At San Francisco State, a Democratic Movement for Palestine

At San Francisco State University, students built a democratic pro-Palestine protest movement — convincing the university president to engage in open bargaining and to work on a proposal for divestment with the protesters.

The open bargaining session between student protesters and university administration at San Francisco State University. (Keith Brower Brown)

Three hundred San Francisco State University (SFSU) students and their eight elected bargaining reps faced one campus president and two aides out on the student center plaza, a hundred feet from the campus’s Palestine encampment. This was open bargaining on a scale that matched the best of the labor movement, and it took an exceptionally democratic student Palestine movement to make it happen.

In the wake of a decade of mass protests and public occupations, the Palestine campus encampments that have spread across the country in the last few weeks have unique potential for the kind of democracy that grows lifelong organizers. More than Occupy Wall Street, the campus movements have united on focused demands at direct targets: disclosure and divestment of college profiteering off apartheid, and an institutional defense of free political speech. And more than the Bernie Sanders campaigns or even the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) post-2016 boom, the campers at each school are all in one place, able to workshop politics and strategy together from dawn to dusk. They have forced national attention on Israel’s genocide in Palestine, and built support from unions that are now promising to defend free speech for Palestinian freedom with picket lines.

Beyond what they are able to win from university brass, student movements have an immense power to help thousands of young people develop political organizing chops for the long haul. Despite cruel repression from administrators and police, the current student uprisings for Palestine have the potential to swell the ranks of labor and left organizers for decades to come — helping build the working-class movements that might ultimately force an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid.

But that potential political future depends on movement democracy now. As Labor Notes’ Democracy Is Power has taught a generation of labor activists, we need democracy in our movements so working people learn that we “are fit to run our own affairs.” Along with many fellow DSA and union activists, I was fortunate to be mentored by one of that book’s coauthors, autoworker and lifelong socialist activist Mike Parker. On the day of San Francisco State’s open bargaining for Palestine, talking to organizers and listening in, I saw that lesson of democracy brought to life.

Winning Open Bargaining

Less than a week into their encampment, SFSU Students for Gaza decided by a hand vote at their daily open assembly to demand open bargaining with the campus president. Within three days, the president was sitting down in the plaza to negotiate.

Inspiration for open bargaining came directly from the labor movement. For unions, open bargaining is a tactic where rank-and-file union members have access to listen in and help steer contract negotiations with management. That’s a contrast with the common method of bargaining by a small group of union officers, which often keeps members in the dark until a tentative deal gets reached.

Days before the SFSU Palestine movement decided to propose open bargaining, a local Amazon worker led a May Day union teach-in at the camp. A union social at the camp, the day after, drew supporters from campus instructors and groundskeepers. Just a few months earlier, the contentious contract fight of professors and adjuncts, organized with the California Faculty Association, modeled a kind of bargaining for student needs. Then undergrad workers across the whole California State University system voted overwhelmingly to unionize, forming what may be the largest wall-to-wall undergrad union in the country.

The student movement elected a nine-person negotiating team: five students elected by hand vote at an open assembly, and four students from the board of the General Union of Palestinian Students on campus. To moderate the bargaining session, the movement proposed three faculty, including a former SFSU student activist. The university president agreed to those terms.

A sign at the SFSU protest setting expectations for observers at the open bargaining session. (Keith Brower Brown)

Just after Monday lunch hour, open bargaining began in the student center plaza. Eight chairs for the movement negotiators (one could not attend) and three for campus president Lynn Mahoney and her aides sat facing each other, eight feet apart. Around them, hundreds of students and supporters looked on. Flyers around the camp advised observers to let the negotiating team speak and lead uninterrupted.

From the jump, the student negotiators set the bargaining agenda. Their opening statement stressed that this is a “democratically elected team.” Well-prepared, lined up in their speaking order, each negotiator took a minute or less to specify a movement demand and a pointed question for how Mahoney would take action. Then each waited on her reply

In response, Mahoney stressed that the movement was the kind of “free expression” and “peaceful protest” she was hired to defend, and touted her past support of an anti-doxxing policy. But she deflected by proposing follow-up discussions on many specific demands, while claiming she could not herself “make broad political declarations” against the genocide.

But despite Mahoney’s digressions, in just one session, open bargaining did win a major step forward. The campus president publicly committed to work with the student movement on a joint proposal for divestment to the California State University statewide board before the semester ends — within two weeks.

Open bargaining closed with a statement from student bargainer Ali Noorzad, underlining the popular force behind their demands: “This is not just about eight people on a bargaining team. . . . This is about the hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and community members across the world fighting for a free Palestine.” His closing line gave an invitation to all students present to join an open assembly at the camp, just two hours later, to decide next steps.

A day after bargaining, students responded to Mahoney’s offers by upping the ante, setting deadlines by when they expected next steps on disclosure and divestment. One day later, the protesters at nearby California State University Sacramento won a divestment pledge from its campus administration, raising pressure on other campus bigwigs to quit stalling and deliver.

“We Were Democratic From the Start”

The open, disciplined movement bargaining session was no fluke. Every organizer I talked to was proud of how democratically their movement is organizing; even the decision to form the camp came out of a hand vote at an open assembly. The camp started two days later, on April 29.

For many Palestine activists at SFSU, a key foundation was organizing since last fall against steep tuition hikes and proposed cuts that would end a third of all courses. SFSU is a diverse working-class campus of nearly thirty thousand students, three-quarters of them full-time, and those cuts drew broad outrage.

The campaign took form as a new Student Union, with a practice of democratic open meetings to decide collective action. The effort developed a strong organizing core, many from the campus chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America, DSA’s youth wing, many not. Nearly one thousand students signed on as members of the union, and hundreds marched and rallied after voting to do so.

But the Palestine movement has brought in scores of new activists as well, and democracy has helped many step up. One organizer, who asked not to be named, told me: “So many new people are taking part; I think this is radicalizing them for sure. There have been so many creative tactics that new people suggested, like putting out hundreds of kids’ shoes [symbolic of those slain in Gaza] to mark the edge of our camp.”

The student camp quickly developed a habit of daily open assemblies. Their agendas focus on open strategy discussion, moving toward votes by hand on their next steps. As camp spokesperson Sydney R. said, “A lot of this is so everyone has a fair and equal voice. If there’s ever a time when we think we don’t have enough students to be representative for taking this action forward, then of course we’d move on to table.” An organizing core, based on the elected bargaining team, plans the open assembly agendas, but hands off facilitation to newer activists so they can grow as leaders.

The encampment at SFSU. (Keith Brower Brown)

Early in the camp, an open assembly voted to make four demands of the university administration, closely tied to those of other camps across the country: disclose campus investments in Israel and the war machine, divest those funds, defend rights to political speech/action on campus, and declare an official campus statement against the genocide.

Beyond the assemblies, the SFSU camp has built standing committees, open to anybody staying or consistently participating at the camp, including media, food, and medical teams. Most important of all, the organizing committee has focused on getting broader layers of students to participate by canvassing campus paths and dorms with demand flyers and invitations to join assemblies, and training new activists to do one-on-one conversations to bring in new classmates.

The day before open bargaining, the movement started four caucuses, each dedicated to one of the four demands. These caucuses, again open to anybody participating at the camp, drew up more specific demands and questions to the president for bargaining. Now after the first bargaining session, caucuses will propose next steps on their demands to an assembly.

Many encampments across the country are deeply concerned with their operational security from police and right-wing attacks. Like many past activists doing direct actions and occupations, a common strategy for “opsec” has been to make the pivotal decisions in small or even secret groups.

But at SFSU, the refrain I heard from multiple organizers was, “Our best security is strong politics.” As one said, “If we’re committed to decide democratically and act all together for our shared demands, that’s what keeps us safe.”

Organizers were blunt that escalations by small groups, especially with vague demands, would risk retaliation against everyone else. At open assemblies, a critical mass had outvoted breakaway escalation ideas and stayed committed to moving together in the hundreds. Strength in numbers takes democracy first.

Open political discussions, not just planning assemblies, have been key to SFSU’s movement developing its politics. Teach-ins at the camp — like the labor movement 101 that seeded the open bargaining idea — have not been one-way lectures, but circle conversations, often with a short single reading in advance. A recent session on Peter Camejo’s 1970 polemic on the antiwar movement “Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass Action” drew about forty students, including a handful who reportedly chimed in to say: “Sorry guys, I was kinda being an ultra — I get why we should do mass action now.”

Political movements where we can openly shift our politics shouldn’t be rare. But it takes the trust that democracy builds.

Liberation Isn’t a Term Project

In the coming weeks, encampments for Palestine across the country will face how to sustain their fight past the end of semester. They can take heart that they have already won by bringing thousands into collective action, many for the first time. The real test will be how they keep members talking, growing their politics and taking action for the long haul.

At SFSU, the daily pressures of bargaining, escalating, and running a camp had kept summer plans off the assembly agenda so far. A handful of organizers said they would stick in the camp, not go home, if the movement needed them. Beyond that show of commitment, online teach-ins and caucus meetings could keep the movement brewing.

For the last six months, it has become clear that ending apartheid and genocide in Palestine requires ending the support of the US war machine. It will not be quick work. As the Left is still only beginning to do, we will have to transform the state with insurgent electoral projects, and transform the economy from within with a principled labor movement on the shop floor.

Israel’s genocide in Gaza continues, but there’s evidence that the protest moment is finally putting pressure on the US government. On Wednesday, the Biden administration confirmed that it had “paused” a shipment of bombs to Israel for the last two weeks — a first break in decades of arming apartheid to the teeth.

We will need broader and stronger movements to break the war machine for good. But student uprisings like the one at SFSU may be the wellspring of a generation of new organizers, committed to democracy in action, who wage fights that win for Palestinian liberation.