Students Stand Up for Gaza

A YDSA member reflects on the New York University encampment and prospects for the solidarity movement.

Tens of thousands of university students established encampments on more than 200 campuses across the country in the run up to graduation ceremonies. More than two thousand were arrested. Many encampments were broken up by police repression and an unknown number of students face academic discipline for their actions in solidarity with Gaza. While many campus administrations relied on the police, others have agreed to negotiate over the students demands for disclosure and divestment of university holdings dealing with Israel. Protests have continued through commencements as many high profile speakers have cancelled their engagements and students have walked out during ceremonies; some Columbia students even accepted their diplomas wearing zip ties. No doubt, campus administrations are betting the movements will fade over the summer break, but Socialist Forum‘s interview with YDSA organizer Erin Lawson from NYU points to the movement’s rapid expansion and the prospects for a revival in the fall semester.

Socialist Forum: Can you tell us about how the encampment at NYU began?

Erin Lawson: It started on April 22. We were inspired by [the encampment at] Columbia. We knew we had to do something fast after the first mass arrests at Columbia on April 18. When people saw police brutalizing students, that caused a reaction across the country and especially here in the city because we’re so close and know all about the brutality of the NYPD.

SF: Did the encampment begin spontaneously? How do you come together on such short notice?

Erin: The Friday before April 22 the NYU Palestine Solidarity Coalition (PSC) met. The PSC had been organizing since October and it brings together about thirty organizations, with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) playing a leading role. People really felt we had to do something on Monday, and we spent all weekend planning logistics so that it wasn’t like a spontaneous thing where people just set up tents. It was a very coordinated action.

SF: Roughly, how many tents and how many people were out there that first day and what was the mood?

Erin: There were about thirty tents and I would say upwards of three hundred people. It was probably the most beautiful action I can recall, with so many students coming together for each other in solidarity with Gaza. There was chanting and singing. It was a moment of solidarity in this community. I have been organizing at NYU for four years and I’ve never seen so many students all together. I was so proud to be a part of it.

SF: This is a silly question we have to ask because of the insanity of the national media and with President Biden coming out and attacking all the encampments as antisemitic. Were there any actually problems with antisemitism or other forms of racism?

Erin: No, absolutely not. Jewish and Arab students were working together. The girl I got arrested with and who I shared a cell with is Jewish. I think people have to realize that young Jewish people came out to support Gaza because they’re struggling to reconcile how they grew up with  what’s happening now. This is so important to them, and when the media weaponizes their identity to defend what Israel is doing… it’s fucked up.

SF: How did the campus administration react?

Erin: Their immediate reaction that morning was to say that if you disperse now there won’t be any repercussions.

SF: You obviously refused to dissolve the encampment immediately. How did the administration escalate?

Erin: They blockaded the encampment so no one could get in or out. The faculty even had to negotiate so we could use the bathrooms. The cops arrived at 2 p.m., and, in hindsight, we should have known that NYU President Linda Mills always intended to call the cops that day. I think the Democratic establishment has a lot to answer for. If you look at Joe Biden’s administration and how he has painted these protests across the country as not peaceful and nonviolent, saying solidarity with Gaza because they’re facing genocide, which is actually what’s happening. Instead, Biden is saying that we’re antisemitic and violent and that we’re crazy students. Which is just factually not true.

SF: How has Mayor Eric Adams responded?

Erin: Mayor Adams has been egregiously evil, I would say. At every point, he’s justified the cops’ presence on our campuses and says that we are causing havoc in the city, which is just not true. The only disruptions to campus life have been caused by the administrations when they cancel events in order to turn the student body against the protesters.

SF: What sort of support have you received from students, faculty, and the community in general?

Erin: I think we’re very lucky in the sense that the unions on campus, the faculty union and the graduate student union, have supported us every moment. The faculty stood on the edge of the encampment and created a wall around us so they would be the first people who got arrested. They were the ones who really put themselves out there for us at every turn. They wanted it to be student led and they supported whatever escalation or de-escalation we voted on.

SF: Were you having general assemblies, discussing tactics and strategies, and making democratic decisions within the encampment?

Erin: Yes, the first day, there was certainly a sense of democracy. When we wanted to escalate something, we all got in a circle and voted if we wanted to do that or not.

SF: So on the night of April 22, around 130 people were arrested at NYU. What was the mood of people as they were arrested and what was your personal experience?

Erin: This was the first time I was ever arrested. I want to say that there’s very few things I think myself and other students want to get arrested for. Despite being very active organizers, we don’t take being arrested lightly. It’s a very traumatizing experience. It’s not fun. Jail is not fun. The NYPD are very brutal. They’re one of the most highly funded and militarized forces in the world, so I don’t want to glamorize or romanticize getting arrested. But it was also a very beautiful experience. I remember that in the back of the police bus and even in my cell, we were singing and chanting. So it was eight hours of being very anxious on the one hand, but it was also wonderful. And I will say, because it was my first arrest, I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I was told earlier that day that being arrested was very peaceful because we were just doing civil disobedience so the police officer would just ask us to stand up and put our hands behind our backs. But I saw the NYPD throwing chairs at students. I saw the NYPD pinning students to the ground. I saw them use pepper spray. It was really, really scary. But every student who was arrested that day was standing very strong. We knew what we were doing was right.

SF: So the NYU encampment started days after the first mass arrests at Columbia, and then the movement spread to the City University of New York, the New School, and beyond New York the week of April 22. Columbia students occupied Hamilton Hall on April 23 and held it for nearly a week until the final police raid at Columbia on April 30. How did NYU students react to the Columbia raid? And are there any connections between students on different campuses?

