US student socialists assess ‘explosive’ Gaza solidarity encampment movement

In the month and a half since the first student Palestine solidarity encampment was set up, more than 140 encampments have been established across the United States and internationally.

To get an update on the situation, Isaac Nellist, Chloe DS and Jacob Andrewartha spoke to Cyn Huang (University of California Berkeley), Daniil Sapunkov (The City University of New York) and Amey (San Francisco State University). Huang and Sapunkov are also members of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and the Bread & Roses caucus with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

The three also discuss how the student movement in solidarity with Palestine plans to progress over the summer break and its impact on labour struggles, the left and the 2024 presidential elections. This is a follow-up interview to one that was conducted about a month ago and can be viewed here.

It has been about a month and a half since the first encampments were set up. Could you talk us through some of the major developments over this period and where the movement is at currently?

Cyn: Last we talked we were in the most explosive period of the movement, within the first two weeks or so. Since then more than 140 encampments have been set up, not just in the United States but in Britain, Canada, Brazil, France and, of course, Australia.

We have seen divergent responses from university administrations. At the start of the movement the major headline was the immense repression seen at schools, particularly on the East Coast. It has ranged from that to radio silence from schools hoping that the protest movement would fizzle out. 

In some places there have been negotiations, often not approached in good faith by the administration. The administration’s strategy has been to channel the energy of the activists into backdoor meetings, where they hope to confuse and demobilise us. But other negotiations have taken place that have won more potent concessions and empowering terms that don’t necessarily require students to demobilise or give up their right to free speech and protest. It really depends on the local context. 

One obstacle that people anticipated early on was the end of semester. We have hit that for most schools. People were uncertain about the longevity of the movement and had different analyses about how to approach the end of the semester. For example, do we have enough power to risk a sweep and stand up to the police? 

Some people felt that major wins around divestment had to be won before the end of the semester or the movement would fizzle out. This encouraged people to have final confrontational battles with the police and the administration. We can debate whether we had enough power to do that or whether the student movement has to go through multiple iterations before we win divestment demands and how we relate to things in the long term.

Around the end of the semester there were actions related to Commencement or Graduation ceremonies, ranging from individual acts of resistance to more coordinated actions like banner drops and mass walkouts.

The People’s Conference for Palestine was also held over May 24–26 organised by the Palestinian Youth Movement and sponsored by many other organisations. It was the first attempt to bring together Palestine solidarity activists from across the country, including students who participated in the encampments, into one room to debate how the movement should progress. It was very impressive and heartening and got the ball rolling by making connections between activists and creating more focus on upcoming strategy.

Now that the encampment upsurge has for the most part ended, the task is to consolidate all the amazing activists we have met and who have been activated by this process and encourage them to get involved in more permanent organisation. We need to clarify what victories we have had and what lessons we have learned and make plans for the next semester. 

Daniil: So much has happened since we last spoke: there have been many victories and losses and different outcomes on different campuses. It has been heartening to see comrades across the country winning divestment, disclosure and pressuring university boards and administrations, showing the power of students and turning them into organisers and activists in real time. There have been inspiring wins at San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, Brown University and many others. The biggest question is how these student protesters can turn the wheels of the labour movement and spark different political dynamics beyond campuses.

Something that was very exciting was the levels of political discussion we were able to have as it was happening and now that we are past the peak of the movement. But this is not over, the atrocities in Rafah and Gaza are still ongoing, so we need to discuss what else we can do. This discussion has been really productive within YDSA and the Bread & Roses caucus. We can then share what comes out of these discussions in the broader movement: things like internal democracy, mass movement orientation and class struggle. Our biggest task is to keep the energy going and motivate the newly activated layer of politicised students to continue.

Here in Australia, students have won disclosure agreements at some campuses. What are some examples of wins achieved by the encampments in the US? Have any campuses won full divestment? 

