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The People’s University is Apartheid-Free

Caption: A George Washington University student stands on a pile of police barricades waving the Palestinian flag inside the student encampment. Credit: Maya Hat 

Last Thursday morning, George Washington University students set up Washington DC’s first encampment protesting Israel’s war on Gaza in coalition with seven other universities in the DC area. Following the Columbia encampment on April 17, the global struggle of Palestinians has become the major focus of American students. From Columbia to UCLA, from NYU to Stanford, students have transformed their campuses into hubs of resistance, demanding accountability and calling for an end to the complicity in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Close to 40 universities have been “occupied” with student encampments, which have been set up to demand university divestment from apartheid Israel.  

“The students give us hope,” reads the inscription on the tents of displaced Palestinian refugees in Rafah. Hope is precious, and desperately needed in Gaza, where every university has been destroyed by Israeli and American bombs, leaving students without spaces to pursue education. The ongoing pressure on the American government to ceasefire and divest from Israel is crucial for rebuilding the extensive infrastructure destroyed over the past seven months in Gaza. American students have thus begun to challenge their institutions, many of which have investments or partnerships with Israeli defense contractors and companies who are complicit in the genocide. 

The student encampments, often referred to as “liberated zones,” serve as more than just physical spaces of protest; they are symbols of defiance and resilience against university institutions, many of which have punished their students for peacefully protesting on their campuses. Despite academic probation, suspension, eviction, and arrests, students have remained in these encampments and continue to educate, organize, and mobilize together creating a sense of community and belonging that transcends traditional boundaries. 

But beyond their immediate impact, these encampments also carry profound historical significance, drawing inspiration from the rich legacy of student activism and liberation movements throughout history. From the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Arab Spring, the Iraq War, and Occupy Wall Street, students have long been at the forefront of social change, challenging entrenched power structures and advocating for a more just and equitable world. In many ways, the current protests against the war on Gaza are a continuation of this tradition, as students once again rise up to confront injustice and demand action from their institutions and governments. 

“I am here because I truly believe in the power of student movements. Historically in student movements, it’s been university campuses that have led the charge for change in the United States and elsewhere. I think that right now we’re seeing how we can come together in a coalition between universities, and learning that things can and will be done,” said a student organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine at George Washington University. They said that the demands from the students are clear, “We are asking GW to make their investments with the board of trustees transparent, that they divest from Zionist entities, and give students the right to free speech – SJP cannot be banned, any Palestinian organizations should not be prosecuted for using their voice.”  

With their energy and passion, these students remind us that change is possible, and that the power to shape the future lies in our hands. In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, they offer a glimpse of what a better world could look like – not a world built on power, money, or apartheid but a world of justice and community. 

Ultimately, the student encampments protesting the war on Gaza are not just about ending a specific conflict; they are about building a more just and compassionate society for all. Each “liberated zone” represents a microcosm of the world we all want to live in, one that is centered around collective responsibility. At the George Washington encampment, there is a nightly program where community leaders share stories about Palestine and perform cultural songs and dances – we learn from each other and take care of each other. In these spaces, food, art, medicine, and education are free. Everyone works together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met and that peace is cultivated through culture, not through force. It is material proof that a better world is indeed possible within our lifetime.  

Caption: Tents filling the grass area at George Washington University’s encampment on U Yard.  

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