Two Directions for the Campus Divestment Movement

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Ivan Drury Zarin

May 28, 2024 encampment set up by students at the Wayne State University in solidarity with the victims of Israeli bombing in Gaza. The university responded by canceling classes “until further notice.” Ali Hassan, president of the WSU Muslim Coalition, speaks to journalists at the camp. Photo: Jim West

SIX MONTHS INTO Israel’s escalated and open genocide in Palestine, there were signs that the global antiwar movement was beginning to flag. Rallies and marches had filled streets in hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada every week since October, and solidarity activists in many places were carrying out an impressive and diverse array of actions just as consistently.

Direct actions blocked rail lines, highways, ports, bridges, and all sorts of roads. An early morning action even blockaded the delivery of the New York Times. Campaigns to expand the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement sprung up in labor unions and city council chambers and publishing houses.

Activists even interrupted the electoral field, usually sanitized against any mention of Palestinian solidarity, dividing the Democratic Party with the surprising success of the “uncommitted” or “uninstructed” primary votes against President Biden’s unblinking Zionism.

But after two dozen weeks of constant activity, the demonstrations were no longer growing in size and some activists were beginning to complain of a certain “routinism” in the mobilizations.

Then — incredibly — the campus encampments kicked off and changed everything.

The Movement Surges

The great accomplishment of the campus encampments has been their radicalization of the movement for Gaza. Before the camps, the consensus of the movement was captured in its central “ceasefire now” slogan that communicated the urgency and also the spontaneity of the movement, which kicked off as suddenly as Israel’s terrible bombings.

The strength of “ceasefire” was that it focused on the consensus across most of the movement, that the most urgent and indisputable task was to stop Israel’s massacre of Palestinian people.

“Ceasefire” also allowed for articulations beyond the immediate moment — as anti-Zionist activists explained that the “fire” had not begun on October 7, and would not be extinguished simply by stopping the bombing while Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and all its settler-colonial apartheid policies remained in place. But it also allowed for ambiguity on these points.

Then as Israel’s genocide became increasingly visibly horrific, governments that arm, fund and “stand with” Israel generally began to pick at the corners of Netanyahu’s war policy, eventually calling for a ”temporary” ceasefire, with all the qualifiers that muddied the power of the initial demand.

It was in this context that the campus-based movement demand for divestment — as lever for a more enduring ceasefire — represented a radicalization. Demanding that universities divest from Israel-associated companies re-rooted the politics of the Gaza solidarity movement in ground at once local and international.

The divestment demand collapses the distance between Columbia University and Gaza with a genius inversion of the circulation of global capital. Israel’s special relationship with the US means that any aid money it receives, it can redirect to the military, and as Israel receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid, those dollars circulate through the Israel occupation forces as freely and regularly as through Oregon.

Especially, Joel Beinin argues, in the realm of intellectual and technological commodities, where there is an “extraordinarily dense interpenetration” between the United States and Israel. “At the personnel level,” Beinin says, “high tech people commute back and forth from Silicon Valley to Israel every two weeks.”

The campus divestment demand reveals the intimacy of the U.S.-Israel entanglement, implicating local structures of U.S. power in Israel’s endless war against Palestinians. This reaches down into everyday social life in the United States (as well as Canada, parts of Latin America, and Europe where campus actions are also underway in Germany, Austria, Netherlands and the UK) and excavates an international program for collective action.

But there is also a second direction in this slogan. If wrenched out the hands of the movement in the quad or the streets, divestment can be neutralized and turned into a “policy problem” best handled by bureaucrats seated around oak tables. On some campuses, this appropriation and neutralization of the divestment demand is already underway.

Choosing Violent Repression

The initial response to the campus movement from administration was brutal. It took only thirty hours for the president of Columbia University to call in the police and smash the first Gaza solidarity encampment.

But students responded by occupying Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, renaming it Hind’s Hall in honor of Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl who was murdered by Israeli fire while trapped in a car, “pleading for help into a cell phone, surrounded by dead family members,” as occupiers wrote in a statement.

Members of the Columbia University encampment say that they decided to start the Hind’s Hall action in order to respond to the university’s escalation with their own. In their statement, they write, “By moving from the lawn and liberating a university building, we escalated our tactics to apply greater pressure on the administration and to inspire others to take bold action.”