Cyn: We have already seen significant movement towards disclosure and divestment at many universities. Other wins have been scholarships for Palestinian students and commitments to stop anti-Palestinian racism on campuses. A lot of these universities [where gains have been made] have a rich history of organising around Palestine. 

The California State University (CSU) system in particular is really interesting because it is a large university system and the strategy of the administration has been to pursue campus-level negotiations and picking off camps one-by-one. They know campus-level negotiations can’t impact the investment portfolio as much because the campus administration can claim they are sympathetic to the students but also say they can’t do much about the issue because it ultimately rests with the regional board.

Mostly where there have been negotiations, however, things have been more in the middle. The administrations have attempted to corner students into a backroom where they can make things more legalistic and confusing, or they will set-up a taskforce or a committee to delay meaningful change. Most schools that have entered negotiations are in this grey area where some deals are more empowering and some more demobilising.

In addition to the victories and progress around the main demands of the movement we have also had immense internal organisational and political victories for the movement in relation to the politicisation and organisation. One example is at SFSU, where students demanded and won the practice of open bargaining, which is historically the practice of some of the most powerful and democratic labour unions. 

The idea behind open bargaining is that every member of the movement and the broader community should be engaged in the bargaining process. Not just because it is morally good, but because it is strategic for building power. Open bargaining allows people to witness negotiations, but also crucially having meetings beforehand, caucus meetings during negotiations and debrief meetings to develop a strategy so that the bargaining team doesn’t get cornered. It allows people to make decisions themselves about the best way to handle the negotiations and carry the movement forward. 

This has been important because a lot of the challenges we have seen could be mitigated by open bargaining. For example, at some of the camps which don’t have open bargaining, political disagreements become super personalised. People who don’t get to see the negotiations will just start blaming their camp leaders and creating vitriol in the movement instead of directing the anger towards the administration. Open bargaining helps build unity in the ranks and, crucially, democracy is power. The more people you can engage in critical thinking and expose these processes too, the more ideas will be generated. 

Amey: SFSU won open bargaining early in the process, which allowed us to put a lot of pressure on the campus administration. The fact that it is all happening in public means that our campus president was held accountable in front of everyone, not just people involved in the Palestine solidarity movement. That affected our strategy a lot and through open bargaining we were able to get the university to listen to us. 

We have won three of our four demands; those being disclose, divest and defend. The fourth one — our demand for the campus to declare what is happening in Gaza a genocide — we have not been able to achieve at this point. 

Now we are focussed on making sure the campus administration follows through. This means creating a website disclosing what investments and deals the university has that are connected to the genocide of the Palestinian people. Divesting directly follows that. The ‘defend’ demand is specifically about defending the Arab and Muslim student body from Islamophobia, hate and anti-Palestinian vitriol on campus. It is up to us to ensure that the administration follows up on what they have promised.

After the success SFSU had with open bargaining, other campuses across the country engaged in open bargaining with their administrations.

Daniil: Observing from the East Coast, SFSU has been a trailblazing model for all of us in the student movement. The situation in New York City in comparison seems very grim and dire with a lot of police violence, brutality and repression. We have not been able to pursue open bargaining and open organising models, and have been forced to resort to a more secretive culture and a lack of democracy in the movement. Decisions are made by a shadow leadership who are not accountable to the movement and bargaining has been done behind closed doors.

We are trying to reconvene our strengths and learn lessons from other parts of the country. 

More than 2900 students have been arrested or detained for taking a stand at their universities against Israel’s genocidal assault, many others have experienced police harassment or violence. How has this impacted the movement? 

Cyn: The repression was the factor that made the movement explode initially and helped it gain space in public consciousness. Obviously it is a tiny fraction of the violence Palestinians have been facing for decades but we would be wrong to discount how potent it has been for people’s radicalisation. For better or for worse, seeing your friends, other students or even yourself get brutalised can have uniquely radicalising effects. 

