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Echoes of Vietnam era as pro-Palestinian student protests roil US campuses

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Student protests on US university campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza showed little sign of letting up over the weekend, with protesters vowing to continue until their demands for US educational bodies to disentangle from companies profiting from the conflict are met.

In what is perhaps the most significant student movement since the anti-Vietnam campus protests of the late 1960s, the conflict between pro-Palestinian students and university administrators has revealed an entire subset of conflicts.

The drone of helicopters over New York’s Washington Square Park on Monday previewed the arrival of the strategic response group (SRG), the New York police department’s specialist counter-terrorism and political protests division, which set about arresting more than 120 New York University students and faculty members who had been circulating on a campus sidewalk to the chant of: “Israel bombs, NYU pays, how many kids have you killed today?”

After several years of semi-seasonal student marches through the city to voice positions on topics from racial justice to global heating to gun control, protests over the Israel-Gaza war are the latest headache for authorities. New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, blamed the NYU protests on “professional agitators”; the university fenced off the square where students customarily gather.

Several days earlier, and more than 100 blocks uptown, Columbia university officials had warned student members of the Gaza Solidarity encampment on the quadrangle of the Ivy League college that while they had a right to protest, they were not allowed “to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students”.

But then, contentiously, the SRG was called in. Officers arrested – and later released – more than 100 students, inflaming a larger political debate surrounding the university president, Minouche Shafik, in the job less than a year. Students demanded Shafik resign because she’d called the police on to campus – actions that supercharged the spirits of student protest nationally – while accusations of antisemitism have mounted, both against protesters and against Shafik for, her critics say, not sufficiently protecting Jewish students.

Joe Biden joined congressional voices on both sides of the aisle calling the protests “antisemitic”.

A rally in Washington Square Park, near New York University, on Tuesday. Photograph: Carlos Chiossone/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

The House Republican speaker, Mike Johnson, who had just pushed through a $26bn aid package for Israel, came to Columbia on Wednesday to demand that the solidarity encampment be dismantled. “Get off our campus!” one student yelled. “Enjoy your free speech,” Johnson hit back.

At Columbia, some organizers blamed antisemitic rhetoric on outsiders unaffiliated with the university piggybacking on the protesters. “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” said Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand against non-students attempting to disrupt our solidarity.”

With the end of Columbia’s semester next week, US university officials may be hoping that the protests will die down. But students have said they plan to continue until their demands are met for the school to divest from companies they say profit from Israel’s war, including Microsoft, Google and Amazon, and to end its partnership with Tel Aviv University.

On Friday, after a deadline for clearing the camp had passed with little progress in negotiations between the protesters and the faculty, Columbia opened up its campus to the press.

Protesters said the university had given loose assurances that police would not be called in to remove them.

But with commencement ceremonies honoring graduating students due to start on 15 May on the same lawn now transformed into a sit-in, they said they would stand by their demands that the university disclose and divest from investments “furthering genocide”, stop further investments and grant amnesty to arrested students who had been thrown out of their dormitories and denied access to the cafeteria.

Majd, a student involved in the campout for the past week, said it had been tense when there was a threat of forcible removal along shifting deadlines. “That’s been kind of exhausting but we’re good now that we know that the school has confirmed there is no more threat of NYPD coming on to the campus.”

As NYU and Columbia protests came off the boil, university campuses across the US took up the slack: at the University of Texas at Austin, state troopers in riot gear took 34 protesters into custody; at the University of Southern California, officers struggled to break up a protest camp.

The encampment at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which had expanded throughout the week, was the site of a skirmish on Sunday as counter-protesters became increasingly vocal and visible on campus.

The tone turned ugly at around midday when members of two groups of protesters clashed – shoving one another and shouting, and in some cases trading punches.

After the clash, the UCLA campus police department said it had dispatched more officers to the scene, and that city police were not involved. A representative of the campus police said no arrests had been made.

At Yale, university police arrested 45 protesters on Monday. After protesters rejected orders to leave, police charged them with criminal trespassing. That came one day after 14 students ended an eight-day hunger strike designed to pressure the university to divest. At Emory University in Atlanta, police were filmed violently arresting students and faculty.

The New York Times columnist Charles M Blow has suggested that the current atmosphere, given the clear generational divide on the issue of US support for Israel, could summon the ghosts of 1968, when college protests against the Vietnam war spilled into the national political domain, culminating in violent clashes between the national guard and protesters at the Democratic national convention in Chicago.

An encampment at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Thursday. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Antiwar groups are planning large protests at the party’s convention this summer – also in Chicago. Hatem Abudayyeh, head of the US Palestinian Community Network, has said this will be the “most important” convention since the tumult of the late 60s.

Jim Sleeper, a writer and former lecturer at Yale, warned that the protests may be twisted by adults seeking to score political points by weaponizing accusations of antisemitism.

“We have this phenomenon of older people who are ginning this up, playing the antisemitism card,” Sleeper said, “and the same people who were in 2015 complaining about liberal colleges turning students into crybabies are now doing the same thing but about antisemitism.”

Students, he added, may be “romantically valorizing Palestine, but they’re not vicious antisemites”.

A resident undergraduate college is a civil society on training wheels, he pointed out, saying: “The kids are away from home for the first time, feeling adult, testing things out, combining idealism with the politics of moral posturing, and they do that in the safety of these quadrangles. And there are excesses, hurling words at each other, and there’s always an element of dramatization.”

But, Sleeper added, “if you have leaders who are inculcating the right things, then people will agree”.

The historical precedents are becoming more overt. In 1969, Harvard called in the police to clear anti-war protesters, as Columbia had done a year earlier. Both events produced pictures of bruised and bloodied students. In a 1970 incident seared in the US national memory, the national guard at Kent State University in Ohio opened fire on students protesting the war, killing four.

At Yale, on the other hand, President Kingman Brewster, later US ambassador to the UK, sided with the students, refused the police access to the campus, and opened it up to protesters.

Brewster later inflamed the Nixon administration by saying, before the trial of three Black panthers who had exploded three bombs at the Yale hockey rink, that he was “skeptical of the ability of Black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States”. Henry Kissinger reportedly mused that Brewster’s assassination would benefit the country.

Sleeper said that Brewster’s approach worked: “Maybe we’re finding that some university presidents now are not closely enough in touch with their students and could be a little bit more canny and sophisticated in building trust and doing something affirmative.”

Outside Columbia’s main gates on Thursday, campus security and police were refusing entry to non-students and faculty.

One visitor, Saba Gul, 39, who attended MIT in the early 2000s, said that it had once been “completely OK” for universities to be in bed with defense technology industries but that this generation was saying no: “Young students are showing us the power of people. If you’re siding against a national student movement, you are on the wrong side.”

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