donors is more pronounced. It was widely reported that prominent donors to Columbia, such as billionaires Robert Kraft and Leon Cooperman, would reconsider their support unless the university took harsher action on the student protests. Similar pressure is no doubt being applied to other US universities, again putting a peaceful student movement demanding an end to Israel’s war in harm's way, says Heron.

Student protests at George Washington University (GW). [Getty]

Research on US campuses is also more military-oriented than that of the UK. “They produce the weapons and tech that prop up America’s military and prison industry, which is one reason why US endowments are just so big. They're just a different kind of financial institution to the ones in the UK,” says Kumar.

One student organiser for Palestine formerly at Johns Hopkins explained to The New Arab how the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory is the site of research to develop military intelligence and material.

“If a student interns there, they can’t disclose any of their work. We have the CIA and army recruitment coming to recruit on our campuses all the time. All of this is very normal across US campuses. The government systems we're fighting here are deeply embedded within our universities.”

This is not to say that UK universities are not connected to the military-industrial complex, just on a different scale. Several universities in the UK have, for example, memorandums of understanding with BAE Systems, one of the largest arms manufacturers in Europe and a producer of military equipment used to surveil and kill Palestinians.

“These partnerships do two things. First, they transform universities into out-sourced research and development arms for our war-mongering state and a murderous company,” says Heron.

"American universities are much more powerful in the circuits of global capital and financial support for Israel-linked companies"

“Second, they give BAE Systems the ability to claim that they are making important contributions to their local community. Lancaster University, for example, has a ‘strategic agreement’ with BAE Systems that promises to generate ‘business innovation and sustainable technology research’ in Lancashire. This is greenwashing pure and simple.”

BAE has similar memorandums with universities, including Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, and Birmingham. These memorandums have faced opposition from students and staff alike and they were recently the subject of a report called Weaponising Universities by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Universities in the UK are also complicit in Israel’s war crimes insofar as they ignore the BDS campaign's demand to sever all ties with Israeli institutions and companies.

“Universities should be divesting from all Israeli companies, as students are demanding. And especially after Israel destroyed every single university in Gaza, we should be cutting all ties and partnerships with Israeli universities. Israel is a terrorist state and should be treated as such,” says Heron.

Live Story

Geographies of 'campus'

The architecture of student life across US universities is notably different to that of the UK, with important implications for student activism.

“One of the reasons I think we see less campus-related disruption for Palestine in the UK is because the UK campus is often very different in makeup than the US one,” says Roisin Agnew, a PhD student in Goldsmiths and member of Goldsmiths for Palestine.

“US university campuses for the most part involve living and studying on-site with centralised locations unlike most UK universities that are made up of non-residential satellite campuses - interestingly Warwick, the first UK university to have an encampment, most closely resembles US campuses”.

Universities in the US, especially New York, also tend to have more cohesive and centralised spaces that are more fit for protests and encampments compared to the fractured and decentralised nature of many universities in the UK, especially in London.

There is also the fact that campuses in the US feel much more threatened by protest movements because they see how local communities have taken part in them for decades, says an anonymous organiser for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at a major US university.

Pro-Palestine student protests across universities in the US. [TNA]

Over recent weeks, this has led to politicised rhetoric that non-students have joined the campus protests and spouted anti-Semitism, as alleged in Columbia in recent weeks. “In the US, the state and media are explicitly conflating the student movement for Palestine with anti-Semitism in a way that’s even more extreme than in the UK, which has also seen its fair share of widespread vilification,” they add.

The stakes are simply higher for US institutions, in every sense. Having the president of a major UK university testify to parliament in a high-profile anti-Semitism case, like Columbia’s Minouche Shafik did before Congress recently, is unthinkable in the UK.

It is also worth mentioning that the American campus has a very strong history of protest movements giving rise to nationwide movements.

“Campus protests are often rooted in resisting police force, and today we’re seeing a critical mass of intersectional solidarity across black, queer and other movements across our universities,” says the anonymous organiser from SJP.

“I’ve also been part of the PalSoc at UCL, and I think that, while the movement in the UK has a rich history, it is less established than its equivalent in the US, known as SJP. For example, the PalSoc at Oxford University was basically revived after October 7th. There’s also the fact that, across UK universities, disruption and violence is the last resort, whereas in the States it’s the first call. Over here in the US, we have zero faith in the police, in the university admin, and in the bureaucracy,” they add.

Specific to Palestine, however, there is a greater urgency felt on campuses in the US insofar as the US is the chief enabler of Israel’s war in Gaza, says an anonymous student organiser for Palestine from Harvard.

“There’s also a greater sense of urgency felt by US students in terms of the strength of the Zionist presence on many campuses across the country, the relentless campaigns of persecution, doxing, harassment that Zionists on and off campus have been directing at students supporting Palestine - not to mention the complete and utter negligence of most university managements here in terms of protecting students for Palestine. It’s another level of horror”.

"Universities should be divesting from all Israeli companies, as students are demanding. And especially after Israel destroyed every single university in Gaza, we should be cutting all ties and partnerships with Israeli universities"

Degrading the student body

It is also relevant to note just how much US students have been attacked for multiple generations through the burden of immense tuition fees. “As a result, they have a much more mature system of resilience and opposition to the status quo. While in the UK, this war of attrition is still just 15 years old, so we’re sort of playing catch up in terms of our response,” says one anonymous student organiser for Palestine at a major London university.

The neoliberalisation and financialisation of the British higher education system has caused such an identity crisis in the last few years, with repeated threats of redundancies and student fee hikes, that the entire university body is ground down, says Agnew. “I think the US protests are emboldening to us here and I hope it fosters stronger transnational solidarity between universities at large.”

While this may explain some differences in character between the UK and US student activism, it is also important to discuss the unique forms of repression against the UK student movement for Palestine.

For over a decade, it has been systematically targeted by pro-Israel organisations, as well as by what is now the most repressive government in decades, says an organiser from PYM.

“This has looked like the systematic defunding of the NUS and the neoliberalisation of Student Unions. British students, especially Palestine organisers, are also faced with the intimate and insidious surveillance and policing strategies of the Prevent Duty that seek to silence them through police referrals and arrests,” they add.

Live Story

As a result, students in the UK have approached their activism differently.

“We have seen bad faith accusations of an inactive student movement here which is paired with weak institutional support for students from organisations on the left - this is a moment to be inspired by our counterparts in the US and uplift UK students towards forming an even more united and co-ordinated front, both across London and on a national level,” says PYM.

The question that now remains is: what can UK students do, given their particular political and ideological landscape, to cause the maximum disruption to the UK's participation in Israel’s war? How can they make divestment, boycott, and sanctions the least bad option for actors who would otherwise side with Israel?

“The answer is being decided collectively by student groups and anti-war movements up and down the country as we follow and discuss what's happening to our colleagues and fellow students at US institutions,” concludes Heron.

Sebastian Shehadi is a freelance journalist and a contributing writer at the New Statesman. 

Follow him on Twitter: @seblebanon