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    Crisis in Gaza revives student activism that some considered long gone
    • May 5, 2024

    “Is activism dead?”

    Juxtapose that question about student advocacy with the large demonstrations and tent encampments that have taken over college campuses across the country in recent weeks, and it seems the answer is a resounding no.

    Encampments — where students have erected tents, tailgating canopies and makeshift barricades — have seemingly exploded on college campuses across the nation in recent weeks. Students are protesting, calling for an end to the Israel-Hamas war and an end to universities’ financial ties with certain Israeli companies.

    Many have been peaceful — at Chapman University in Orange on Friday, fewer than a dozen tents made up an encampment where students wrote letters and chanted. On some campuses, police have been called to break up encampments or remove students who have taken over buildings and prevented other students from accessing classrooms or libraries.

    But at a few other places, that hasn’t been the case; at UCLA last week, counter-protesters engaged in a violent clash with demonstrators.

    College campuses were once the epicenter for activism and demonstration — particularly during the Vietnam War era.

    In more recent years, however, campuses have been quieter. That question – “Is activism dead?” – was a thoughtful one when it was posed by USC’s student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, seven years ago as part of a project exploring diversity on campus.

    But that was 2017, before the militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack in Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and abducting another 250.

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    Before Israel unleashed its retaliatory siege; before the death toll in Gaza skyrocketed to an estimated 34,500 people.

    And before the arrests of more than 2,300 people on American college campuses in recent weeks, among them protesters at USC and UCLA.

    A kaleidoscope of tents

    So why did — seemingly in the blink of an eye — college students take on the mantle of decrying what they perceive as injustice in a small area in another hemisphere?

    While there’s something to be said about the rapidity of the encampments cropping up on campuses across the U.S., the issue itself — turmoil in the Middle East, debate over who the “good guys” are and even if there are any — has percolated for quite some time. The conflict between Israel and Palestine can be traced back to the late 19th century.

    An anti-nuke rally in UCLA’s “free speech area” drew a large crowd. The guys in the forefront hold up their sings, which read, “No Nukes”, and “Hey UCLA… I came here for education not radiation.” Photograph dated Oct. 11, 1979. (Photo by Mike Mullen, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    Students at UCLA staged an hour-long candlelight march May 12, 1972, through downtown Westwood to indicate a protest against the war in Vietnam. (Photo by Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    Anti-apartheid protesters from UCLA’s ‘Mandella City’ carry mock coffins of black South African leaders in campus march. Photo dated May 8, 1985 (Photo by Mike Sergieff, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    Los Angeles police confront masked Iranian students protesting appearance of Her Imperial Majesty Farah Pahlavi of Iran at USC. Photo dated July 5, 1977 (Photo by Mike Mullen, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    UC Irvine was among many college campuses that participated in protests against the Vietnam War. (Orange County Register file photo)

    Huge crowd gathered at UCLA near Murphy Hall in rally to oppose UC Regents’ money investments in corporations that do business with South Africa. The students boycotted classes from noon to 2 p.m. in effort to relay their displeasure to the Regents. Many speakers took turns to denounce what they called racism and apartheid of South Africa. Photograph dated April 24, 1985. (Photo by Mike
    Sergieff, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    UCLA students protest in the Law School hallway, several of them hold hand-made signs. Photograph dated April 17, 1987. (Photo by Michael Haering Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    Pounding on pans to attract attention, anti-apartheid demonstrators are halted on the steps of UCLA’s Royce Hall by a cordon of state police. When they attempted to rush one entrance, right, they were repulsed by campus police. Photo dated June 11, 1985
    (Photo by Mike Sergieff, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    A crowd of 9,000 demonstrators hold a rally at Schoenberg Park on UCLA campus. A massive throng jeered, booed, and shouted obscenities when Chancellor Charles E. Young tried to talk to the students. Photo dated May 7, 1970. (Photo by Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

    A large crowd gathered at UCLA’s Tent City for an anti-apartheid rally. Photograph dated May 1, 1985. (Photo by Mike Mullen, Los Angeles Herald Examiner archive via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)



    But now there’s media, particularly social media, and students are quickly and easily and often seeing images from the atrocities of the war.

    “It’s a very visual tipping point,” said Rebecca Dolhinow, a Cal State Fullerton professor whose research includes youth social justice activism. “Students are back on campus and they’re feeling more comfortable here with the COVID threat less and less imminent.”

    Organizers of demonstrations at Southern California campuses are using Instagram to list their objectives and demands, request specific supplies, share resources on legal rights and de-escalation techniques and advertise schedules for speakers. They’re also trading tips, what worked on their campuses, and are promoting other schools’ demonstrations.

    This generation of college students, said David Foster, a history professor at the University of Kansas who studies activism in America, “has come to believe in a kind of Manichean world,” where there are only two sides to an issue, a dual struggle between good and evil.

    “They tend to see the world in oppressors and the oppressed, and that’s good in a lot of ways,” said Foster.

    “There’s an incredible sense of injustice here, and people are really appalled,” Dolhinow said. “It is something that for a lot of students, who otherwise aren’t keen on partisan politics, feel like this is a human rights issue, and they may not want to step out on abortion, may not want to step out on something else, but they feel they have to step out on this because it’s simply wrong.”

