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Campus crackdowns: Student groups take a stand

On 18 April, a police crackdown on student protests at Columbia University in New York kickstarted a wave of demonstrations on campuses across the world calling on universities to sever their ties with Israel amid the Israel-Palestine conflict. The demonstrations have drawn comparisons to protest campaigns in the previous century, which may offer some insights into the trajectory of the current unrest, writes Shannon Lorimer.

University campuses around the world have become the stage for an increasing number of protests by students calling on their institutions to divest from entities with ties to Israel amid the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. The recent wave of demonstrations followed the mass arrests of students who had encamped at Columbia University in New York in a protest to denounce Israeli military action in Gaza and to call on the university to cut ties with companies they see as supporting the war. The police clampdown on the Columbia encampment kickstarted a series of solidarity protests by students globally. The protests echo various historical student campaigns the world over, and student activists have drawn particular inspiration from the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the anti-apartheid demonstrations targeting endowments in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. As was the case in the anti-war and anti-apartheid demonstrations, today, student groups have used their collective voice to take a stand. However, despite some commonalities with the protests of the past, the current demonstrations have remained more peaceful and on a lower scale than student protests in the previous century. And a swifter police crackdown on the one hand, and concessions made by some universities on the other, may just quell further unrest as universities come to the end of their academic year.

Parallels between protest movements

Although the most prominent student protests in the 21st century, so far, the recent student protests have remained far smaller and less disruptive than the historical protests they have been likened to, particularly in the US. By comparison, anti-war protests in the 1960s and 1970s denouncing the war in Vietnam were predominantly peaceful, and rarely deliberately provocative; however, they were interspersed with sporadic incidents of more severe violence. At Harvard in 1966, activists trapped then-Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in a police car to question him about the war, and in August 1970, protesters detonated a bomb at the University of Wisconsin, which killed a postdoctoral researcher and caused USD 6 million worth of damage. In the Kent State Massacre of May 1970, the National Guard opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing four. The brutality sparked fresh anti-war protests across the country, including a demonstration of over 100,000 people in Washington, DC, with the events encouraging protests as far away as Melbourne, Australia in response. While the tactics of de-escalation are similar in 2024, there have not yet been any incidents comparable to such violence.

Although the most prominent student protests in the 21st century, so far, the recent student protests have remained far smaller and less disruptive than the historical protests they have been likened to.

Despite some notable clashes in 2024, including at the University of California, Los Angeles where pro-Palestine activists clashed with pro-Israel demonstrators, around 97 percent of the protests in the US have been nonviolent, and nearly half of those that have become violent did so after police intervention. Out of around 550 protests by 3 May in the US, only two instances of property damage were recorded which were serious enough to disqualify the demonstration as peaceful: at Portland State University students damaged furniture and computers while occupying a campus library and at Columbia University, protesters broke windows during the occupation of a campus building. That said, the security response has been stringent, with police maintaining a heightened presence across universities, often at the request of the institutions themselves, and arresting around 3,000 protesters at more than 130 colleges and universities between April and May. Outside of the US, protests at universities have also been less violent, facing minimal police interference, especially in Canada, Mexico and Australia where university officials have mostly permitted encampments as long as they remain peaceful; though, in France and the Netherlands, altercations between police and students have occurred.

Student protests

Concessions between students and their universities

While student protests against the Israel-Palestine conflict have only gained momentum in the past few months, the concessions that universities have already granted to student protesters may also indicate a different trajectory to previous campaigns. Although universities did make various concessions in previous student protests, including during protests in the 1980s where students successfully persuaded Columbia to divest from apartheid South Africa, these kinds of concessions followed years of protests. In 2024, despite raised tensions, some universities have already successfully negotiated with demonstrators. As the term closed at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, officials reached an agreement with protesters to remove an encampment that had been in place for several days and in return, the university agreed to retract student suspensions and reconsider divesting from companies affiliated with Israel. Other prominent universities, including Northwestern and Brown, made similar agreements. In London, an occupation at a university was also concluded after the institution agreed to the students’ demands, which included renaming a lecture hall after the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the granting of humanitarian scholarships for Palestinian students, and a review of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

So, where do the protests go from here?

Measuring the success of any student movement, like the anti-war and anti-apartheid protests, is complex given the wider context of other non-student demonstrations on the subjects, international pressure, and, of course, the unfolding of the wars or events themselves. But, thus far, these recent campaigns have been successful in securing (some) concessions fairly quickly and without resorting to more severe tactics. The concessions made in the 2024 protests, in combination with the end of the academic year, will see the protests die down towards the summer break.

Some protesters have gone as far as to demand state-level policy change, including the end of any military support or contracts with Israel, which could prove more challenging to meet.

However, university-specific concessions are perhaps easier to secure. Most protests centre on calls for a cessation of academic ties with Israeli institutions or the disclosing of any investment links to Israel, especially pertaining to partnerships with large corporates purported to benefit from ties with Tel Aviv. Yet, some protesters have gone as far as to demand state-level policy change, including the end of any military support or contracts with Israel, which could prove more challenging to meet. And, with these campaigns inextricably linked to Israel-Palestine conflict itself, the potential for a resurgence in student-led anti-war campaigns remains ever present. Thus, while the early success of the recent peaceful campaigns should discourage new protests when students return from their summer holidays, it will equally depend on the state of the conflict when they do return and what student activists feel needs to be done about it.

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