Six lessons from the student encampments

10 May 2024
Jerome Small
The Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University in April, before it was smashed up by police PHOTO: Charly Triballeau/AFP

1. Resistance and solidarity can spread at lightning speed across countries, oceans and continents

The student movement in the US has followed one of the classic patterns of student revolt. Relatively small numbers of protesters take action on an issue which is supported more passively, or at least seen as legitimate protest about, by much wider layers. The activists succeed in drawing in more students, but often it’s a crackdown by the authorities—showing utter contempt for the liberal values which the university usually claims to take seriously—which shakes up much wider layers and brings them into active participation.

So it was at Berkeley in 1964; in Paris in 1968 (and many times since); in Gwangju in South Korea in 1980; in South Africa in 2015-16, and through many other struggles too numerous to list.

And so things unfolded from mid April, first in New York and then around the world.

The crushing of the student protest camp at Columbia University in New York on 18 April, just a day after it had been set up, was the spark for activists on more than 120 universities across the United States to launch solidarity camps—and for these solidarity actions to jump across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even students living under the brutally repressive military dictatorship in Egypt staged scattered protests and have now started a coordinating group. When researchers at the McMurdo research base in Antarctica joined in, there were camps on all seven continents. .

Hope spreads with the resistance—from Columbia, around the planet, and to the encampments of Palestinians enduring Israel’s onslaught on the Gaza strip. One of Gaza’s most beloved correspondents, Bisan Owda, posted on April 27: “I’m 25 years old, I’ve lived my whole life in Gaza City, and I’ve never felt hope like now. Never”.

It’s moving beyond words to see young people in Gaza, whose schools and universities have been destroyed along with homes and lives and families, protest both against Israel’s genocide and to send solidarity greetings back to the US students. From Gaza, one young woman protester tells the world: “We have lost everything but we cannot lose hope, because of you, because you stand by us”.

Meanwhile, students living and studying under Israel’s murderous military occupation at Birzeit University in the West Bank show extraordinary courage, rallying on 30 April to successfully drive the German ambassador off their campus. Germany is the second biggest supplier of weapons to Israel, after the US.

Hope based in collective resistance is a precious thing, and potentially dangerous for the authorities. After all for most people, most of the time, it’s not some positive love of a system based on profit and the power of a few that stops us from rebelling. Rather it’s the feeling—drummed into us not just by the media and schooling but also, more importantly, by our experience of life in a system that strips us of power—that keeps the population dispirited and passive.

So a widespread outbreak of hope, the spread of an idea and a feeling that people like us actually might be able to change the world by our own actions, has to be dealt with. The authorities will try to divert the resistance into channels that lead nowhere (the Democrats and the Labor Party come to mind). Or outlast the resistance, to wear it down.

Or crush it.

2. Rights and truth are all junk when the interests of our rulers are under threat

The evidence is clear for anyone who cares to look.

The preferred option for Israel’s many ruling class allies—from Washington to Canberra to Cairo—is a polite silence, disturbed only by an occasional tut-tut from the liberal-minded, while our rulers assist in Israel’s genocide.

Silence while the Bellingcat website documents the depraved glee of Israel’s 8219 Commando unit as they implode homes and mosques and the means of life in Gaza; a meaningless murmuring of concern while Palestinians dig out the remains of 520 people buried in mass graves by Israel in the grounds of the shattered Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City and Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis; silence while Adnan al-Bursh, a senior doctor at Al Shifa, is tortured and killed in an Israeli prison; silence while arms companies in Australia and around the world keep supplying Israel with the tools for its genocide.

It’s a mark of how central Israel is to the US empire and its willing partners that our rulers see students setting up tents and calling on their fellow students to join them as outside the bounds of permissible dissent.

So over the past week, cops have smashed up protests on at least 39 US campuses, from New York to Los Angeles. This repression is international. From the Sorbonne to Cairo, cops have been sent in to smash the protests and to turn universities—supposed bastions of critical inquiry and liberal values—into armed camps, occupied by the police and filled with fear.

