American Student Protest Movements, Then and Now

Watching university students protest in the United States over the past three weeks begs the question of whether they will end American support for Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza like the 1968-1972 demonstrations that ultimately helped end the US war in Vietnam. When police were called in to break up protests at Columbia University, UCLA, and other universities, memories flashed back half a century to when similar police raids cleared out student encampments and occupied buildings at Columbia and other schools.

The dynamics of these two periods of student-led national protests against American involvement in distant wars are not identical. But they share enough parallels to make it worthwhile for today’s student protesters to review crucial dynamics that will determine if they succeed or fail. These dynamics are how to organize, conduct, and expand the protests for months or longer, and the mechanisms necessary to change government policies. A third critical challenge will be how to make a foreign policy issue about Palestinians and Israelis compelling enough to prod more American citizens into political action.

Palestinians around the world have been astounded and heartened by the students’ outpouring of support for the people of Gaza and by their demands to stop the war and to provide equal justice and security for all people in the Middle East. The tumultuous events of half a century ago—strikes, street marches, boycotts of classes, teach-ins and sit-ins—hold important lessons for the students in today’s Gaza solidarity encampments.

Similarities and Differences

Similarities between the two periods are real but limited. Students now and then pressured their universities to divest from war-related industries and their government to end US involvement in foreign wars. The Vietnam protests spread partly because so many American families had to send their young men to fight in that conflict. Today, Washington participates in the Gaza war indirectly, through military, financial, and diplomatic support that has allowed Israel to carry on a genocide there for nearly seven months. American lives are not at stake, but America’s reputation is.

Today, Washington participates in the Gaza war indirectly, through military, financial, and diplomatic support that has allowed Israel to carry on a genocide there for nearly seven months. American lives are not at stake, but America’s reputation is. The 1968-1972 protests polarized American society over multiple issues (war, policing, racial relations, drugs, sexual mores, and others). The protests are remembered today mostly for how they climaxed at the Democratic Party’s late summer presidential convention in Chicago, which included street battles between protesters and police. Those protests were followed by the election of right-wing President Richard Nixon in November 1968, by the Ohio National Guard killing of four protesting students at Kent State University in 1970, and ultimately by the withdrawal of most American ground forces from Vietnam by 1972. These and other incidents, including urban uprisings by African-Americans—then called “race riots”—highlighted the use of police and military forces by American national, state, and local governments. Militarization at home and abroad dominated discussions of events, as they do now. None of those events had any direct link with the Palestine-Israel conflict, while today’s protests focus squarely on Israel/Palestine issues and their ties to American institutions such as the US government and universities. Changing policies on Israel and Palestine is a seriously difficult challenge, but this is the goal of the students in their encampments, discussions, and rallies.

Can the students show how ordinary citizens can advocate and demonstrate to force changes in policies on war-making, policing, and ethical investments free from militarism or apartheid? They can, if the activism expands the gains of nationwide protests for justice over the past half century, and keeps working for justice over the next half-century. The starting point for any protesters who take to the streets, or to campus encampments, should be the realization that changing government policy usually takes a long time, while social and political discontent translates into protest action more quickly.

The racial and gender equality demanded in the US activist movements of the 1960s-70s built on previous decades of protests. They improved some unjust policies and painful conditions, but serious injustices persist, which is why Americans continue to protest. In retrospect, the 1968-72 events turned out to be just one stage in a much longer endeavor. Whether they offer useful clues about effective protesting for change in the age of social media, for example, and whether they can hasten change in Palestine/Israel or campus policing, could be clarified soon.

The Centrality of Activism

Policy change resulting from citizen activism takes place over decades, rather than years, in most cases. Protesters should not expect major changes instantly, though well targeted protests can trigger limited quick wins while keeping an eye on the larger prize down the road. Pressuring institutions to divest from industries that assist apartheid or genocide, as a few US universities have announced they will consider doing, is an example. As the historian Rosalind Rosenberg noted about the 1960s anti-war protests,

Although the war in Vietnam continued for seven more years, the protesters were, in many ways, successful. They persuaded Columbia to put an end to classified war research, cancel construction of the Morningside Park gym [which local African-American neighborhoods opposed], ask ROTC [college training for future military officers] to leave, and stop military and CIA recruitment.

