The history of student movements and how campus protests for Gaza stack up, explained

Campus protests for Gaza may be the biggest of the 21st century.

A statue of George Washington has a keffiyeh around its neck and a Palestinian flag as a cape. Behind it, students camp in tents and sit on the grass.

George Washington University students camp out on campus to demand that their university divest from Israel and call for a ceasefire in Gaza, on April 25, 2024, in Washington, DC, United States. Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu via Getty Images Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Protests against the war in Gaza have spread to college campuses across the country in the days since students at Columbia University were arrested last week, evoking images of historical student protests that were met with similar backlash.

Recent protests have not yet reached the scale of the major student protests of the late 1960s against the Vietnam War or the 1980s against South African apartheid. But on campus, they may be “the largest student movement so far” of the 21st century, said Robert Cohen, a professor of social studies and history at New York University who has studied student activism. In recent decades, there were mass protests against the Iraq War, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and after the killing of George Floyd, but they were primarily happening off campus.

Just like the protesters that came before them, the students who are now being arrested, and in some cases suspended, for setting up encampments on their campuses in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza have been demonized by politicians. The vast majority are peaceful protesters who have been overshadowed by a minority of bad actors, some potentially not even affiliated with the universities where these demonstrations are taking place.

Some of their demands, including divestiture from firms that support Israel’s war and occupation, mirror demands that past protesters made to divest from South Africa’s apartheid government. And their discontent has similarly intensified in the face of police crackdowns.

But there are key differences as well. Besides their smaller size, the present-day protests have faced swifter suppression than their predecessors dealt with. In perhaps the most extreme example at the University of Texas-Austin, administrators quickly dispatched police with horses and riot gear absent any signs of violence at a pro-Palestinian protest; charges were later dropped against all 57 arrested. And that signals a deterioration of schools’ commitment to protecting free speech that emerged in the 1960s.

“I think that the fact that this has happened so quickly is unprecedented. And the call for suppression of speech is much more public,” Cohen said.

These protests are only getting started, and it’s too early to tell just how large they might get before classes let out for the summer. But the opposition they’ve faced from their inception could make it harder to build the kind of momentum that their predecessors had — and to achieve their goals.

What today’s protests do and don’t have in common with the antiwar protests of the 1960s

Columbia students famously occupied university buildings in 1968 in protest against segregation and the Vietnam War before the police forcibly removed them. They wanted Columbia to end the construction of a segregated gymnasium nearby in Morningside Park and to cut ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which was researching weapons development for the US government’s war effort.

This all happened against a backdrop of broader anti-war and anti-racism protests across the US, both on and off campuses, that helped energize the student movement. Student protests swept college campuses in the 1960s, involving thousands of students and hundreds of universities. Those protests remain the biggest in history; the current protest movement is “clearly growing, but it’s nowhere near that scale,” said Angus Johnston, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York studying student protests.

The tactics employed by protesters in the 1960s were also vastly different. While many started and remained peaceful, at their most extreme, students rioted, barricaded themselves in buildings, fought with police, burned down ROTC buildings, and raided draft boards to steal or destroy files. They culminated in the Kent State massacre in 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard shot at a crowd of unarmed student protesters, killing four and injuring nine.

The recent protests, on the other hand, have not gone anywhere near as far.

“What we are seeing in this spring’s wave of protest is students who are not engaging in property damage. They are not for the most part occupying buildings. They are certainly not initiating physical altercations on any large-scale level,” Johnston said. “In the late ’60s, what we were seeing was protests that were much more aggressive in their tactics than the ones that we’re seeing today.”

Some students vocally opposed these tactics in the 1960s. Notably, Donald Trump’s former attorney general Bill Barr was among a group of Columbia students, known as the Majority Coalition, who banded together to defend the university buildings from protesters and were incensed that they could not attend class.

Student opposition to today’s protests has highlighted antisemitic incidents at or around some protests, raising concerns about their safety.

For instance, one student at Columbia wrote an op-ed in Haaretz with the headline, “Jewish Students are No Longer Safe at Columbia University.” He wrote that a masked student on campus showed him a Hamas insignia and said he was “with them,” and that another protester near campus shoved him against a wall.

At the same time, Jewish students have also participated in the protests, which have been largely peaceful.

“One of the weapons that can be used now by students who don’t like what’s happening around them to say, ‘I don’t feel safe. I’m scared,’” said Daniel Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas who has studied American activism. “I think that certainly didn’t occur in the 1960s.”

One way today’s protests resemble those of the 1960s, however, is that they’ve escalated when university administrators have sent in the police to break them up. Both now and then, students who did not participate in the initial or more radical elements of the protests resented being characterized as confrontational and disruptive.

