Solidarity Encampments Are Changing Colleges Everywhere

Gaza Solidarity Encampments have sprung up on campuses around the country as student’s protest genocide in Gaza. As the student movement grows and nationalizes, administrative and police repression have also escalated. The author talks with YDSA leaders about their experience in the movement and their plans for future mobilization.

Students have encamped at colleges across the United States to protest Israel’s violence in Gaza and the complicity of American educational institutions in this violence.  As Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to invade Rafah, a city housing 1.4 million Palestinian civilians, many of them refugees from elsewhere in Gaza, student activists have brought new urgency to protests on their campus. Demanding universities disclose their investments, divestment from corporations that profit from the Israeli state, and cutting ties with colleges in Israel, students have created encampments on hundreds of campuses throughout the United States. 

Sam Levenhagen is one of those students. A political science and environmental sustainability major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Sam is a member of UIUC YDSA and admitted knowing “very, very little” about what was happening in Gaza prior to October 7th, learning through the work of her YDSA chapter. “We did a teach-in on Gaza and Palestine, and so that was how I got to learn more about the things going on there, and what people are doing across the globe in terms of activism.” 

As Israel’s siege of Gaza continued, Sam’s chapter organized alongside their campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, holding protests to support the Palestinian cause. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a walkout, and that was kind of the big rallying point that led to this encampment being created.” Sam noted the speed with which the encampment was formed, recalling how “Wednesday was the walkout, and by Friday, we set up our plans for the encampment.”

Response to the encampment from UIUC’s administrators was swift. “They came within probably half an hour,” Sam recalled. “Unfortunately, someone was arrested as police showed up and forcibly removed all the structures.” A second encampment was built that day, mobilizing 400-500 people in support. Police returned, this time reinforced with state troopers from six neighboring counties. “Some police had riot gear, and they closed off several buildings around the area on campus,” Sam said. “They did try to rush once more and break into the encampment, however our students were able to kettle the cops and push them out, so the encampment was able to stand.”

The UIUC encampment was rebuilt, and negotiations with the administration are ongoing. What took place on Sam’s campus recontextualized how important the cause is. “I’ve done activism before, participated in marches—things like that. I have never done anything as significant as this feels.” Sam acknowledged that the fear of arrest is real for many students but emphasized there’s power in numbers. “We’ve seen it happen at our own campus. We’ve seen it happen at campuses across the country. When you have the numbers, when you have the support of the people, we protect each other, we keep each other safe.” 

According to The Appeal, local police have arrested more than 2,000 people across 32 states for participation in Pro-Palestine encampments or sit-ins. 

Erin Lawson, a member of the National Coordinating Committee (NCC) and NYU YDSA, was one of 120 people arrested by the NYPD as they dispersed the campus’s encampment, a number that included 19 faculty members

“I honestly did not anticipate the amount of violence that I saw from the NYPD to our students,” Erin said. “I saw students getting pinned down to the ground and having their hands cuffed behind them, I saw the NYPD throwing chairs and lawn furniture at students, I saw NYPD spraying our law assistants with pepper spray into their eyes.” Erin’s arrest was less aggressive. “They basically tapped my shoulder and said, “Miss, you have to get up now—put your hands behind your back,” she said. Nonetheless, Erin described the NYPD as a frightening presence on campus. “They just looked so f**king hateful. They f**king hate us so much.” 

“I’ve never been arrested before, and I’ve honestly never even entertained the idea of risking an arrest for a protest,” Erin admitted. As she watched the dispersal unfold, Erin revisited the panic she felt in that moment. “I did not sign up for chairs being thrown at me and people getting pinned down to the ground.” 

Despite what happened, Erin believes police violence and administrative overreactions didn’t deter protesters. Instead, she believes police violence emboldens students. “[State repression] agitates students even more,” Erin said. “The moment you send the NYPD in and you start to see images of the police arresting peaceful students, I think that’s when you start getting the Neolibs of the world interested. You start getting the New York Times readers, who might not be very impassioned about Palestine or Gaza necessarily, but when they see 18, 19, 20-year-olds being pinned down by the NYPD for sitting there chanting ‘Free Palestine,’ I think that resonates with the American public.”

A Gallup poll released on March 27 this year showed that a majority of Americans (55%) disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza, while only 36% approve. Another poll conducted by Politico and released on April 14 shows 33% of Democratic voters feel Biden is not being tough enough on Israel. 

Students, and young Americans generally, have played vital roles in mass movements throughout U.S. history. According to a survey published by the Pew Research Center on June 24, 2020, 41% of people who said they participated in a racial justice protest that year were younger than 30. More than 300 high schools and colleges across the country participated in walkouts to protest the Iraq War. Moreover, groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were leaders in the Vietnam and civil rights protests of the 1960s.

“University students in America have always been associated with the most effective and the most historically memorable liberatory struggles,” said Nick Wilson, a YDSA member and sophomore at Cornell. Nick was one of four students suspended for involvement in Cornell’s solidarity encampment. 

“We’ve been withdrawn from all of our classes without the prospect of being refunded for credits, which we will not receive for this semester. We’ve been banned from being present on campus outside of campus housing and dining halls,” Nick explained. “For me, that means that if I were to be on campus, especially the encampment, I would be at risk for trespassing after my initial arrest. That would effectively bring back my existing charges from the sit-in, and I would be at risk of jail time.”

Rather than quelling political activity on campus, Nick says students and faculty have rallied around students participating in Palestine organizing. “Community members came out strongly in support, particularly with faculty members,” Nick said. “Personally, of the seven professors on my schedule for this semester, six of them have released public statements in support of me and the other suspended students, and that’s been true of faculty across the board.”

Nick also discussed the George Floyd protests—the largest protest movement of the 2020s prior to the Palestinian liberation campaigns—and how their legacy impacts student organizers today. 

“It goes overlooked that all of the students who are undergraduates at colleges right now were in high school, in their communities, during the summer of 2020,” Nick said. “A lot of people were exposed to what seemed to be genuinely revolutionary organizing, and often was. However, Nick wasn’t unwilling to critique those protests, which he said “showed real evidence of co-optation by those in power.” Despite the militant, revolutionary nature of much of the campus organizing, the results were not in line with the demands of many of the protesters engaged in that struggle.

Nick believes the current wave of college students who watched the events of 2020 unfold will be more successful in their Palestinian liberation efforts because of the lessons from that year. “We’re more critical of power and less willing to play into the hands of that university bureaucracy than we would have been if we had not been exposed to that movement,” Nick said. “Maybe administrations don’t necessarily understand what they’re grappling with, but students are certainly both politically activated and tactically disciplined in a way that doesn’t seem to be evident through every historical moment.”