The tactic described here had a double target: the administration, which had refused to acknowledge the demands of the encampment on the lawn of the campus, and also the rest of the U.S. Gaza solidarity movement.

The first response came from the administration, which again sent the police to brutally arrest three hundred people. The Hind’s Hall account of the police response is chilling:

“The NYPD’s Strategic Response Group violently arrested those defending us outside the building, flinging one protester down the stairs and leaving them unconscious, dragging others away as they tried to help.

“Inside Hind’s Hall, we faced stun grenades, a rogue gunshot from a trigger happy pig, batons and circular saws, face stomping, head trauma, fractured bones, sprains and cuts and bruises. Once we were in police custody, they stole hijabs off the heads of Muslim women, sexually harassed our gender-marginalized comrades, threatened and ridiculed us.”

But then, after the occupation of Hind’s Hall was smashed by police violence, students started encampments on dozens of university campuses in the United States, Canada, Europe and Mexico.

The decision of university presidents to respond to the encampment movement with violence is gratuitous and even would be a bit surprising — if this movement were for any other cause. Why attack students with such open and terrible force? Why not negotiate, offer  token settlements, and wait for their forces to dissipate once the semester ends?

On the New Left Review Sidecar blog, Forrest Hylton argues that it has to do with the neoliberalization of universities. In the last two decades privatization has been “catastrophic for democratic principles and practices,” both for students, who have to pay obscene tuitions, and for faculty, who have lost job security. Now two-thirds of U.S. college faculty are non-tenure, while the security of those with tenure are under attack.

This, along with the alignment of these corporatized universities with the radically intertwined U.S. and Israeli militaries, goes a long way to explain why university presidents lack the community controls and accountability that might hold them back from attacking students.

But this does not explain why they have chosen violence in these particular instances rather than negotiated settlements, which would likely be more effective for maintaining their control over their campuses.

This state violence is the language of a petulant oppressor in a corner, the spittled tantrum of a king. With each police raid on a Gaza solidarity encampment the imperialist state inks its red line, across which there is no recourse to reason; it is the boiling point where discourse evaporates and the instruments of violent force, crouching below the surface of the waters of liberal reason, are revealed.

Divestment as Wedge

Administrators choose violence because they find the political terms of discussion set by the Gaza solidarity encampments intolerable. It is self-evident that university presidents — whose job in the corporatized university is more financial asset manager and fundraiser than anything to do with academics — refuse to review their investment portfolios with student oversight and community accountability.

This is the economic and material challenge posed by the divestment encampments. But the divestment demand also cuts into reigning ideologies upheld by universities: lies that maintain bourgeois power in the United States and in the world imperialist system, of which Israel remains an important outpost.

On the level of domestic politics, divestment reveals the identity of liberal civil society institutions with the military and police state in both the USA and Israel. It drives a discursive wedge into the established Zionist claim that criticism of Israel is anti-Jewish.

The front line role of Jewish students in the encampments has been an important part of the power of this challenge, and the danger administrators are afraid of has already happened — the ideological link between Israel and Jewish people in the United States has been fractured.

Now, every blow from a police club swung in defense of Zionism punctuates the artificiality of the linkage between the safety of Jewish people in the world and the “right of Israel to defend itself.”

The goal of police repression is to terrorize students when they express these ideas: highlighting them as beyond the limit of acceptable speech. And that initial terror improvised by eager cops set loose on students by anxious administrators is now being structured and legally coded by state governments and university administrations, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s March 27 executive order that requires universities to punish students who speak out against Zionism.

These legal prohibitions and the correlative cultural tightening of restrictions on speech are aided by the prior spectacle of police violence reframed as evidence of student radicalism and violence inherent to the Gaza solidarity movement, which requires exceptional measures to shut down.

Once the police terror began, every university administration acted in its shadow. Even when administrators that did not send in riot cops offered negotiated settlements, the threat of police violence lingered like a phantom behind them.

Dubious Agreements

A half dozen Gaza solidarity encampments have signed agreements with universities that have been described, mostly inaccurately, as divestment agreements or victories for the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign. The most clear and binding element of most of these agreements has been on the campus movement to demobilize and de-escalate their actions, and dismantle their encampments. The commitments of most university administrations are far less clear.

