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It’s A Statement About Who The University Belongs To

Above photo: A Columbia University student sticks a banner on her back as students access the iconic Hamilton Hall building on April 30, 2024. Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images.

A roundtable about resistance to privatization and the corporate governance of universities.

With Eman Abdelhadi (Univ. of Chicago), Calvin John Smiley (Hunter), Layla Hedroug (Yale), Owen Levens (DePaul), and an organizer from National Students for Justice in Palestine.

Students and faculty on campuses across the country are facing repression and violent attacks from police and racist mobs for establishing ​“Popular University for Gaza” encampments that have become some of the latest sites and frontlines in the U.S. and international resistance to the genocide in Gaza. More than 2,000 students and others have reportedly been arrested since the encampments began.

The students who are organizing the encampments — often with faculty support and assistance from justice groups — are generally demanding the universities disclose financial involvement with the state of Israel and then divest — or break ties — with those financial and other relationships.

The New York Police Department has repeatedly shown up in full riot gear at Columbia University and arrested a large number of students last week. At the University of California, Los Angeles students faced off with a violent Zionist mob for hours with seemingly no protection from campus police or otherwise. Several student journalists were also attacked and injured. Students at the University of Texas at Austin and at Dallas have had their encampments and protests met with sweeps and violent arrests by state troopers (just weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order against pro-Palestine campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine).

This repression and these clashes are playing out on campus after campus — and new encampments are still emerging. The student movement against the genocide in Gaza has been strong and active since October, but what is happening now marks a significant transformation in the struggle.

As the movement for a free Palestine rages on with the university currently at the center of the struggle, In These Times convened a roundtable of student and faculty leaders to discuss this current moment and what its building for the future. The roundtable includes:

Eman Abdelhadi, an activist, author, sociology professor at the University of Chicago and an In These Times contributing writer.

Layla Hedroug, a junior at Yale University who is studying global affairs and Arabic.

Owen Levens, a student at DePaul University studying math and physics.

Calvin John Smiley, a sociology professor at Hunter College.

A steering committee organizer with National Students for Justice in Palestine. (The NSJP steering committee organizer who participated in this roundtable asked to remain anonymous because of the intense repression they are facing.)

This roundtable interview has been edited for length, order and clarity.

NASHWA BAWAB: How are you all thinking about the Popular University for Gaza and these encampments?

NSJP STEERING COMMITTEE ORGANIZER: The Popular University for Gaza is a push to take the mass mobilization that we as students have been leading on campuses across occupied Turtle Island for the last seven months — but really the last two decades of Palestine student organizing — and transform it into sustained, tangible pressure targeting our administrations and our boards of trustees, with the aim of pushing them towards divestment.

The logic of this is that it takes literally every single sector of campus: the student sector, the faculty sector, the staff sector and community members. It takes all of these different sectors, consolidates them into one long-term pressure point, and highlights just how large the rift is between the administration and their continued, unrelenting, unapologetic profiteering from genocide.

It is a strategic advancement in our struggle for divestment on campuses. However, it is also so much bigger than that — the Popular University for Gaza, the Gaza solidarity encampments, the students, sit-ins and occupations have become something far larger than the sum of their parts. What it has become is, honestly, the biggest paradigm shift for the United States in their complicity in the genocide on Gaza. This is because what it has become is the material, physical representation of the rift in the United States between the masses of people and the U.S. administration, who greenlights the genocide on Gaza. But this also is the tangible expression of the lengths that people will go to end this genocide and the lengths that people go to challenge the status quo.

EMAN ABDELHADI: One thing to think about is that the university has increasingly become a space of donor interests and corporate interests. It’s an entity that has basically decided that faculty, staff, students are all just there to be there and are not part of the governance of the institution — are not really stakeholders. And so our universities are becoming increasingly undemocratic and increasingly only interested in their endowments and the interests of a small number of profiteering donors. And so I think that the Popular University is also an antidote to that. It’s a statement about who the university belongs to.

OWEN LEVENS: That’s really inspiring to hear you say as a faculty person, because one of the big things we talk about here, in the encampment, like we were chanting all of yesterday was, ​“invest in our education, not in genocide,” — not in war, not in conflict, not in private bonds that go back to the very wealthy administration and donors. I was personally surprised, but we got a lot of really explicit support from faculty. It’s been really inspiring.

LAYLA HEDROUG: The demands set forth by the students in these encampments are abundantly clear. It’s for these universities to disclose and divest from Israeli weapon manufacturing. And not only that, but also kind of forces these universities to reckon with their persistent involvement in human rights abuses. I mean, Yale, for example, had invested in South African apartheid and divested in the early ​’90s. It just goes to show that our institutions are consistently on the wrong side of history. And without applying pressure or force for them to divest, they’ll continue to be on this wrong side. These encampments are just indicative of a broader community that’s not willing to stand for these injustices. And ultimately, our institutions are supposed to be environments that promote creative thought that teach about colonialism and imperialism and how to resist embedded systems of oppression.

ABDELHADI: Here at UChicago, the students and I want to be really clear that the demands were written exclusively by the students of the encampment, and that the encampment was absolutely their project. Faculty have stepped in, to help liaise between students and administration and in order to protect our students, but this is 100% their work. But they very smartly included in their demands, demands around the University of Chicago’s relationship to the South Side of Chicago, the fact that the University of Chicago acts as a colonizer in the South Side and effectively uses the same logic of displacement against poor Black communities. Scholars have drawn the link between the logic of gentrification and settler colonialism. And so the students have asked for reparations in regards to the university’s relationship with its immediate neighbors, and I think they’re very smartly seeing that the relationship between UChicago and its immediate environment is similar, and, in fact, deeply interlinked with its relationship with the global environment, where it is funding displacement.

CALVIN JOHN SMILEY: It’s the same with the students at City University of New York who also infused in their demands that faculty, in particular adjunct faculty and part-time faculty who have much more precarity with their labor who have been dismissed or fired, that they should be reinstated. Students are thinking about this all holistically, as well as globally. But one thing that I want to just address, going back to the points around the corporatization of our academic institutions, is also how the Left really needs to critique and contend with the notions of diversity, equity and inclusion, and diversity initiatives that these institutions have put forth. Because what we’re seeing now across the country is the exact same practices being done by Black and brown and Arab faces, right?

So the Chancellor of CUNY is a Latinx person. The mayor of New York, as we know, is a Black person, the majority of the cops that I saw, who were beating the hell out of students the night of April 30, were Black and brown faces. So I think we have to be really careful and really cautious about how we also proceed on these campuses when they have these DEI initiatives and what they actually mean by that because as I was on my way home last night, I looked up — because I actually didn’t know the CUNY motto — and it’s ​“the education of free people is the hope of humanity.” Well, how do you have hope for humanity when that same institution is locking up those people?

NSJP ORGANIZER: The points about the university being a corporation are critical here. When we’re talking about the Popular University for Gaza and not only what it represents, but what it means, it’s the fact that for decades and decades, students and faculty have been subordinate to the university as a corporation. That is accountable to the interests of its investors and accountable to the interests of its profit and see students as just consumers in this large corporation. What the Popular University for Gaza has meant is a step really towards reclamation of the university space as a space that is for the people, that is not just this ivory tower, but is an institution that facilitates the dissemination of knowledge and is connected to the community around it.

Since the early 2000s there have been concerted efforts to redirect the energy of Palestinian Arab and Muslim students into affinity group spaces where the university is maybe placating them by hosting dinners or providing Arab or Muslim spaces for a specific amount of time. And the logic of the university is that by providing students with this basic level of cultural competency, we’re able to redirect their energy into affinity groups and deradicalize them. But what the Popular University for Gaza has meant is that Palestinian Arab and Muslim students alongside Black, brown and colonized students on campus are pushing back against this forced depoliticization, and are actually reclaiming our roles as students and youth struggling against our universities’ complicity in occupation and genocide. But we also understand the university as a microcosm of the state at large, so what we’re actually seeing is the birth of a new generation of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Black, brown, colonized and racialized youth that are taking up the mantle of struggle.

BAWAB: Can folks talk about why you think campuses have become this important battleground for Palestinian liberation since October and maybe also speak to how you see current attacks on students and faculty in the larger context of right-wing attacks on universities in the past several years?

NSJP ORGANIZER: The university really is a microcosm of the state because the university is designed to ideologically reproduce thought that both legitimizes and sustains the interests of the state. And it’s also designed to produce the next generation of war profiteers and counterterrorism workers and folks within the FBI and the CIA and all these different state institutions. That is what the state wants to utilize our institutions for. It’s a site for class reproduction. It’s a site of ideologically reproducing what is needed to maintain the interests of the state. It’s become a fight because the institution is the microcosm of all these interests of the state and it’s this high-pressure cooker of all of the worst expressions of the state and its imperialist interests. And the students are in a position in which they are constantly confronting it on a daily basis. We see it in our study abroad programs with Israel, we see it in the recruiter programs on our campuses. And so the university has become such a huge site of struggle.

