Blog post

The Student Intifada

The Research & Destroy collective reflect on the student occupations against the ongoing genocide in Gaza in the long struggle both for Palestinian liberation and of student activism, and asks, after its violent repression, where it goes from here.

Research & Destroy21 June 2024

The Student Intifada

On April 30, events on two different coasts would together prove a dire inflection point for the student intifada that had bloomed on campuses across the US (and elsewhere) in solidarity with Gaza. These events would at once shift the direction of the student movement and underscore its ongoing limits, in ways suggestive for its possible future.

Columbia, in New York, had long been one of the most fraught encampments, in no small part because the Columbia and Barnard administrations were unusually repressive early on: dissolving anti-Zionist student organizations, banning large swathes of public expression, and so on, while allowing a Zionist professor to harass a well-mannered and ecumenical encampment raised on April 17. The encampment made pointed reference to the world-famous campus uprising of 1968, a fact broadly noted and superficially understood. When dismantled by police in a brutal and highly visible raid, supporters returned in greater numbers, entering into a sustained stand-off with administrators and riot cops both within and without a now entirely closed campus. This was only one of a number of instances nationwide in which the student intifada has shown remarkable persistence, improvisational elan, and principled commitment. This should not be understated, particularly given the fact that, while the levels of campus violence and antagonism have paled against the zeniths of the anti-Vietnam War movement (during which, if anyone needs reminding, more than 30 campus ROTC buildings were bombed and/or burned to the ground), the levels of violent repression have nonetheless been staggering. Against this, the courage of the campus movements must be registered as extraordinary.

Negotiations with the re-encampment yielded little and were declared a dead-end on April 29. On the early morning of April 30, again drawing from the repertoire of ‘68, Hamilton Hall was taken by an autonomous group and renamed Hind’s Hall, crossing the threshold from encampment to occupation. Despite the internet-vaulted popularity of building seizures at Cal Poly Humboldt and a few other scattered examples, occupation — from on to in — had been tacitly established throughout the movement as a red line. Its traverse at Columbia seemed to portend, at a national scale, both a fracturing of the camps’ centralized organizational structures, and a renewed intensification of struggle. That night, on invitation from Columbia’s president (a baronness named Shafik whose political theory could best be summarized as, Whatever it takes to birth a new generation of the Weather Underground), massive police deployments, bearing familiar armaments and less familiar siege machines, swept Hind’s Hall and the encampment, arresting 109 people and injuring many. Given Columbia’s placement within the movement’s self-understanding, this might have delivered a broad impetus for escalation. May Day was just a day away.

It was not to be. Across the continent, an apposite drama unfolded at UCLA. On that campus, the fortified encampment had been beset for several days by a motley of Zionist “counterprotestors” engaged in various well-funded and high-volume forms of abuse. In the early morning of April 30th, the collected thugs (former IDF soldiers among them) attacked the encampment directly and en masse in a petty pogrom lasting several hours, captured in disturbing details by those present but aggressively ignored — which is to say, enabled — by police and administrators present and absent. This consolidated the largely explicit and generally understood alignment of the universities at a national level with forces of both formal and informal violence.

The petty pogrom tracks recent political developments in the US in which informal actors, with a tacit and unsayable authorization from the state (regularly understood within a DuBoisian context as a racialized deputization), exact often-fatal violence amid antistate upheavals. This has clear continuities with the history of, e.g., racist lynchings, but takes on its own characteristics in this renewed moment of violent reimposition of social hierarchies as a quasi-state project in the twilight of empire. While the increasingly familiar (and increasingly legally immunized) act of driving vehicles into crowds of protestors offers a broad and clear example, Kyle Rittenhouse and Daniel Perry are perhaps the most salient comparisons, both having killed protestors during the George Floyd Uprising (in Wisconsin and Texas respectively), both in the end with impunity.

In considering the path to and away from April 30th, it will be obvious that the fundamental challenge for the student intifada has been the elaborated, state-directed or enabled violence of its domestic antagonists, meted out according to the virulence of the Palestinian Exception. This should in no way be diminished. Internally, the movement has confronted as well a significant difficulty in the alignment of form and content, of tactics and goals, given its position as a solidarity movement distant from its primary antagonists and its primary purpose, the liberation of Palestine.

*** 

The revolution in Palestine has been long, dating at least to the 1936-39 period chronicled by Ghassan Kanafani, himself a PFLP member before his 1972 assassination. The transgenerational struggle has included bombings of railways and pipelines, airline hijackings, airport attacks — among other things, the kinds of actions that would help provide the world with the modern meaning of the term “terrorist,” consolidated by press and politicians in their transvaluation of militant resistance in the seventies. Anticolonial warfare is by definition asymmetrical struggle over territory; terrorism is simply what the imperial side calls the requisite tactics of their antagonists. In this case, form aligns with content, tactics with goals.