The repression has forced many people to question the supposedly liberal institutions and ask why they are going to such great lengths to clamp down on free speech and suppress the pro-Palestine movement. That leads to looking at the material interests that are at play, including the Zionist lobby, US imperialism and the donor class that stands behind the university administrations.

Social media has also played a really influential role. Many commentators have called this the first “livestreamed genocide”. Capitalists control most of the world's media apparatus but through social media platforms the spread of dissident opinions has never been easier. Many social conscious and curious college students probably find it impossible to avoid sympathetic coverage of the movement. For many of us, the first thing we see in the morning is this repression. Social media has closed the distance between the institutions we interact with on a day-to-day basis and their effects out in the world. 

A lot of people have been comparing this movement with movements of the past, such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, and asking “Why is this movement so powerful and so radicalising when we are not directly implicated in a draft”. I think social media and the intense repression has a lot to do with that. When you see images of mutilated bodies every day, hospitals and schools bombed to oblivion, every kind of mass suffering possible, these consequences are not as abstract anymore. We are seeing what our university administrations fund, what the liberal media and political elites are running cover for. 

The repression has also brought a lot of strategic complications. On the one hand, we don’t want to be silenced or give the impression that we are embarrassed or intimidated from speaking up. But if you look at most of the encampments, we haven’t saturated or built a majority on campus. We aren’t sure if we can withstand police assaults and have to work out whether we fight them head on, disperse and regroup or pack up and come back tomorrow. 

This is why we need to look at strategic questions and have a concrete analysis of our power right now and our ability to win demands such as divestment. Without clarity on these questions it makes it hard to decide how we deal with police repression. 

Daniil: In New York, the encampment movement ended in a very violent, yet cathartic and radicalising moment for many. At the time it seemed like the “strategicness” of the encampments wasn’t even in question, it felt like a movement across the country that then sparked an international movement, both in solidarity but also with specific demands at different universities. 

Now, in this “post-encampment” period, we need to think about other ways to use this relatively quiet moment through the summer break to reassess where our power lies and think of strategic focal points to organise around. We need to assess the economic power we have as students, who contribute to the university through tuition and labour in many instances, but also academically through academic boycotts, etc. Preferably it won’t syphon itself to individual campus campaigns, but maintain the mass movement character which was one of the strengths of the movement.

In New York City it feels like more autonomous groups are throwing themselves into action in an attempt to keep up the pressure. For example some are attempting occupations, replicating elements of the encampments on a smaller scale. But we also need to think about what is strategic and what pinpoints we can press. 

We also need to organise more students into the movement and yield even more power. Building the numbers and strength of the movement will allow it to become more open and more democratic because it will be able to hold its own, and concerns about security and secrecy will become less relevant. YDSA are using this period to train people on how to lodge freedom of information requests, how to research divestment, how to analyse power on campuses and other practical skills.

We have seen some inspiring union action supporting students, including your union Cyn, the United Auto Workers Local 4811. What actions have unions taken and what was the effect?

Cyn: UAW 4811, which represents academic workers at the University of California system, is waging a political strike for Palestine and free speech. It is a huge learning curve, as it is the first time that many people in my generation are waging a political strike on such a large scale. We know the challenges that come with that. Taking stances on social justice issues affects other aspects of union work, for example, how do we start relating to our co-workers on this basis? We have the benefit of operating in a more politicised union but this is not necessarily the case across the country. 

The other significance is that, depending on the level of collaboration of workers and student campers, it can be one of the most meaningful demonstrations of the combined force of the student and labour movements in US history. 

The specific actions that UAW 4811 are taking is striking both teaching and grading labour. We have taken cues from the UAW “stand up” strike strategy waged by autoworkers last year, which means workers at certain campuses are called to withhold their labour while other campuses are not. This means universities don’t know who is going to be hit first, but it is also a way for us to plan around the uneven organisation of our union. 

One challenge has been developing coordination. This was already a challenge in the encampments themselves: we work in a huge university system and these camps were often operating on the campus level and we needed to develop coordination between all the different camps. 