So there’s an element of bringing on militarized police to scare students out of activism or arrest them out of activism. We saw one of the most vicious attacks at UCLA by Zionist vigilantes. We’ve seen raids in New York by police, in Ohio, while students are praying, ripping off their hijabs, like that is the level of state violence that the state and the university are imploring to quell our movement. But it’s fundamentally not working. The courage of students right now is far more powerful than any weapon of the occupier or any state official that tries to defend it. When we’re talking about why the university has become a site of struggle, it’s become a site of struggle because the most brutal components of the occupation of Palestine are supported and funded and profited off most clearly on our campuses. The student movement is making it fundamentally impossible for our boards of trustees and our administrations to function in the old way of profiteering from Israel’s genocide without question.

LEVENS: I was going to say that we also have the intersection of 20 to 40,000 students at a university and them all coming together very explicitly to point out, ​“Your propaganda doesn’t work. It’s not going to work for the next generation.” I think a part of why universities feel so central in the fight is like, visibly, what’s not working? The Zionist propaganda and the Zionist movement isn’t working now.

HEDROUG: When we got arrested on April 22, the police officers that approached us at Yale were systematically targeting students of color and the visibly Muslim students. So me and my hijabi friend were the first handful of people to get arrested. I believe I was third. They even showed her hair to male police officers. And when she told them to stop doing that, they pushed her forward. They searched throughout my abaya and my jacket. And then the white students were kind of left in the background. And on top of that, they were giving additional warnings to white students like cops were going individually to them saying, ​“You don’t have to do this. If you decide to leave, you won’t be arrested.”

And I think, as shitty as that is, I think it also prompted me to think about something different. Because in general, throughout history, I feel like students from marginalized communities have just taken up the mantle of advocacy against these injustices that have been happening worldwide. Because again, it’s rooted in that collective experience of colonialism or imperialism or colonial oppression. But now, I’m seeing at least for Palestine, there’s a swell in white students assuming these frontline positions, and willing to get arrested or volunteering to get arrested. So they’re becoming kind of like the focal points of the movements or throughout the media. And I think it makes people kind of question, why are white people in these positions of privilege voluntarily engaging in the cause for Palestine? And then I think that just allows for broader discourse, because it forces people who are in positions of social privilege to do additional research on what’s going on in Palestine.

That makes our universities increasingly more nervous about, you know, white people placing themselves on these frontlines. And it prompts them to be more nervous because advocacy for Palestine isn’t only related to the Middle East. It’s about the intersectionality of all oppressed individuals worldwide. So it’s for people in Sudan, it’s for people in Haiti, it’s for people in Congo, right? And if they’re willing to stand against these injustices in Palestine, who’s to say that in the near future, they won’t also have similar responses, or pursue this type of radical advocacy for any forms of injustices that they see.

BAWAB: How are you all thinking about the current protests within the larger history of student movements for justice?

NSJP ORGANIZER: The history of the student movement for Palestinian liberation is one of the foundations of our national liberation struggle. The student movement for Palestine’s liberation over the last several years has been some of the most unified and politically proactive and visionary student organizing that the Palestinian student movement has produced.

The student movement started in Cairo, Egypt where the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) was created at universities and then flourished across the world. It was connected to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and had PLO orientations. But then Oslo Accords happen and GUPS collapses. In its absence emerges Students for Justice in Palestine. And so Students for Justice in Palestine emerges without an apparatus that it is connected to, or that is guiding it in the student movement.

This iteration of the student movement, it’s an expression of a movement that has really built itself and built its character and reconnected itself to a broader Palestine student movement. So it’s some of the most agitational it’s ever been. We have to understand the Popular University for Gaza as also the culmination of the last 10 years of student struggle. Students have passed over 100 divestment resolutions over the last 20 years, which have completely shattered the ideological apparatus that students unquestionably support Zionism, that this is something we’ll accept, they’ve shattered that. And now, our movement, the student movement, is in a moment to take these gains that we have made and transform them into actually materially shifting the relationship to Zionism. So we’ve shattered the illusion of an apparatus of Zionism on campus. It’s also deeply connected to the history of Black radicalism on campus, Latino radicalism on campus and other radical histories.

