It’s Not Just Gaza: Student Protesters See Links to a Global Struggle

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Talk to student protesters across the country, and their outrage is clear: They have been galvanized by the scale of death and destruction in Gaza, and will risk arrest to fight for the Palestinian cause.

For most of them, the war is taking place in a land they’ve never set foot in, where those killed — 34,000 so far, according to local health authorities — are known to them only through what they have read or seen online.

But for many, the issues are closer to home, and at the same time, much bigger and broader. In their eyes, the Gaza conflict is a struggle for justice, linked to issues that seem far afield. They say they are motivated by policing, mistreatment of Indigenous people, discrimination toward Black Americans and the impact of global warming.

In interviews with dozens of students across the country over the last week, they described, to a striking degree, the broad prism through which they see the Gaza conflict, which helps explain their urgency — and recalcitrance.

Ife Jones, a first-year student at Emory University in Atlanta, linked her current activism to the 1960s civil right movement, which her family had participated in.

“The only thing missing was the dogs and the water,” Ms. Jones said of the current pushback to demonstrators.

Many protesters have rebuffed entreaties from university administrators, chained themselves to benches and taken over buildings. Now, demonstrators have faced a harsh crackdown, with hundreds of arrests in the last 24 hours at many schools, including Columbia University.

With pro-Israel students ratcheting up their counterprotests on a number of campuses, the climate could grow even more strained in the coming days.

In interviews, the language of many protesters was also distinctive. Students freely salted their explanations with academic terms like intersectionality, colonialism and imperialism, all to make their case that the plight of Palestinians is a result of global power structures that thrive on bias and oppression.

“As an environmentalist, we pride ourselves on viewing the world through intersectional lenses,” said Katie Rueff, a first-year student at Cornell University. “Climate justice is an everyone issue. It affects every dimension of identity, because it’s rooted in the same struggles of imperialism, capitalism — things like that. I think that’s very true of this conflict, of the genocide in Palestine.”

Jawuanna McAllister, a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology at Cornell, pointed to the name of the student group she is affiliated with: the Coalition for Mutual Liberation.

It’s in our name: mutual liberation,” Ms. McAllister said. “That means we’re antiracist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist organization. We believe that none of us can be free and have the respect and dignity we deserve unless all of us are free.”

Almost all protest groups want an immediate cease-fire, and some kind of divestment from companies that have interests in Israel or in the military. But because everything is connected, some protesters have other items on their agenda.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, students like Nicole Crawford are demanding that the school sever its relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, along with calls for greater transparency about the school’s investments. Ms. Crawford, 20, said she connects the suffering of Gazans to the plight of other oppressed people worldwide.

“When you are a part of any oppressed group, especially people that are experiencing direct state violence like being part of the Pan-African diaspora within the United States, which is built on the enslavement and dehumanization and degradation of African peoples, that does politicize you,” Ms. Crawford said.

At Emory University, protesters occupying the campus quad have chanted “Free Palestine,” along with “Stop Cop City,” referring to a large police and fire training compound being built on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Ari Quan, a 19-year-old Emory first-year student from Columbia, S.C., who uses the pronouns they and them, acknowledged not having followed the conflict in Gaza especially closely, but said there was considerable overlap between the movement for greater justice in policing and pro-Palestinian sentiment. They were moved to join the demonstrations on campus after seeing their friend pushed to the ground by the police.

“I would have felt bad if I wasn’t involved,” they said. “To see the police become more militarized is hard for me to imagine.”

The student movement in support of Palestinians has been built over decades by linking to other issues. Students for Justice in Palestine, a loosely connected confederation that began to emerge in the early 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley, consciously invited other activists — environmentalists, opponents of American intervention in Latin America, critics of the Gulf War — broadening the group’s base.

Today, the group’s national steering committee claims more than 200 autonomous chapters, most of them in the United States. And they often work with other student groups.

Coalition building is a source of strength and pride, giving protesters a sense that much of the world is with them.

But scholars say this current movement, which has outraged many pro-Israel students and alumni, is starkly different from the movements against apartheid in South Africa or the Vietnam War.

In the 1960s, during demonstrations against the Vietnam War, there was no single constituency that felt attacked as an ethnicity, said Timothy Naftali, who teaches public policy at Columbia, though he acknowledged that student soldiers or those in the R.O.T.C. would have been targeted.

“I would imagine that these demonstrations now are creating a feeling of insecurity in a much bigger way than the antiwar demonstrations during Vietnam did,” Mr. Naftali said.

Much of the divide today is centered around Hamas and antisemitism.

In interviews, many students declined to engage when asked about Hamas, the militant group that led the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel that killed 1,200 people. Many simply said that the attacks were awful.

But Lila Steinbach, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, acknowledged that the attacks stirred up complicated emotions. She knows people who were killed and taken hostage in the attacks. Like many of the protesters, she was raised Jewish.

“What happened on Oct. 7 was a test of my politics, as someone who is committed to liberalization and decolonization,” she said, adding, “It’s hard to not condemn all of the violence being committed by Hamas.”

Yet, she added, “I also know that the violence of the Israelis and the violence of U.S. imperialism and the conditions cultivated by those actors are responsible for breeding terrorism. When you grow up in an open air prison and you’re orphaned and you are told that Israelis are at fault, why wouldn’t you believe them?”

Antisemitism, almost all the student protesters said, is a real concern.

But they said they just do not see it around them — not in their encampments, not among the other protesters, not in their chants, such as “from the river to the sea.” (In their view, “from the river to the sea” is not a call to wipe out the state of Israel, but a call for peace and equality.)

On Sunday, a few dozen protesters hung around the encampment at the University of Pittsburgh. Alexandra Weiner, 25, a faculty member in the math department at the university, said that she grew up attending the Tree of Life Synagogue, where a white nationalist gunned down 11 worshipers in 2018.

While some counterprotesters had called the encampment antisemitic, she said, “I have not experienced or heard a single sentiment of antisemitism.”

Later that day, hundreds of protesters marched on campus, calling for a cease-fire. After a short standoff with the police, two were arrested. On Tuesday, the encampment was gone.

Alan Blinder, Neelam Bohra, Patrick Cooley, Jill Cowan, Jenna Fisher, Sean Keenan and Cole Louison contributed reporting.



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