History Repeating at Columbia: Student Gaza Protests Inspire the World

JF: Back in 2010 while working as a central government press and communications officer I interviewed one Manouche Shafik, then head of the now defunct Department For International Development. Fast forward fourteen years and I see her name again, this time at the heart of the maelstrom surrounding the current US student protests in support of the Palestinians that are gripping the country. 

Shafik, now president of Columbia University, called in the NYPD last week to break up the encampment that has inspired a host of other protests on campuses all over the US. The charming lady I met, who gave me a delightful interview on how to achieve a good work/life balance, and whose CV includes posts as illustrious as deputy governor of the Bank of England, deputy managing director of the IMF, and vice president of the World Bank, now finds herself besieged by students and faculty alike as the wave of protest rages on. 

AB/JF: A campus oversight panel made up of faculty, students, and of which Shafik herself is a member, has rebuked her for her actions and passed a resolution stating that her administration had, ‘undermined academic freedom and disregarded the privacy and due process rights of students and faculty members by calling in the police and shutting down the protest’, adding, “the decision… has raised serious concerns about the administration’s respect for shared governance and transparency in the university decision-making process,” 

This is new and unfamiliar territory for Shafik. One can’t imagine that her stints at the World Bank and IMF prepared her to ‘respect transparency in decision making’, nor to go up against the tsunami of outrage driving these protests, empathy not being high on the list of requirements for those jobs, one might posit. It really is a clash of worlds. The global elites, whom Shafik clearly represents, and those who have no access to the undemocratic, unaccountable, secretive annuls of power. Yet they fear us. Hence the urgency to sweep away the protest camp at Columbia. 

Following Shafik’s call on the NYPD to deploy on campus, Columbia students now face the full force of the authorities. Although the organised protest and demos are peaceful the NYPD is on hand in full riot gear and armed to the teeth. To anyone who has a sense of history the 1970 massacre of four students at Kent State university in Ohio must come to mind. Despite this fear the protesters remain steadfast, drawing on inspirations from their forbears who successfully protested against the Vietnam war. 

In 1968, Tom Hurwitz, a young student at Columbia, was arrested inside the mathematics building being occupied by hundreds of his fellow students. Today, he is a professor at Columbia with a unique perspective arcing back almost six decades: 

‘We wanted Columbia to cease its research into weapons for the war in Vietnam, a war that had already killed more than a million Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans, and was tearing out the heart of our country, says Hurwitz, recalling that the administration, ‘eventually called the police to drive us, many bleeding, out of our buildings one awful night. They made more than 700 arrests. I was one of them. And yet, in the end, we won. By the fall semester, all of our demands were met.’And that is not the only fight Columbia has had on its hands. Back in 1985, at the height of the apartheid regime in South Africa, its students mounted a three week blockade of Hamilton (now Mandela) Hall. Student activists called for divestment of South African products linked to the university, and like their predecessors in the 1960’s they were successful. Today, with another hall blockaded, history is repeating. 

Just as in 1968 and 1985, all over the United States of America students on college campuses are beginning to rise up in solidarity with the Palestinians. The cry from officialdom of antisemitism holds no water as many protests are organised by Jewish students. The desperate cry of the Palestinians – a people enduring the foulest aspects of human nature – is louder. American students carry on a proud tradition today in answering that cry, and they are inspiring students in the UK and around the world. In Paris, riot police have been called to the Sorbonne and Sciences Po campuses to try and quell the uprising. As the 1968 Vietnam protests first showed, there is nothing more powerful than a righteous anger shaking the foundations of injustice in defence of the oppressed. 

James Florey is a member of Veterans For Peace and a London tour guide expert in the social history of London’s historical buildings. Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews.

Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews.

Leave a Comment

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


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.