Why the State Can’t Compromise with the Gaza Solidarity Movement


And What That Means for Us


On April 17, students at Columbia University initiated an on-campus encampment in solidarity with Gaza. After the administration called in the New York City police department in a failed attempt to evict the encampment, students across the country established encampments and occupations of their own. In the following analysis, participants in the movement explore the strategic questions it confronts today.

Why the State Can’t Compromise with the Movement in Solidarity with Gaza

After students began occupying Columbia in solidarity with Palestinians, student occupations and encampments spread like wildfire, occupying over one hundred universities around the world. Well over two thousand students have been arrested. Each day has seen new occupations and new tactics. Again and again, police repression has outraged students, professors, and community members, drawing larger numbers to more and more militant demonstrations. The movement for Palestinian liberation is growing by leaps and bounds in the United States as a consequence of the bravery of demonstrators and blockaders over the past six months—most recently, thanks to occupiers who have been willing to risk arrest, police brutality, defamation, doxxing, and expulsion.

On April 30, police staged a militarized raid on Columbia University, locking other students and faculty members inside dormitories and campus housing and holding them hostage while they brutalized and arrested demonstrators. Similar scenes played out at the City University of New York (CUNY). Police have launched tear gas at students at the University of South Florida in Tampa, allowed fascists and Zionists to attack an encampment at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) with pepper spray and fireworks, and engaged in skirmishes with students across the country.

Yet as repression has escalated, so has resistance. The movement gained its initial momentum when students at Columbia immediately reestablished an encampment after police evicted the first one. Similar stories have played out from Texas to California and Illinois. When the Los Angeles Police Department joined fascists in attempting to evict the Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA, protesters with helmets and shields held them at bay for eight hours.

Why are the police being so heavy-handed? Why are the media contorting themselves into increasingly bizarre contradictions to condemn the protests? Why are the Democrats and the Republicans united in opposing these protests? And how is it that, in their haste to crack down, university administrations, politicians, and police appear to have forgotten the basic principles of protest management?

Demonstrators face off with the police from behind a barricade on UCLA campus on May 1, 2024.

Where We Are

What follows is a brief attempt to address those questions, in hopes of getting oriented in the new terrain that is opening up before us.

The basic demand to see Palestinians as human beings is incompatible with the agendas of the United States government and universities.

The US needs Israel as a strategic partner to maintain a foothold in the Middle East; universities rely on funding from and research relationships with the military, arms manufacturers, and Zionists.1 It is impossible to acknowledge that Palestinians are entitled to the universal human rights that form the basis of the US empire’s claim to moral legitimacy while continuing to supply the weaponry, funding, and diplomatic cover necessary for the Israeli military to continue killing civilians and destroying their homes. These protests reveal deep-seated contradictions between discourse and practice that the government, corporate media platforms, and universities are determined to conceal.

They know full well that they are complicit in genocide—yet, like any bully, they double down on their lies when confronted. There is simply no space in the US government or media to acknowledge opposition to Israeli settler-colonialism as a morally defensible position. This explains the unification of Democrats and Republicans in opposition to the protests as well as the intense repression that the authorities immediately meted out. It also explains the incredible rhetorical acrobatics on display from media outlets as they excuse police for beating large numbers of demonstrators—many of whom are Jewish—in the name of combatting anti-Semitism. This is especially egregious as mass graves are uncovered in Gaza, Israeli bombardments continue, and Netanyahu continues to promise a ground invasion of Rafah, even after slaughtering over 35,000 Palestinians, over two thirds of whom were women and children.

University administrations are caught in an impossible position.

From one side, despite their inherent institutional conservatism, the universities face an escalating frontal assault by right-wing politicians on both the state and federal levels, not to mention the threat of capital flight leveraged by billionaire donors. On the other side, the universities are experiencing a mass revolt from students and faculty mobilizing around the seemingly reasonable demand that they stop supporting the mass murder of children and the attempt to erase an entire people. The only way the administrations can imagine that they might survive the former is by cracking down on the latter as hard as possible.

They are forced to justify this in the name of free speech and safety, even as the police they bring in shoot live rounds at random inside campus buildings. Likewise, although many of the protest encampments represent the most successful voluntary collaboration between Muslim and Jewish students taking place anywhere in the world today, the administrations have claimed that it was necessary to destroy them in order to keep the peace.

Police carrying out a militarized raid of a Gaza solidarity encampment to “keep the peace” and protect student “safety.”

