Weeks have passed since the Palestinian Solidarity Encampment (PSE) on the UCLA campus was declared unlawful by university authorities, subsequently attacked by a Zionist mob and eventually dismantled by several branches of law enforcement. Multiple student organizations and members of faculty are condemning UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s response to the encampment sweep, criticizing the Chancellor’s inability to protect the students from outsider violence and police brutality. 

Recent reports reveal that UAW Local 4811 has voted to strike against the UC system in response to the violent attacks that took place on April 29. In an LAist article, Julia Barajas explains that: “The union has five demands, including amnesty for students and faculty who were arrested, as well as divestment from companies that are profiting from the war in Gaza. They also want researchers to be able to opt out from funding sources tied to the military or “oppression of Palestinians.” UAW 4811’s vote to strike is quite a victory as their support for arrested students and faculty as well as their calls for divestment reveal the true scope of the growing movement.

The U.S. government has made small positive strides, including the Biden administration’s threats to decrease its support for Israel as an arms supplier. Furthermore, as the Israeli military continues its violent assault on Rafah, the U.S. government constructed a pier to deliver humanitarian aid for the victims in Gaza. Though these actions are long overdue, we may be witnessing a turning point in the U.S.’s involvement in Israel’s genocidal regime.

Despite numerous criticisms waged against the productiveness or efficacy of campus activism, it becomes clear that the encampments have succeeded in at least one way: garnering the attention of the public and starting conversations across the country about the role of the U.S. and its institutions in the genocide of the Palestinian people. 

Those who mock or scoff at student protests seem to forget that campus demonstrations have long signaled and catalyzed social change throughout U.S. history.

In “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement”, political activist Angela Davis explains how many movements for liberation are intertwined in a manner that transcends space and time. Davis points out that in the 1960s, Palestinians were inspired by the Black liberation movement while the latter was inspired by the South African freedom struggle (Davis, p.114). These interconnected struggles reveal that in response to nearly every injustice, the marginalized and their supporters will turn to protest and other forms of collective activism — relying on the knowledge gained from previous movements. 

This inevitability of protest, however, also makes certain that police intervention will be called in to intimidate and eventually arrest participants. Not unlike the forceful police raids of the encampments — which included surveillant snipers on college building rooftops and the heavy use of teargas and rubber bullets on peaceful, unarmed students — law enforcement has historically caused alarmingly high numbers of injuries at activist demonstrations. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that UCLA officials have failed to properly secure safety and justice for their students.

In 1969, two students who were both members of the Black Panther Party were killed inside UCLA’s Campbell Hall. The three suspects in the murders of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John J. Huggins Jr. managed to evade the justice system. 

Carter and Huggins’s deaths on UCLA’s campus weren’t officially memorialized until 2010. It can be presumed that the controversy surrounding Carter and Huggins’s membership in the Black Panther Party factored into the UCLA administration’s decision to erase them from the university’s complicated history. 

In an article from the Daily Bruin, Frank Shyong writes about his experience attending the unveiling ceremony of Carter and Huggins’s memorial plaques. “I left with a lot of questions: Why did an event of this importance take 41 years to occur? And why was there no significant university presence beyond that of Charles J. Alexander, director of the Academic Advancement Program? An event of such historical significance on the campus demands the presence of Chancellor Gene Block, or at the very least, a university official directly beneath him.”

These questions posed by Shyong nearly 15 years ago are eerily relevant to the current issues on campus. As can be presumed from the university official’s handling of the PSE, Chancellor Block and other campus authorities prefer to quell controversy, stifle criticism waged against them and continue burying inconvenient histories — including UCLA’s own.

Chancellor Block’s silence during the brutal attack of students at the encampment by a Zionist mob and his subsequent call for a police raid against the peaceful protestors the following day is unfortunately unsurprising. Block, who recently testified before Congress, continues to be rightfully criticized and condemned. 

