The students who camped for Palestine

A semester of discontent: The students who camped for Palestine
5 min read

Vijay Prashad

17 May, 2024
The paranoid backlash to US campus protests is a reminder that direct action works, writes Vijay Prashad. And this time the students won't be deterred.
Students have started their lifelong struggle to expose the brutality of the US military-industrial complex, writes Vijay Prashad [photo credit: Getty Images]

Normally, when students in the United States start protests towards the end of the Spring semester, administrators try to stall.

The presidents and deans know that in May the students start to think about their summer plans and then retreat back to their homes, often far from the campus.

Then, during the long summer, which comes to end only in the early weeks of September, the students are absorbed in internships and jobs, lives of love and lives of anxiety about the precarious world that awaits them.

The high officials of the colleges and universities know that once the students return to campus, the momentum that had built up in the Spring has dissipated and the students return to find a kind of political amnesia on the campus. That is the normal situation.

The first known encampment in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza was built on the campus of Vanderbilt University in late March.

The students started their camp in solidarity with the twenty-seven student protestors who had occupied Kirkland Hall to demand that their university follow the principles of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement regarding Israel.

Vanderbilt Divest Coalition gathered 600 signatures for their BDS demand, which should have allowed the Coalition to put their demand to the vote.

The US campus protests have inspired hundreds of university encampments around the world, from Mexico to Japan [photo credit: Getty Images]

The administration — which has raised Vanderbilt fees over the $100,000 a year threshold — not only discounted the student efforts, but encouraged the police to arrest local journalists.

On 4 May, the Coalition began to dismantle its encampment because — as they said in an Instagram post — "most students cannot stay on campus during the summer, and it will no longer be safe to continue."

But then they wrote, as if knowing what the high officials would believe: "But to the Vanderbilt administrators monitoring this page, know that this is only the beginning."

On 1 May, the Coalition joined the Nashville-based Palestine Hurra Coalition to march across the city. Their warning was clear: "We will not stop. We will not rest."

These are not normal times.

It is unlikely that the students will go home demobilised and demoralised. They are fired up. Evidence of that was on display across the United States during otherwise sombre graduation ceremonies.

Students telegraphed their intent to make their views known, which is why several colleges shifted venues and ramped up security.

The University of Southern California cancelled the planned speech by the valedictorian of its graduating class – Asna Tabassum – for reasons of ‘safety’.

A group called We Are Tov pushed a post on Instagram that accused Tabassum of "antisemitism" for...being pro-Palestinian and against Israel’s genocidal war.

Tabassum was given standing ovations from the thousands of students at both the USC student award ceremony and when she walked across the stage to receive her degree at graduation. This is the mood of the students at this point as they get on their flights and buses toward their homes.

A lifelong struggle for Palestine

Images coming from Gaza rattled this entire generation of young people, particularly in the United States since its government seemed utterly complicit in the deaths and tone-deaf to the emerging mood of concern and anger.

There have been wars before, and there are other wars ongoing, but no war in recent times has been as brutal as this war, with Israel bombing entire neighbourhoods, wiping out entire families, and erasing entire parts of Gaza.

Deliberate destruction of hospitals and universities, filmed and uploaded by Israeli soldiers, outraged this young generation that posted clips on Instagram and TikTok — which the U.S. threatened to ban during the war, and about which U.S. Senator Mitt Romney and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken complained during a conversation in early May.

It is the brutal nature of the Israeli bombardment — and nothing else, not influence from another country or ‘outside agitators’ — that has compelled the students.

Initially, the students across the United States — watching billions of dollars of weapons go from the United States to Israel — called upon their colleges to divest from the Israeli war economy.

This meant cutting investments into Israeli businesses, accepting donations from Israeli benefactors which would offer a laundry for their reputations, and ensuring that their science and technology laboratories not collaborate with Israeli weapons and surveillance firms.

When they began to look into the finances of their colleges, they found — despite the opaqueness of modern hedge funds and financial instruments — that their higher education institutions had invested heavily in some of the dirtier parts of the modern world: the arms industry and the fossil fuel industry.

These investments opened a door to the ugliness of the US war machine. That realisation propels this generation of the agitated to go beyond their immediate demand — for a ceasefire and for BDS — to a greater demand — for the unravelling of the dangerous and decadent choices made by the US ruling class.

For that reason, the semester of discontent will become a lifetime of struggle by these students for a more democratic United States, which would — of course — be good for the world.

Vijay Prashad is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the editor of Letters to Palestine (2014) and his most recent book is (with Noam Chomsky), On Cuba (2024).

Follow him on X: @vijayprashad


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