Then there is the added factor of building coordination between the camps and the union. One example of this was when one campus was given what they were told was their final offer a couple of days before we knew the results of the strike authorisation vote. There was a high possibility that they were going to get raided, and students and workers had to decide whether they withstand that and risk getting swept, hurt and demoralised, or pack up and come back when the strike is authorised. These are the kinds of questions that people are facing. But it is a privilege to face them because no other camp has been able to escalate alongside the prospect of a strike.

These decisions should be coordinated between the camps and the union. A lot of coordination is happening at an individual level, but by and large the student and labour movements are operating autonomously from one another at this stage. 

Other examples of union actions include day-long “sick-outs” and walk-outs, including at the University of Austin, in Texas, where there have been professors and other workers forming human pickets around the camps. These represent both individual union members taking action and formal union actions.

Daniil: There was a clear connection between labour and student movements from the get-go because faculty and staff, including unionised professors, adjunct, full-time, part-time workers were in the encampment. They represented a more radical layer of rank-and-file union members and leftist academics, as well as mobilising broader layers of workers and union members. We are seeing the fruits of previous reform efforts to make the union more militant and democratic. Rank-and-file organising and socialist and leftist activists taking jobs in these strategic industries is a core part of that reform. 

However at City College and CUNY, where the union is more stagnant and less militant, we see an organised core of members butting heads with the leadership because the leadership didn’t want to endorse the encampment movement. We have strived to make connections between labour and the encampment movement but the union leadership rejected that, not denouncing it openly but not standing with the movement. 

This meant they failed to meet a political moment that would have clearly benefited the labour movement. This speaks to how much more union reform is needed and how far there is to go for the labour movement in the US. But the UAW 4811 strike gives us hope that our strategy of entrenching ourselves in the labour movement is working and will pay off. 

Cyn: We have to recognise that the strike is possible because our union has a more politicised base. When we look at the membership of left and socialist organisations in the country, it largely reflects grad workers and other professional workers and not necessarily blue collar workers. It is important to recognise our distance from these sectors because they are largely more central to the process in many ways. 

None of this discounts the importance of an academic strike — the UAW strike has been immensely inspiring and politicising. But if you want to have a more direct role in stopping the genocide, we have to target those logistics and shipping companies. The workers who deliver the arms have to be unionised too, and that is not a process that is going to happen overnight. 

The left has to develop a more sophisticated plan around that, which is why many socialist organisations are pursuing the rank-and-file strategy, including radicals joining these strategic sectors. You can’t stand from the outside and tell workers to withhold their labour around certain issues — you have to build trust for your ideas. 

What impact has this moment had on student organising going forward, and what role is the organised left playing?

Amey: At SFSU, there is a long history of the student left organising around key issues such as civil rights, anti-war movements and others. That student organising has continued but plateaued several decades ago and haven’t been able to grow further. There are a range of student organisations at our campus organising around LGBTIQ issues and anti-racism. 

However, during and after the encampment started here, more explicitly political student organisations started popping up. Palestine has rapidly politicised people in a way I haven’t seen before. The severity of the issue, and how easy it is to see what is happening, has made people aware and driven them to take action. 

Cyn: The influence of this process on students is hard to overstate. It has been so impactful on so many different angles. Firstly, it is much more diverse than any other movement I have been involved in. It is also a movement that is very distrustful of politics as it exists and the two-party status quo; it is very distrustful of the Democrats and Republicans. 

It is still a live debate what the orientation of this movement is towards the state, but it is very positive that a lot of people have the instinct that we are not going to get what we want by playing nice, asking nicely or lobbying. A lot of people are thinking we need to overhaul the system, even if they haven’t participated in socialist politics before. 

This movement also has almost zero mainstream political representation. We have a champion in [Palestinian American Democratic congressperson] Rashida Tlaib and to a lesser extent other people in “the Squad”. But this is going to require more than a handful of these individuals or personalities, we need a party. 

