The Pro-Palestine Protests Must Continue Off Campus

College students are right to raise hell about the genocide in Gaza. But the momentum can’t stop when the semester ends.

Yale students and protesters block the intersection of College Street and Grove Street in New Haven, Connecticut, on Monday, April 22, 2024, during a pro-Palestine rally. (Aaron Flaum / Hartford Courant / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In 1968, Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall was occupied by student activists protesting both Columbia’s complicity in the Vietnam War and the university’s plan for a de facto segregated building. It was occupied again in 1985, when students demanded that Columbia divest from apartheid South Africa. And it was occupied on Tuesday by students outraged about Israel’s genocide in Gaza, once again demanding divestment.

The recent footage of Columbia students overturning tables to blockade doors understandably captured the media’s collective imagination. But while Columbia has grabbed the spotlight, students there are far from alone. We’re now seeing a massive, unprecedented wave of pro-Palestinian protests and encampments on college campuses across the country. And contrary to the view of commentators using this moment to grind their culture-war axes, the movement is hardly limited to Ivy League institutions.

The same day as the Hamilton Hall occupation, for example, dozens of students were arrested at Cal Poly Humboldt, ending a similar occupation of that campus’s Siemens Hall. A couple of days before that, seventy-two students were arrested at an encampment at Arizona State University. Around the same time, fifty-six were arrested at an encampment at Indiana University Bloomington. Similar events have played out at dozens of other universities around the country, with encampments popping up from Dallas and Austin to Milwaukee and Madison.

Today’s university administrators are cracking down more quickly and zealously than their predecessors. In 1968, Columbia waited a week before calling in the NYPD to storm Hamilton Hall. In 1985, the students occupying Hamilton stayed for three weeks before voluntarily ending their blockade. But in 2024, the administration brought in the NYPD to storm Hamilton and arrest the protesters the very same day that the occupation started.

University administrations are justifying their urgency by recycling baseless narratives about protesters’ violence and antisemitism. President Joe Biden characterized protesters as out of control, saying on Thursday, “There is a right to protest, but there is not a right to cause chaos.” These rumors of antisemitism and violence have spread through establishment politics and mainstream media, despite the fact that a disproportionately high number of protesters are themselves Jewish and nearly all of the violence at these protests has come from the police and counterprotesters (who, for example, shot fireworks into an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles earlier this week, hospitalizing over a dozen protesters).

Surface-level justifications aside, it nevertheless remains a bit of a puzzle why university administrators aren’t just riding the protests out. Final exams at Columbia start in a few days, and most colleges operate on similar schedules. The semester’s just about over.

The end of the semester threatens to douse the fire of protest all on its own, without any administration or police interference. The genocide in Gaza, however, rages on. For the student movement itself, that poses the question: What happens next?

In order to keep up their momentum, protesters will have to take their energy off campus. They might, for example, look to this summer’s Democratic National Convention (DNC), which is being held in Chicago in August — and they wouldn’t be the first student antiwar movement to do so.

1968 and 2024

There are both positive and negative lessons to learn from 1968 and the rise and fall of the New Left. Naysayers often argue that the chaos of that year helped elect Richard Nixon, and that, over the course of the 1970s, the version of the Left spawned in the protests — which never fully succeeded in putting down roots in the working class — was thoroughly defeated.

There’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative, and students today wishing to avoid repeating that part of the history need to think hard about how to appeal to a broad mass of ordinary people and enforce message discipline within their ranks. But it’s also true that the events at places like Columbia in 1968 were part of a process of gathering momentum for an antiwar movement that eventually did play a significant role in ending the Vietnam War.

The situations are far from identical. Most obviously, there are no American boots on the ground in Gaza, never mind military conscription, so the way the antiwar movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s spread among potential draftees and inside the military itself has no clear analog in our situation. For these and other reasons, today’s movement won’t look exactly like the one five and a half decades ago, and its strategy must be tailored to the present moment.

But it is plausible that, while campus protests alone are insufficient to change deeply entrenched US foreign policies like support for Israel, they could be an early manifestation of a movement that might be able to exert real pressure. In the Vietnam era, even Richard Nixon’s foreign policy decision-making was guided in part by a desire to lower the temperature at home.

There’s an important lesson in there. To have a similar impact, the energy must be prevented from dissipating. The protests must continue, as they did in 1968, even after the semester ends.

In the long term, the protests need to make significant inroads with demographics other than college-aged students. The decision of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to call for a cease-fire in Gaza is an encouraging baby step in the right direction. It’s significantly more difficult for supporters of Israel’s genocide to dismiss the outrage of average union members than that of elite college students — which, incidentally, is why they prefer to focus on Ivy League campuses over state schools.

In the short term, though, it’s crucial that the organizers who have been righteously raising hell about the genocide at campuses across the country not lose touch with each other in the coming months, and that the protests continue into the summer. And here, students can profitably take a page straight from 1968, when student activists converged on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for a historic protest that generated some of the period’s most iconic and morally stirring images.

The 1968 DNC protesters, many of whom were campus activists associated with Students for a Democratic Society, chanted, “The whole world is watching!” And indeed it was. Over twenty thousand law enforcement officers from the Chicago Police, the Illinois National Guard, and the US Army assembled to crush the protests, amounting to what many otherwise neutral viewers had no choice but to admit was a police riot. The event instilled generalized mistrust of authorities and inspired sympathy with the protesters and their cause. Even Walter Cronkite, the nation’s most famous news anchor, said on air, “The Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.”

Now Joe Biden is being renominated by the Democratic Party, despite the fact that his support for the genocide has made him utterly toxic to important constituencies he’d need to defeat Donald Trump. At the DNC in Chicago this August, oblivious party loyalists will be gathering to celebrate his miserable record as Palestinian corpses continue to pile up in Gaza. Nobody wants college students to put themselves in harm’s way, and one hopes that the police will not rehash such a violent episode. But the 1968 protesters were utterly correct to descend on Chicago and refuse to let the convention proceed without loudly protesting the brutality of war.

As long as American bombs fall on the children of Gaza, Joe Biden shouldn’t be able to show his face in public, never mind be ostentatiously celebrated in Chicago, without being met with a huge crowd of peaceful protesters delivering the same message college administrations around the country have been trying to silence: cease-fire now.