Lessons from the student encampments

4 June 2024
Robert Narai
The Gaza solidarity encampment at La Trobe university in Melbourne PHOTO: James Plested

1. A militant minority can have a global impact

The most effective way to fight for change, we are told, is to work through the proper channels. If we politely ask the people in power to listen to our concerns, our message will be heard, so don’t do anything radical that might upset the people in charge.

The Gaza solidarity encampment movement illustrates that the opposite is true. When small numbers of students take action to disrupt the status quo, they can inspire thousands of others to do the same.

Beginning with small numbers at some of the most elite universities in the United States, the encampments have spread to hundreds of cities across the United States and all across the world: from New York to London, Melbourne to Cairo, Berlin to Beirut.

The student protests have created a political crisis for the establishment by highlighting the deep links that exist between weapons manufacturers, universities and governments, and their complicity in Israel’s genocide. And with wall-to-wall media coverage, they have sent a clear message across the world—that universities must divest from weapons research, that universities and government must break links with Israel and Israel must immediately end its assault on Gaza.

This is how any movement for social change has been initiated, from civil rights to ending the war in Vietnam. It has been small groups that led the charge and inspired others to take up the fight. That is because progress happens in spite of, not because of, the people in power.

2. The ruling class will try to crush you—be prepared to fight back

The encampment movement has brought students into conflict with the institutions that drive support for Israel, the organisations of the capitalist ruling class. These have dealt a blow to universities’ rhetorical commitment to free speech.

In Australia, as elsewhere, the ruling class have tried to stifle criticism of Israel’s genocide by any means necessary. Charges of antisemitism and accusations that they represent a threat to student safety have been hurled at the encampments; students have met physical violence at the hands of Zionists; university administrations have both threatened and carried out the dismantling of a number of camps; and a number of students have been hit with suspension and even expulsion from their universities.

But students have refused to back down in the face of these attacks. Instead, they have provided an example of how to fight back.

“Hundreds of supporters have repeatedly turned up to demonstrations called by the encampments to defend them from physical attacks by Zionist organisations and threats by university administrations to forcibly remove them from campuses”, Madi Curkovic, a Monash Students for Palestine organiser who is currently facing disciplinary action from the university, told Red Flag. “Students have published statements and held press conferences that have defended our decision to set up the encampments. We have repeatedly called out the lies of the people in power and pointed to their complicity in the bloodshed being carried out by Israel in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.”

By standing their ground—against Zionist organisations, university administrations, the media and politicians—the students and their supporters will be remembered as those on the right side of this fight..

3. The strength of any movement is its ability to involve people

Mass movements change people. The act of collectively standing together pushes aside the powerlessness we experience in everyday life, builds our confidence and generates a sense of strength. The encampments offer a glimpse into that process.

“The best thing about the camp has been meeting and involving more people”, El Hall, a Students for Palestine organiser at the University of Adelaide, told Red Flag. “We’ve done this through open organising meetings at the camp to coordinate activities like putting up posters, handing out leaflets, information stalls, regular rallies, as well as teach-ins [public meetings on a number of topics designed to attract more people to the camps]. At our campus and a number of others, students are petitioning for a student general meeting to discuss their demands with the wider student body.”

For many students, this has been their first experience of activism, through which they have learned a variety of new skills, from how to convince others of political arguments (such as the purpose of protest, the reasons why the establishment supports Israel’s genocide and so on) to planning demonstrations and even speaking at rallies for the first time.

This transformative experience lies at the heart of all movements against tyranny and oppression. Protests and activism are not simply a mechanism to achieve demands: they are essential if fundamental social change is to be achieved.

4. Political diversity and cooperation are crucial to success

Political movements will always be heterogeneous; it is in their nature to inspire and involve people from diverse backgrounds, united in fighting towards a common goal. The encampments illustrate that it is important to learn how to cooperate with others, even if you have significant disagreements with them.

“Our camp has involved a number of different clubs and political groups working together: socialists, Muslim students, the Greens, student clubs, activists from the NTEU [National Tertiary Education Union], as well as independent students and staff”, University of Queensland camp organiser Liam Parry-Mills told Red Flag. He emphasises that this has been one of the camp’s greatest strengths. “It has meant we have been able to have consistently large numbers at every one of our campus protests and teach-ins, even during the last week of classes.”

Most encampments have striven to make decisions openly and democratically through camp meetings made up of any and all participants who wish to attend. And while they have called for university management to meet with them and answer their demands, most camps have refused to meet with them behind closed doors or carry out secret negotiations.

“There have been debates within our camp about whether political groups should be allowed to sell their publications and leaflet students for other activities not immediately related to the camp”, Hall told Red Flag of the experience in Adelaide. “But a number of political groups defended the right to do so because the stifling of political discussion, debate and diversity within our movement can only weaken the effectiveness of our side.”

5. Experience helps when struggle picks up

No-one predicted the impact that the Columbia encampment would have in the United States and around the world. But once it caught people’s imaginations, it was important to act quickly.

The movement drew in lots of people new to activism, but it was also vital that there were people there who had been involved in similar activities before. This includes both people who know how to get an action off the ground—how to get the word out, formulate demands and make the camps welcoming to people—as well as people who had previously taken a stand for Palestine, and so were familiar with the lies and slander that were likely to be thrown at us and were confident to counter them.

In situations like this, the day-in, day-out nature of socialist activity really comes to the fore. Not only are socialist students organised through a network of Socialist Alternative clubs around the country that was able to spread the movement quickly all over the country, but socialists are also used to the detailed work that any movement needs to succeed. Whether it’s making posters and leaflets or talking to people about the issues and convincing them to get more involved, socialists have had a lot of experience in struggle.

Indeed, the fact that Socialist Alternative had years earlier played an important part in creating Students for Palestine clubs meant that we weren’t beginning from scratch when the camps started. There was already a loose network of people interested in the issue of Palestine with a history of organising.

And perhaps most importantly, socialists have the politics to convince others to support Palestine and oppose Israel’s powerful supporters. Through Red Flag and other publications, socialists can bring ideas and politics to the actions that others can engage with, learn from and perhaps decide they agree with.

Of course, socialists aren’t the only ones who have this sort of experience. But unlike most other forces, they organise precisely for this reason—to help win the struggles of today and use the experience to strengthen those in the future.

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