Ghosts of ’68

‘And they’ll say that we are disturbing the peace. There is no peace. What bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.’

Howard Zinn, Boston Common, 1971.

On 17 April, at dawn, students at Columbia University camped out on the lawn outside Butler Library, demanding that their institution divest from companies complicit in Israel’s genocidal war. The following afternoon, the administration began suspending students and summoned the NYPD, which tore down the encampment. Another was quickly put up. Faculty were informed that because Columbia was in a state of emergency, its standard policies had been superseded by ad hoc ones, which included circulating fliers to threaten demonstrators with arrest or expulsion. Faced with the crackdown, on 30 April a small group of protesters – perhaps several dozen – took over Hamilton Hall, just as students had done on the same day in 1968. They renamed it Hind’s Hall, after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl whom the IDF killed in late January, and flew a banner reading ‘Liberation Education’ from the second-story window overlooking Amsterdam and 116th St.

When self-censorship at US universities fails – a rare occurrence, as Edward Said noted three decades ago – overt censorship takes over. Yet few were prepared for the swiftness or brutality of the police-administrative-political response. With encampments springing up across the country, a series of police sweeps took place from 30 April to 3 May, at campuses including UT-Austin, UT-Dallas, Emory, USC, UCLA, UCSD, Emerson College, Northeastern, Dartmouth College, Washington University, Arizona State, University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Portland State, SUNY-Stony Brook, Cal Poly Humboldt, Ohio State and Indiana University (both of which saw rooftop snipers deployed). More than 2,400 arrests were made. Steve Tamari, a history professor at Washington University, was beaten unconscious and hospitalized for filming police during their rampage. At the same protest, Jill Stein, the seventy-four-year-old presidential candidate for the Green Party, was roughed up, arrested and charged with assaulting an officer. At Dartmouth, Annelise Orleck, a sixty-five-year-old labour historian and Chair of Jewish Studies, was knocked to the ground by riot police, who cut off her airway before handcuffing her and taking her to jail. The college subsequently banned her from the campus where she has worked for thirty years.

Federal law enforcement agencies had clearly been coordinating with city, state, county, highway and campus police; the New Hampshire governor said as much. At UCLA, a group of pro-Israel demonstrators attacked the Gaza solidarity camp while the LAPD stood by (a pattern that has since been replicated nationwide). The next day, hundreds of riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at the students, dismantling the tents and arresting more than two hundred people, including some two dozen faculty, on unknown charges. Students at CCNY, New York’s flagship public university, had initially managed to chase the NYPD out of their uptown campus quad. Yet they later returned in full force, imposing a military-style occupation that saw the encampments destroyed and protesters detained. At NYU, the police stormed the protest site at Gould Plaza and arrested more than 130 people, including some professors trying to get into their offices, for trespassing. The encampment went back up days later, but in the early hours of 3 May the NYPD destroyed it and arrested a dozen or so protesters. The same sequence of events played out at the New School.

With dozens of quasi-military vehicles deployed, and entire city blocks cordoned off, riot police occupied the New York campuses, brutalizing anyone they perceived to be standing in their way. Columbia will remain under police lockdown until 17 May. Its commencement ceremony has been cancelled and some of those arrested will face criminal charges. The NYPD claims that roughly 30% of those detained at Columbia are non-students, while at CCNY the figure is said to be 60% – including some alleged jihadis who have yet to be named. Stanford has sent a photograph of one suspected ‘terrorist’ to the FBI. Students and staff have been subject to constant surveillance and relentless administrative harassment, with Columbia calling in the federal agents and private investigators. Policy changes and disciplinary measures have generally been announced ex post facto, via email or fliers, with no transparency or accountability. At NYU, an early career academic has been suspended for removing a pro-Israeli poster from a wall.