Erin: I remember I was with my comrades on Tuesday night and we were literally listening to Columbia’s student radio and hearing in real time what was happening at Columbia. Then about an hour later that night, we heard what happened at City College Campus because we have friends and comrades to go to CUNY. We all know that our struggle on our campus is not just isolated, our struggle is city wide because the NYPD is a terrifying, brutal military force that disproportionately brutalizes Black and brown students. This is particularly noted at CUNY because its the most diverse school system in the city. I just remember being terrified that night. There was a whole group of NYU students who went to jail support that night around midnight. We stayed there until like four or five in the morning waiting for our comrades from Columbia and City College of New York to get out of jail. So there’s definitely a community of student organizers who are there for each other because we know that we will win when we are all in solidarity with each other. We’ve been doing jail solidarity almost every day. Last night, we were supporting students arrested at the New School and in the second sweep at NYU.

SF: So multiple rounds of jail support in the last week.

Erin: Definitely. It’s like a full-time job!

SF: Why do you think the movement spread so quickly across the whole country and even internationally?

Erin: It’s so much more than I could ever have imagined. I keep saying this to people but if you told me two weeks ago, this is what the student movement would be like I would have been like, no way. I would have never fathomed. I think that’s perhaps my own ignorance in thinking about this fervor on campus compared to how hard it’s been to organize students over the past four years that I’ve been organizing. Maybe I’ve fallen into my ways of like “you’ll have to organize students and do XYZ before you turn them out like big militant actions,” but I think what this moment has proved is that students are already energized. They’re already politicized to do these actions. They just need a place to do it. So if you give students a forum, if you allow them to scream, they’ll all fucking scream because we all know that what’s happening in Gaza is wrong and that we need to stand up for the people of Gaza and the people of Palestine because our college administrations and our government won’t. We have to do what we can as privileged members of the United States.

SF: What do you think are the things that are at the top of students’ minds today? Gaza, obviously, is the match that lit the fuse, but there must be something else going on amongst people who are in their late teens and early twenties. What do they think about the world and their place in it?

Erin: The only times we’ve been able to vote in national elections our options have been terrible. It’s been Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and Joe Biden and so there’s been a lot of political apathy and withdrawal over the past few years.I think people are realizing now that we can’t afford to be apathetic in any aspect of our lives because when we’re apathetic things like Gaza can happen. We feel like we can’t do anything about it but then you realize you actually can. What is stopping you? Nothing. Nothing is stopping you and I think that’s what’s so beautiful about this moment. I think this moment will bleed over into a lot of other things, you know there’s so much insecurity across college campuses around working and our labor. I think previous generations, and even us maybe six months ago, were just like resigned to thinking that work sucks and that’s just maybe our life for fifty years. Now we’re realizing we can’t afford to be apathetic anymore because that’s what institutions want us to be. We have more power than them because we’re more than them.

SF: UAW President Shawn Fain came out defending the encampments and the right to protest and he condemned the police attacks. What impact do you feel this movement is going to have on young people as they enter the workforce?

Erin: Oh, I think it will be so impactful. We always say in YDSA that the most strategic thing about it is that you come out with all these organizing skills, and all these realizations that you can make a difference and that’s what I think these encampments are doing. You realize that the only way you’re going to see a better world is if you organize. Not only is that the only way, but you start to believe that you deserve dignity and respect. So do the people in Gaza deserve safety and dignity and respect. You have to fight for that and it’s going to be really hard and it might sometimes be really exhausting, you might be demoralized at certain periods. I certainly have been in the past two weeks, and at times during the past four years, but you realize that if you don’t fight, that’s what that’s what they want. That’s what institutions want, it’s what your boss wants. But you can’t let them win.

SF: You must have been a freshman in college during Covid and then the Black Lives Matter uprisings. Do you think those events have taught your generation of organizers any lessons?

Erin: When I look back at that time, on the one hand, I think it was a big moment of political consciousness raising for people. They realized that they could go out into the streets in protest. I also think it was a moment for people to realize what’s strategic about mass movement. I think Black Lives Matter did a great job getting people out into the streets and realizing their power. But I also think it didn’t have a fully cohered program. You go out and you protest the police brutalizing Black and Brown people because that should not be happening. At the same time, you have to ask whatreal material change you want to see come out of the movement. I think that’s what we realize with the Gaza solidarity encampments, we had real demands. Disclose and divest is basically universal across every single college campus. That’s what we learned from Black Lives Matter.

SF: There’s been a ton of people from many organizations in this movement and SJP has been especially important. As you’re working alongside all these comrades, what would you say to people who ask what socialists offer this movement?

Erin: I think socialists provide the class analysis lens and an idea of solidarity that is much more expansive. So much of socialism is about building solidarity across nations and building a movement across peoples and we know that the struggle of the people in Palestine is our struggle because if the people in power can do what they’re doing to the people in Gaza, they can do it here at home too. That’s why, to me, when we are building the socialist movement, we’re fighting for them and fighting for us at the same time. The US and the big institutions think that we’re just bodies for labor, or bodies to be used, and we are so much more than that. We deserve full, beautiful lives and that’s what we’re fighting for here at home and abroad.

SF: Anything you want to add?

Erin: We have to keep fighting.

Image: NYC Democratic Socialists of America and Jewish Voices for Peace Ceasefire Rally on October 20, 2023