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What do student protesters at US universities want?

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Protests against the war in Gaza are now roiling dozens of college campuses across the US, many of them storied and highly respected universities. Why are students pitching tents and refusing to leave? And what, specifically, do they want to achieve?

Tensions quickly flared at American universities after the 7 October attack by Hamas that led to the deaths of around 1,200 people in Israel, and to a retaliatory assault that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians.

But over the past two weeks, those tensions have boiled over into an uprising that joins the ranks of Occupy Wall Street and the 1980s anti-apartheid movement and evokes memories of the protests against the Vietnam War.

As historical comparisons abound, college administrators, law enforcement and politicians are grappling with how to respond to rein in a nationwide revolt in a new era dominated by social media and 24-hour news.

Why are students protesting over the war in Gaza?

Since October, students have launched rallies, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and most recently, encampments against the war.

They are demanding that their schools, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel. Divestment means to sell or otherwise drop financial ties.

Student activists say that companies doing business in or with the nation of Israel are complicit in its ongoing war on Gaza – and so are the colleges that invest in those companies.

University endowments fund everything from research labs to scholarship funds, mostly using returns from millions – and billions – of dollars in investments. They own shares of large companies from Amazon to Microsoft, and put money into private equity, hedge funds and index funds.

What happened at Columbia University?

To understand what is happening now, look back to last December, when the heads of Ivy Leagues testified before Congress about antisemitism on campus. What was seen as waffling put those officials in hot water, and led to the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania resigning.

Earlier this month, Columbia president Nemat Shafik – who has faced criticism over her own handling of campus divisions about the war – was in the Capitol Hill hot seat, and staked out a much tougher stance on antisemitism than her counterparts had done.

While she was traveling to Washington and testifying, hundreds of students pitched tents to camp in the centre of the New York City campus, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and calling on university leaders to divest from Israel.

By the encampment’s second day, the city’s police department was called in to break up and clear the protest. More than 100 students were arrested for trespassing, with many suspended and now potentially facing criminal charges.

The raid appeared to anger and embolden protesters, with student activists banding together once again on campus, organising through social media.

With classes due to end next month and final exams around the corner, these Occupy-style tactics prompted the school to shut down all in-person classes last week and urge faculty and staff to work remotely.

As the protest spills over into a third week, President Shafik said on Monday that dialogue with student organisers to dismantle the encampment had failed, while also reiterating that the university will not divest from Israel.

Video caption, Watch: See how Gaza campus protests spread across the US

Where else are students protesting?

The escalating crisis at Columbia has now inspired similar encampments at private and public universities in at least 22 states and Washington DC. They include:

  • Northeast region: George Washington; Brown; Yale; Harvard; Emerson; NYU; Georgetown; American; University of Maryland; Johns Hopkins; Tufts; Cornell; University of Pennsylvania; Princeton; Temple; Northeastern; MIT; The New School; University of Rochester; University of Pittsburgh
  • West coast: California State Polytechnic, Humboldt; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Berkeley; University of Washington
  • Midwest region: Northwestern; Washington University in St Louis; Indiana University; University of Michigan; Ohio State; University of Minnesota; Miami University; University of Ohio; Columbia College Chicago; University of Chicago
  • The south: Emory; Vanderbilt; University of North Carolina, Charlotte; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Kennesaw State; Florida State; Virginia Tech; University of Georgia, Athens
  • Southwest: University of Texas at Austin; Rice; Arizona State

Pro-Palestinian protesters have also gathered over the past week on university campuses in Australia, Canada, France, Italy and the UK.

Why did USC cancel graduation?

On Thursday, in response to its own on-campus protests, the University of Southern California announced it had cancelled its main-stage graduation ceremony for students.

Officials said they could no longer host the 10 May event, where some 65,000 students and their guests were expected, citing new safety measures that would be required.

They added that the school had received several threats to disrupt the ceremony.

Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student of South Asian descent chosen by the school as its valedictorian, or highest-performing graduate, had earlier been barred from delivering the event’s traditional valedictory speech. The school also cited safety concerns.

Has protesting worked?

Pro-Palestinian campus groups have for years called on their institutions to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, as a means of pushing back against Israel.

No US university has ever committed to the BDS framework, although some have cut specific financial ties in the past.

As a practical matter, endowment portfolios are often managed by asset managers rather than the universities themselves, and closely protect information about their positions in the stock market. But student activists have argued for greater transparency about these funds, even if they do not make active or direct investments to Israel.

And while divestment would have a negligible impact, if any, on the war in Gaza, protesters say it would shed light on those who profit from war and help build awareness of their issue, similar to how divestment from fossil fuel companies has galvanised climate activism.

Organisers also appear to be taking some inspiration from the 1980s, when college students targeted companies doing business with apartheid South Africa and ultimately forced more than 150 schools to divest from the country.

The events of the past fortnight have so far not achieved such success.

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