    And Israel, Foster said, “has come to be a stand-in in international politics for a lot of students,” he said, as “a bad nation, maybe even an evil nation, in the eyes of some young people who are progressive.”

    Back to the beginning

    The right to protest, especially historically, is an integral part of the college experience, said Graham Piro with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit that protects free speech rights on college campuses.

    “In many ways, being in college is how you prepare to participate in American society when you graduate,” Piro said. “And the First Amendment gives us the right to voice our concerns.”

    Students infamously exercised those rights in the ’60s and ’70s, staging large protests in opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Massive demonstrations sprung up on campuses across the country, including here in Southern California, but were more “militant” and “violent” compared to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations now, said Robert Cohen, an NYU history professor and expert in student activism.

    ROTC buildings were torched; students got hurt — or worse. Saturday marked 54 years since the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed anti-war student demonstrators at Kent State, killing four students and injuring another nine people.

    Students championed other causes around that time as well.

    In 1967, UC Irvine had been open for less than two years before students organized a protest on its Gateway Plaza.

    UC President Clark Kerr, a defender of free speech and debate on college campuses, had been fired by the Regents. Pictures from Jan. 27, 1967, show a large group of students rallying in support of Kerr.

    Rewind some 30 years, and in 1934, more than 3,000 UCLA students took to Royce Quad in protest of the suspension of five students for alleged communist ties. That was about half the student population at the time, according to press archives, and the students were eventually allowed to return to school.

    At UC Riverside, students protested during a visit from then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970. They clashed with police and threw avocados and oranges, longtime political science professor Ron Loveridge recalled.

    And then there were, at many UC schools, protests in solidarity with the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.

    Notably, though, USC, a private school, does not have that same reputation for campus activism.

    As Zev Yaroslavsky, a former L.A. County supervisor who graduated from UCLA, recently told the New York Times: “This is not the first university you think of when you think of protests and occupying the central quad and confronting the police. Berkeley and Harvard? Sure. But USC?”

    But it was there, at USC, where nearly 100 people were arrested during a pro-Palestinian protest at Alumni Park on April 24.

    A week later, more than 200 protesters were arrested at a Palestine Solidarity Encampment at UCLA.

    There is certainly no question about the vitality of student activism — at USC or anywhere — today.

    “Student activism, for much of the time I’ve been studying it, is something that’s been almost dormant. It’s not been full-throttled since, say, the Vietnam era,” said Dolhinow.

    Sure, there have been causes young people have been passionate about in more recent years: police brutality, particularly in the wake of George Floyd‘s death in 2020; and the #MeToo movement that shed light on sexual harassment and assault and the abuse of power.

    But those demonstrations were largely community-led rather than organized by college students, Dolhinow said. In recent years, student-led protests centered more on campus issues, like abuse by a faculty member or a problem within a department.

    In 2014, for example, UCLA students held a demonstration after racist fliers were sent to Asian departments at both the Westwood campus and at USC.

    “This isn’t something that happened here” in the U.S., Dolhinow said of the catalyst for the current demonstrations. “We’re protesting events that happened in another country, and a lot of students don’t know where this part of the world is. … They couldn’t put their finger on Israel on a map without help.”

    What does success look like?

    Rapidity aside, Foster and other experts liken the pro-Palestinian demonstrations to the South African anti-apartheid divestment movement that took off in the ’80s. Students then wanted their schools to cut financial ties with companies that supported South Africa.

    Students “tried to make visible a problem that too few Americans understood,” said Foster. “And they did that by literally being visible, by creating encampments.”

    But success — if there is any — may look different for the current crop of student activists.

    “I don’t think they’re going to win their demands for divestment in most places,” said Cohen, the NYU professor.

    “Unlike the anti-apartheid movement, there was no ‘apartheid constituency’ in the U.S.,” Cohen said of the previous movement. “But there is still strong support for Israel. … That’s not a demand that’s very realistic.”

    Recent surveys have found that support for Israel or Palestine largely varies depending on age in the U.S.

    About a third of people between 18 and 29 years old said they sided more with Palestinians than Israelis in a recent Pew Research Center poll, compared to 14% who sympathized with Israeli people.

    On the other hand, 47% of those surveyed who were at least 65 years old sympathized more with Israelis; only 9% chose Palestinian people.

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    But that’s not to say demonstrators won’t have any impact at all, said Cohen.

    At Brown University in Rhode Island, an encampment came down last week after university leaders agreed to hear students’ arguments in support of divestment from “companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.”

    Closer to home, Pomona College faculty voted in favor of divestment from “corporations complicit with war crimes and other human rights violations committed by the Israeli government in Israel/Palestine.”

    Overall, though, divestment is “not a demand that’s very realistic,” said Cohen.

    While Cohen considers divestment largely unlikely, he noted that it is an election year, and that’s where students could have a greater, more visible effect.

    “They probably will have an impact on politics because (the demonstrations) bring the war to people’s attention because at least some students don’t support the war will have some reservations about supporting President Biden” in November, he said.

    ​ Orange County Register