Politicians from both parties helped to manufacture the hysteria, with Democrats playing a leading role. President Biden declared the protests antisemitic and accused the students of causing ‘chaos’. From the senate floor, Chuck Schumer called students ‘terrorists’. The House of Representatives voted that slogans in support of Palestinian liberation constituted antisemitic hate speech and were therefore unlawful. Representatives from New York introduced the bipartisan Columbia Act, which pledges to create a federal commission at the Department of Education to oversee government-approved, third-party ‘antisemitism monitors’. New York Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference where he railed against ‘outside agitators’ and stressed the importance of identifying them through the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit, in coordination with the Columbia administration. Rebecca Weiner, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, currently serves as the Deputy Commissioner of that unit – which has an office in Tel Aviv, where it studies crowd control tactics and surveillance technologies with the Israeli security state. Adams remarked that Weiner had been ‘monitoring the situation’ on campus and deserved credit for the NYPD operation.

What explains the scale of this response? The semester ends sometime between late April and mid-May. Why not wait the encampments out, negotiating and offering symbolic concessions to buy time? This is partly a reflection of the changes that universities, like many other institutions, have undergone during decades of neoliberalization. In the mid-1970s, Republicans identified public universities as a crucial source of anti-authoritarian sentiment and demanded a complete institutional overhaul. The subsequent process of privatization, which has made tuition prohibitive for most prospective in-state students, has been catastrophic for democratic principles and practices. With massive, untaxed endowments running into the tens of billions, universities have slowly morphed into public-private police-carceral states, catering to ‘customers’ and answering to benefactors and politicians, not students or faculty.

At Columbia, whose endowment is $13.6 billion, students must pay $90,000 per year plus travel expenses – a dramatic rise since the 1980s. Administrative posts and salaries have increased relative to faculty ones, and the number of non-tenured staff has grown steadily. Nationally, three-fourths of faculty are non-tenured and therefore do not have academic freedom. The privileged minority of tenured faculty did nothing to fight this trend, nor did they participate in adjunct efforts to unionize, since the current system enables them to take research leave and sabbatical. Now tenure itself – under attack from Republican politicians, trustee boards and university administrations – seems unlikely to survive. Recent years have seen an upswell of labour activism among graduate students and adjunct faculty, some of whom have managed to win collective bargaining rights, but they are a long way from re-democratizing the academy.

Another crucial factor is the influence of so-called ‘shot callers’: a donor class of billionaires, often working through politicians or board members, with the power to force institutional changes or get people fired by threatening to withhold funding. As universities have become more like corporations, whose primary duties are to their shareholders, administrators have become increasingly pliant before donors and their representatives. Presidents can be forced to resign even when they have strong support from students and faculty, as at Harvard; or, conversely, they can ignore significant internal opposition because they have outside backers, as at Columbia. (One of the main shot callers there is Democratic donor Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who responded to the protests by revoking a donation and taking out full-page advertisements in major newspapers which denounced ‘antisemitic hate’ and demanded greater ‘protection’ on campuses.)

It was the aftermath of 9/11, however, that brought the neoliberal university deeper into the embrace of the national security state. In the run-up to the second invasion of Iraq, campuses saw a new wave of political organizing spanning students and faculty, including the formation of groups like Historians Against the War (which remains active today). The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign was founded in 2005 and took wing at the end of Bush’s second term, attracting the ire of university administrations. At the same time, radical academics faced greater scrutiny and often direct surveillance. Alan Dershowitz, having been exposed as a plagiarist by Norman Finkelstein, used his connections to get Finkelstein’s tenure at DePaul denied. Finkelstein never found academic work again. Aijaz Ahmed, a leading critic of US empire, was fired from York University in Toronto for his writings on Palestine. Perhaps the most emblematic case was that of Sami Al-Arian, a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida who worked in the Clinton White House, and who came under federal surveillance because of his advocacy. In 2003 he was falsely accused of providing ‘material support’ to Islamic Jihad ‘terrorists’, fired from his job, held in solitary confinement for three years and hounded through the courts. Federal prosecutors failed to convict him on a single count. The only evidence they presented was Al-Arian’s public statements and writings on Palestinian liberation. In 2014 the government dropped all charges, and he was deported to Turkey the following year.