This is the movement that has been most politicised in that direction in my lifetime. The quality of political experiences people are having is also unparalleled. We are starting from a low baseline. In the last interview I talked about how certain recent developments have transformed the left and the student movement, but the fact of the matter is that most people in society and on our campuses have very little experience in taking collective action. Even those who have been involved in political organising haven’t worked in a movement that is as ideologically broad and dynamic as this one. 

Most encampments involved a huge array of organisations and so many people with varying levels of political experiences and ideas about how the world works and how to change it. Working with these people, debating with them and figuring out next steps has been an immensely rich process. The rhythm of these protest movements is different from the labour or electoral campaigns that a lot of us have had experience with before. The organising principles may be the same but there is no definitive election date or deadline to build up to. 

Many of the tactics we are using are really novel. For the first time a lot of us have confronted questions about how to build movement democracy with so many elements at play. Democracy within an organisation like YDSA is easier to build because you are in a room of people who already agree with you to a very large extent. But now we are in this movement with people who don’t agree with you and these are exactly the people we need to win over to socialist politics. We are thinking about questions like how do we make certain interventions make sense to people with no organisational background whatsoever. 

There is a long list of challenges, but the most important thing is that this movement has provided us a real meaningful context to grapple with these challenges instead of just abstractly. 

Daniil: One lesson is that we need to reject sectarianism and security culture. There have been bizarre cases at some of the encampments where people have been unable to use their real names or there were hidden secret structures that brought down many encampments. 

But this movement is not something we have done before and we need to dare to struggle and dare to win. It is OK to fail and we learn just as much from mistakes as we learn from victories. We need to be open minded and experimental.

In the past, we would have a YDSA chapter at a campus and they would run a campaign called “YDSA for issue X”. Through that we would talk to students, do some coalition building and work with other student clubs. It remained housed within YDSA and we aimed to bring people into the organisation.

But through the encampments something changed and we are really opening up and working with other groups who don’t always agree with us. I think we need to move towards building bigger movements of organised students that incorporates many other groups and clubs and gives the movement a mass character. 

Our role as the organised left at this time is to be movement builders who are entrenched in the struggle, that talk to people, get to know people, utilise organisational skills learnt from the labour movement and really put in the work. Sometimes that means doing an extra shift at the security tent or spending time organising inventory, just like anyone else; that’s what makes you a trusted leader and allows you to explain your political ideas more efficiently. 

We also need to think about recruiting people, sharing our politics and not shying away from our political vision. How do we take this moment and funnel it into the labour movement? How do we take these student activists who have been radicalised by this moment and want to change the system and prevent them from being funnelled into the world of NGOs or ceding them to the Democratic Party? How can we turn these student activists into lifelong socialist organisers who wield real structural power within the labour movement? How do we transform society out of this movement in the coming years? 

We can be bold and we can be aspirational. 

Is President Joe Biden feeling the pressure of the Palestine solidarity movement? What impact will Israel’s genocide in Gaza have on the 2024 presidential election?

Amey: I have voted “blue” in the past, particularly during the Bernie Sanders campaign, but I am not alone in seeing the Democratic Party as completely alienating and distant from the principles I hold dear, particularly in relation to Palestine. Biden has supported the genocide, he has materially and politically supported Israel and should be held responsible. That has really impacted people on the left. Even people who are more liberal-minded are feeling quite disillusioned and disagree with the US’s position on Palestine. 

However, I do feel if Donald Trump wins the election and becomes president it would be worse for the Palestinian people, both within the US and in Palestine. He has been extremely pro-Israel, including during his previous term when he moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has claimed he would expel pro-Palestine protesters from the country.

It feels disingenuous to tell people to vote one way or the other. Particularly as people’s basic freedoms are at risk in the US: for example, in some states people are losing their reproductive rights because of Republican-stacked courts, so it is understandable that they would vote for Biden despite his position on Palestine. But the level of dissent towards Biden is stratospheric and is only going to get worse as the genocide continues. 

