Opinion | History Repeated: Pro-Palestinian Campus Protests in Light of Student Apartheid Opposition

Students at UT protesting | Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Since the protests at Columbia University, pro-Palestinian student organizations at universities including The University of Texas system have been organizing campus-wide peaceful protests due to the Israel-Hamas war.

This week, the most major of the protests came to fruition. More than 250 students from UT Dallas and UT Arlington participated, while hundreds more filled campus streets in Austin.

Images of students proudly wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Middle Eastern head scarf that has grown to symbolize Palestinian solidarity and liberation, flooded news channels in Texas and across the nation, Tents were erected, armed state officers arrived on horseback, and April 24th ended with 57 students arrested.

In many ways, these protests hearken back to protests as early as 1965 regarding apartheid, a now-abolished system of institutionalized segregation in South Africa surrounding racial discrimination.

Both movements demand that academic institutions divest from companies that traded or had operations in oppressive regimes. Both are rooted in peace but have resulted in mass arrests of students nationwide. Both include a majority population of protesters who do not know individuals living in the issue’s locale yet strongly believe in their human rights.

While protests officially began in 1965, much of the grass-roots anti-apartheid college movement in the United States began as part of a response to violence that occurred at the 1976 Soweto uprising — a series of anti-apartheid protests led by black school children living in South Africa that resulted in as many as 700 fatalities.

Beginning at Stanford University the following year, students across the nation organized sit-ins to pressure academic administrations to support divestment resolutions. Campuses such as UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, and Johns Hopkins followed suit over the next decade. Some even built shantytowns, a collection of crudely made shacks for the impoverished, inside campus walls to demonstrate the living conditions black Africans faced in South Africa.

Initially, the board of trustees at most universities rejected the case for divestiture citing that black Africans would suffer most from economic sanctions as they would be the first to feel the negative impacts on the economy.

The force of these decentralized protests in combination with other activism factors resulted in Congress passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This Act imposed economic sanctions against South Africa, essentially until apartheid was lifted. By 1988, over 155 higher institutions had partially or fully divested from South Africa, holding billions of dollars from the country.

School officials begin to worry that protests could disrupt May commencement ceremonies and may begin approaching antisemitism. UT Austin president Jay Hartzell states “Our rules matter, and they will be enforced. Our university will not be occupied.”

Meanwhile, many students feel as though local and state police aggressively handled them with displays of batons and militarization. While student organizations across Texas schools had requested authorization for campus protests to demonstrate free speech, student directors denied them to “protect our educational mission”, according to UT Austin.

As Texas universities and colleges around the country may be only beginning an era of protests calling for divestment, what actually can be accomplished?

Regulations have changed significantly since the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act, and it is much more difficult to divest now from specific countries than it was 40 years ago. A successful divest movement would require dissecting interwoven economic systems around the world — much easier said than done.

Campuses such as Princeton University have stated that they are establishing an undefined “exceedingly high bar” for divestment from a company when evaluating companies associated with fossil fuels. Schools are thus able to shift divestment responsibility to those supervising this seemingly elusive research.

Additionally, as campuses prioritize shareholder interest, boards of trustees may be stubborn to let go of lucrative assets associated with Israel.

The question remains. Will university-led protests again pave the way to international change? Only time will tell. For now, student divestment campaigns may lead higher education institutions and governments to begin dissecting how powerful financial firms are indirectly linked to Israeli warfare.

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