Pro-Palestinian student protests highlight lessons learned from past demonstrations

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun11,2024

The pro-Palestinian protesters making themselves heard at universities across the country see their demonstrations as part of a tradition of anti-war activism on campus.  

Hundreds of students have been arrested after setting up encampments on school grounds and demanding their institutions call for a cease-fire in Gaza and divest their endowments away from companies associated with Israel.  

While universities and police have made changes over the decades in their handling of student protests, experts are pointing to similarities with years past on the activists’ demands and public perception. 

“They are pretty similar in a number of important ways and also some of the responses that campuses took during that era echo some of the kinds of issues that are facing law enforcement and campus administrators now,” said Bob Corn-Revere, chief counsel for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).  

Corn-Revere pointed back to the free speech protests and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s, which also saw a “demand for many universities to take positions on the pressing issues of the day.” 

“The same kinds of issues led Yale to consider how to handle free expression, and they issued what was called the Woodward Report in 1974. There’s sort of traced backgrounds of the kinds of disputes that had happened on Yale’s campus through the 60s and into the 70s and how to deal with those things,” Corn-Revere said.

The Woodward Report, which became Yale’s official guiding document for its free expression policies on campus, defends “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

Corn-Revere said, “The same considerations of how to balance the need for preserving a wide space for freedom of expression and, at the same time, not to tolerate violence or disruption. It’s that same balance is what we’re facing today.”

In an Instagram post, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Columbia University, where the current batch of pro-Palestinian protests began, showed an image likening the current demonstration to a protest at the school against the Vietnam War.

The post shows an image of Columbia students in 1968 protesting with a banner that says “Liberated Zone.” Another image on the same post shows pro-Palestinian protesters on campus with a banner that says the same thing.

As in the past, those willing to protest anti-war efforts believe the risk of school discipline pales in comparison to the cause they are fighting for.

“What we’re putting on the line is so minimal in risk, compared to what Gazans are going through,” Niyanta Nepal, a student at Brown University, told The New York Times. “This is the least we can be doing, as youth in a privileged situation, to take ownership of the situation.”

The biggest decision schools face in the short term is how to respond to the demonstrations. Columbia has seen multiple arrests, but school officials have attempted to negotiate with student leaders. While the encampment there that activists set up was supposed to be torn down Tuesday, the administration extended the timeline due to advances in talks with the demonstrators.   

That move to talk with activists for a more peaceful resolution has not always been the go-to for schools.  

Fifty and 60 years ago, “the campuses responded to them usually pretty heavy handedly. I mean, the most important ones are the most infamous ones at Berkeley, and Wisconsin, and of course, also here in Ohio State,” said history professor David Steigerwald. “Authorities were called in on different levels. National Guard, local police, state police, typically in a pretty heavy-handed way in those most famous instances.”  

At Kent State in 1970, four students were killed and nine were injured after the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd protesting the Vietnam War. At the University of California, Berkeley, more than 800 students were arrested. 

This week, the University of Texas in Austin vowed there would not be disruptions on campus, and state police on Wednesday made dozens of arrests within hours of protesters leaving their classes to demonstrate.  

Those arrests have seen backlash from numerous free speech experts as violence was not reported at the demonstration.  

“The image I’ve seen from the University of Texas appears to be a disproportionate response to what the images suggest were a peaceful protest. And when you’re using preemptive government force against people who are protesting and not engaging in violence then you err on the wrong side,” Corn-Revere said.  

Experts say institutions today are more sensitive specifically about protests that disrupt student learning, which could make them more quick to try to shut down an event.

Robert Cohen, professor of social studies at New York University, noted that at Columbia in the 1960s, it took students occupying the inside of five buildings before the police were called.  

“What’s different now is that at Columbia or here at NYU, the protests were not disruptive in any kind of way to the educational system,” Cohen said, adding the protests were outside on the lawn of the schools, where demonstrations have commonly taken place on campuses for decades.  

However, many schools say that without proper permission, students cannot set up tents and stay on the premises overnight, and others say the behavior and rhetoric of the activists has crossed the line into antisemitism, creating an unsafe atmosphere for Jewish students even when actual classes aren’t being impeded.

Reports of antisemitism at the protests have been condemned by the White House, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said his department is following “reports about protests—including very alarming reports of antisemitism—on and around college campuses across the country. This Department of Education won’t tolerate hate, discrimination, and threats of violence that target students because of who they are.” 

“If there are some incidents, then you go after the person who committed the harassment,” Cohen said. “It’s like if the people in the apartment building, if there’s a crime you don’t evict everybody, every apartment, you find out who did the crime, right.” 

One thing the protesters definitely share with their anti-Vietnam predecessors: Public sentiment does not appear to be on their side.

Protests back in the 1960s and 1970s, “generally speaking, didn’t generate a whole lot of sympathy for the students’ positions,” said Steigerwald.

Corn-Revere argues colleges and governments have learned a lot about how to balance the line between free expression and violence, but implementing solutions is a more difficult task.  

“The idea, at least from my perspective, is you err on the side of protecting free speech, you try to make clear that crossing the line into violence will not be tolerated, and that it is the government’s responsibility,” he said. “Sometimes the government, through the administration of the school, take steps to try and allow speech while preventing violence. Now the problem is it’s a hard decision to make and we see people erring on one side or the other in different situations.” 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

Related Post

2 thoughts on “Pro-Palestinian student protests highlight lessons learned from past demonstrations”
  1. As a university student, I believe that these recent protests are vital for promoting awareness and advocating for peace in Gaza. It’s inspiring to see the tradition of campus activism continuing to address important global issues. I hope the institutions listen and take meaningful actions towards supporting justice and human rights.

  2. Do you think these recent student protests will also lead to long-lasting institutional changes like those in the 60s and 70s?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *