US campuses splintered by protests over Israel-Palestine conflict

Demonstrators, school administrators, police are testing limits of safety, freedom of expression

By Ai Heping,Mingmei Li and Yifan Xu in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-06 07:44
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Students protest at an encampment in support of Palestinians at Columbia University in New York City on April 26. REUTERS

It has been more than 50 years since the United States saw college students launch anti-Vietnam War protests across the nation.

Now, students have again become the front line in a new conflict — this time as Israel fights Hamas in Gaza.

It was Columbia University in New York City that sparked the anti-war protests in 1968 when students seized five buildings, including Hamilton Hall. On April 30, pro-Palestinian demonstrators occupied the hall, just as their predecessors had done 56 years ago to protest against the Vietnam War.

Columbia has again become the epicenter of demonstrations that have spread nationwide to 46 other campuses and led to more than 2,400 arrests, The Associated Press reported.

"When you're going to Columbia, you know you're going to an institution which has an honored place in the history of American protest," said Mark Naison, professor of history and African and African American studies at Fordham University in New York and a participant in the 1968 demonstrations.

"Whenever there is a movement, you know Columbia is going to be right there," Naison told AP.

Sara M, who requested anonymity, is a freshman at Fordham's Bronx campus. On Wednesday, she went to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan and joined protesters.

"I went because we should protest any war," she told China Daily, but "especially against what is happening in Gaza."

She joined protesters in a building where they had erected tents, but left when the school announced demonstrators could be arrested. On Wednesday evening, police made 15 arrests after clearing the campus of demonstrators at the request of the university.

A doctoral student in the humanities program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who asked to remain anonymous, told China Daily: "I understand the concern and anger of these young students about the humanitarian disaster, but I don't think they will get anywhere by camping out like this in protest."

She said in a few years they might view their fervor and quest for justice as "ridiculous". "As I get older and see more and more, including (President Joe) Biden saying he won't change his Israel policy, I find what I learn in textbooks and what I see in reality to be very misaligned," she added.

Quito Ziegler, a humanities professor at the School of Visual Art in New York, said: "I think it's atrocious that the administrations of these schools are calling the police on their own students, who are peacefully protesting issues that are profoundly important to them. This generation of students has inherited a world rife with problems, some of which are now leading to genocide."

A 21-year-old SVA student majoring in animation who asked to remain anonymous said: "It's just very brutal. Millions of people in Gaza are being displaced. It's very ironic for America to call out democratic or undemocratic practices in other countries when it itself exercises very undemocratic actions, such as arresting peaceful protesters and intimidating student protesters. They just arrest students. If colleges are institutions meant to educate, this is not the way to do it."

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