The student movement and the international situation

Jason Cohen, a City College of New York student who was active in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment there, gave this talk May 16 at the Workers World Party New York City branch meeting.

Several weeks have passed since the CCNY administration ordered the brutal destruction of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at the school, which is part of the City University of New York system. This action was carried out under pressure by the CUNY Board of Trustees, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams — both Democrats.

Student-workers, members of United Auto Workers Local 4811, strike the University of California system to protest repression against encampment participants. May 28, 2024, UC Los Angeles.


The encampment was built around five demands:

1) Divest! Immediately divest from ALL companies complicit in the imperialist-Zionist genocide, including weapons, tech, and surveillance and construction companies. Commit to full financial transparency regarding CUNY’s institutional investments. 

2) Boycott! Ban all academic trips to the Zionist state, encompassing birthright, Fulbright and perspective trips. Cancel all forms of cooperation with Israeli academic institutions, including events, activities, agreements and research collaborations.

3) Solidarity! Release a statement affirming the right of the Palestinian people to national liberation and the right of return. Protect CUNY students and workers who are attacked for speaking out against the genocide in Gaza and in solidarity with Palestinian liberation. Reinstate professors who have been fired for showing solidarity with Palestine.  

4) Demilitarize! Demilitarize CUNY! Demilitarize Harlem! Get Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF)and New York Police Department officers off all CUNY campuses, and end all collaboration, training and recruitment by imperialist institutions, including the CIA, Homeland Security and ROTC. Remove all symbols of U.S. imperialism from our campuses: Rename the Colin Powell School of Global and Civic Leadership at CCNY, and reinstate The Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur Community and Student Center!

5) A People’s CUNY! We demand a fully-funded, free CUNY that is not beholden to Zionist and imperialist private donors! Restore CUNY’s tuition-free status, protect the union, and adopt a fair contract for staff and faculty.

The day of repression, April 30, was marked not just by the abject brutality of the NYPD and its various specialized squads dealing with “riot control” or “counterterrorism,” but also by wanton aggression meted out against students and community members by the CUNY “Public Safety” officers. 

This night of terror by the capitalist state apparatus resulted in the destruction of Gaza Solidarity Encampments at both Columbia University and CCNY. Hundreds of Palestinian solidarity activists were arrested that night, and many denizens of the City College encampment were detained at One Police Plaza, some held for over 36 hours in detention. This is a common tactic of the white supremacist NYPD against nationally oppressed communities in New York City. 

More repression follows April 30 cop raids 

A few days later, the state apparatus unleashed its police forces to terrorize the remaining Palestinian Solidarity Encampments at The New School, New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology. The question on all of our minds was what the response of the Palestinian solidarity movement in New York City was going to be — would we be terrorized into submission by the racist policing apparatus? Of course, that was an impossibility that only the most deluded political pundits and members of the bourgeoisie could believe. 

The City College administration claimed that it had no major plan to “clear out” the encampment before the situation “got out of hand,” in their own words. Yet, it was quickly announced that CCNY classes would be put online for the next week after the encampment was cleared, and that if students were to come on campus, numerous militarized checkpoints would be installed in order to allow us back on campus in a “safe manner.” 

This severe militarization of the campus began on International Workers Day, May 1, the day after the encampments at City College and Columbia were cleared. In the spirit of May Day and of the student-worker solidarity that was fostered within the CUNY encampment, hundreds of professors held a wildcat strike on May 1. They protested the brutal repression by the NYPD and CUNY “Public Safety” forces the night before. This was one of the many forms of resistance that was organized to continue the struggle for Palestine and against the continued complicity of CUNY with the genocidal Israeli state. 

As a way to defuse this anger within the student body and CUNY workers, CCNY President Vincent Boudreau held “town halls,” which claimed to be a venue for dialogue, but mainly were used to allow the City College/CUNY administration to disseminate its distorted narrative of the encampment to the student body and faculty. As usual, the narrative constructed by the City College administration was composed of racist undertones and paternalistic language that officials used to justify the sending of the pigs to raid our encampment. Continuously, college administrators claimed that the organizers had “lost control” and that “outside agitators” — namely community members — posed a threat to the encampment due to their “inclinations towards violence.” 

It was not lost on many of us that the videos shown while Boudreau was giving his speech about the need to “control violent tendencies” focused on the mainly Black and Brown activists and community members who were fundamental to the revolutionary and communal nature of our encampment. 

Lastly, these town halls confirmed that the CUNY administration was requesting over $4 million to get more private security officers on City College campus and to “fortify” it. Quite frankly, the town halls were both a waste of time and a complete failure in their goal of demonization of the encampment and the wider Harlem community where CCNY and Columbia are located. 

May 13 rally: The struggle continues

Shortly after these town halls concluded, City College reopened to the student body. On May 13, in the face of the militarized checkpoints and increased security presence, students led by the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at City College rallied. This rally upheld calls for the administration to meet all five demands of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, of which the foremost demand was the ending of all ties between CCNY/CUNY with Israel. Secondary was a call to have all charges dropped against students and community members who were arrested at the encampment. 