Daniil: A lot of the left, including the DSA, have been pushing voters to vote “uncommitted” as a show of anger and dissent against the establishment support for Israel’s genocide. However I would not be surprised if a lot of the less politicised general public do come out and vote for Biden. 

There has been clear disillusionment on the left. Before the encampment movement, people had a clear analysis of Biden’s complicity in the ongoing genocide, but still feared Trump’s re-election, his proto-fascist agenda, the impact on labour, issues of bodily autonomy, trans rights and education. But after the encampments — and the clear violence against students — it has become a more defined “no” to Biden. It was a shocking wake up call and has made the situation for the Democrats much much worse. 

It brings up the need for an independent party. We need to continue to fight for electoral reform and other ways to push for an independent identity away from the Democrats, even if we may still have to run under the Democratic ticket for the time being, as we do in NYC. This independent identity is critical for the left’s success on the electoral front. However this is more of a question for local campaigns than presidential campaigns at the moment. 

There is a need for a new independent voice that must come out of DSA and the labour movement to become a fighting alternative and real representation for the working class. 

Cyn: The movement for Palestine has become a decisive factor in the upcoming election, though not decisive enough to stop the genocide, which is very unfortunate. We have seen very damning results from the “Uncommitted” movement, which is a campaign to fill out your ballot saying “I am not committed to vote for Joe Biden” or simply write “uncommitted”, which, especially in Michigan, blew past its goals.

Then there is the encampment movement. While we have not won a majority on campus, we have flipped a lot of staunch Democrat supporters, which will make a difference. There are people who have always voted blue but are now refusing to because Democratic mayors stuck the police on their children. 

There are many examples of how the Palestine movement has drawn out the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party, but the more interesting question is what do we do about it? I will lay out some considerations for you. There are short term considerations which are in contradiction with long term, and medium-term goals. 

The first is that we recognise the dangers of a Trump presidency, especially on the ability of workers to organise and defend our rights. Meanwhile in the medium to long term, this huge movement has a base in young radicals, many of them people of colour — exactly the type of people we want to be bringing into socialist organisation — and most of them don’t want to touch Biden with a 1 million foot pole. Endorsing Biden, even on a tactical level, even with a hundred qualifications or statements saying we do not endorse his foreign policy, would be non-negotiable for a lot of activists, which is valid. 

So how do we bring this new layer into organisation but also thwart the prospect of a Trump presidency. In my mind there is not a satisfying way to “square the circle”. Moreover, even if we did have a program that could harmonise both these goals, the left is not a decisive factor in national politics and is still quite marginal. 

This marginality is coming out in interesting ways in discussion of who to endorse and what conditions we should hold. We have to think about how people like [federal Democratic representative and DSA member] Jamaal Bowman and other federal-level elected representatives are not disciplined to our organisations and are actually more accountable to liberal and contradictory political groups. On the other hand, they are the best known tribunes of the broad left and progressives.

Some people say we just have to endorse them, hold our nose and gain a base. But that might come at the expense of politics and principles and these people might — and have in the past — vote for regressive policies such as more Iron Dome funding. Others say we should set our principles and expectations and not endorse them unless they are committed to upholding them. I am sympathetic to this view but, at the same time, we are still very marginal and might lose an opportunity to reach more people.

The bigger question is how to break out of this cycle. One thing we have been debating is how to build a broader political organisation. Coming out of this movement it is clear we need some political representation or broader catch-all movement organisations. It is clear that not everyone is ready to enter socialist organisations, as our goals and politics might seem lofty or disconnected. For example we have reading groups about historical topics such as the Russian Revolution, but some people just want to focus on Palestine or other current issues. 

There has to be a way for people to commit to these politics long term and we need to find an organisational form for that and a political program for that. This Palestine movement has been a really great place to start figuring out how that might look.