In student intifada, disobeying for Palestine becomes a duty

At Columbia and beyond, disobedience for Palestine becomes a duty
7 min read

Ayça Çubukçu

06 May, 2024
The rebellious, borderless, and leaderless student movement for Palestine is capable of evolving into a global student intifada, writes Ayça Çubukçu.
In the face of university and police crackdown, pro-Palestinian student movements have multiplied and morphed into a sustained global movement, writes Ayça Çubukçu [photo credit: Getty Images]

As soon as I exited the subway station to return to my “alma mater,” I came face to face with the New York City police, the infamous NYPD, who had locked and blocked the iron gates of Columbia University with numerous cages, bodies, and guns. Outside the gates, protestors were chanting loud and clear: Free, Free Palestine!

There was “security” at every door, checkpoints at every gate opening up to the lawns of central campus. Cooperating fully with the forces of the American state, Columbia University was determined to keep its disobedient students out of public reach, isolated from the courageous and contagious Palestine solidarity movement catching fire across the world.

Outside agitators” were not welcome and, potentially, everyone was one. The university was then — and is more severely now —under a strictly policed lockdown in a futile attempt to confine the very idea of a free Palestine.

I initially saw it from a distance, the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia, and approached it slowly — or rather, was pulled towards it by awe. It was real, it was here, an assembly of tents adorned with Palestinian flags and makeshift banners arising on fenced-off grass. It was Thursday, April 25 2024, a “peaceful” afternoon, two hundred and two days into Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, which had killed, in six months, more than 34,000 Palestinians, at least 14,000 of them children.

I could not walk into the solidarity encampment right away. Something stopped me steps before the entrance, guarded by faculty in yellow vests, many a familiar face. There by the entry, I first smoked with two students who had stepped out of the encampment to enjoy a cigarette. Our conversation was cut short by the mutual desire to clearly hear what a lone man beside us was alleging before a camera. He spoke of “examples of anti-Semitism at Columbia” as a television station from Poland interviewed him with sympathy. “This happens all the time,” one of the students told me, “we hold tight and say nothing.”

As I eventually entered the encampment, I introduced myself as a Columbia alumnus teaching in London and passed on messages of solidarity from the city. Promptly, a welcoming student showed me the poster outlining Gaza Solidarity Encampment: Community Guidelines. “We all remain grounded in why we enter this space,” the first guideline stated, “as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people facing the deadliest year in a 75-year-long, US (and Columbia)-funded, genocide of the Palestinian people.” 

That day and the following, I was at the solidarity encampment speaking with faculty and students, sitting with others under the sun and the open sky, resting at the tent reserved for alumni, listening.

While I was there, the encampment felt quiet if not tranquil, there was the calm before the storm. Except for the occasional use of the people’s mic — initiated with a loud injunction to “repeat after me!” — and excellent teach-ins on the geography and botany of settler colonialism in New York and Palestine, students were mostly lounging around, arranging food, doing homework, making art, speaking in tongues.

On Friday, at Namaz time, when the Azaan was heard at the centre of the encampment, a group of Muslim students began praying together, now on their feet, then on their knees, encircled by two rings of students shielding them from view with banners and blankets.

After observing the ritual in enchanted disbelief, I had a conversation with a colleague and a student at the encampment who was reading a book from 1968, Difference and Repetition by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Seemingly removed from politics, we discussed the intimacy between philosophy and theoretical mathematics and thought about why 1 is no longer considered a prime number.

When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Democratic Party visited the encampment with her entourage that morning, few appeared moved as they carried on with their day, wearing masks and keffiyehs, reading intently, or chatting away.

There was nervousness in the air, the hanging deadline announced by the university administration to dismantle the solidarity encampment, “or else.” As if the recent police raid on the encampment and the brutal arrest of 108 students on April 18 were not enough, the threat of the National Guard entering the campus loomed over students and faculty alike.

Three days later, on April 29, negotiations between the students and the university administration were killed by President Monouche Shafik when she declared, contra student demands, that Columbia University “will not divest from Israel.” In response, in the early hours of April 30, students took decisive — and historic — action by occupying Hamilton Hall on central campus. As reported by the student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator:

"At around 12:30 a.m., dozens occupied Hamilton Hall, moving metal gates to barricade the doors, blocking the entrances of the building with wooden tables from classrooms, and zip-tying the doors shut. The protesters locked the building down in less than five minutes and did not let anyone enter afterwards. Soon after, protesters draped Palestinian flags and banners that read “Gaza Calls, Columbia Falls” and “Hind’s Hall,” in honour of a six-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed by the Israeli military in Gaza in January."

Some twenty hours on, with their riot gear, tear gas, and loaded guns — fired at least once— heavily armed police forces swarmed the students at Hind’s Hall:

"Hundreds of NYPD officers entered campus on Tuesday night after [university president] Shafik authorized the NYPD to “clear all individuals from Hamilton Hall and all campus encampments.” NYPD officers began arresting protesters at around 9:30 p.m. and made a total of 109 arrests, according to the NYPD. The NYPD authorized the use of distraction devices, pushed protesters to the ground and down staircases in front of Hamilton, and slammed them with barricades. The NYPD officers loaded the arrested protesters into large correctional buses at around 10:30 p.m. In a letter to the NYPD, Shafik asked for police presence on campus until at least May 17."

The rest is history, being made and told, as it rapidly unfolds in days and nights that shake the world to the core. From Los Angeles to New York, Atlanta to London, Mexico City to Tokyo, solidarity encampments, liberated zones and circles, people’s universities and occupations — under many names — are emerging for Palestine in more than 150 campuses across the world. What we are witnessing is a rebellious, borderless, leaderless movement in solidarity with Palestine, capable of evolving into a global student intifada.

On May 2, President Joe Biden attempted to criminalise student protests erupting across the United States by characterising them, predictably, as “violent.” He declared: “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations—none of this is a peaceful protest.” Biden’s characterisation of trespassing as “violent” sounds particularly hollow next to the horrendous violence of the “law and order” he defends, made and maintained by the deadliest military and police forces on earth.


Nevertheless, as the Palestine solidarity movement demonstrates, when “law and order” enable the smooth operation of a murderous machine, disobedience becomes not only a right but a moving duty. There is no “right to cause chaos,” Biden insists, as the genocide the United States sponsors in Palestine raises that question anew. It is evident in any case that when dissent and disobedience are criminalised, “chaos” can become the order of the day as word and deed.

Ayça Çubukçu is Associate Professor in Human Rights and Co-Director of LSE Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Follow her on X: @ayca_cu

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.