More far-reaching change requires action over years by individuals, groups, and organizations across multiple sectors in society. Although much still needs to be done, the 1960s protest movements did achieve substantive policy changes in four key sectors: civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, and ending foreign militarism such as the war in Vietnam. Those same issues persist and generate new protests, under the rubrics of Black Lives Matter, Me Too, climate justice, and ending the Gaza genocide and US complicity in it. None of the four issues from the 1960s and 1970s was directly about Palestine-Israel, but some of them touch on demands (ethical investing, and less militarism in US foreign policy) on the agenda of the current protests.

It should be no surprise that these injustices resonate today with progressive young people and adults in the United States. On the positive side, the persistence of harmful policies that repeatedly spark student-led national protests generation after generation reflects Americans’ longstanding moral commitment to justice, in principle at least. But on the negative side, the policies that need to be openly challenged are protected by powerful social and political forces that benefit from the injustices those policies generate. Such injustices include low-wage jobs, gerrymandered electoral districts, poor public health and education, constant wars and the industries that feed them, and the effects of influential lobbies for gun manufacturers, fossil fuel companies, Israel, and autocrats abroad. The entrenched American power elite ruthlessly pushes back against challenges to their dominance. And they use any necessary means to do that, including lies, exaggeration, surveillance, violence, and media and political demonization.

The current protests face additional obstacles because they seek to promote Palestinian rights and to stop Israeli genocidal crimes. Never before have the rights of Palestinians or the criminal militarism of Israel been at the heart of nationwide protests in the United States. For decades, efficient lobbies have successfully shaped and maintained American policies that favor Israel and largely ignore Palestinian rights. That legacy has been anchored in federal legislation that commits the United States to guarantee Israel’s military superiority over its foes. And the power elite continues to apply new ways to favor Israel, and to punish Palestinians, and render them invisible in the public sphere and criminal for criticizing Israeli policies.

Where to start to overcome these formidable structural constraints? Perhaps it is by first being fortified by the knowledge that non-violent mass activism spurred many US policy changes since the 1960s—activism, like today’s, that was often spearheaded by students. Successful protests that eventually changed government policies usually started by articulating a few desired essential national policy changes that would resonate with ordinary citizens. Such relevance could be material (redirecting war budgets to education and health), personal (enhancing people’s safety by reducing police brutality or risks of fighting abroad), or emotional (feeling good that the US government does not promote genocide or apartheid).

Slogans and chants are important for energizing protesters, but they run the risk of being manipulated and deliberately misinterpreted by the power elite that wants to prevent change at all costs. This is happening now with Palestinian chants to achieve national and personal rights alongside and equal to the rights of Israel and its citizens. The power elite is working overtime to demonize the pro-Palestine student protests as anti-Semitic evil done by Nazi-lovers who want to abuse and kill Jews, which is nonsense. But the power elite has been conditioned by such propaganda from pro-Israel groups for the past century, so hard work and skillful strategies will be needed to neutralize such attacks. This is why absolute clarity in articulating protest goals is essential, especially because social media can so easily misrepresent legitimate protest goals before the wider public.

In parallel with pushing for the desired national policy changes, today’s activists will have to target other policies that should be adjusted at state or local levels, or within their own colleges and universities. This will generate parallel protests aimed at purely local conditions and officials. All changes sought must be realistically doable, with clear benefits for all, and in line with existing laws and moral consensus. (This is why, for example, during the Black Lives Matter protests, calls to defund the police did not get very far, because Americans want to feel secure from crime).

In parallel with pushing for the desired national policy changes, today’s activists will have to target other policies that should be adjusted at state or local levels, or within their colleges and universities.

Accurately assessing a movement’s strengths and weaknesses in society increases chances of success. A failure of past protest movements to do so is one reason why, since the inception of the Palestine-Israel conflict in the 1920s, the Palestinian rights struggle has rarely succeeded in the United States, where pro-Israel forces are far stronger than pro-Palestinian ones. Following the 1967 war, the word “Palestine” was rarely used in US public discussion and the conflict was portrayed as being between Israel and hostile Arab states that attacked it. Thus it was always necessary to tell people about the Palestinians and their plight.

