A Week of the Student Protest Movement in the US: Its Main Features and Demands, and its Promised Prospects

A Week of the Student Protest Movement in the US: Its Main Features and Demands, and its Promised Prospects

It has been more than a week since the pro-Palestine student protests started in US universities, and they continue to expand and escalate. The protests that began at Columbia University have so far spread to more than 60 universities across the US, with tens of thousands of university students and teaching and administrative staff participating.

In parallel, suppression, terrorization, and intimidation of these protests started escalating, including arrest of nearly 600 students and staff during the first week, with still limited police interventions and threats of calling on the “National Guard” to disperse the sit-ins by force. This is a scenario that – if it actually happens – would complete all aspects of the formula of Vietnam and student protests of 1968-1970. This is considering that the current movement, although still in its first week, has already surpassed what happened during the Vietnam days in terms of the nature of the raised slogans and demands.

In this article, we attempt to read this movement and explore its prospects, through two main steps: First, establishing the facts and data, including what US media is saying about the event; and second, attempting draw some preliminary conclusions in light of the data.

First: The data and what the media is saying

1. What are the demands?
In addition to the clear political slogans calling for a ceasefire and an end to the genocide by “Israel”, there is a common basic demand that was not sufficiently highlighted in coverage by Arab media of the American student protests. Said demand is characterized by being tangible and having a direct impact, which is the financial policy of American universities, and the students’ demands for universities to sever links with the Zionist Entity and its various institutions on the one hand, and to also do that financially with the American military-industrial complex.

This is due to what is widely known, which is that most universities in the US depend in their funding (and therefore their policies) on giant companies, a significant portion of which are linked to the American military-industrial complex, and to Zionist organizations such as AIPAC and organizations like Soros’s organizations. Additionally, these universities invest the funding and endowments they receive in certain activities and hedge funds, which are also linked to the aforementioned entities. Thus, this makes the universities, their administrations, and their tendencies governed by direct and indirect forms of the policies of these entities.

According to an article published by The Guardian on April 27: “One demand made by students across schools keeps coming up: divestment from Israel”. According to the article, “Universities rely on endowments to fund things like research and scholarships, and those endowments are typically invested in companies and alternative asset classes, such as private equity and hedge funds... calls for divestment are demands to sell investments in companies that students say are complicit in the war”.

According to the article, “At Columbia, students are demanding the university drop its direct investments in companies doing business in or with Israel, including Amazon and Google… Students at the University of California, Berkley, have similarly called for divestment of Israel across the board, as have student groups at New York University… Other groups, such as Yale University’s Endowment Justice Coalition and student groups at Cornell University, are pushing administrators to drop investments in weapons manufacturers specifically”. Some protests broadened their demands to ones of an environmental nature, linking what “Israel” is doing in the context of its war on Gaza with catastrophic environmental consequences.

An article published by Axios on April 27, pointed out that the goals of these protests vary from one university to another, but agree on one main demand: “At many schools, protesters have called for campuses to divest from companies with links to Israel”. The article lists the main student demands in five major universities partaking in the protests, mainly Columbia University. Among these demands at Columbia, Yale, Princeton, USC, and Harvard, are the following:

  • “Support a permanent ceasefire [in Gaza]”.
  • Divest “from companies that ‘profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine’ and more transparency around investments.”
  • End “policing on campus”.
  • “Divest from military weapons manufacturers and disclose where the school invests its funds”.
  • “Sever ties with Israeli academic institutions, including Columbia’s global center in Tel Aviv” and end “study abroad programs in Israel”.
  • “Disclose and divest from Israeli companies that ‘profit from Israeli apartheid, and occupation in Palestine, including the US Military and weapons manufacturing”.
  • “Divest any investments in Israel… and reinvest resources in Palestinian academic initiatives, communities, and culture”.

2. Figures
According to a map shown in an April 27 Axios article, the number of US universities that witnessed student protests reached nearly 60 universities around the US.

