Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment Echoes Historic Protests from Columbia ’68 to Occupy Wall Street

An Occupy Wall Street veteran writes about the Gaza Solidarity Encampments of today.

John Tarleton Apr 24

The Gaza Solidarity Encampments that was launched last Wednesday at Columbia University inevitably draws comparisons to past protests on that campus and beyond.  

Columbia 1968
Columbia 1968

In 1968, Columbia students took over five campus buildings, including the president’s office and Low Library, and held them for a week before they were violently dislodged by baton-swinging NYPD cops sent in by university leaders. Seven hundred students were arrested, and around 150 were hospitalized. The students were protesting the university’s close ties to the military and its racist relationship with the adjacent Morningside Heights community. After demonstrations in April and May and a six-week student strike, the university folded to the students’ demands; it did not build a gym in Morningside Park and renounced its membership in the Institute for Defense Analysis.

In 1985, Columbia became the first Ivy League college to divest its holdings in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa. The divestment movement swept across U.S. college campuses in the mid-1980s, with students camping out in self-styled “shantytowns” in campus quadrangles to dramatize the struggle against apartheid. 

The movement, which also prompted state and local governments, churches, and other large institutions to divest from companies doing business with South Africa, played a key role in isolating that country from the global economy. This in turn forced South Africa’s rulers to release the leaders of the African National Congress and ultimately negotiate a political exit from white minority rule. In a decade of setbacks for the left, the anti-apartheid movement was a rare, shining success. 

’68 participant speaking at Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment on Friday evening.

The Columbia encampment also brings to mind the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. On Sep. 17, 2011, 2,000 people marched from Wall Street to the nearby Zuccotti Park. They then broke into small circles and held political discussions. A much smaller contingent stayed behind to begin the 24/7 occupation of the park. 

In the early days of OWS, the amount of people in Zuccotti Park sometimes numbered in the dozens. It looked to be one more protest in New York City’s repressive post-9/11 police state that would be swept away and forgotten. Ironically, it was the NYPD that would supercharge the movement. 

On Saturday, Sep. 24, NYPD Captain Anthony Bologna aka “Tony Baloney” blasts pepper spray into the face of a young white woman who falls to her knees screaming. She was participating in an OWS protest march. Video of  the incident went viral. The video showed Bologna acted unprovoked. The incident drew more media attention to Occupy, which was rapidly becoming better organized and resourced, with numerous working groups forming and donations starting to pour in. It also forced Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD — which he once described as his “private army” —  to leave the camp alone. 

One week later the NYPD struck again, surrounding and arresting more than 700 OWS protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. The stand-off made national headlines, and Occupy encampments soon began to appear in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. The movement had no specific demands, but its motto, “We are the 99%!” spoke to the public fury over the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent bailouts Wall Street received. 

Occupy’s boldness and growing popularity also brought many of the city’s most powerful unions off the sidelines and into the streets. A union-led protest on Oct. 5 drew an estimated 15,000 demonstrators. By then, the encampment was a thriving small city that spun off protests regularly and attracted feeder marches that brought more people to Zuccotti Park for the first time. 

Various stations set up at Zuccotti park turned the private park into a microcosm of political activity during the OWS encampemnt.

A Similar Trajectory, Only Faster

The Columbia encampment is following a similar trajectory, only faster. Students erected the initial encampment early last Wednesday morning. As the genocide in Gaza rages on, they demand the university disclose its financial investments, divest from Israeli companies and initiate an academic boycott on Israeli institutions of higher learning.

On Thursday, Barnard College (Columbia’s sister campus on the west side of Broadway) suspended over 50 student protesters; at least two of whom were thrown out of their student housing and given 15 minutes to pack up their belongings. Soon after, Columbia President Minouche Shafik made the fateful call to the NYPD and ordered the mass arrest of 108 peaceful student protesters. 

Some students escaped the police dragnet and began a new sit-in on an adjacent lawn. The images of their fellow student protesters being led away in handcuffs by NYPD has roiled the Columbia community and brought more students and faculty to the side of the protesters. It has also inspired students at more than at more than 30 other universities nationwide to establish their own encampments.

Back at Columbia, the Gaza Solidarity Encampment grew and became better organized following the police raid.  President Shafik is caught between the rising strength of the protest movement and the demands of wealthy university donors to make the protest go away. Last night’s threats to evict the encampment had protesters inside and outside the campus on edge. They organized themselves into groups that were willing to risk arrest and suspension and those only willing to risk suspension, and began planning what to do if law enforcement did indeed enter the encampment like President Shafik was threatening.

In its final week’s, Occupy Wall Street and its supporters also had to deal with the nerve-fraying experience of trying to be ready for a police raid.   

Right-wing forces want police and National Guard troops to sweep aside the encampment.  For encampment organizers, one of the most vexing challenges they face is how to balance maintaining an open space while defusing provocateurs looking to create confrontations that can be used to discredit the encampment and hasten its demise. 

Amba Guerguerian contributed reporting.

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