New Dynamics in American Society

In the United States today the Palestinian cause is more anchored—and the entire world is very different. The pro-Palestine justice protests can gain strength and allies if they consciously build on four new dynamics that augur well for their cause and that have only become clear in the last decade or so.

The first such dynamic is that Palestine is one of a handful of issues that have generated a truly global support base. Along with climate justice, racial equality, and the Me Too movement, Palestine repeatedly sparks large demonstrations across the world, parallel with majority votes at the United Nations General Assembly in favor of Palestine. Yet few changes happen in the lives of Palestinians because Israel and the United States dominate the power systems that define conditions in Israel and Palestine. And perhaps also because before now, the United States had never witnessed a national protest movement centered on Palestinian rights.

The second dynamic is that for the first time in the Palestinians’ century-long conflict with Zionism and Israel, Palestine has become a domestic American moral and political issue that generates sympathy—and intense opposition. It also may influence elections in critical swing states in the upcoming November vote. This was demonstrated in the 2024 Democratic Party primaries, especially in Michigan, which launched the campaign to vote “uncommitted” to signal to President Joe Biden that if he does not change his Gaza policy, he will lose the Arab- and Muslim-American voters who assured his victory in key states in 2020. If the current protest movement also mobilizes citizens locally, it can connect with like-minded Americans in other states and with other constituencies such as a good section of African-Americans, labor activists, and progressive Jews. If this happens, it is possible to envisage a national coalition of once marginalized citizens who suddenly have the electoral clout that gets attention in Washington, where national policy change happens.

In this respect, the 1960s and beyond point to the essential role of activism at the local level that was sustained for years and decades, combined with national events, to achieve policy advances on racial, climate, and gender justice. Student-led protests on college campuses were at the heart of activism that started these gains. But links with other local activism—in neighborhoods, places of worship, and other gathering places where community members knew and trusted one another—was also essential for success.

The US-Israel genocide in Gaza has sparked public moral indignation that many young Americans in particular refuse to accept. Some refer to this as “the moral issue of our time,” but such activism also has a timeless ring to it. Roseann Canfora, who was a Kent State University student when the National Guard shot dead four student protesters in 1970, sees American college student demonstrators then and now as “the conscience of America,” who do not want Palestinians in Gaza starving, suffering, and dying in their name.

A third dynamic in domestic and global support for Palestine is the sense among many that the Palestinians who battle the combined power of Israel and the United States are engaged in the world’s last anti-colonial struggle. Palestinians have paid a heavy price in this struggle since the 1920s and are mightily outgunned, but they battle on, determined to live as free men and women in their ancestral land. People around the Global South identify with this due to their own independence struggles, while across the Arab region popular support for Palestine might reflect the sentiments of men and women who oppose the Israeli-American subjugation of Palestine but whose autocratic governments deny them the right to express that in open collective action.

A final lesson from progressive activism since 1968 is about logistics, starting at the local level and then building up to national impact. Protest movements succeed by convincing one person at a time to join their cause, which happens through sustained local activities along with dynamically publicizing one’s successes. Such successful activities can be in divestment, city council statements, joint action with other social groups, legal victories, or funding support. Foes of the movement will try to distract it from its goals by making false and widely exaggerated accusations that aim to deter others from joining, and to divert attention from the core cause.

Young Americans are even-handed on Israel-Palestine and are not as influenced by the mainstream media as adults.

In this case, Israel and its American supporters already have attacked the protests by labeling them as major new drivers of anti-Semitism in the United States. Experience suggests that the best antidote is to constantly refocus attention on the one thing that Israel and its US government backers do not want to happen: an open, public discussion of Israel’s policies, the genocide they sparked, and the shameful US complicity. The demographic realities favor the protest movement. Young Americans are even-handed on Israel-Palestine, want an immediate ceasefire, do not want Washington to enable a genocide, and are not as influenced by the staunchly pro-Israel mainstream media as adults.

In many ways, today’s protests centered on Palestine, Israel, and US policy are the most difficult to bring to fruition among all protest movements in the past half-century. But they also benefit from the hindsight and experiences of other movements before them that achieved success against all odds.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: Shutterstock/Lev Radin