How Columbia University is the new face of the Intellectual Intifada

Students have forever been the face of the young revolution, only now being louder, fearless, and more audacious.

Universities across the United States have been witnessing an expanding movement on campuses by students protesting for Palestine against the war waged by “Israel” and supported by the US. This movement is not new – this movement is reborn with a cause brushed under the history books only to be unearthed by those living it.

Students of the United States, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, are bringing back human rights activism, which dates back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which influenced the anti-war movement that was ignited during the American War on Vietnam.

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University, which instigated the domino effect of pro-Palestine protests in universities across America, is more than just a wave of uproar against the US government’s military and financial support for “Israel’s” genocide in Gaza. It represents the call to action, mirroring the voice of power, which, in turn, gives voice to resistance against injustice.

However, the domino effect is sending the US government into a spiral of panic. Why?

Complex yet simply put, student activism is making a comeback, through civil disobedience and peaceful protests, to challenge the imperialist system that uses the academic institution as a tool of social control to enforce its ideologies and conceal the failures of its own history and present. 

And being “woke” is sort of the boogeyman of the government, because the term itself challenges the government and looks it dead in the eye.

‘By all means necessary’ and peacefully

Student demonstrations, regardless of how peaceful they are, have always been a bone for the government to pick with ever since the 1968 protests at Columbia against the war in Vietnam. Other universities like the University of Michigan and NYU followed suit, and thus the anti-war movement gained traction and the attention of the American youth. 

As of last week, the Morningside campus of Columbia has been the stage of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment where tents have been set up by students, housing posters calling for the end of the siege and genocide in Gaza encouraged by Western allies. The on-site encampment was the venue of multiple forms of protests such as teach-ins (which began in the 1960s Vietnam protests), dances, and poetry readings, while other students were seen completing assignments and painting. 

Then comes the crackdown at the hands of New York’s finest, the NYPD. Picture this: America has a problem, instead of resorting to ways to solve the problem, who are they going to call? The police.

Columbia students, during their peaceful protests, have been calling for the complete divestment of the university from ties with “Israel” and the occupation’s business entities. 

However, in a shocking turn of events, NYPD Chief John Chell revealed that it was the University’s President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik (of Egyptian descent, by the way) who called the police after calling the demonstration a “clear and present danger.”

“To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” he said.

Let’s go back 235 years, to the formation of the US Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

So, rather than meeting the demands of their students, university administrations have been obeying the demands of their donors and political affiliates. To get down to the law side of things, universities could be sued for violating the First Amendment, which gives the students the natural right to express and advocate against policies by the US government freely. 

Shafik, Columbia University’s President, is facing calls by students, faculty members, and even lawmakers to resign or face censure over her decision to call NYPD and arrest over 150 students for exercising their right to free speech. 

Here’s the funny part of this whole shebang: The authorities, be they police or academics, have been weaponizing anti-semitism, claiming “intimidating” behavior from the students. After all, waving the anti-semitism card is a game the US is a professional at playing. 

Do you want to speak up against the rape of women in Gaza by Israeli forces? You’re anti-semitic. What, you’re against the blocking of aid by “Israel” into Gaza? You’re anti-semitic. Did you say you’re an anti-Zionist human rights advocate? I guess this also makes you anti-semitic, by US standards that is… 

Capitalist combat

In an interview for Al Mayadeen English, Maryam Iqbal, a student at Columbia’s Barnard College and an organizer of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, stated, “I believe that as students at an American institution, we have an inherent complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people because our tuition and tax dollars are paying for it. And we have to fight with everything in us against our complicity. “

She reveals that not only was she arrested, but she was “suspended and evicted” from her housing by Columbia University.

She tells other students, “We want you to learn from our tactics and occupy buildings, occupy spaces and say I’m all eyes on that right now. I don’t want people to center on Columbia because this should not only be about Columbia. It’s not about us. It’s about Palestine.”

In the latest news, just today, Shafik imposed an ultimatum on students peacefully protesting against the Israeli genocide in Gaza: either reach an agreement with the administration to end the encampment or the school would resort to a different approach to dismantle it – by Monday midnight. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan recently announced, in light of the events, that it would permit free expression and peaceful protest during graduation in May but would stop “substantial disruption”.

Basically, it’s kind of set like this: you can speak on our own terms, and the “disruption” stops when we say so. 

When has intimidation and threat ever instilled fear into the minds of those who fear neither the book nor its author, neither the pen nor its holder, and neither the weapon nor its maker?

The university or college campus represents the space for learning freedom, advocating for it, and therefore, using that space to educate society on it.  

Students across the US are rewriting history, just like those before them decades ago. These students are rewriting history to break free of colonial rhetoric and fight the war on Gaza through their pens and their voices. Instead of battlegrounds, they’re fighting for the liberation of Gaza on their campuses. 

The privilege of being a student is having a voice and being the voice of those who are silenced by political agendas for cash and clout. The privilege of being a student is holding the pen as a weapon of resistance against imperialist ideologies and systemic injustice. 

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