Natasha Lennard has spent fifteen years covering policing in New York for the Intercept website. Lennard wrote of the police attacks on students at Columbia and City College:

“I have never witnessed, at the scene of a protest, the use of police power so disproportionate to the type of demonstration taking place ... After the police had cleared the [City College] campus of the students who belong there and filled the space with cops instead, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry pulled down the Palestinian flag and raised the American one to full mast in its place. Riot cops cheered below.”

A true vision of democracy.

Here in Australia, so far, there has been no such crackdown. But the dogs are barking.

Channel Nine papers reported on 5 May that the federal opposition is calling for “the forcible break-up of pro-Palestine university tent protests and new laws to fine universities that do not sanction misbehaving protesters”. Labor minister Bill Shorten, always one of Labor’s most brazen voices for imperialism in general and Zionism in particular, has joined the chorus, while Federal Labor Education Minister Jason Clare told the Age that “police need to step in” against the protests.

It’s a complicated equation for the authorities. Repression might spur further protest. But on the other hand, allowing solidarity and rage and hope to grow in organised form on the campuses has risks of its own, as history has demonstrated often enough.

3. Students can shift politics

Both the strengths and the weaknesses of students’ political role are shaped by their social position. Dave Nadel, a socialist veteran of the radical student movement at Monash explained in 1986:

“As a social layer, students are more independent of economic pressures than workers, and also of institutions like the unions and the Labor Party, which both have considerable inertia. This makes them more volatile, and sensitive to shifts in the ideological climate. Students are often ‘barometers for society’.”

On some occasions, student struggles can serve as a “detonator” which, through inspiration and some level of conscious organisation, can draw workers into struggle—creating a social explosion. France in 1968, where escalating student protests touched off the world’s biggest general strike, is the classic case. But versions of this have played out on many other occasions.

More often, the radicalism on campus doesn’t find such an immediate and dramatic response in wider society. Nonetheless, this ferment can help generate and sustain a wave of radicalism and activism.

In Australia, for instance, student protest was one of the driving forces of the colossal movement against Australia’s role in the brutal war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. And students radicalised in these struggles went on to play an important role in generating and regenerating unions and social movements in the 1970s and beyond.

This history, and this potential, is what everyone grasps intuitively. From the camps under bombardment in Rafah and around the world, there’s clearly an importance in a substantial student movement emerging—for the first time in decades—in the United States, the heart of global capitalism.

Of course, there are important limits to the power that students can wield. It’s workers, not students, who have the power to stop production, to create a profound social and political crisis for our rulers—and ultimately, to remake social conditions.

As mentioned above, on occasion student struggles can touch off the flammable material in the working class. Even when the students are fortunate enough to find the workers in a revolutionary mood, however, a degree of organisation is needed.

And if our ambition is no less than the end of the genocide and for the apartheid state of Israel to follow the fate of apartheid South Africa, we’ll need a far, far greater degree of social power—and of organisation.

4. Organised forces matter

Prime Minister Albanese’s casual slag-off of the student protesters last week as “Trots”—aka revolutionary socialists—was a dishonest attempt to write off the rage and disgust of many, many thousands of people at Labor’s active partnership in Israel’s genocide. It’s also a knee-jerk reaction for Albo, who is well trained in the loserish redbaiting that’s been the stock in trade of student Labor hacks for generations. But there’s a germ of truth in his pathetic statement: members of Socialist Alternative are proud of the role we’re playing, alongside many others, in helping to initiate, maintain and spread the student encampments across this continent.

Of course, radicals helping to push campus struggles forward is nothing new. The Berkeley campus of the University of California was the epicentre of the radical student movement in the US for many years. Mario Savio’s extraordinary speech that launched an occupation at Berkeley in 1964 is famous:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

What’s not so well known is that Savio was a close supporter of the newly launched Independent Socialist Club (ISC), a revolutionary socialist group at Berkeley. In 2020 Joel Geier, one of the founding members of the ISC, documented the group’s role in the Berkeley radicalisation in an article in Jacobin. It’s a useful and inspiring read for any aspiring (or long-established) campus radical—as is Geier’s talk on the role that the ISC’s successor organisation, the International Socialists, played in the US workers’ upsurge of the early 1970s.