The article indicated that until the time of its publishing, “about 600 people have been arrested at pro-Palestinian protests on at least 15 college campuses across the US in just over a week… The majority of arrests have occurred at encampments and sit-ins”.

3. The moral-political impact is greater than the economic
Many media outlets, especially Western ones, are covering extensively the protests that are continuing and expanding to a larger number of universities in the US. Additionally, similar movements have started to emerge in universities in other Western countries such as France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

Opinions in Western media vary on the subject. However, what is clear is that the protests have become the focus of public attention, to the extent that most media outlets, especially American ones, have on their official websites a special portal to follow the latest developments related to these protests.

One of the points some media outlets are talking about relates to the extent of the impact that responding to the demands of the protesters can have, especially the issue of universities divesting from “Israel”. It can be said that there is almost consensus in the analyses, which is that the economic impact – if these demands are met – will be much less threatening than the political and moral impacts of such demands.

In a New York Times article, an expert says “that if the goal of divestment is to achieve a particular social goal through changing company behavior, it is likely to fail”. He then adds “that if an organization like a university was selling its stake in a company against its values, the buyer would likely care less about the issue than the university would. In turn, that means the new stakeholder will exert less pressure on the company to change its practices on an issue like selling arms to Israel. But… if the goal of divestment was more broadly defined as part of a coalition of efforts to change hearts and minds, then it could be successful”. He also adds that “if the goal is to mobilize a movement, to demonstrate moral outrage, campaigns sometimes are effective”.

The article then points out that “universities have flatly refused to adjust their holdings in response to student agitation. Some administrators have met with students demanding divestment, but the overarching message has been that they will not alter their portfolios or sell assets linked to Israel”.

4. Administration and academic staff participate in the protests
The media also highlighted the participation of university academic staff in these protests. Some of them participated with the students in the protests, while some defended the students’ right to protest. The most prominent footage that spread widely was the arrest of Noelle McAfee, head of the philosophy department at Emory University in Georgia. In another video from the same university clearly shows the use of violence in arresting protesters, including the use of tasers. There were also reports of the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Another video from a protest at Ohio State University shows police attacking students and using violence to restrain and arrest them.

An article in The Guardian stated that a number of university faculty members were arrested when they participated in the protests with their students. Among those was a group of City University of New York (CUNY) professors who “physically stood together in order to form a barricade between their students and police”, and were chanting: “To get to our students, you have to get through us”.

According to the article, faculty from several universities witnessing student protests, have criticized university administrations that called on police force and other security forces to disperse the protests, where those forces used violence in dispersing peaceful protesters.

5. Nemat Shafik
Monitoring the media on the issue indicates that university presidents generally stood against the protests, and the most prominent of them may be Columbia University president, Nemat Shafik, who is of Egyptian origin, and whose biased position against the students, and her threats to call in the National Guard, played a major role that ultimately served to strengthen and escalate the protests at her university and in other US universities. Shafik “testified before… the House [of Representatives] about her alleged failure to prevent instances of antisemitism on campus. Her statements before the House attracted criticism from Columbia faculty, who faulted her for not mounting defense of academic freedom”. The next day, when protests started escalating, “Shafik, called on the New York police department to clear the encampment at the university. Hundreds of students were arrested and suspended in a chaotic scene that drew international attention and criticism from faculty, students and the public”.

6. Memories of Vietnam, McCarthyism, and South Africa’s apartheid... are present
Some media outlets have compared what is happening in the universities and the way any pro-Palestine speech is dealt with to several incidents from US history, including the student protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, against the Vietnam war, with which authorities dealt in the same violent manner, and went as far as firing live ammunition at the students at the time, as a result of which at least 6 students were killed.

Likewise, attacking the discourse in support of Palestine and the Palestinian Cause was likened to what happened in the 1950s, which became known as “McCarthyism”, which was a widespread campaign of repression by US authorities against intellectuals and students in particular, as well as labor unions, under the pretext of their loyalty to communism and the Soviet Union.