SMILEY: What is always so beautiful about student organizing in social movements is that there’s always been, even from its genesis, the connections and overlap about how we need to continue to build bridges — and fucking burn down borders. Hunter College has one of the oldest Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies departments in the country. And that didn’t happen because of the altruism of CUNY administration. That happened because students demanded it. But the thing that these universities still don’t get is that students aren’t going away. I mean, the only way they’re ever going to stop activism is if they stop allowing students in and that just goes against their entire model because then it’s not a university at all. And so, my hope is that students continue to mobilize, continue to organize.

HEDROUG: Some of the flags that I predominantly see at pro-Palestine actions are the Black Lives Matter flag and the South African flag because the systems are related and the struggles are so interlinked. And the last time we saw us occupying a space at Yale University was for the South African divestment movement. Now what I’m seeing is that history truly repeats itself and that our generation is continuing to do similar work.

Now, more than 150 universities nationwide are participating in these types of encampments. But the difference is that I feel like the tide is truly turning. As unfortunate as the war and the crisis in Gaza is, I think that that was the shift that required people to kind of open their eyes and really question Zionism and the Zionist movement in the United States. Faculty, staff, and students who have never involved themselves in Middle Eastern politics in the past are, instead of looking at the Middle East as this constant war zone that’s conflicted with crises and problems and terrorist groups etcetera, we’re now starting to kind of be slightly humanized. And for that I’m grateful, but I will continue to protest because, like myself and other Arabs on campus, we won’t continue to fall victim to the same systems of oppression that are complicit to the same systems of oppression that forcibly displaced our parents in the Middle East.

ABDELHADI: My friend and I wrote this speculative fiction, revolutionary novel (Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 20522072), and people are always asking where did this come from? How did you imagine this, a future without capitalism? And we always answer that we didn’t have to go very far to imagine it, we watched it happen at every social movement protest that we went to, every occupation of a public square, every encampment. We watch people do these incredible things. I watched as my students set up an encampment within a matter of minutes. And within a few hours, there was food for hundreds of people. And there was all this conversation about care and all this elaborate work to make sure that everybody’s taken care of.

It’s really important to note two things about that. One is that we are imagining a future, an abolitionist future, every time that we seize a piece of space, and we decide that we are going to run it by care, not by profit. The other is that we are going to run it ourselves, we’re going to run it outside of the logics of the state and the market.

And so even if we don’t win the specific goals, the demands that we have for these encampments, the fact of setting them up is a win, because it is carving out space in our imaginations and in the world for a different kind of life. While I agree that history is repeating itself, I think it’s doing more than that, I think it’s building on itself. We’re seeing how Palestine solidarity work has been so fundamentally shaped by the movement for Black lives and the strategies that were developed in that movement. And so none of it goes away, all of it feeds into the next wave of struggle.

BAWAB: Owen and Layla, can you talk about what the student demands are on your campuses and how they connect to the broader demands of both the Palestine liberation movement and other justice movements?

HEDROUG: The demands set forth by our movement is that Yale discloses their investments to Israeli weapon manufacturers, in a clear and transparent manner to students, and divests from those — as well as divests from all other forms or entities that contribute to human rights abuses worldwide. Other demands include protecting Muslim, Arab and other students of color who have been arrested, including granting them amnesty and encouraging the Yale police department to drop the charges of a misdemeanor against these students to an infraction or something below that.

And I want to reflect a little on how we were treated throughout the protests. The dean of the college sent out a statement when they closed our campus for the first time citing ​“protesters with a known history of violent confrontation with the police.” That type of language and rhetoric being spread across campus harms your own students, and that continues to harm any student who wants to speak out against injustices across Yale.

LEVENS: We have a really big focus obviously, as everywhere, on disclosure and divestment. And we already see really close ties with Israeli weapon manufacturers. So first, before we can even divest, we have to know. And knowing does nothing if we are just more open about the ways we’re complicit in genocide — if we’re also not divesting immediately.

For me personally, it was also understanding and deconstructing the colonialism and nationalism and ethno-nationalism that is fueling imperial policies in the U.S. and abroad. But there’s also the Jew inside of me that is just really inspired to see that there exists a thriving, holistic, beautiful and complete Judaism outside of the state of Israel.

It’s a lie that I was told, and that everyone is told, that there’s no Judaism without Israel and no Jewish safety without Israel, which is a lie. It’s a lie that enforces complacency and genocide, and colonialism and occupation. And I think, the overwhelming turnout I’ve seen from students here at DePaul and elsewhere, has been really inspiring and really comforting. I’m staying in a tent, because I care about humanity.

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