The agreement at Northwestern University stipulates that the Gaza solidarity movement on campus take down tents, not use a sound system for rallies, and that “only Northwestern students, faculty, and staff will be allowed in the demonstration area” for future rallies, including that protestors cooperate with ID-ing people at rallies.

In exchange, Northwestern University committed only to re-establishing its “Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility,” with an unspecified representation of students, faculty and staff, and providing information on its current investments.

At Brown University, the Brown Divest Coalition agreed to take down their encampment and “not resume any encampment activity” nor that “any leaders of the Coalition participate in any activities related to any encampment or any unauthorized protest activity this academic year, including during Commencement and Reunion Weekend.”

In exchange, Brown University committed to having a subcommittee hear a divestment report from five students; that this sub-committee will then make a recommendation to the President, and “the matter will be placed on the agenda of the [University] Corporation business meeting for a vote in October 2024.”

Brown also agreed to drop charges against forty students arrested at an action in December and that it will not retaliate further for past protest actions.

The agreements signed at Rutgers, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Chapman University in California all bear basically these same features: students will stop all disruptions immediately, and the university will hear a report, start a subcommittee, or create a new diversity provision to better include some Palestinian students in the school.

The exceptions have been at Evergreen College in Washington State and at University of California-Riverside, but even these relatively positive examples do not include divestment agreements.

At Riverside, negotiators representing the Gaza Solidarity Encampment agreed to decamp in exchange for the university’s public disclosing of investments and to form a task force including students appointed by the school’s diversity council “to explore the… investment of [Riverside’s] endowment in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university with consideration to the companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery.”

Unlike most schools, Riverside has committed to review its investments, but only its endowment portfolio, not all investments, and is not targeting Israeli investments. Even if its agreement is carried out in full, any Riverside divestments will not economically or politically contribute to pressure on Israeli apartheid.

At Evergreen College, administration made probably the greatest concessions, creating four subcommittees with three student representatives on each committee, which will be appointed by the student union, not by the university. Two of these committees refer to Israeli apartheid, directly or indirectly, the others to policing.

The elephant in the negotiations rooms that produced these agreements had to have been the police violence at Columbia, CUNY, UCLA and Austin. In some cases that intimidation factor would also have coupled with a sense from negotiators, without the counterbalance of established democratic decision-making processes in camps that were often just a few days old, that taking some deal, any deal, was better than the camp getting broken up and demoralized by an inevitable police raid, or losing momentum as the semester ended — that this was as good as it was going to get.

Looking Ahead

The struggle ahead for the divestment movement on campuses is unclear. None of the agreements that took down encampments include any veto or oversight power for the Gaza solidarity movement. But how could it, when the movement is not an institution or state decision making body?

Lessons of the 2020 Movement for Black Lives should be illustrative here. Whatever defunding gestures or promises that cities made during the height of that powerful movement faded when the movement’s momentum slowed.

Movements exist by the power of their momentum, and when that movement slows, the power is lost. University, city, and state administrators seem to have learned that lesson well, and we must too.

Some campus encampments have been steered into dead-end hopes of policy reform through administrator-controlled subcommittees. But we should not overstate the significance of this counterinsurgency.

Even if sectors are diverted into dead-end policy rooms, those will not hold the imagination and determination of the movement. The real motor force of the movement is the Palestinian resistance — and these policy discussions have nothing to do with stopping the war on Gaza or freeing Palestine.

As the spring semester drew to a close and campus encampments dealt with the threats of police repression and neutralization by policy room, some people in encampments called for “escalation” in order to renew the movement, refuse routinization, and continue to fight to defend Gaza.

Encampments have been spaces of a diversity of tactics in the very best ways. But tactics can sometimes be fetishized and romanticized. Unless tactics stem from a clear political focus, there is a risk of losing track of their situation within a general strategy. The lessons of the campus encampment movement should be absorbed and understood in order to uplift those principles into the next phase of the movement.

It was the politics of the encampments that has made them powerful — that simultaneously local and internationalist focus, the practical and programmatic divestment demand, with a clear focused local target that also never lost sight of the Palestinian struggle.

Whatever the next phase of the movement looks like, it will need to be guided by these principles in order to continue to build pressure against the Israel-U.S. war machine.

References are in the longer version of this article.

July-August 2024, ATC 231

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