“If you treat everybody like they’re radical militants who are out to do violent misdeeds, you tend to get what you characterize,” said Farber. “It radicalized [protesters in the ’60s]. It made them angrier. It didn’t make them go away.”

Politicians also sought to capitalize on the backlash to the protests of the ’60s, just as some are now. In the 1966 California governor’s race, former President Ronald Reagan accused the incumbent governor and the president of the University of California of not being tough enough on protesters at Berkeley, even though they conducted a mass arrest of students.

“Reagan got elected governor by pledging to clean up the mess of Berkeley,” Cohen said.

If that sounds familiar to today, you’re not wrong. Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, took a similar tack and visited Columbia’s campus Wednesday to demand that the university president resign for not being strict enough with the protesters, even though she had just called the police on protesters. His party, meanwhile, continues to wage war on elite universities that it accuses of promoting “woke” ideas.

Today’s protests have a lot in common with anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s

A better analogy for today’s protests might be the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.

Students built up their power in university governance and assembled lobbying groups throughout the 1970s. They also became more of a political force when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972. That meant that, by the time protests against South African apartheid gained steam in the 1980s, they had accumulated more political influence and were better organized.

Their demands of university administrations were practically identical to what protesters are asking for today. They wanted their universities to divest from firms that supported or profited from South African apartheid. And they were effective: 155 universities ultimately divested. And in 1986, the US government also bowed to pressure from protesters and enacted a divestment policy.

Along with increasing protests within South Africa led by organizations including the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, and trade unions, that kind of international pressure helped force the white South African government to begin negotiations that ultimately ended apartheid, at least officially.

But protesters also didn’t face much pushback in the ’80s because there was a “certain embarrassment among elites in the United States that there was complicity with South Africa’s white government,” Farber said.

“It was kind of pushing against an open door,” he said. “It wasn’t really a polarizing issue.”

That differs from today, when the Gaza war has revealed a major generational divide and there doesn’t exist the same kind of consensus among Americans.

The divestment movement against the apartheid government — which started with universities and then was adopted by the US federal government — also arguably packed a bigger punch due to vulnerabilities in South Africa’s economy, including the fact that many of its goods could be substituted with products from elsewhere.

Assuming that divesting from Israel would be possible (and some say it is not), the scholarship on such divestment movements’ effectiveness is mixed.

It would be very difficult to effectively boycott or ban imports of all Israeli goods, many of which do not have substitutes or at least would be hard to replace. That includes computer technology, medical devices, drugs, and advanced machinery in heavy industry. That doesn’t necessarily mean that divestment from Israel would not have a significant impact on public perception of the war in Gaza and the Israeli occupation. But the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which predates the current protests — has so far had a negligible economic impact.

“The data suggests that, economically, anything short of official sanctions by important economic partners such as the United States or European Union would be unlikely to produce anything near the kind of economic pressure BDS supporters envision,” researchers at the Brookings Institution concluded.

University administrators are now also facing pressure from donors and politicians that didn’t exist during the 1980s. At least one billionaire donor has indicated that he intends to pull his support from Columbia amid the protests. And over 30 states have laws that preclude their governments from doing business with companies that embrace the BDS movement against Israel.

“The call for the divestment of Israel has a lot of opposition because there’s a lot of political power structure to support Israel,” Cohen said.

Why universities are breeding grounds for political activism

There is something about a university campus that inspires political activism. Even in the age of social media, geographic proximity to a community with a high concentration of young people — many of whom are thinking critically about the world for the first time and may be undistracted by the pressures of adult life — seems to help incubate social movements.

“The university is the center of teaching and learning where people are taught in classes, or out of classes, to question things,” Cohen said.

This isn’t specific to America. All around the world, college campuses are hubs of political activity and young people are at the forefront of social movements.

But the more conservative elements of American society have never really wanted students to play that role. There was a persistent sense throughout major social movements in American history that young people were disrespecting their elders and the value of their education, with contemporary polls showing widespread disapproval of the sit-in movement against racial discrimination, the freedom riders, the free speech movement, and the antiwar movement of the 1960s, Cohen said.

Even after the Kent State massacre, polling showed that the American public sympathized more with the National Guard troops who shot and killed protesters than with the protesters themselves, Johnston noted.

Blanket condemnations of today’s protests as inherently antisemitic and disruptive to the university environment — even though protesters have not occupied buildings or interrupted classes — would suggest little has changed. It’s true that some students feel unsafe, and university administrators should be taking steps to address those concerns. But they are no longer starting with the presumption of protecting free speech.

“The pressure to suppress these demonstrations is quicker and more extreme than was the case in any prior student movement I’ve ever studied,” Cohen said.

But if university administrators continue on this path, they might just see it backfire on them, just as before.

“All they’re going to do is accelerate the anger and rage of more and more students, even those who are not directly involved,” Farber said. “That’s certainly what happened in the ’60s.”


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