A USA Today news report includes testimonies from volunteer medics who were at the frontlines of the UCLA encampment, revealing the magnitude of the violence waged against protestors. Several organizations at UCLA, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Faculty for Justice in Palestine (FJP), amongst others, report that approximately 200+ demonstrators in total were injured over the course of two days. Moreover, an estimated 45+ of those individuals required emergency care. The LAPD and UCLA administrators have made a concerted joint effort to downplay the serious injuries inflicted on pro-Palestine protestors and are therefore rewriting history in real-time. 

In 1970, only one year after the tragic killings of Carter and Huggins, came the Kent State University shootings. During a rally protesting the Vietnam War at the Ohio campus, four students were killed by the National Guard. An article by the BBC reports that, “no one was ever found guilty of the murder or manslaughter of the four students – Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder.” 

Some will say that these protestors’ escalation into violent confrontations with law enforcement justifies the force used against them. As I see it, the firing of live rounds at unarmed students by a fully armed military battalion is absolutely unjustifiable. 

In both the Kent State and the UCLA Campbell Hall shootings, the lack of accountability for the perpetrators is a despicable injustice to the young students who lost their lives. These histories delineate the dehumanization that university authorities and law enforcement allow to occur when student activists are involved.

At midnight of May 1, I watched several live feeds from the protestors, both inside and outside of the Royce Quad encampment, as they anticipated the arrival of the police. While the bravery of those inside the barricades could not be understated, I was most inspired by their incredible composure, cooperation and seamless communication. Their goals were clear: hold the line and protect one another. For hours, the collective inside of the encampment was able to fend off the violence of the police state. 

From the Civil Rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War to the present day’s PSEs, I reason that the history of violent police responses towards student protests is enough evidence to prove that these demonstrations pose a real threat to the U.S.’s hegemonic status quo. Though the UC still makes no moves towards divestment, other student demonstrations around the nation have made some leeway in pushing their university officials to act. 

In an article for the New York Times, Vimal Patel reports that: “At the University of California, Berkeley, student activists got their chancellor to agree to support a cease-fire in Gaza. At Rutgers University, they won a promise of scholarships for 10 Palestinian students displaced by the war. Brown University pledged that its board of trustees would vote on divesting from Israel.” I assert that we’ve moved past questioning if protesting works or not. These cases show that community organization indeed produces real results. 

In many discussions surrounding the PSEs, I’ve heard many utter the phrase: “The students have always been on the right side of history.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with this statement, I’m uncertain that this moral incentive is the best way to frame student activist movements. 

The truth is, just as the nation is divided, so are the students on any given campus. For instance, the few hundred protestors at UCLA’s PSE were still just a small minority within UCLA’s student population of 46,000+. I imagine that this isn’t too different for other college campuses. 

The phrase “right side of history” needlessly flattens the nuances of a movement and history itself – perpetuating an idea that the world works in dichotomies of good versus evil. 

I instead argue that we shouldn’t be so concerned about being on the right side of history — but being on the right side of humanity. Activism isn’t about how we want to be remembered, but how we want to impact the world in the present moment. It’s not about being right, it’s about doing the best that we can. 

In “The Wretched of the Earth”, an essential text of decolonial literature, Frantz Fanon writes: “We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader. We must elevate the people, expand their minds, equip them, differentiate them, and humanize them,” (Fanon, p. 137). Fanon urges us to look past the fantasy of the ‘heroic’ and ‘innately good’ figures in power. Instead, Fanon encourages us to look to those around us, to intellectually engage with one another and embrace our shared humanity. 

Moreover, Fanon’s text reminds us that the knowledge of history shouldn’t be gatekept by the academic elites who will inevitably reshape and reform truths to conveniently fit their agenda-driven narratives. Students, faculty and other individuals in academia must remember that the education we are privileged to have access to should be shared, not for profit or power, but for greater interpersonal understanding. 

As I observed the inner workings of the PSEs, I realized that it was through the average person’s linking of arms to the stranger beside them that an unbreakable barrier formed. That is the bond that is essential to building community as it is not one of oppression, but one of care and connection.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

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