George Katsiaficas's Blog

Recent campus occupations: History repeated

By George Katsiaficas
Al Mayadeen English
May 25th, 2024

There is much of the current protest movement that is new, yet the way in which it suddenly arose and became widespread has a remarkable similarity to the 1970 nationwide university strike in the United States.

In response to the massive killings of Palestinians in Gaza, student protests in the US and Europe have taken the public by surprise. Without central organization, more than one hundred universities around the world have become the scenes of building occupations and protest camps. Subsequent police attacks have brutalized hundreds of students, and thousands more have been arrested, suspended from classes, or barred from campus. For the first time, the “legitimacy” of “Israel’s” government has been called into question by many Americans. The International Criminal Court’s indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu reflects a broad global rejection of the Zionist project and new sympathy for the now-visible plight of Palestinians.

There is much of the current protest movement that is new, yet the way in which it suddenly arose and became widespread has a remarkable similarity to the 1970 nationwide university strike in the United States. Just as the current protest wave was sparked by continuing genocide in Gaza, fifty-four years ago, an ongoing war of civilian slaughter in Indochina and police attacks on the Black Panther Party sparked fierce domestic opposition. Days after US President Richard Nixon expanded the war in Vietnam by invading Cambodia, more than four million students and half a million faculty at more than 500 colleges and universities went on strike to protest the war, repression of the Black Panther Party, and university war research. These demands are quite similar to current calls for an end to genocide in Gaza, disinvestment in Israeli companies, and restriction of relations with Israeli universities.

Quite remarkably, both movements are not primarily economic in character but extraordinarily political. They also share the features of having risen quite suddenly and heroically continuing despite tremendous repression. As I wrote the first book to explore the “global Sixties”, I named the international proliferation of insurgencies the “Eros Effect”. I could find no other way to explain the sudden questioning of the basic assumptions and values of social order to comprehend the capacity of millions of people to break with everyday routines and ingrained values. In waves of protests after the 1960s, the Eros Effect helps to understand the disarmament movement in the early 1980s, the wave of uprisings in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Asian people power uprisings, and alter-globalization protests from 1999. Soon after the current campus protests became generalized, colleagues around the world remarked that the “Eros Effect” had again been activated. One characteristic of this phenomenon is the unexpected breakout and proliferation of protest waves. 

Surprised by campus occupations and protests, university administrators today, as in 1970, unwittingly helped to spread the movements by invoking police responses rather than negotiations. In 1970, repression on campus was much more severe. On May 4, four students were shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio by the National Guard and nine more were wounded. Ten days later, two students were shot and killed and 12 more were wounded by the Mississippi highway patrol at Jackson State University. Altogether in May 1970, more than 100 protesters were killed or wounded by the forces of order. National Guard forces occupied more than 20 universities in 16 states. Repression was not confined to government agencies. During the campus strike, anti-war protesters were attacked on the streets of New York City, Buffalo, and St. Louis by construction workers who were given the day off by union leaders. Public opinion raged against the protesters.

Despite the dire situation in 1970, years later, the war in Indochina is little more than a faint historical memory for many Americans. Within months of the strike, Bobby Seale and other Panthers on trial in New Haven were released. Although Black Panthers continue to languish in prison, some of the party’s programs have been realized. This historical example gives me hope that although the aspirations of today’s protesters are far from being met, the future will almost surely see some of their hopes and dreams realized. History has a way of accomplishing in hours and days what previously took years and decades, but it also has a way of taking years and decades to accomplish what can be imagined in the blink of an eye.

Sadly, the continuing genocide in Gaza and the ongoing savagery of Israeli right-wing settlers and embittered political leaders demand further protests. It is not enough that the “legitimacy” of “Israel” has been called into question. Its horrific violence must be confronted, and it will be at the upcoming Democratic Convention in Chicago, to name only one venue. Tent camps and campus occupations have forged new bonds of friendship and solidarity, whose lasting impact has yet to be felt. Alongside a pessimistic scenario in which genocide continues, we can find a more optimistic horizon by looking again at a historical example. Crusader states in the Middle East lasted for 193 years, yet today there is barely a trace left of them.

The recent wave of campus protests has moved the plight of Palestinians from the margins to the center of discourse. Reflexive support for “Israel’s” theocratic “state” is no longer possible. For decades, Americans have naively considered “Israel” a benign US ally that is not harming others. Now that another dimension of that government has been revealed to the world, “Israel’s” future will become increasingly problematic.