This history provides a useful reflection on October’s Toufan al-Aqsa on October 7, 2023 — which was, among other things, a study in asymmetric brilliance. Anticolonial struggle looks like this because it is anticolonial struggle, not (despite Zionist solecisms) because of the moral characters of Hamas or Jihad or the PFLP or DFLP, all participants in that battle within a long war. The same history offers a different reflection, at a quite distinct political level and considerable geographical distance, on the student intifada, whose commitment is inarguably the liberation of Palestine but whose immediate demand is, in main, that the schools divest from firms and funds providing support to the Zionist entity.

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The encampment or building occupation is often its own demand of the most practical sort. It blocks a pipeline or the construction of a police training facility; it stands in the middle of a vast metropolis, paralyzing the circulation of goods; it occupies a factory, initiating a de facto expropriation. But the Gaza solidarity encampments are “protest camps” in the classical sense, communicating a moral position. That is to say, they are not in and of themselves a demand — for the concerns of this movement lie elsewhere. There is no goal to give Harvard Yard over to the people. Moreover, divesting Harvard of its ties to Israel will not stop the transfer of arms for the murder of Gazan children this year. And yet — everyone knows that these divestments, if won, would signal the beginning of the end of US support for Israel, which despite its intensity remains contingent on factors not likely to persist as US empire and its fossil worlds unravel.

The goals, that is to say, of the student intifada must be supported, even if their realization lies elsewhere. Their content is genocide’s end and Palestine’s liberation. But their form is drawn from the history of campus and other struggles in the U.S., notably the previous generation of campus insurgencies in the U.S. (and elsewhere) circa 2009, whose maximalist goals were virtue and vice. At that time, groups established liberated zones on campus against an austerity-driven transformation of the university that all parties knew could not be resisted in the long term except by resisting capitalism as such. The goal was therefore escalation pure and simple, the compounding of liberation by liberation, even if the demands of the movement were ultimately determined, and settled, by the conjuncture.

Escalation pure and simple cannot set the agenda now. To be sure, in 2024, people join the liberated zones knowing that US support for Israel is as doomed in the long term as the US — which is to say, pretty doomed. For the moment, however, amidst growing international isolation increasingly characteristic of the age, and with the greatest generation whose virtue survives only according to the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, the US remains resolute in its Zionist sympathies. The violence marshaled against the encampments is a sign of weakness for global Zionism. But that is not to diminish its world-historically horrific consequences.

***

The relative weakness of the movement in the face of the horrors that it regards, and the rightness of what it demands, leads to attitudes that must be described as militant or, in some cases, activist. We hope to strip these entangled terms of the pejorative meaning that they have taken among the ultraleft, for the militant and the activist both indicate a position rather than a person, and a position that will in all cases be occupied, for it remains necessary. In movements such as these, where the supporters gathered count in the thousands rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands, militancy is a fact of survival. The tendency to rule people in or out, to draw boundaries sharply, to centralize, create designated security teams, audit and vet participants — all of these acts of the militant must be seen to originate, to some degree, from the facts on the ground, or grounds: the encampments themselves, facing off against Zionist counterprotestors, emboldened police, and an indifferent to openly scornful hostile student body. Linked arms in the face of police — refusing with the force of all to let one be taken — is the very nature of militancy, which tightens bonds, lashes the barricades together. Militancy is an oath, its relations vouched, made necessary through an act of freedom. Its sometimes shrill tones sound the hollowness of our relations under capitalism, the necessity for the kinds of thick bonds that would allow people to conspire together.

From the antiglobalization movement to Stop Cop City/Defend the Atlanta Forest, from the ZAD to Standing Rock, militancy emerges where comparatively small movements confront achievable objectives. It is possible to stop the construction of a pipeline, an airport, a police training facility, just as it is possible to divest US universities of their ties to Israel (as shown by another generation, the anti-apartheid activists of 1985-6. By possible, we mean, achievable within the bounds of colonial capitalism. 

These movements are therefore different, in their trajectory and propagation, from those which voice inchoate, maximal, or existential objectives unrealizable apart from total social reorganization. Tactics and strategies appropriate to one situation will not necessarily be appropriate to the other — you can’t blow up a social relationship, at least not directly, but you can blow up a police training facility. You can’t negotiate the end of capitalism, but you can at least hypothetically negotiate divestment from a half-dozen firms. The critique of activism which we inherit from the ‘90s was a criticism of the misalignment of reformist strategies with revolutionary ends, where such ends were stated, whether by the Earth Liberation Front or the counter-summits of the antiglobalization movement. But it is often today forgotten how successful on their own terms those reformist strategies were. The point is on the one hand that limited victories are possible, and on the other, that such victories may in turn become their own limits. Or to rephrase matters, revolution is something more than the accumulation of such successes — in fact, it tends to unfold as the consequence of failure, repression, and counter-repression, and tends to render inapposite tactics and strategies which, in another instance, make perfect sense. The violence of the state can transform one movement into another, but only by making the movement, then, about the state and its power, which accepts no challenge.

