Campus protests over Gaza part of a proud tradition - Salish Current
May 15, 2024
Campus protests over Gaza part of a proud tradition
Vernon Damani Johnson

Students at Western Washington University set up a Popular University for Gaza encampment near Old Main yesterday (May 14), expressing solidarity with Palestine — one of numerous recent protests on university campuses with results ranging from peaceful to violent. (Instagram, WWU Divest Apartheid et al.)

May 15, 2024
Campus protests over Gaza part of a proud tradition
Vernon Damani Johnson


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: The poor and marginal have always engaged in direct action; nonviolent protest, and even civil disobedience where laws or institutional practices are judged to be immoral.

Contention is raging regarding the propriety of university protests regarding the Israeli military campaign in Gaza.

The fact that students feel compelled to protest is a good thing. It is a teachable moment for an issue of enormous complexity which is gut-wrenching for people on all sides of it. The conflict fleshes up issues of two peoples claiming the land as their ancestral home. It raises uncomfortable questions of settler colonialism and dispossession, terrorism and the right to self-defense, and, yes, even genocide.

Let’s not forget that protests calling for a ceasefire have been going on in the streets and before chambers of all levels of government since the month after the Israeli offensive began. It is noteworthy that Jewish activists, especially Jewish Voice for Peace, have been prominent in those campaigns.

Campus protests calling for a ceasefire, as well as boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning (BDS) Israel have grown over the months. U.S. government complicity in the crimes against humanity occurring in Gaza have been in the spotlight. And the refusal of Biden to threaten ending military allocations to Israel if it won’t accede to a ceasefire make him look weak.

Many university administrations, tied as they are to defense contractors and pro-Israeli donors, have abandoned their obligation to offer a space that is physically safe, simultaneously protects free speech, and affords students deep knowledge of a complex historical situation and even training in nonviolent direct-action protests. 

Responses to encampments and the most aggressive protests at a handful of campuses have been confused and ham-handed. The forceful police removal of students from the academic building at Columbia University in New York was widely heralded in the mainstream media as professional and efficient. But cell camera footage from inside showed how violent things really were; and if you search around you can learn that several students were injured and some hospitalized . Unfortunately, those tawdry details have not garnered most of the mainstream media attention. 

Here in the Pacific Northwest we’ve only seen a forceful police crackdown at Portland State University. There the university police asked Portland police to remove students occupying a university library after talks over the lists of student demands broke down. This was after the university “agree to suspend accepting any financial gifts from Boeing until there could be a broader debate about the issue.” That was a reasonable place to start. But PSU students made the mistake of assuming they should get everything they were demanding. That’s not how negotiations work! 

Otherwise, protests around the region have been peaceful. At the University of Washington, after a week of encampments and calls for it to cut its ties to the Boeing Corporation, the university refused to do so. Addition demands include divesting materially from Israel and “ending study abroad programs there,” and ceasing “the repression of pro-Palestinian students and faculty.”

At Washington State University and the University of Idaho students presented demands centered around calling for divestment from Israel to their respective administrations. Then they returned to classes. One can only hope that discussions behind closed doors at those schools will begin soon

Evergreen State University is the alma mater of pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie who was killed by Israeli troops bulldozing a Palestinian home in Gaza in 2003. Administrators at Evergreen have pledged to work toward divesting from “companies that profit from gross human rights violations and/or the occupation of Palestinian territories.”

At Western Washington University a coalition led by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab Student Association issued a letter to President Sabah Randhawa regarding the Gaza situation. It called, among other things, for acknowledgement of Western’s lack of protection for Arab students during the Israeli military campaign, and complete divestment from all“companies and institutions” with “investments, agreements and contracts” with the Israeli national security apparatus.  Early in the morning on May 14, the coalition set up a tent encampment in solidarity with Palestine, and coalition members continue to detail their positions via social media.

This is all as it should be. Students have made a splash with their demands and building encampments on campuses. They, like high-powered lobbyists in D.C. and Olympia, are a “special interest group.” Well-heeled interests lobby politicians, engage in litigation and election candidate support to peddle their influence: all very expensive activities. 

The poor and marginal have always engaged in direct action; nonviolent protest and even civil disobedience where laws or institutional practices are judged to be immoral. All these actions except for law-breaking are protected by the First Amendment and are the only way those without money can often be heard. But we all know that breaking the law also has its place in movements to make our world a better place.

From the students at North Carolina A&T who began the civil rights sit-in movement in 1960, to anti-Vietnam War protesters who stormed the Pentagon in 1967, students have often lit the spark that led to humanitarian social change.

But direct action alone cannot change the entrenched policies of educational and other institutions. These issues can only be tackled through deliberate and gritty negotiations. Students can also become educators. In the Vietnam War and South African divestment eras, students held teach-ins examining the issues and giving attention to a wide range of their historical, sociocultural and political dimensions. Western students have a series of events they’re calling “Israeli Apartheid Week” as I write.

In the words of Graham Nash from back in the day, children, “teach your parents well”!

— Vernon Damani Johnson

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