Accusations of anti-Semitism are cynical lies coming from administrators and politicians who have already showed that they could not care less about protecting students from actual white nationalists.

The same university administrators who used “free speech” as an excuse to vilify and arrest students for protesting against white nationalists speaking on campus are now attacking and brutalizing anti-Zionist Jewish and Palestinian protestors in the name of protecting Jewish students from anti-Semitism. Free speech and student safety are both false pretenses: the truth is that university administrations and police will seek to destroy any force that actively challenges their power. This explains the previously unthinkable alliance between Republicans who refuse to disavow white nationalists in their own party, Democrats who champion genocide in the name of resisting anti-Semitism, and university administrators.

The Democrats are attacking these struggles because it is impossible to incorporate them into the left wing of the Democratic Party.

There is no way for Democrats to give the Israeli government carte blanche to carry out genocide while buying the votes of those who believe that the lives of Palestinians have inherent value. This makes for a situation that may be unique among all the mass struggles in recent history.

Centrist media outlets and Democratic politicians were prepared to countenance the George Floyd Uprising of 2020 in hopes of drawing activists back into the fold of policy negotiations. They thought that they could exploit those protests to build an electoral base against Trump during an election year.

This moment is different. It is impossible for the Democrats to budge at all now because both parties have hinged their political platforms on unequivocal support of the Israeli government, condemning any opposition as anti-Semitic. Democratic politicians have continued doubling down on that position even as it has become more and more preposterous. The fact that the Democrats now control the federal government prevents them from benefiting from outrage against what is effectively a bipartisan policy.

In that sense, there is a sort of symmetry here. While the (first?) Trump era ended with the George Floyd Uprising, cementing the ascendancy of direct action tactics at the culmination of four years of resistance to Trump, the Biden era appears to be ending with a conflagration of its own, signifying an irreparable break between the centrists and the autonomous movements they have long sought to co-opt.

The barricades around the Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA.

We should read the violent repression and media slander as a sign of the rigidity and vulnerability of those in power.

They are defending a fundamentally untenable position with an apparently irrational amount of violence. Likewise, corporate media pundits are decrying us despite the fact that the demand to stop the genocide is more popular than either presidential candidate—according to one recent poll, 55% of Americans disapprove of Israel’s military actions, while only 36% approve. The fact that the movement has grown in numbers and ferocity despite so much repression is a sign of its vitality and strength.

This situation is somewhat reminiscent of the circumstances in which the movement for Black Lives originally got off the ground. A decade ago, when the revolt in Ferguson broke out in response to the murder of Michael Brown, it was difficult even to obtain information about how many people police killed every year; abolitionists were among the only people addressing the issue. As a consequence, the movement gained momentum as that question gained traction among the general public, because practically no one else was offering a persuasive account of what was occurring or why. Similarly, the fact that neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to acknowledge the truth about what is happening in Gaza, who opposes the genocide, and why they oppose it constitutes a tremendous vulnerability for them.

Politicians are terrified of the protests, but they are even more terrified by the prospect that the protests could continue past the end of the school year, spilling over the bounds of the campus and into a long, hot, summer.

It is the responsibility of anyone trying to stop this genocide to ensure that their nightmare becomes a reality. And it could: the George Floyd Uprising is still alive in the memories of the millions of people who participated.

The state wants to smash these protests before they expand. Anyone who truly aims to end the genocide in Gaza should want this political crisis to expand and deepen. In the long run, the only way to end the genocide in Gaza will be to the dismantle the American war machine and the corporate board rooms that drive it.

Potential Pitfalls

If the foregoing hypotheses are correct, then there are several pitfalls that participants in this movement should be careful to avoid.

Every occupation that disbands after winning minor concessions will only pave the way for genocide.

The original Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University began by rejecting empty promises:

The administration sent representatives to negotiate. In the first round, they offered a “non-binding, university-wide divestment referendum”—an unimpressive offer, since the university had refused to take any action after a similar referendum passed at Columbia College in 2020 with 61% of the vote.

The wave of encampments around the country was only possible because the students at Columbia refused to fall into that trap again.

Abandoning the encampments and the spirit of confrontation that has made them possible means closing the space of political possibility that we desperately need right now. It means shutting down the zone of potential encounters, where participants can experience the sort of political and tactical development that will be necessary to build a post-imperial, anti-colonial form of life.