The relationship between radical politics and campus activism has always been a two-way one. From the time of the Bolsheviks onwards, radicalised students have played a crucial role in building revolutionary political forces. One of the most important legacies of the 1960s and 1970s was the rebirth, and in some countries the rapid growth, of revolutionary socialist organisations which rejected the grotesque caricature of socialism that the Stalinist parties represented. Socialist Alternative’s origins come from this period, as Tess Lee Ack and Mick Armstrong have documented in the Marxist Left Review.

This project is of no small importance.

The point of understanding the world, as Karl Marx once observed, is to change it.

And of course the bigger and more profound the changes we want to win, the more important it is to have political forces capable of large-scale and effective political combat against the entrenched pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist parties. To liberate Palestine, let alone to do away with capitalism, will need organised working class socialist forces on a massive scale. Building those forces wherever we can is one of the crucial tasks, if we’re at all serious about achieving human liberation.

5. History, and struggle, moves in waves

1968 is a constant and important reference point for the protesters of today. The smashing of the student encampment at Columbia University on 30 April occurred on the 56th anniversary of the smashing of a student occupation on the same campus, protesting against racism and the Vietnam War.

It’s important to be clear on the differences as well as the similarities. In February of 1968, the US army was humiliated in the Tet Offensive by a largely peasant army in Vietnam. For countless millions around the globe, this opened up a whole world of possibilities and visions for radical change. Later in the same year, the obscenity of Stalinism was revealed when Russian tanks crushed a movement for democratic reform in Czechoslovakia.

Together with the peaking of the post war boom, these intersecting crises fed a years-long wave of radicalism and revolt which reshaped politics in a string of countries.

The level of crisis and radicalisation in subsequent waves has been lower than in 1968. Yet global capitalism and its global obscenities—including economic crisis, racism, and war—have continued to produce global waves of struggle.

We’re clearly in the midst of such a wave now. Let’s look at what lessons can we learn from some of the more recent waves of protest.

The biggest coordinated protest action in human history wasn’t in Karl Marx’s time nor in the Vietnam War years but in February 2003, when millions around the world rallied against the impending invasion of Iraq by the US, UK, Australia and other imperialist forces.

It takes a lot to stop a war though. The invasion went ahead despite the protests: perhaps a million people in Iraq perished as a result. In Australia, the political legacy was largely one of demoralisation.

In the UK, however, things were a little different. British military forces were a large part of the occupation of Iraq. And crucially, a sizeable far left in the 1970s and 80s—much bigger than Australia or the US—has left a political and to some extent an organisational legacy. The Stop the War Coalition maintained a program of large-scale, set piece protests a few times a year in London and other cities. Importantly, these rallies always included a free Palestine as one of their demands.

The continued UK protests also didn’t stop the war, though they wrecked the political legacy of Labour prime minister Tony Blair. And arguably, the persistence of these protests is the main reason why the Palestine protests in the UK have continued to be so consistent and so sizeable.

The global financial crisis of 2008-09, and the economic hardship of the years that followed, produced the next global wave of revolt. In late 2010, massive street demonstrations against austerity and dictatorship kicked off in Tunisia following the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. When he died on 4 January 2011, the protests intensified. Within weeks, the protesters had toppled the 23-year dictatorship in that country. The protests spread to Egypt, toppling the Mubarak dictatorship and unleashing a wave of revolt across the Arab world and beyond.

Activists in Greece copied the main tactic of the Egyptian protesters—a public occupation of the main public square in Cairo—in their own “movement of the squares”. This then leapt to Spain in the form of the “Indignados” movement. Activists who happened to work in both the US and Spain decided to try a similar thing out in New York. Once Occupy Wall Street was established, activists around the world followed suit. By October 2011, tents sprouted in Martin Place in Sydney, City Square in Melbourne and more than 150 other cities around the world.

The camps were smashed up—in the case of Melbourne, despite the active civil disobedience of well over a thousand protesters. Central Melbourne looked like a city under martial law that day.

The encampments and their defence were electrifying. But the political legacy of the global Occupy movement was decidedly mixed. In some countries the spirit of the protests found expression in a variety of electoral projects, all now deceased or turned firmly to the right (Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Corbyn in the UK, the Democratic Socialists in the US).

