What's next for pro-Palestinian US student protests this summer?

Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
5 min read
Washington, DC
06 June, 2024

As graduation season comes to a close, critics of pro-Palestinian student protests likely hope that these gatherings ended with the academic year.

For many student organisers, however, the summer is a time to regroup, continue protesting, and prepare for more demonstrations in the new school year.

Student-led demonstrations are continuing off-campus at public spaces, including in front of the White House, as well as at events at campuses across the country, with the expectation that September will bring more coordinated mobilisation, particularly in a contentious presidential election year if the war in Gaza hasn't ended by then.

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The first few days of June have already seen organised pro-Palestinian protests with a new encampment at Columbia during an alumni reunion, and on the other side of the country at Stanford, student protesters stormed the university president's building, resulting in multiple arrests.

"I think we're continuing with the same kind of pressure," Ridaa Khan, a rising fourth-year communications student at Wayne State University in Detroit, tells The New Arab.

"The interest and popularity aren't lost, just because of repression. That mobilises students even more."

As for what she expects in the coming months, she says, "Over time, we're getting smarter. We're learning more about our institutions and how to get our demands met".

"For many student organisers, the summer is a time to regroup, continue protesting, and prepare for more demonstrations in the new school year"

Continued demands for university divestment

One of the main demands of student protesters is for universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel, and with weapons manufacturers that do business in the country.

They also want their universities to be more transparent about their investments and to give amnesty to students who have been punished for protesting, as well as to allow for peaceful student gatherings.

A key goal for these protests, possibly superseding the main demands, which often gets lost in the news coverage of police crackdowns and congressional hearings, is to raise awareness and keep the focus on Gaza.

Since Hamas's 7 October surprise attack on Israel, which killed around 1,200 people, Israel’s war on Gaza has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 85,000.

A key goal of student protests is to raise awareness and keep the focus on Gaza. [Getty]

The continuous bombings have decimated the besieged enclave's healthcare infrastructure, school system, and sanitation network. Malnutrition and hygiene-related illnesses are increasingly commonplace. Multiple human rights groups have called Israel's actions genocide.

In response to the situation in Gaza, some student protesters have taken drastic steps to get their message out, in some cases occupying and chaining themselves to buildings on campus. 

So far, reports have indicated that the eight months of student protests have stayed largely peaceful. That hasn't stopped accusations of widespread antisemitism, chaos, and violence.

These characterisations have led to congressional hearings and the resignations of two Ivy League presidents, at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, largely under pressure from top university donors.

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Heavy-handed crackdowns fuel further demonstrations

This was followed months later by heavy-handed crackdowns at Columbia and other universities, only serving to ignite further protests. Hundreds of students across the country have been arrested and suspended, and many are currently going through the court system.

In the rare cases where the university administration has negotiated with the student protesters to reach an agreement over their demands, such as at Northwestern near Chicago, donors have put pressure on the presidents to resign. 

This shows the difficult predicament of university administrators and why many have opted for heavy police crackdowns, rather than risk their prestigious positions, thus perpetuating a cycle of heavy-handed responses to demonstrations that predictably grow stronger as a result.

"This is not going away. People are putting their eyes towards long-term mobilisation and the collective liberation of marginalised groups. It's bigger, and people realise it's bigger"

Though the crackdowns on student protesters continue, so does support from faculty, staff, alumni, and civil society, in many ways stronger voices than the universities' donors and administrators.

Zaynah Jadallah, an alumnus of Wayne State, tells TNA, "As an alum, I'm still involved. I still have a duty to the community and students. As a Palestinian, I'm making sure we organise together".

Monica Rahim, a senior policy and advocacy manager with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells TNA that they are getting requests for "know your rights" training and what to do if arrested, including from students who are not US citizens.

US college campus protests
Hundreds of students across the country have been arrested and suspended, and many are currently going through the court system. [Getty]

A growing movement

"This is not going away," Rahim told TNA. "People are putting their eyes towards long-term mobilisation and the collective liberation of marginalised groups. It's bigger, and people realise it's bigger, as they do slow down over the summer."

An initiative called Palestine Summer aims to provide resources and training to students who are mobilising in support of students over the summer. According to their website, they provide training in organising, narrative building and getting out the vote (focused on growing the "squad" of progressive congress members). It also offers legal advice and support. 

They are no doubt preparing for what is expected to be a tumultuous summer, with the 2024 election season in full swing and the Democratic Convention planned in Chicago, where in 1968 violent police crackdowns on anti-Vietnam War protests led to a Republican presidential victory. Many are seeing echoes of that era in today's movements.

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Robert Vitalis, who recently retired as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, tells TNA that he is already seeing signs of what could happen as the summer settles in.

At the nearby Drexel University, which is still in session, he regularly walks by an area that is fully blocked off with a heavily armed police presence.

"Everything is blocked off. Will we see more campuses like this? In the summer and the fall, then the question becomes: does it snowball?" he wonders.

"There's a sea change in how the younger folks are seeing Israel, and I don't think that's going to change. I think that's what's scaring the legacy organisations."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews