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Student Encampments Prove That the Rightful Place of Study Is in Struggle

By Leigh Patel

Hundreds of Temple, Drexel and UPenn students marched in solidarity with Palestine to UPenn's campus on April 25, 2024, where professors walked out of classes. Students also set up tents in solidarity with the Columbia University student encampment.
Hundreds of Temple, Drexel and UPenn students marched in solidarity with Palestine to UPenn's campus on April 25, 2024, where professors walked out of classes. Students also set up tents in solidarity with the Columbia University student encampment. Photo credit: Joe Piette

Mainstream media’s coverage of the campus-based student protests and encampments across the globe primarily addresses the ‘need’ to use law enforcement, including university police and politicians’ calls for National Guard. Armed with riot gear which does not include mace, batons, firearms, or metal or rubber tie handcuffs, this armament has been firmly in place long before this student mobilization. Through phones and social media, the world watches as students’ encampments are forcibly assaulted and police officers, municipal and university, use blunt force to remove students and faculty from these sites of protests.

With the images of unspeakable yet undeniable violence in Gaza and the horrific use of militarized deployment to destroy every university, hospital, and private home, it might be easy to miss the fact that rigorous study is in every encampment, every faculty group of solidarity, and myriad teach-ins that have been a staple in the encampments. On the contrary, students’ encampments are providing public pedagogy. In the United States, this public pedagogy has supplanted vacuous stories on mainstream media, often leaning into stories that don’t require saying Gaza, Israel, or genocide.

It is neither new nor revelatory that study has always been a crucial component of struggle. The 1960s movement that led to the creation of Ethnic Studies included regular study groups, now codified as essential curriculum in many states. When Puerto Rican and Black youth, then the dominant population of Harlem and the Bronx, demanded admission to the City College of New York in 1969, they were joined by June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. Students’ study-fueled resistance was supported by students’ protests of the relentless bombing of the US monetary and weapon-fueled attack on Gaza and has been lifted by the presence of faculty. Dr. Ruha Benjamin made public her presence at a sit-in at Princeton University. At University of California, Irvine, Professor Dr. Tiffany Willoughy-Herald held no punches in indicting the funding for police at the expense of students’ monetary support to succeed higher education. When asked if she feared losing her job as she was cuffed and moved from the students’ encampment, Dr. Willoughy-Herald responded: “What job do I have if the students don’t have a future?” Faculty support of righteous student mobilization against the termination of Palestinians peoples, while powerful, is also a response to the rigorous study that students engaged in order to learn from history and create a movement that stems from a resounding silence from universities and punishment of key leaders. Faculty responses haven’t sought its own unique space in this movement, rather they have shown up as teaching and learning in struggle.

Embodying the potent truth-telling force and commitment to learning without extraction and imperialism, the students’ encampments are a real-time lesson in the fact that the rightful place of study is in struggle.

Youth, including college students, have been historically dismissed as idealistic, more recently as sensitive snowflakes and subject to ‘woke’ curriculum, which is indicted as creating factions and divisions. Less insulting but still questioning the disruption of students’ mobilization, longtime CNN broadcast journalist Jake Tapper bemoaned to former Brandeis University president, Frederick Lawrence, that the student mobilization has limited Tapper’s coverage of the attacks on Gaza. Lawrence clarified that the student mobilizations are founded in commitment to raise awareness.

And awareness is not nearly enough for these students. From their study, these students demand divestment from any industries that support Israeli militarism and violence because they have studied universities’ economic investments.  They have indicted the United States for its imperialism and politicians’ demurral from speaking the truth of a genocide happening before us. They have made public how they are treated by campus and municipal police in riot gear as they are simply sitting, encamping, interrupting business as usual, because mass state violence should never be usual. It is poignant and purposeful that this student mobilization has gripped college campuses in many nations, as every university in Gaza has been obliterated. Rather than creating factions, the student encampments are calling for the cessation of silence to protect universities’ coffers and public images. Some divisions are righteous.

And there is, unfortunately, although predictably, more constricted form of reading, one grounded in search for control. Some university administrators have reviewed and hastily altered university policy to justify counterinsurgency. The day after Indiana University changed its policy on protests, thirty-three protestors were arrested. This is not study. It is, instead, reading and altering text for the sake of self-preserving alteration. As they call for additional force from law enforcement, university administrators use contorted definitions of free speech and safety as a tactic for policing students’ words and policing their thoughts.

Students’ encampments have been consistent areas of study, led by students, teach-ins led by faculty, and listening sessions from people in Gaza. Lives depend on study. Reminiscent of Ella Baker’s leadership of SNCC, this movement does not need a charismatic leader because it is growing rigorous study in spaces where strong and always learning young people do not need a charismatic leader. Of course, people in this struggle will err in confusing supporting Palestine with antisemitism. This, too, is part of study in struggle. Mistakes will be made, and people learn from mistakes. As writer and educator Carla Shalaby reflected to me: the rightful place of study is in struggle.

Mainstream media lacks the distinctions among Judaism, Zionism, Hamas, and Palestine, organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace, choosing instead a false binary of Israel and Palestine. Yet, in the dozens of student encampments across the globe, these distinctions are foundational. It has been the entry point for further, deeper study of imperialism, settler colonialism, and the gendered, raced, and ableist tactics of genocide. It also includes care. Study includes planning for arrest, noting students who are most vulnerable, such as migrant students, will be taken and contained in a detention center, notorious for obscuring traces of detained people. At an encampment at UCLA, seeing that the motorcade of LAPD SUVs pulling up, student organizers communicated quickly to hundreds of protestors guidelines for protecting those who could not risk engagement with law enforcement as well asking those most bolstered through their social position to be the front line. No one was obligated to do this, and there was a plan. The plan existed because they had studied who has the most to lose in confrontation and likely arrest by police in riot gear.

Ironically, university responses of calling for more cops on campuses has also revealed a clear commitment to the settler colony of the United States and its core commitment: protection of economic and cultural capital. Not learning, not dialogue, not transformation. Capital. On May 13, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to reallocate $2.3 billion from initiatives supporting diversity  to ‘campus safety.’ In an attempt to explain this gutting of diversity and equity education, board member Marty Hotis was clear: “When you destroy property, or you take down the US flag and you have to put up gates around it—that costs money. It’s imperative that we have the proper resources for law enforcement to protect the campus.” It is an astonishing and unvarnished statement that to critique the university, to critique the police is tantamount to critiquing the nation itself. Learning is glaringly absent from what must be protected from university administrators. And the world hears, sees, and senses how student mobilization is met with police action and shifting policies to ensnare them as violators of free speech. The world is watching as free speech is reserved for some and weaponized against many.

There is a moment in the 2018 film, Black Panther, in which King T’Challa, recently ascended to the throne and responsibility of the protector of Wakanda, is physically and psychologically interrogating a thief of vibranium on busy streets of Busan, South Korea. King T’Challa is cautioned by his elite guard: “King! The world is watching.” T’Challa steps away, presumably because the world watching a decontextualized moment of force and threat would too easily criminalize a Black nation already cast as underdeveloped and savage. I am reminded of this scene as I reflect, daily, on how the world is watching unfettered destruction of Gaza and the discipline and punishment delivered to university students’ mobilization to defend Palestinians. Students have been calling for the attention that slowed King T’Challa. They have decried genocide and made explicit the implications of universities and colleges that are both financially invested in Zionism and the US-based militarized police force that is the dominant response to their protests. I hope, as daily horrors persist, that the world is also learning from these students that the rightful place of study is in struggle. Universities have a thing or two to learn from their actions with student protestors.


About the Author 

Dr. Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, an educator, a writer, and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She works extensively with societally marginalized youth and teacher activists. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Education. She has been involved in organizing for educational justice and labor rights. Patel is a recipient of the June Jordan Award for scholarly leadership, and the Inaugural Advocacy Award for the journal, Equity and Excellence in Education. She is the author of Youth Held at the BorderDecolonizing Educational Research, and No Study Without Struggle. Connect with her on Twitter at @lipatel.