Three Questions About Politics and the Campus Protests

The pro-Palestinian student encampments protesting the war in Gaza swept across the country this week, and with them, dramatic imagery of arrests and crackdowns from New York to Texas to Southern California.

Soon, the comparison to another protest-filled election year inevitably arose. Is 2024 going to morph into something that feels like 1968?

That year, protests at Columbia University exploded amid a nationwide movement against the Vietnam War, one that involved violent clashes as police moved in on protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer. Democrats, who had been deeply divided over the war, ultimately lost the election to President Nixon.

There are many differences between then and now, and it is much too soon to know whether the campus protests happening now will come to feel like what happened that seismic year. But the bubbling up of protest activity across college campuses half a year before a presidential election has made 2024 — a year already knotted by war overseas and deep domestic political division — that much more complicated. It’s another question mark in a political season already full of them.

Here are three questions about the politics of this moment — questions that my colleagues and I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

The students demonstrating on college campuses across the nation are a physical embodiment of the way that the Democratic base has been divided by the war in Gaza. They have drawn renewed attention to the disappointment many young and progressive voters feel about the Biden administration’s support of Israel in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. (While largely peaceful, the protests have also been criticized for some demonstrators’ use of antisemitic language.)

“So much of our youth and so much of our community is rejecting so much of the status quo,” said Kaia Shah, 23, a researcher and recent graduate of U.C.L.A., who spoke with me by phone from the protest encampment outside Royce Hall, which she joined at 4 a.m. on Thursday.

But the demonstrators’ demands, Shah said, aren’t about politics. The students are urging U.C.L.A. to divest from corporations that are profiting from the conflict in Gaza.

“Our focus has nothing to do with the election,” Shah said. “That is really irrelevant to us and our overall cause of achieving a permanent cease-fire.”

Some progressive organizers — and even the demonstrators themselves — say the campus protests are nevertheless a warning sign for President Biden, who this week condemned the antisemitism that has surfaced in some of the protests, but also condemned “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

“A lot of people don’t see a difference, truly, between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and that has led to a lot of disillusionment,” Sherif Ibrahim, a graduate student in film at Columbia and a participant in the encampment, told my colleague Charles Homans. “Of course, Trump is a horrible, horrific human being who is not any better than Biden. But I think it’s that the Democratic Party does so much to tap into our hope, and consistently disappoints.”

Democrats have pointed to polling data that suggests students like Shah and Ibrahim aren’t representative of a majority of young voters, a group the Biden campaign is targeting with an array of initiatives. A poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University found that Gaza ranked fairly low on young voters’ list of top issues. Many Democrats believe that when confronted with a choice between Biden and Trump, young voters and those upset over Gaza will choose Biden.

Representative Barbara Lee of California said elected leaders should be listening to young voters.

“Young people’s voices will be heard,” she said, “both now and in November.”

When President Trump’s trial in New York opened last week, a cast of right-wing provocateurs showed up outside to seek attention and protest the proceedings. But after the protests at Columbia erupted, something interesting happened: Some of those Republican figures, including Laura Loomer, headed uptown to join the demonstrations outside the university gates.

They aren’t the only ones who have sought to seize on the protests, slamming them as an image of chaos and a font of antisemitism. This week, House Speaker Mike Johnson and Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who has made a point of grilling university leaders about antisemitism, visited Columbia. Johnson urged the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, to resign.

Shafik had been under fire from students and faculty for her decision to send police officers to clear a protest encampment last week. But Johnson’s visit also served as a reminder of how Republican maneuvers on the issue can backfire, and how politics are already shaping the reaction on campus.

On Friday, the Columbia University Senate rebuked the university’s president but stopped short of a more severe censure vote. My colleague Stephanie Saul, who covers higher education, reported earlier in the day that members worried a censure would essentially hand a win to the congressional Republicans who have castigated her.

“We shouldn’t be bullied by someone in Congress,” said Carol Garber, a professor of behavioral sciences and a member of the senate.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, sees some parallels between the demonstrations of today and those of 1968, when he was a Columbia student.

“I think they’re quite similar,” Nadler said. “They were massive demonstrations.” He noted that he was not among the students who occupied several Columbia buildings that year.

But, he added, “there’s also a great difference politically.”

The antiwar demonstrations of 1968, which were driven in part by opposition to the draft, grew far larger than the current protests have, becoming an inescapable part of American life. And they culminated in the enormous protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Many Democrats are steeling themselves for this year’s convention, which will be held in the same city.

“There are going to be protests if the war’s still going on, which I’m afraid it will be,” Nadler said.

Protests are not uncommon at conventions, and Democratic officials with the convention say they are working to “keep the city secure while respecting rights to peacefully protest.”

“The freedom to make your voice heard is fundamental to American democracy and has been a fixture of political conventions and events for decades,” said Matt Hill, a spokesman for the Democratic National Convention.

It’s not yet clear how long the protest encampments will endure with the end of the school year approaching, although some demonstrators say they plan to stay for the long haul. The next test for Biden and college campuses may come next month, when he gives a series of commencement addresses.

One of the campuses that saw dramatic arrests of pro-Palestinian student protesters this week was the University of Texas at Austin, where 57 people were arrested on Wednesday (charges against them have since been dropped). I talked to my colleague J. David Goodman, who reports on Texas, about what took place. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the confrontation unfolded?

This was not an encampment that had been established for a while. Instead, it seems the university decided they needed to act proactively to stop an encampment from forming.

The arrests were chaotic enough that members of the press were right in the middle of surges by the police, causing the crowd to behave in unpredictable ways. The university claimed outside agitators had come in, and that they moved swiftly to stop this thing from establishing itself, but some faculty members still have deep concerns about what happened. (Later, the university said 26 of those arrested were not affiliated with the university.)

The campus is steps from the Republican-dominated State Capitol, so you have Republican state leaders kind of bristling at the stuff that they see happening in the Democratic-led capital city, and taking action. They’ve said that it was at the request of the university president, but at the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, that the state police went in.

What’s the political advantage for Abbott in cracking down the way he did?

We’ve already seen Republicans around the country cheering Abbott’s actions. Now, I also think it benefits him politically in Texas — it creates a favorable contrast for him with the schools in New York. It sort of shows that Texas is different, and that he stands for law and order.

Since the protest was cleared, how have student demonstrators reacted?

The next day there had been an unrelated protest scheduled at the same spot. Those organizers welcomed in the pro-Palestinian organizers and other students and faculty who were upset at what had happened on campus. That gathering was, by all accounts, much larger than the one that the police had come in to break up the day before. The police hung back, and students abided their directive that activity end at 10 p.m.

Some members of the faculty are still trying to get answers about what happened on Wednesday, and it’s their sense that the university went too far. People are pretty upset on campus. And this is all happening right at the end of the year — the last day of classes is Monday.

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