In an article in The Guardian last December, this topic was addressed: “The McCarthy era taught us that when campuses engage in ideologically motivated efforts to police student and faculty speech, those efforts not only backfire but severely damage the foundation on which academic communities are built”. The article adds: “The US Congress, Ivy League universities and other centers of power have been gripped by a ginned-up hysteria aimed at silencing, intimidating and interrogating people and institutions for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. The absurd nature of the allegation being thrown around – including the performative outrage and cynical grandstanding of Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who recently berated the heads of several Ivy League schools for ostensibly tolerating antisemitism on their campuses – will surely generate analogies to McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare”.

Some also recall in light of what is happening today, especially with regard to demands for boycott and divestment, a similar movement related to South Africa and its apartheid regime in the 1980s. Columbia University itself was at the forefront of that movement as well, which was noted in a CNN article: “In the 1980s, a group of Columbia students began to call on the school to cut financial ties with companies doing business in South Africa over its apartheid racial segregation policy... In April 1985, students led a three-week student demonstration against Columbia’s investments in South Africa... Months after that protest, trustees voted to sell the majority of Columbia’s shares in American companies doing business in South Africa ...Columbia was the first Ivy League university to divest from South Africa, and various other colleges followed suit”.

However, perhaps the clearest analogy for what is happening today is the student protests at the end of the 1960s against the American war in Vietnam. An NBC article compared what happened at Columbia University and its president’s call on the police to come to the campus to confront the students, to what happened at the same university decades ago: “The last time a Columbia University president summoned the police to disperse student demonstrators was back in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War”. Someone who was a student at Columbia during protests against the Vietnam War says: “President Shafik and her advisors clearly didn’t learn from history”.

7. Other things monitored in the media

  • Major US media outlets demonstrated their alignment against the student protests in varying forms and degrees. However, they all insisted on attributing everything that was happening – as is the custom recently – to the October 7 attack, in implicit and sometimes explicit disregard for everything that happened after that of Zionist terrorism, forced displacement, genocide, and war crimes.
  • These same outlets devoted lengthy articles to promoting what they called “the fear that Jewish students feel due to these demonstrations and protests” and saying that the chants against “Israel” lead to the rise of “antisemitism”. Additionally, these outlets are promoting allegations for which there is no evidence – even by the most decadent yellow newspapers – of such things as Jewish students and professors being attacked by protesters. There is also an attempt to obscure the widespread Jewish participation in the pro-Palestinian protests. Among the clearest examples of this yellow journalism is what appeared in an article in The Hill, which claims to analyze why “antisemitism is swarming college campuses”. The first reason the article talks about is that “in recent decades, our educational institutions have drifted far to the left, encouraging and sometimes aligning with ultra-liberal groups who despise the foundational values of the United States. Young people today study gender politics... but are taught little about World War II or the Holocaust... [and] they know almost nothing about the foundation of Israel and the history of the Middle East. In a vacuum, they are easily misled”.
  • US media outlets, along with US officials, appear to be extremely provoked and disappointed that the protests do not attack Hamas and do not consider it a reason for what is happening. This is in a cognitive alignment with the intense official American political-media propaganda over the past half year. In an article in Voice of America, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expresses his disappointment by saying: “It is notable that [in the protests] there is silence about Hamas. It's as if it wasn’t even part of the story”.
  • Perhaps the funniest part of the anti-protest media promotion (which, by the way, was picked up and extensively promoted by Arab parties linked to the Americans and the Zionists) is the attempt to link these protests to money paid to students, especially by Jewish billionaire George Soros. What is really funny is that Soros’s institutions in particular are one of the main targets of the students’ demands. It is also funny because it seems to be a laughable repetition of the propaganda of the regimes in our region that every move against them is a conspiracy that is foreign-funded and supported. The aforementioned article of The Hill says: “The protests roiling some of our most prestigious campuses may have started organically, with students genuinely concerned about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza, but the unrest now appears increasingly guided by professional agitators”. The article adds that some have noticed that the tents students are using for their encampment look very similar (of course they are regular camping tents and most likely there are not many options for university students, as it is known that students do not usually have a lot of resources, even those in US and in prestigious universities). Based on that, the article concludes with confidence: “This is not surprising. There are those who, like George Soros, are happy to fund protests that suit their progressive causes and that challenge the bedrock ideals and values of our country. Soros money was linked to the anti-capitalist group Adbusters that started the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011; he’s now been tied to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on our college campuses. Since Soros is Jewish, his backing of pro-Hamas outfits is mystifying”. Indeed, it is mystifying!