***

It is the ambiguous partiality of this transformation that haunts the student uprising of 2024. In places where police repression has been intense and spectacular, militant and activist fractions move toward becoming mass movements, even as they shift the political focus from a genocide half a planet away to truncheons and tear gas on the quad. The differing characters across encampments, from orderly tent villages under heavy manners to the wild building seizures of Manhattan or Arcata, bespeak among other things where each campus stands along the arc of the transformation — from minimalists ready to treat the convening of a task force as a win, to maximalists sliding toward total antagonism.

It is the logic of negotiation itself that arrests the slide and sets the tactical agenda. We do not offer this as a fault. It is simply the baseline quality of a movement with specific and limited demands that must be won from an authority empowered to deliver them. Even as escalation can be a negotiating tool, intensifying the discomfort and scrutiny for the administration, the requirement that the administration must be considered a partner, must be granted legitimacy and even the pretense of having an ethical capacity, sets limits on tactics and on ideas. It is a difficult rhetorical needle to thread, identifying an administration — and the police as their instrument — as the author of intolerable brutality, and at the same time as a negotiating partner capable of shame and equally deserving of approbation, should they offer even the least of concessions.

This dynamic plays out over and over. How antagonistic can we be, how much must we self-police, each camp must ask itself, so as to apply pressure while preserving the possibility of a negotiated settlement? Over the course of April’s second half, the calculus began to shift. The sustained resistance at Cal Poly Humboldt, where occupiers (regularly making explicit reference to the events and archives of 2009) fought back police and managed to expand across campus, became an iconic representation of the movement. Authorizations of militarized police power across the nation, notably in New York and Texas, along with images of rooftop snipers in Ohio and Indiana redolent of Kent State and Jackson State, eroded the pretense that administrators were simply falling short in their duty of care. In a complementary movement, negotiations that successfully dissolved encampments, such as those at UC Riverside and at Brown University, offered wins so paltry as to be broadly considered losses. All of this drove numerous encampments along the arc of transformation toward escalation and absolutization — sometimes in the form of unspoken scissions between steering committees of activist militants and breakaway groups hell-bent on autonomous actions. This is where things stood in the last hours of April.

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The petty pogrom at UCLA, however consonant with broader developments of American death, was also exceptional. That the informal violence was in some sense on behalf of a foreign power (albeit one which via its own founding ambiguity is entirely entangled with US cultural life and national interests) adds a degree of complexity to the dynamic. That the pogrom followed the choreo not just of freelance police work but Israeli settler violence underscores this dimension. Moreover, the mob violence would exert its own peculiar influence on the student intifada more broadly. One might expect in train of this sequence that the administration, the mob’s enablers, would lose credibility as anything but an inimical presence — not just at UCLA but throughout the movement. In a perverse outcome, exactly because of the movement’s inner character, which is to say its interest in limited goals to be won via negotiation, the opposite happened.

Protestors did not hesitate to accuse the very administration inviting the pogrom of failing to prevent it, going on to demand protection against recurrences. Such moral outrage, both contrived and sincere, has its basis in actuality. It takes its significance in response to a very real threat: Zionist mob violence against encampments now became an actuality to be contended with, not just in Westwood but across the map of Gaza solidarity encampments.

Without wishing to exaggerate the force either of analogy or single example, this dynamic recapitulates an increasingly familiar scene of the present. The far right, animated by a commitment to often-racialized violence, more or less fascist in program, has pointedly turned to vigilantism across and beyond what we once called the imperial core; one consequence has been that numerous progressive or potentially insurgent social fractions have been driven to seek protection from various institutional parties of order, old and newly fashioned. Rarely have things looked so bleak for radical left mobilization.

The bleakness of the present may explain some portion of the enthusiasm which greeted the student intifada as a legitimate expression of insurgent spirit. The character of the intifada, as noted, explains in turn why the particular form of counterinsurgency represented by the petty pogrom would prove so effective. In the circumstance of the encampments, the fiction necessary for negotiations, i.e. that administrations were legitimate partners possessed both of ethical capacities and a sincere interest in student welfare, was now granted a new reality: the encampments were obliged to hail the administration and their cops as guarantors of student safety against a purported third party. Again, it is of limited matter whether this vision of the administration’s role arose from real or feigned beliefs; in political comportment they amount to the same thing, wherein the captured elements of the movement now must hew to their captors as protectors, Stockholm Syndrome on the quad.