At the same time, the only way that these occupations can actually stop the genocide will be by catalyzing a much larger social explosion and political crisis. The terrain at stake here is much larger than the university—and the participants in every occupation should operate with that in mind. Our objective should not be to obtain promises, or committees, or even divestment, per se; our goal should be to bring about Palestinian liberation as an aspect of total liberation. We should evaluate every tactic according to whether it can enable us to advance towards those goals, understanding that Palestinian liberation will only come about as the result of a full-scale political crisis in the United States.

Do not let “centering Palestine” serve as a rationale to become less disruptive.

The war machine killing Palestinians is an essential part of the war-making institutions of the US empire, which includes not only universities and weapons contractors, but the economy itself. All of these are interconnected with other governments and colonial projects around the world. Stopping the genocide of the Palestinians means challenging every aspect of the prevailing world order.

The voices of most of those who suffer as a consequence of that order are rarely heard within the walls of universities.

This is about you, too.

As the struggle against Cop City in Atlanta has made clear, the oppression of the Palestinian people represents a blueprint for a possible future for all of us. In fighting for a free Palestine, we are fighting for our own future, as well. Acknowledging this should strengthen our resolve to put an immediate stop to the genocide.

Palestinians have been steadfast in their solidarity with struggles in America, from Ferguson to the uprising of 2020 and beyond. Students at Columbia University articulated these connections when they began chanting “Stop Cop City” during the police raid on April 30. Cop City is everywhere, the roots of the genocide in Gaza are everywhere, resistance is everywhere.

Those concerned with their personal safety should not deny others the freedom to take risks that they are willing to accept.

There is no shame in being afraid for your safety. This is an increasingly frightening situation. The question is how we can build the collective capacity to take the risks—and endure the consequences—necessary to create a world without state terror. One of the minimum conditions for this undertaking is that we must not attempt to dictate to others what actions should be possible or acceptable.

If you are not prepared for the risks that you perceive to be associated with a particular tactic or strategy, do not attempt to prevent others from employing or pursuing it. Simply look for another role you could play or a complementary strategy you could pursue.

“What I mean by ‘daring’ is a readiness to walk into terrain which none of us explored before. What I mean by ‘caution’ is the perception that our ability to approach this terrain grows only to the extent that all those like us approach it with equal daring. We’re reaching for a field of possibilities that can be reached only if we move together as we’ve never moved before; we proceed with caution because those who move too far ahead will be caught without a lifeline to the rest. What I think is taking place around me is an advance consisting of small steps taken by all simultaneously. Each small step creates the conditions for taking the next. Any move that prevents the continued advance of all cuts off the possibility of further advance by any.”

-Fredy Perlman

This risk assessment matrix might assist you in making decisions about risk and consequence.

Moving Forward

Since the end of the Second World War, genocide has been understood as the clearest example of absolute evil. “Never again!” has been held up as a moral imperative. Although the United States has used this narrative cynically on numerous occasions to justify military intervention, it nonetheless expressed the laudable judgment of people of conscience everywhere.

The current conflict amounts to this: either the United States empire must be dismantled or the conscience of a whole generation will be destroyed.

In view of these stakes, the participants in every encampment and occupation—including the ones that have been forcibly evicted—should consider the following strategic questions.

What is the next step in escalation? How will you respond to a raid, an eviction, or slow death by committee? What is your plan if Israel begins a ground invasion of Rafah? Will you take a building, march downtown and impose economic consequences, blockade highways and ports, or something entirely new? If the encampments become impossible to defend, what is the next step that allows people to continue struggling together?

How do we keep growing after the semester ends? How can on-campus struggles benefit from non-student support? Can the power built on campuses overflow into the communities that surround them?

How do we shift antagonism away from university administrators, whom politicians are currently using as sacrificial shields, towards the adversaries whose defeat would actually impede the war machine? Divesting from war profiteers is a good first step; occupying factories and blockading ports would be a logical escalation. Who are the billionaires and vested money interests forcing the crackdown on campuses? Who has the most to lose from putting an end to unconditional US support for the Israeli military’s colonial violence?

How can we act now in ways that will prepare us to confront the likely return of Donald Trump to power in January 2025? We will need every tactical innovation, every new relationship, every network and form of infrastructure that we can build to confront the full force of right-wing fascism that looms in our future. We are in a moment when history cracks open and countless new possibilities and dangers emerge as the old order crumbles.

What comes next could be terrifying. But our part in the story is up to us.

  1. While anti-Semitic fascists have sought to spread the narrative that Israel controls the United States, it is the other way around: Israel is the junior partner in the relationship, serving a purpose for the United States government, just as Christian nationalists in the US treat Israelis as pawns within their agenda.