US advocacy groups back Palestine solidarity campus protests amid Gaza war

Nearly 190 advocacy organisations laud students’ ‘courage’ amid ongoing crackdown on encampments across US universities.

MIT protest
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology student hangs a sign on a barricade surrounding a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on April 28, 2024 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the United States [File: Amanda Sabga/Reuters]

Washington, DC – Dozens of faith, civil rights and progressive groups in the United States have expressed solidarity with university students protesting against US support for Israel amid the war on Gaza.

The groups – which include the Working Families Party, IfNotNow Movement, Sunrise Movement, Movement for Black Lives, and Gen-Z for Change – lauded the student protesters in a joint statement on Monday.

“We commend the students who are exercising their right to protest peacefully despite an overwhelming atmosphere of pressure, intimidation and retaliation, to raise awareness about Israel’s assault on Gaza – with US weapons and funding,” the organisations said.

“These students have come forth with clear demands that their universities divest from corporations profiting from Israeli occupation, and demanding safe environments for Palestinians across their campuses.”

The signatories also included the Arab American Institute, MPower Change Action Fund, Greenpeace USA and Justice Democrats.

The statement, backed by nearly 190 groups, highlights the growing progressive support for the campus protest movement as it enters its third week, despite crackdowns by university administrators and law enforcement agencies.

While students have been protesting the war on Gaza since its outbreak on October 7, the new wave of demonstrations – marked by protesters setting up encampments on their campuses – has gripped the country and made international headlines.

The students are calling for their universities to disclose their investments and end ties with firms involved with the Israeli military.

‘Violent response’

The protests started to gain momentum earlier in April at Columbia University in New York, where students continue to face arrests after the college administration called on police to clear their encampments.

Still, similar protests have sprung up across the US, as well as in other countries.

Hundreds of students have been arrested in the US so far with footage emerging of students, professors and journalists being violently detained by officers on various campuses.

“As we stand in solidarity with the students protesting in encampments across the country, we reaffirm our commitment to amplifying their voices, condemn the university administration officials’ violent response to their activism, and demand that universities remove the presence of police and other militarized forces from their campuses,” the advocacy groups said on Monday.

Earlier in the day, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik released a statement calling on the student protesters to “voluntarily disperse”.

“We are consulting with a broader group in our community to explore alternative internal options to end this crisis as soon as possible,” Shafik said.

She accused the encampment of creating an “unwelcoming environment” for Jewish students and faculty. But student protesters have rejected accusations of anti-Semitism, underscoring that many of the organisers engaged in the demonstrations are themselves Jewish.

“While the University will not divest from Israel, the University offered to develop an expedited timeline for review of new proposals from the students by the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing, the body that considers divestment matters,” Shafik added.

Her statement failed to mention Palestinians or the anti-Arab and Islamophobic bigotry that demonstrators have reported receiving from counterprotesters.

Columbia later issued a threat to suspend and take disciplinary actions against students if they do not clear the encampment by Monday afternoon. The university had set previous deadlines to end the protests, which the students appeared to ignore.

Political backlash

The crackdown on protesters and faculty members who support them has raised concerns about academic freedom and free speech on US campuses.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued an open letter to public and private universities, warning them against violating the rights of protesters. The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and speech.

“As you fashion responses to the activism of your students (and faculty and staff), it is essential that you not sacrifice principles of academic freedom and free speech that are core to the educational mission of your respected institution,” it read.

The ACLU also urged campus leaders to resist “pressures placed on them by politicians seeking to exploit campus tensions to advance their own notoriety or partisan agendas”.

Politicians from both major parties have condemned student demonstrators and accused them of anti-Semitism.

“I don’t care what your demands are. Get the hell out of our community and never come back. Those are my demands,” Republican Congressman Brandon Williams wrote in a social media post on Monday in response to protesters at Syracuse University in central New York state.  “And the clock is ticking.”

Last month, Williams introduced a bill titled “Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act”.

‘They risk everything’

Amid this backlash, the dozens of progressive groups who voiced support for the students on Monday said the students’ “courage and determination in the face of adversity inspire us all to take action and speak out against injustice wherever it occurs”.

“As they risk everything right now, it is critical that all of us do everything we can to support them.”

Student organisers have stressed that their protests aim to spread awareness about the abuses in Gaza, where Israel has killed more than 34,400 people and imposed a severe blockade on the territory, bringing it to the verge of starvation.

They have warned that the politicians’ focus on them aims to distract from Israeli atrocities and US support for the war.

“Part of the reactionary response to this is to treat the campus protest itself as the problem, as the crisis – as opposed to as a response to a crisis that we should be paying attention to,” Eman Abdelhadi, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, told Al Jazeera last week.

“But I don’t think the movement itself is a distraction in the sense that the students themselves have been steadfast in turning the camera back towards Gaza.”

Source: Al Jazeera