Not only did this strengthen the administration’s hand in negotiations, it meant affirming the repressive convention of blaming everything on outside agitators. This in turn forced students to intensify their self-policing while forming a cordon sanitaire between the students and their potential comrades, the only real route toward expansion of the movement. Some few encampments tried to refuse these new or heightened constraints. In some locations the pressures drove open earlier fissures, sending autonomous groups toward further building occupations and the like. These were exceptions to the broader motion. Instead of escalation, its opposite. The logic of the militant in its most limited sense was afforded all the remaining political power of the movement, which amounted to negotiating from a position of extraordinary weakness.

***

Perhaps needless to say, this distressing turn, along with the arrival to some encampments of the university’s great siege engine — summer break — introduced a dying fall to late spring. The movement continues where the spring term does, now most forcefully at the University of California where Research & Destroy began 15 years ago with a communique supporting the occupation of campus buildings, and where a rolling strike of graduate student workers and other academic employees brought at least five campuses to distress and confusion if not quite a halt.

In this regard, form and content tilt back toward a clearer alignment. The strike, once and for good reason understood as potentially part of a revolutionary sequence, has largely established itself in the US as a limited means toward limited ends, specific demands. The return of the political strike to the precincts of the UAW, however, portends something more. As the institutions of empire have had progressively less surplus, less wiggle room, fewer fucks to give and fewer reforms to offer, winning these in any serious way has required ever more intensity. If the path to revolution is no longer to be found via accruing reforms, then the reforms themselves, if that is one’s goal, nonetheless require something like revolutionary intensity. It may not be too long before one must needs blow up a pipeline just to win socdem policy changes.

This sets in part the measure of the current movement. The coordination of strike and encampment, if it can be developed, would be a significant and heartening development. Alongside the steadfastness of the student protests, the realization of the strike must be attributed, in large part, to the work that comrades have done to deepen and radicalize the UAW at the UC. Last year’s strike may have been beaten by the university, its victories turned to defeats through the power of the university to recategorize workers, but the graduate students remain mobilized, organized at the department level. At the same time, however, these strikes present at least two problems.

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The first is that they accede to a legalistic terrain, requiring the negotiation of labor law to find basis for a political strike despite a contract with a No Strike proviso. The union’s claim, that the summoning of police violence against protestors is an Unfair Labor Practice and thus legitimate basis for a strike, has shown itself both persuasive and vulnerable. The latter came clear on the first Friday of June when an Orange County court issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the strike, arresting it in its tracks. This would be less of an issue had not the strike itself, in the context of demobilized encampments and exhausted academic years nationwide, become the leading orientation for the movement, offering leverage elsewhere absent. Consequently, the fate of campus solidarity with Gaza was handed to the courts — a strange evolution from its origins in defiant illegalism, or at least principled indifference to official policies. The legal setback is temporary but the clock is ticking.

The second problem is the extent to which such strikes risk re-instantiating the problems of militancy at another level. During the 2022-23 UC strike, the necessary focus of rank-and-file formations on internal cohesion toward pushing past the grade deadline, where their core leverage lay, left other factions on campus (particularly undergraduates) with little sense of how they might involve themselves and help push things forward. The connection between this strike, however, and the broader university Gaza solidarity movement, provides the opportunity for such divisions to be transcended, though such efforts will likely need to be coordinated at a distance from union leadership — who might worry that elements not directly under their control will weaken their position at the bargaining table. The “stand-up” strike model is, in this case, no more a structure of escalation than it is a structure for forestalling the same, holding power in reserve. This is necessary for the union, not only legally, but in order to bargain with the university, by showing their willingness to restrain their members. But it does not mean that the strike is strengthened by others acceding to the union leadership about when, where, and how to escalate. It is already clear that the local’s leading fraction, historically hesitant and even callow, will require substantial pressure from below. In truth, the university will likely be willing to yield anything of significance only once it is clear that the strike risks turning into a wider campus conflagration, with lecturers and tenure-track faculty joining the strike and students engaging in autonomous action to liberate campuses. It is then that the university will truly want to avail itself of the union’s disciplinary power.

These problems have complementary solutions. The encampments, bearers of the initial spirit under the slogan “Escalate for Gaza,” will need to push the union to overspill the constraints of policy and of legalism. The strikers must by the same token overcome boundaries imposed by the division of labor at the UC, and particularly the divisions among students, academic workers, faculty, staff, and so-called outside agitators. This can sometimes be difficult given the position in which graduate student workers find themselves with regard to undergraduates, for whom their real concern is the basis of solidarity but no less a route to paternalism. Unionized educators may feel compunctions about violently blockading campus and confronting some of their own students who are not in solidarity, but students themselves need have no such scruples. Take the buildings, take the campus, then give them away to the broader movement, so that it can organize for work in other areas, such as direct action against defense contractors. Come back after summer and take them again. The fight for the liberation of Palestine will be long.

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