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The message from American campuses and student protesters

In 1985, as American campuses were gripped by protests against apartheid in South Africa, the legendary African-American feminist poet and philosopher Audre Lorde believed that America was “the most powerful country in the world” but also “a country that stands on the ground”. the bad side of every liberation struggle on earth.” Lorde noted that it filled her with both a sense of dread and a sense of urgency. Once again, fear and urgency have driven students on American campuses to protest the catastrophe in Gaza. During anti-apartheid protests calling for divestment on campuses in the late 1980s – when we were students ourselves – university administrators were embarrassed to align themselves with South Africa’s white apartheid state . Today, with Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism so normalized in the United States, university administrators proudly align themselves with this genocidal war. Armed police guard our libraries, checkpoints have been placed on our campus, and we are learning that a police siege of our campuses is the new normal in the modern American university.

Students teach each other

Across the country, student protesters have a unified set of demands: disclosure and divestment from companies complicit in weapons manufacturing and Israel’s occupation of Palestine; “Off-campus cops”; and protect pro-Palestinian speech and activism throughout the university. The call for divestment can be attributed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched in 2008, inspired by the anti-racist and anti-apartheid student movement that Audre Lorde was addressing. The call for “off-campus cops” can be explained by abolitionist critiques of the police as a racist institution, amplified in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020, as well as the fact that this generation of academics today has been mobilized in activism against the police. the armed violence that has plagued them in schools since their childhood. Finally, the call for protection of pro-Palestinian speech and activism reflects the history of university administrators’ complicity in the “Palestinian exception” to academic freedom, made particularly evident since October 2023.

At New York University (NYU), our students, whose leaders include African American, Arab American, South Asian, and anti-Zionist Jewish students in a multiracial coalition, educate each other about history of the Levant and its various facets. peoples and traditions of the region and the diaspora. They hold courses on the legacy of colonialism and racial violence as well as the complexities of historic, post-Balfour, post-Holocaust, post-Nakba, post-Oslo Palestine. They study apartheid as a technology of governance, from indigenous reservations, to apartheid in South Africa, to Jim Crow America, to the colonial rule of Palestine in Kashmir. They analyze the necessary distinctions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, between criticism of racism against the Jewish people and criticism of the ethno-State of Israel. They also learn about the history of Palestinian resistance – political campaigns such as BDS and the Great March of Return, the poetry of dissent by Mahmoud Darwish and Mosab Abu Toha, the theater of the oppressed at the Jenin Freedom Theater. Refugee camp, from the meaning of terms demonized by the American and Western media, such as intifada and “from the river to the sea”. They study the political economy of the occupation and the flow of money from Washington to Tel Aviv to Riyadh, from corporate profits from Israeli settlements to donors and trustees of our universities, from investments academics until the war that is being fought on the other side of the world. the globe. The courses and “people’s universities” aim for students to reclaim their rights to education, speech and dissent following a history of repression of Palestinian solidarity in the United States, including, and possibly be above all, in our classrooms and our campuses.

University repressions

From the start of the war, many university administrators began instituting disciplinary procedures against expressions of pro-Palestinian solidarity and activism directed against the State of Israel, while banning local chapters of national organizations such as the Jewish anti-Zionist group, Jewish Voice for Peace. (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). As the war intensified, student protests proliferated, and university surveillance and repression of protests became even more punitive. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s administration has doubled down on its support for Israel’s war effort and right-wing politicians have called congressional hearings with college presidents to question them about campus political culture. It is in this context, six months after the start of the war and even though the number of deaths during this period exceeded 33,000, that the students, feeling ignored and muzzled, channeled their protest into camps peaceful within their universities. Even as the repression intensified, these de-occupation encampments spread to campuses across the country.

These protests can be located in the specifics of the current historical conjuncture, but the use of the term “de-occupation” also refers to a broader analysis of the role of the university in colonial, imperial and corporate extractivism. Thus, it evokes the history and geography of American military occupation, from the Native American wars to the occupation of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, including American interference in Haiti and throughout the Americas until the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. In New York, this movement echoes the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 against the grotesque inequalities of American society. These students know that there is a bloody link between the economic and the military, between war and siege, between bombs and famine. But it’s not just a New York moment. From the University of Florida to the University of Texas, from Emory University in Atlanta to Cal State Sacramento, students chanting for divestment and against abuses by the Israeli military come to these protests with a deep knowledge of the history of racialized police brutality. Nationwide, it is a movement that has been fundamentally shaped by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements that seek to dismantle the American policing apparatus that disproportionately polices, arrests, and imprisons Black and Brown communities. . Likewise, the Standing Rock movement against the Dakota Access pipeline that ran through First Nations territory played a crucial role in raising generational awareness of settler colonialism and the ties between the United States and Israel as states. colonials, as well as the links between occupation and dispossession. Knowledgeable about social networks and attentive to narrative wars, these students are sounding the alarm, refusing major media manipulations and forging solidarity from Georgia to Gaza, from Harlem to Hebron.

A radical future

We write this in the wake of the NYU administration’s call for the New York Police Department to arrest NYU students, violently invoking the strong arm of the law as a partner in McCarthyist surveillance and stifling of speech on campus. Rather than shed light on this repression, conservative and liberal media together have platformed university administrators who oversee the corporatization and militarization of higher education. From coast to coast, our students have risked and endured suspensions and arrests in resolute solidarity with the people of Gaza. They used their privilege as students at the heart of the empire to denounce and break the ideological and economic ties that bind the American university to the forces of genocide. In turn, they were inspired by the struggles of historic Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, by those who studied and taught in all the bombed schools and universities of Gaza that exist today only in the memory of the peoples and in their visions of a future in a free Palestine. In this, they echo the radically hopeful vision of Audre Lorde in the same article we cited at the beginning: “We can come together to realize a future that the world has not yet conceived of, much less seen . »

Paula Chakravartty is the James Weldon Johnson Associate Professor of Media Studies at New York University (NYU). Vasuki Nesiah is Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and International Law at New York University (NYU)

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