First impressions of New York’s student encampments

30 April 2024
Ben Hillier
A scene from the City University of New York, 29 April PHOTO: Ben Hillier

Red Flag editor Ben Hillier reports from New York on the student encampments for Palestine.


The New York University encampment in solidarity with Gaza is very well organised. It’s a credit to the young activists that they regrouped quickly and claimed a space outside of the Paulson Centre on Mason Street after having been throttled by the cops last week when they first set up camp in another part of the university.

“The police were extremely violent”, Ry, a graduate student and talented organiser at the encampment, says of the effort to clear Gould Plaza, two blocks north of the new encampment. But she also notes that it was counterproductive to adopt such a heavy-handed approach: “We got a lot of support in response. And we’ve made it clear that we’re not going anywhere.”

On Monday, as the sun drifted, 60-70 people remained at the encampment. What’s the biggest mobilisation yet seen? Like with any crowd estimate, it depends on who you ask. The range is 200-400 for one of the Passover dinners. (Passover is a Jewish festival, which fell on 22-30 April this year.)

A mountain of Palestinian food, donated by a local restaurant, was on offer at the NYU camp kitchen. And there is no shortage of general supplies—cleaning products, water, food, tape—donated entirely, often by strangers who hear about the encampment on the news.

The camp space is not huge by any stretch. But participants make efficient use of the area, which is divided into sections for various activities. During a quick tour, Ry points to a small whiteboard reading: “THE PEOPLE’S PROGRAM! Monday April 29th”.

The day’s schedule was as follows:

11:30—Gaza news updates

12:00—Community meeting


3pm—Building and growing encampments

5pm—Medic training


7pm­—Young Lordes Collective teach-in: Cop City * Palestine * NYU

8:30pm—Community meeting

9pm—Discussion circle: How to talk with your family about politics

10pm—Vigil for Shaima Alareer [reportedly killed on Friday by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza]

Several volunteer teams keep the camp running smoothly, politically and logistically. There’s a cleaning team, kitchen team, media team, program team (for the day’s activities) and perhaps one or two others.

There’s a radical library of donated books and a teach-in zone, in which educational presentations and discussions are held. Monday’s, run by the Young Lordes Collective, relates to a huge police training facility under construction in Atlanta, Georgia. The facility will reportedly engage Israeli military personnel to train US law enforcement.

The main purpose of the “people’s program” seems to be to give, well, purpose—a coherent and linked set of activities that are purposeful and educative. It is not, however, mandatory or even exhaustive. People are encouraged to take their own lead when it comes to participating. So, for example, a group of Jewish students organised a reading circle of several anti-Zionist texts in the last couple of days.

“A lot of people are saying that they’ve leaned more in the last week than they did in a whole year of classes”, Ry says of the camp. The last time I heard someone say something like that was in 2019, at the height of the Hong Kong student rebellion. This isn’t to directly compare New York now and Hong Kong then, which would be unhelpful. Politics is prone to overstatement, on both the left and the right. So to be clear, the scale of events in New York are much, much smaller.

The comment nevertheless is striking. When participants of a movement are talking like this—and when they are referring to their activism, rather than just exposure to a different textbook—then some sort of politicisation or even radicalisation is surely taking place.

Columbia University, where this thought might have been tested, is unfortunately locked down. It’s a different sort of Cop City, security on every entrance and all of Morningside campus closed to non-students or faculty. A series of menacing moves by university administrators earlier in the day sparked renewed mobilisations and another occupation has reportedly just begun inside.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have sensational and sensationalist coverage. The student paper Columbia Spectator has a live blog. But without access to Morningside, there’s no basis to offer even an impression of the encampment.

The only thing to say is that the atmosphere appears tense. It is next to impossible to elicit even the barest of responses from students leaving the campus, who are perhaps wary about media reporting.

From a small, designated protest zone near the Broadway entrance, a couple of wild Zionists chant and yell at any student wearing a keffiyeh, a recognisable black and white Palestinian scarf that many students don to identify with the cause.

The counter-protesters have nothing sensible to offer. One, from New Jersey, says that no other country in the world would allow what’s going on in America. Trump would have put an end to it all in New York with the National Guard. When pressed about the specifics of the stuff that wouldn’t be allowed to happen anywhere else, it turns out to be everything happening right here.

The City University of New York (CUNY) is a few blocks away in West Harlem. At 10:30pm, the encampment, in the square on Convent Avenue, is all raucous chanting. There are close to 80 people here; Young Palestinians (or Arabs) lead from atop the stone base of the flagpole in the middle of the square, using flares to great effect. The US flag has been replaced by a Palestinian one.

Like NYU, it’s very well organised. Again there’s a whiteboard with a daily program schedule, a kitchen etc. That’s no accident of spontaneity—the campuses are all informally coordinating, sharing information, and even supplies if needs be. Add the New School and the Fashion Institute of Technology, both walking distance to NYU, and there are five encampments / occupations.

Compared with NYU and the scenes at Columbia, CUNY is more like a festival. Chris, a graduate student from the media team, is uncomfortable with this descriptor, however. Fair enough—who would want to be accused of holding a celebration in response to a genocide?

Yet young people fighting collectively for a good cause ought not be ashamed of occasionally having a good time while doing so. It would be difficult to hold an encampment together, let alone grow it, without the sort of infectious feel-good chanting on display here.

When Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1905 of revolutions being festivals of the oppressed and the exploited, he was pointing to the emergence of a great spirit among participants—the throwing off of shame and generational abuse—not about a lack of attention to suffering.

To bring in Lenin like this runs the risk of overstatement mentioned earlier. But when a young girl, aged maybe five, decides to lead the chanting, it’s hard not to get carried away. Having taken the megaphone, enthusing everyone, she ends with the chant “If our people don’t get it [justice]—Shut it down! Shut it down!”

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