After the 2008 financial crash, austerity became the order of the day for everyone except bankers, big tech and investors, and public universities were starved of funding. Anti-imperial scholarship and activism generally receded, even as Obama ramped up drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan while opening new fronts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. His presidency was crucial in consolidating the relationship between the higher education sector and the Democratic establishment. In 2012, his leading campaign donors were faculty, staff, students, alumni and administrators at UC Berkeley, with Harvard and Stanford not far behind. The eruption of BLM in 2014-15 did little to change this trend and may have even accelerated it. To the extent that it was a movement at all, as opposed to a branding exercise, it never represented a threat to the Clintonite wing of the party, much less to the donor class. It merely helped turn the creed of diversity, equity and inclusion into more rigid and constricting policies used, especially by HR departments, to keep people in line. Universities have now become factories where Democratic ideology is mass produced and disseminated in the media, cultural, entertainment, technological and scientific spheres. By pointing this out, and by disingenuously framing higher education institutions as insufficiently supportive of Israel, Republicans hope to burnish their ‘anti-elitist’ credentials and target a key site of Democratic power.

By the time university presidents were hauled before Republican lawmakers to answer a series of cynical questions about campus ‘hate speech’, they had long since sawed off the branch on which they needed to stand. Having spent decades silencing criticism of Israel, they could not invoke first amendment rights or academic autonomy. Instead, they have simply tried to comply with the Republican clampdown. Of course, as Trotsky noted, playing nice with wannabe fascists rarely works. There are no steps the university presidents could take that would satisfy far-right legislators. For the latter have nothing to lose by continuing their offensive, which allows them to divide the Democratic base against the leadership and the Zionist donor class to which it answers, increasing the likelihood of a Republican victory in November.

In 1968, a split Democratic Party handed the presidency to Nixon, at a time when most US citizens opposed the Vietnam war and, paradoxically, opposed the peace demonstrators as well. Today, a majority of Biden voters want the genocide in Gaza stopped, and most Americans support the student protests. This is bad news for the incumbent. Of his 2020 voters, 10% now plan to back Trump. Should a significant number of independents, who make up 43% of the electorate, or ‘progressives’ – who number about 35% and reliably vote Democrat – decide to stay home or support another candidate, the president will be in trouble. Between the growing uncommitted block of anti-Biden delegates, the potential for mass unrest over the summer, and the protesters planning to converge on Chicago for the Democratic Convention, a repeat of some aspects of ’68 appears to be on the cards, although this time it is as if a much-diminished LBJ had decided to run for re-election. The latest polls indicate that if Biden wins, it will be because abortion mobilizes predominantly white suburban women in sufficient numbers. The failed Democratic strategy in 2016 – ‘for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we’ll pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin’ – seems to be the only one that the leadership is capable of pursuing.

The 1968 occupation of Hamilton Hall – protesting the university’s complicity in the war, its real-estate rapacity in Harlem and its authoritarian approach to student demonstrators – was captured on film, along with the brutal retaking of the building and over 700 arrests. As the footage circulated, protests spread to high schools and other campuses across the country. Over the next two years, the tide of history turned. Võ Nyugên Giáp, architect of the Tet Offensive, famously remarked that the US could never have won in Vietnam regardless of its superior military strength. Why? Because ‘the human factor’ was decisive. It did not matter how many Vietnamese the US killed. There would always be enough willing to fight and die in defence of their country. The goal of the NLF and Hanoi was to break the will of the American government to continue the war. Eventually, with help from the US student and anti-war movements, they succeeded.

Since then, the so-called human factor has played a crucial role in other anti-imperialist struggles. General Giáp’s insight has held true in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Lebanon, South Africa, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, the West Bank and now Gaza. In none of these cases have bombs, artillery, torture, surveillance technology or counterintelligence, whether used by US military or its proxies, secured outright victory for the hegemon. Resistance movements, some of them popular and democratic, have endured.

Nor can militarized police raids, which bring counter-insurgency operations home, vanquish the ghosts of ’68. Thanks to student organizers, along with a critical minority of professors, intellectuals, scientists, technical workers, lawyers, human rights activists and cultural producers, people across the US are mobilizing in defence of first-amendment rights and against Israel’s genocide of Gazans. They are making history, and they know it. An increasingly authoritarian variant of neoliberalism will not stop them. Following a forty-year eclipse, might we see the rebirth of what Said called democratic criticism, or what Mike Davis called the revolutionary socialist project, as an antidote to ethno-religious nationalism, empire and thanatocracy?

Read on: Ernest Mandel, ‘Lessons of May’, NLR I/52.