More promisingly, 2011’s protests also kicked off a decade of mass protest—one without parallel in the history of humanity in terms of the number of people involved. In 2019 colossal protests and uprisings rocked Chile, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Hong Kong, among other countries.

But to the extent that protesters fetishised the forms of protest and decision-making popularised by Occupy—occupying public space as the crucial tactic; a rejection of raising clear demands; supposedly “leaderless” forms of organising which simply made leadership unaccountable and decision-making shambolic), these hindered rather than helped those movements.

Nevertheless, the next global wave was building—and again it started in the US. Black Lives Matter came to global prominence in 2014 through mass protests following the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 touched off the largest wave of protest in the history of the US, and a wave of anti-racist protests around the world.

One of the legacies of the global Black Lives Matter movement was an increased awareness of Palestine. The 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown coincided with a massive slaughter by Israel in Gaza. When activists in the West Bank tweeted about how they had been attacked with the exact same teargas that police were deploying against BLM protesters in Ferguson—and shared information on how to counter the effects—a lot of people took notice. Statements supporting Palestine from prominent groups within the BLM movement also dramatically boosted the profile of Palestine solidarity, during that time and since.

One fruit of this awareness established through the Black Lives Matter protests was the scale of the global protests in 2021, in solidarity with the residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem and the extraordinary upsurge in resistance across Palestine. The current unparalleled wave of solidarity with Palestine—which has extended far beyond communities with ties of faith or kin to the area, much more so than even a few years ago—is also building on this legacy.

So what can we learn from this brief history of global waves of struggle?

Struggle comes in waves. Each of them leaves a legacy. The impact of each of these waves—the changes achieved, and the political and organisational legacy constructed for the next wave to build on—depends on many factors.

Three are crucial though. First, what is the scale of the economic, social, and political crisis which society is undergoing, when that wave of struggle hits?

Second, what political forces, with what sort of politics, have been built prior to that particular wave hitting? How strong are the organised forces of reaction? How strong are the organised forces of reformism, which work overtime to steer any threat to the system into safer channels and calmer waters? And what are the organised forces dedicated to doing the exact opposite—of spreading the struggle, pushing it as far as we can, and building more radical forces out of it?

The first of these factors—the depth of economic or social crisis—is almost entirely outside our control. Whereas the second—what forces are organised, and for what purpose—is a project we can make a clear impact on.

And of course, there’s a third factor shaping the fate of each global wave of struggle: what we all do.

6. The future is unwritten

On 22 April, just a few days into the growth of protest encampments across US universities, the Electronic Intifada website carried an article from Lubna Ahmad Abu Sitta, one of their Gaza correspondents:

“Our new camp in Rafah, after our third displacement, is located in a graveyard near the Egyptian border. Each day the tents of new arrivals—of those forcibly displaced by Israeli attacks—creep closer to the graves. After every Israeli massacre, both graveyard and camp expand, crawling toward the outer edges of the desert.”

Everyone reading this article knows how high the stakes are.

So what are our tasks?

As a young activist in the early 1980s, I was often in awe and a little tongue-tied when talking with veterans of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

“It must have been an amazing time”, I remember saying to Liz O’Brien, one such mentor.

To the best my memory serves me, Liz answered by agreeing that yes, in a way, it was amazing. Everyone knew they were part of a global movement. Everyone knew they were making history. But we have to remember—(in my memory there is a pause here, as if for emphasis)—we have to remember, once it was clear the US was losing the ground war, they just intensified their bombing from the air. So actually more people were being killed. Then they spread the war into Cambodia. So often times it didn’t really feel like our side were winning. For a long time, we weren’t.

I’ve recalled this conversation more than once during the past seven months.

First, for the importance of persisting, even when confronted with the most colossal slaughter.

And second, for the importance of building. If Liz and her contemporaries had refused to build politics and organisation that drew general conclusions about capitalism out of the particular struggle around Vietnam, we’d be even further behind where we need to be.

One part of our task today is to work, with everything we’ve got, to spread, maintain and build the encampments—to build resistance and to fight for clarity and out of that to build hope.

Another, crucial, part of our task is to build forces dedicated to overthrowing the whole lot.

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