In praise of the student protesters: I occupied Columbia in 1968 and am proud of it 

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Today’s student protesters at Columbia should be proud that they are confronting and bringing to light the horrendous slaughter of tens of thousands in Gaza, including women and children. 

They, and other university students around the country, should be celebrated for their bravery, their idealism and their empathy for the more than 30,000 civilians who are being ruthlessly killed by American-made bombs and bullets. 

The Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians was horrendous, unprecedented and an odious evil, rightly denounced by all. But the subsequent Israeli overreaction, the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians and blowing whole cities to smithereens, has also been condemned by most Americans who want a cease-fire and an end to the carnage.  

One-third of Americans think that what Israel is doing qualifies as genocide and that withholding humanitarian aid that results in deliberate mass starvation is inhuman.  

Most Americans narrowly do not approve of the student protests. But they are influenced by what they hear and see in the mainstream media, which inevitably supports the status quo and discredits today’s protesters by calling them pro-Hamas and violent. The establishment does not like chaos.   

University students throughout history have voiced the truths that their elders are often too afraid to say. These students have a deep moral compass that others have come to ignore.  

It is mainly university students who bravely act with the courage of their convictions, standing up and risking their bodies and their future professional careers to bring to light critical issues of human rights that are being so egregiously violated. 

What older Americans and politicians often forget is that student protests at American universities have always been on the right side of history, a pattern that has repeated itself multiple times over my 80-year lifetime.   

As Sen. Robert F. Kennedy told Columbia students in 1964, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a time of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.” 

In 1968, I occupied Hamilton Hall and the President’s Office in Low Library for a week. I was not violent, and we students did not vandalize or destroy anything. We returned a valuable multimillion-dollar painting to campus security for safekeeping.  

Did I do anything illegal? Absolutely! I trespassed. Did our causes (the lingering segregation and degradation of Blacks, the deaths of 3 million people in Vietnam and the institutional research funding for the deadly Vietnam War machine) justify our actions? Absolutely! 

Did our illegal protests change anything? The answer is unequivocally yes.  

I believe that we student protesters saved thousands of lives and made the world a better place. 

Our anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests spread like wildfire across America and the world. The ensuing protests eventually created a climate that helped force an end to this unnecessary war years earlier than might have otherwise been. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost, save for the student demonstrations.  

1968 was a turning point: It ignited an enthusiastic shared activism that spread around the world. It was the time of the Prague Spring and, later that summer, massive demonstrations in Poland and Czechoslovakia (against Soviet domination), in France (against the Algerian war) and in Mexico (against a feudal ruling class), to name but a few.  

But the real legacy of the ’68 turmoil, carried on to today’s students, is the continuing idea that change is possible when students are unafraid to speak out against clear wrongs.  

This is an empowering notion — that students have the obligation, the duty, to challenge authority, to question assumptions, and to seize the possibility of bringing about needed social change.  

1968 brought worldwide attention to clear cascading injustices and evils that were destroying 

America and leading to endless wars where millions would be killed. 

Are there parallels between what happened in 1968 and what is happening in 2024? I think so.  

Today’s protesters say they have been directly inspired by the long, if often turbulent, tradition of university activism in the United States: the civil rights protests in the early 1960s, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the university anti-apartheid protests and the women’s rights movement. 

Why can’t all student protests be peaceful? Because, more often than not, entirely peaceful protests don’t work and are too easy to ignore.  

Blacks had been protesting the most brutal acts of segregation for years. The turning point in this critical moral issue occurred when four Black university students sat illegally at a Woolworth’s “Whites Only” lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Six months later, Woolworth’s began serving Black people. Protests are intended to be disruptive. 

It can not be stressed enough that these current protests have been peaceful. There are no pictures of protesters attacking other students. There is no real damage or vandalism; while some windows have been broken, no buildings have been blown up. Many of the protesters at Columbia were Jewish. The vast majority of pro-Palestinian protesters do not, and would never, support Hamas terrorism. 

Pitching tents is a peaceful protest. Chanting “Free Palestine” is not antisemitic, even though some choose to interpret it that way. No doubt it makes some people feel uncomfortable. But this aggressive interpretation and weaponization of anti-Semitism often leads to violence and conflicts when protesters are confronted or when the police are called in. President Biden’s condemnation of widespread violence — violence that did not happen — is purely political and serves only to fan the flames.  

Calling in heavily armed law enforcement did not work at Berkeley in 1964, at Columbia in 1968, at Harvard in 1969 or at Kent State in 1970, which ended up with four dead students. It always backfires, bringing more attention to the protesters. Columbia President Minouche Shafik was frightened by congressmen and Jewish donors calling for her head; when she called in the police riot squads, she ignited protests at 150 colleges and universities around the country. 

In 1968, the students’ protests did not stop with the spring graduations. This summer, with time and space to engage, Washington D.C., universities, political conventions, city halls and parades will seethe with activists.  

America should embrace its long tradition of student activism. It is a part of what makes our country great, and has helped us evolve to a fairer, more egalitarian and more democratic place. Campus protests are the cutting edge of free expression and empower progressive social movements that embody the highest American values.  

Blake Fleetwood is a writer and former reporter for The New York Times.  

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