The administration responded by setting a time limit for how long the protest could last; it was valiantly ignored by the Palestinian solidarity activists. In the face of threats of police violence and notices that said if the protest did not disperse, suspensions would be handed out, the protest continued. The notices were ripped to shreds in the face of the administration’s henchmen — a symbolic action that elucidates the steadfastness of the activists in their struggle to liberate the Palestinian nation and ensure that our universities are not invested in the Zionist imperial project.

May 13 was not just a day of action at City College, but protests spread to Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and LaGuardia Community Colleges in Long Island City, Queens, both part of CUNY. The Kingsborough administration issued a provocation to the student body by inviting a soldier from the IOF to speak on campus. Students and the community mobilized and forced the college to cancel the event and to make all classes online in fear of continued unrest. This was a prime example of the iron will our movement has and that no amount of repression will scare us into complicity with the genocide of Palestinians. 

In Long Island City, CUNY students, workers and community activists held a “Peoples Hearing on CUNY” as the Board of Trustees met at LaGuardia. The five demands issued at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment were once again struggled for as was the call to demilitarize City College and CUNY overall. This action was twofold: Activists had signed up to speak at the Board of Trustees meeting but they pre-recorded their messages instead of being there. Thus the Board of Trustees was hit by four different actions in one day in the CUNY system. 

The next day, after an uplifting teach-in on the Palestinian resistance at the CUNY Graduate Center — CUNY’s graduate school — students, workers and community members “de-occupied” its main lobby and library. This de-occupation focused on the five demands and the call to drop all charges against activists in the Graduate Center and during the time of the original encampment. 

The reality of scholasticide was confronted by this action:  Militants read the names of all the Palestinian professors who had been murdered by Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza and Rafah. They explained that every university in Gaza has been completely destroyed by the Israeli aggression that started in October. The Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center was renamed the Al-Aqsa University Library and the lobby renamed the Basel Al Araj Cultural center. This move shows that no matter how many Palestinians the Israeli aggressors murder,  no matter how many universities or schools are bombed, the cultural achievements of Palestine will never die and the blossoming of humanity fostered by the Palestinian struggle will never falter. 

Encampments spread around the world

The wave of encampments and different modes of struggle for Palestinian solidarity and against the continued complicity of the U.S.-EU-NATO governments and societal institutions has expanded worldwide. In the face of police terrorism, universities in the Netherlands, France and Germany have been occupied as sites of struggle for Palestinian liberation.  

In Germany, teachers and students held a mass walkout at Leiden University; the struggle continues in the face of state terrorism and the outrageous labeling of Palestinian solidarity activists as antisemitic. This wild rhetoric comes from the country whose nation-building project of the 1930s and 1940s was predicated upon the complete extermination of Jews, Romani, queer people, communists, disabled people, trade unionists and others. 

Why be surprised that a government that pioneered genocidal strategies in Namibia against the Herrero and Namaqua people in the first decade of the 20th century and brutally wiped out African nations during the Maji Maji War of Resistance in what would become Tanzania would once again be supporting a genocidal project in occupied Palestine? We are unfaltering in our solidarity with the valiant activists in Germany, who face a hard struggle. We know that they will triumph.

Headed by a strong Communist Party, the students and workers of Greece have continuously waged a struggle against the Greek government’s support for Israel and the presence of NATO/U.S. bases in the country. The Greek movement has connected the struggle against the complicity of universities in Greece with Israel to that against the massive privatization measures that the right-wing “New Democracy” party has enacted. These laws deepen the exploitation of the Greek proletariat and ensure that neoliberalism is expanded in Greece for the benefit of transnational capital. 

South Africa unites with Palestine against apartheid

In South Africa, Palestine Solidarity Encampments were set up on May 14 and May 16 at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town. They exemplify the deep connection between South Africa’s people in their historical struggle against apartheid and the struggle of the Palestinians. 

An extremely powerful picture came out of the encampment at the University of Cape Town. On the Sarah Baartman Memorial Steps activists unrolled a huge list of all the Palestinians who have been murdered by the Israeli aggression since October 7. 

For me this was so powerful, as it showed a deeper connection between the Palestinian struggle and the African liberation struggle that superseded shared experiences of apartheid. Due to the fact that the Sarah Baartman memorial stairs was chosen as the venue, this action, in my eyes, connected the African people’s struggle against European colonialism and abject dehumanization to the struggle of Palestinians. 

Sarah Baartman was an Indigenous Khoikhoi woman who lived in the Cape during both the Dutch and British colonial periods. She was kidnapped by colonialists and paraded around Europe as part of a “freak show.” Baartman became an object of study by various European “intellectuals” and “scientists” as they sought to make theoretical justifications for their “civilizational orders,” which were built upon chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide and the colonization of Africa and Asia. Baartman, an African woman, was stripped of her humanity by European colonizers.

Such white supremacist discourses remain salient to this day, as we can clearly see during this genocide against Palestinians. A connection has been forged between peoples who are dehumanized under the hegemonic world capitalist order, people whose deaths mean nothing to the media and bourgeoisie, people who must struggle, people who will win their dignity and the right to control their national futures. 

This powerful show of solidarity by the students at University of Cape Town must energize us and call on us to deepen the struggles for Palestinian liberation and against U.S. imperialism and the world capitalist order. As long as the Palestinian people and the oppressed peoples of the world refuse to lay down their weapons or end their struggles, we must be right there beside them as comrades in arms. 

This talk has been edited.

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