Second: Preliminary conclusions

The movement is only in its early stages, so it may be too early to draw definitive conclusions about its possible meanings and prospects. However, it is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions based on a comparative context on the one hand (i.e., studying this phenomenon in comparison with previous student protests in the US), and in the context of the current situation of international conflict and the US positioning within it.

As such, the following are some of the preliminary conclusions that can be drawn:

First: Student protests in both the US and Europe, and to some extent in all Western countries, are linked together in the sense of a domino effect, not in the organizational sense. Every student movement that took place during the past century in the US or in Europe moved after a short period to spread all over Western universities. So, it is not surprising that we will see – and are already beginning to see – these protests spread to Europe, Australia, and elsewhere in the world.

Second: With few exceptions, the major student protests in the US, even if they were not the primary cause, always achieved their goals – albeit after a while. This applies to the position on racism towards blacks, the position on the Vietnam War, and the position on the apartheid state in South Africa. Perhaps this is precisely what raises the panic of the Zionist Entity and its supporters; not because these protests will destroy “Israel”, but precisely because they are a historical indicator with profound significance in this direction.

Third: By also reading previous student movements, in the US and in Europe (because the phenomenon of parallelism and simultaneity between them has been repeated enough to be considered a law), we see that the movements always began with students and in universities, but in most cases, they extend to broader segments of society, especially the working class. The widespread and organized participation of this class (especially in advanced network forms appropriate to the current era) is the real specter for which the elites reckon a thousand accounts.

Fourth: Moreover, a historical reading also indicates that every large-scale student movement in the US or Europe during the past 50-70 years, and although its general slogan may seem related to foreign policy issues (Vietnam, South Africa, Palestine, etc.), nevertheless, its primary initiator was always internal, especially socioeconomic. It also coincided with internal financial and economic crises, a sharp decline in purchasing power, and a growing closure of prospects for a secure future at the individual and collective levels. This means that the elites and authorities do not deal with these protests – and rightfully so – as being linked to an external event, but rather primarily and fundamentally related to the internal situation.

Fifth: The blatant shift within the US towards widespread direct political repression during the days of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s – 1950-1954 – was a result of the economic rise of the US, based on the effects of Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, and investment in the Cold War, at a time when the US contributed more than 30% of the world’s total product. The shift toward direct repression today is a completely different story. It comes under circumstances that are almost completely the opposite. These are conditions in which not only does inflation rise continuously, but the US’ share of global output is declining, the social gap within it is deepening, the share of wages from output is reduced annually, and the level of political freedoms and social services, which were essential tools in absorbing previous waves of student and popular movements, are reduced. In general, this reality increases the likelihood for the protests to expand beyond the student segment and toward the working class, farmers, and small producers.

Sixth: These protests also come on the eve of presidential elections that may be the most dangerous in US history, and perhaps the most polarizing and ferocious. This also is happening against the backdrop of an unprecedented division within the US, such that the color distribution between red and blue – Republican and Democrat – has become more entrenched than any previous period. Implicitly, there is a division between the coast and inland, between high and traditional technology, between transcontinental companies and more local companies. All of this would open wide possibilities for the way in which the student movement could develop. However, what seems almost certain is that the global role of the US will come under greater pressure during the next few months and years, with the possibility of the chaos that Washington has spread throughout the world spreading to the US interior itself.

(النسخة العربية)