What is Dead May Never Die: The Rebirth of Campus Occupations

The Columbia University occupation and it’s violent dispersal has rebirthed the haunting spectres of 1968 student radicalism.


On Tuesday, I awoke to the news that Columbia University students had stormed Hamilton Hall and renamed it “Hind” Hall after Hind Rajab, the five year old child murdered by an Israeli tank on January 29 when fleeing the Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City. This development follows a week-long Gaza Solidarity Encampment, which has activated campuses nation-, and now, worldwide. 

The latest occupation and escalation was a direct response to the university writing a public statement the previous day stating they would not divest support to Israel; their demand for the protest to be broken up by 2 pm with threats of suspension for participating students.  

Vietnam Protest

Hamilton Hall was last occupied on April 23, 1968, when students stormed the hall and took the college president hostage. The event also had a notable German anti-Fascist flavour with the “Springer Demonstration”, an event “supporting German speakers against Fascism”, and a screening of the German anti-imperialist film “Three Penny Opera” from 1931.

The students’ message was that Columbia University was complicit in the ongoing atrocities in the Vietnam War. The uncovered link was between the IDA—Institute for Defense Analysis—and the University, an institutional member of the IDA. 

Additionally, the protests revolved around segregated gymnasiums in Morningside Park and the eviction of black and hispanic families to clear more land for a campus expansion. Students stood in solidarity with arrested student protestors, and the demands made on April 23, 1968, had to deal with the students’ fates. 

Today’s Protests 

The demands from the current protest are eerily similar to those in 1968, if even more depressing in the university leadership’s craven complicity with atrocities. 

Columbia has over 13 billion dollars in endowment funds, which the Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of campus groups, has campaigned to bring into the spotlight. Investments the university has made in companies such as BlackRock, AirBnb, Caterpillar, and Google, are directly linked to the Israeli government’s genocidal campaign against Palestinians.

For example, Airbnb rents out apartments in the West Bank, and Israel uses Caterpillars’ bulldozers to destroy the homes of Palestinians and clear land for new settlements. The link between private ownership and investments is directly linked to the creation of new markets and landed interest for capitalists to expand their businesses on occupied land.

This form of protest has worked before. In 1985, Columbia divested support from companies that supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa…

Columbia also has a special relationship with Tel Aviv University, offering a dual degree program and creating the Columbia Global Center in Tel Aviv. These global projects and initiatives entrench collaboration with the genocidal actions of the Israeli government, with the profit margins the involved corporations stand to gain from them. 

Media Response

In the intervening years between the Vietnam protests and the current protests, the playbook has more or less stayed the same for those liberals and conservatives siding with capitalists: protesters are accused of siding with illiberal forces, claim they’re naive, young, and stupid, or, most provocatively, called them agents of foreign forces or antisemitic terrorists.

In her article for the Telegraph, Janet Daley typifies the response by conservatives and even some liberals.

“My generation of student radicals fought for liberty. Today’s are a delusional cult,”

It approaches it from the cynical, “that was then, this is now, the young should know more and do less,” which was the same kind of brow-beating patronizing many conservatives hurled at activists like Daley in 1968 and justified the violence on them.

In the most extreme examples, liberals have relitigated the Vietnam War protest and come up against its contradictions and conservation of private interest. The general attitude of these conservative and liberal voices is unified: “How dare you disrupt our peace and tranquility and side with forces we don’t like.” How dare them, indeed. 

Divestment Campaigns Work

More than ever, American and European capitalists are desperate to have their utopian liberal project be seen in lockstep with the expansion of settlements in the Israeli government’s occupation of historic Palestine. More than ever, this liberal project will remain entrenched in its ethnic cleansing violence when it inconveniences them or their profit margins, and that goes for the treatment of protestors as well.

If Columbia and other universities don’t want to divest support from Israel, the protesters should continue to force the question to the university’s faces and wallets. The lives of students not supporting the protests and the politicians who visited the college and booed should be disrupted. These disruptions, beyond anything else, are what will force the hand of capitalists. Bourgeois hands of reaction are guided by the ghostly, seductive promise of blood-drenched lands cleared for their profit-driven market. Non-violent protests and disruptions to daily life should continue until all the protesters’ demands are met. 

…the end of the occupation was a negotiation of violence between state officials and campus administration officials whose bourgeois interests were on the line.

This form of protest has worked before. In 1985, Columbia divested support from companies that supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa after a long pressure campaign by campus activists. The university took a 4% decrease from its portfolio. 

By Tuesday night, the New York Police Department had brought a small army to break up the occupation at ‘Hind’ Hall. As with much of the handling of the protesters, the end of the occupation was a negotiation of violence between state officials and campus administration officials whose bourgeois interests were on the line. But this is not the end. This form of protest will continue to spread as global boycotts force capital to buckle under the pressure of the misery they are complicit in. Then, as now, it will continue.