US Students’ Uprising against Gaza War and Its Political Implications

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A tidal wave of anguish and outrage has swept across American university campuses in response to the on-going Israeli military operation in Gaza. What began as expressions of solidarity with Palestinians has rapidly evolved into an unprecedented student-led uprising demanding an immediate ceasefire and an end to US military aid to Israel.

From prestigious Ivy League schools to public universities nationwide, a diverse coalition of student organisations has united in passionate calls for justice. Chants like ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ have reverberated across campus quads and lawns.

At the forefront are groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Their demands are resolute: an immediate Gaza ceasefire, a halt to military assistance to Israel, boycotts of corporations profiting from the conflict, and amnesty for disciplined protesters.

By the way, the temporary protest encampments have transformed into self-sustaining communities, complete with makeshift medical facilities, educational programs, and kitchens. Many students have forgone summer jobs and internships to devote themselves fully to the cause, exposing financial ties between their institutions and the Israeli military-industrial complex.

However, this civil resistance has faced an escalating response from law enforcement and university administrations. Across the nation, more than 2,900 students have been arrested, according to an Axios tally. Campuses like Columbia University have witnessed scenes of militarised police wielding batons and deploying flash-bang grenades.

The crackdown has drawn widespread condemnation from civil rights groups like Amnesty International, which has called for investigations into the use of force against peaceful protesters. Political figures have weighed in, with President Biden acknowledging the right to dissent while urging against disorder. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson suggested deploying the National Guard to quell ‘chaos’ at certain universities.

As the academic year concludes, organisers vow to sustain momentum through the summer, with the Democratic National Convention in August emerging as a potential flashpoint that could shape the political discourse before the US national election.

However, the surge of campus activism in solidarity with Gaza has been unexpected, igniting a collective voice against the Palestinian suffering. Students from diverse backgrounds have taken to the streets, staged sit-ins, and built encampments, their chants resonating with demands for a ceasefire and an end to US military aid.

Chanelle Helm said, “The vast majority of time is spent on creating narratives, reading up on history, building resources and allies, and training demonstrators.” The encampments have become more than temporary protest sites, evolving into self-sufficient communities with makeshift amenities.

Students have put aside career plans, choosing instead to amplify Palestinian voices and hold institutions accountable. “Every single student here obviously needs money. Everyone needs to have future careers. … But they are putting all of that at bay because they care about the greater good of humanity,” states Selina Al-Shihabi, a Georgetown University student.

The Biden administration has walked a shrewd line, caught between upholding free speech principles and maintaining its Middle East policy stance. While acknowledging the right to dissent, Biden has condemned any anti-Semitic rhetoric within protests, drawing criticism from activists who maintain their pursuit of justice and human rights. “Dissent is essential to democracy,” Biden stated.

He also said, “But dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education.” However, the forceful response from law enforcement has contradicted this rhetoric, drawing denunciations and comparisons to heavy-handed tactics used against past civil rights and anti-war protests. Republican figures like House Speaker Johnson have seized the opportunity to denounce the “chaos,” suggesting National Guard deployments, fuelling activists’ resolve to confront the political establishment’s perceived complicity.

The student uprising, however, holds the potential to shape the political discourse leading up to the election, presenting challenges and opportunities for the Biden administration. While focused on Gaza, the protests’ broader implications extend to issues of foreign policy, human rights, and the role of student activism in swaying public opinion.

Democratic policymakers fear scenes of civil unrest and police crackdowns could alienate moderate voters and undermine Biden’s re-election bid. Conversely, the movement could energise progressive voters disillusioned by the administration’s stance, exerting pressure on Biden to shift policies. “This moment is the result of decades of organising and movement building,” says Eva Borgwardt of the pro-Palestinian group IfNotNow. The movement’s ability to sustain momentum and broaden appeal beyond campuses will be crucial in determining its electoral impact.

Also, the student uprising taps into deep-rooted societal issues surrounding free expression, civil liberties, and academia’s role in shaping public discourse. Veteran activists and historians draw parallels to iconic movements like the civil rights struggles, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and anti-apartheid campaigns.

The critical crackdowns have been reprimanded by groups like Amnesty International, which has called for investigations, and Human Rights Watch, which has reiterated students’ rights to peaceful assembly and expression. The protests have also highlighted complex dynamics within academic institutions, where the pursuit of academic freedom often collides with financial interests and external pressures. Calls for divestment from companies linked to the Israeli military-industrial complex have put university administrations in a precarious position.

As the academic year ends, the movement faces a pivotal juncture: Will the summer months serve as a catalyst for further mobilisation or a respite? Seasoned activists remain optimistic, drawing inspiration from historical precedents and the fortitude of student leaders. “No one plans on leaving this summer,” affirms Al-Shihabi from the George Washington University encampment.

Some believe the police crackdowns may inadvertently fuel broader synergies with racial justice and anti-police brutality groups, fostering growth. The upcoming Democratic and Republican National Conventions could emerge as flashpoints, providing platforms for student activists to amplify their voices and garner national attention, much like the pivotal 1968 Democratic Convention protests in Chicago.

Regardless of the outcome, the haunting echoes of chants demanding justice have etched themselves into the collective consciousness of a generation unwilling to accept the status quo. The student uprising has emerged as a potent force transcending campus boundaries and echoing through the corridors of power, poised to shape the political discourse leading up to the upcoming election as the Biden administration navigates its stance on the Gaza crisis.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Daily Sun [Link] and Observer BD [Link]